There’s a sense in which some of us have lost our grip on what faith is. I experienced the youth-hood of my Christian life in a strongly Bible-emphasizing non-denominational church. When I think of faith, I think of its description from Romans as the agent by which we partake in justification and sanctification, the transfer of trust to Christ for God to view us as righteous. I still believe this definition is essential for us to grasp––if we don’t understand this and, as a result, don’t have this faith, we have missed the boat. Without this specific belief in Jesus, we cannot be saved. But when it comes to living out the Christian life, do we know what role faith plays?
I recollect struggling through this in high school as a young Christian: I would ask what my mindset should be as I sought to grow in Christ, wondering how faith fit together with obedience. Sometimes I was told faith was the whole thing and operating on anything more than faith was self-righteousness. Other times I was completely left in the dark on faith’s role in daily Christian living. Often, however, I personally felt strongly that faith was essential for living for Christ day-in and day-out. But I wasn’t sure what to do with this feeling. Faith in Christ applies salvation to us––and after that it’s just some sort of process of obedience or something to grow, right?
Yes and no. Kierkegaard helps reorient our thinking about faith. Two passages from the beginning of Fear and Trembling provide a helpful perspective shift.
The first sets the tone for his project in the book, which is more or less to explore what faith consists of, what it requires of us. Responding to the idea of his time that faith was something to be moved past, he describes an unsophisticated man preoccupied with the ordeal of Abraham: “What he yearned for was to accompany them on the three-day journey, when Abraham rode with grief before him and Isaac by his side. . . . what occupied him was not the finely wrought fabric of imagination, but the shudder of thought” (44). Kierkegaard’s focus could hardly be further from the realm of mere theoretical understanding or abstraction. He wants to get at the shudder of thought that convulsed through Abraham as he chose to kill his only beloved son––the convulsion of faith.
The second addresses what Kierkegaard believes to be the main problem of his day: “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further. . . . In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks. When the old campaigner approached the end, had fought the good fight, and kept his faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten the fear and trembling that disciplined his youth and which, although the grown man mastered it, no man altogether outgrows” (42). Now, he may not be directly addressing people of the church, but, considering my experience, the critique could still apply. Who thinks of faith as a lifelong journey, a long and arduous climb rather than a one-time apprehension? Who even thinks of faith in a primarily experiential way? Do we think faith is something to be had once and for all, not to be worried about after first becoming a Christian? I think most of us Christians know we need faith to be saved, but some of us never think of it in terms of daily individual experience. What would it look like and feel like to have faith in making a business transaction or asking someone on a date or deciding what to do with your last summer before graduation?
I’m not saying we need to change our understanding of what faith is, but it might do us good to try approaching faith from different angles, to try looking at it through different lenses. Could it be equally helpful, or perhaps even more helpful, to further focus our discipleship and conversations, to emphasize concrete examples––women and men like Abraham who wrestled through life in faith––rather than trying to apply the definition of faith directly to our lives? Speaking of which, how ought we balance our time and energy between seeking to nail down definitions of doctrines and seeking to apply doctrines to our lives? Obviously a sound understanding of faith is a prerequisite for living out faith––but perhaps Kierkegaard is onto something in his emphasis on individual human experience. What do you think faith is? How do you feel faith playing out in your individual Christian life? When it comes to doctrines, Kierkegaard helps keep us from losing our grip on concrete individual experience in the abstract. Know what you believe, yes, and feel the shudder and fix your eyes.