13 November 2006

Reflections on Faith

I’ve been having a few blogging conversations over the last few months about the nature of faith.

I also find myself currently carefully re-reading James Alison’s book
The Joy of Being Wrong for my dissertation. Today, I came across the following Alisonian idea: that “faith” is not about a creed so much as it is simply about the “reality of the concrete historical presence of Christianity”. By “Christianity”, Alison doesn’t seem to mean “the religion Christianity” but rather fact of all that God has done cosmically through Christ.

As I understand Alison – and I am willing to be corrected by someone with a greater familiarity with Alison’s works – he is trying to say that what the Triune God has done in Christ – in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ – is “really real”. And the “religion” of Christianity is simply stating the fact of this cosmic reality. Whether or not one “believes” this is much less important than that it *is*. It’s an intriguing idea.

In a couple of other places, I have been given to reflect on the nature of human doubt and certainty with respect to being a Christian disciple. One person has said to me that he thinks a certain Christian camp glorifies doubt too much and that this glorification of doubt is not helpful in making Christian disciples.

To another person, I’ve reflected that I’m more comfortable with those who doubt than with those who are certain. I think that this is because I have seen people who are certain that they are certain use their certainty to alienate people from Christ and also to hurt them. I’ve also heard people who are certain that they are certain proclaiming ideas that are highly dubious if not already recognised as heresy (e.g. prosperity gospel and certain forms of deliverance ministry).

I am rather taken with Alison’s idea that the “Christian faith” is more about the “fact of Christ” than anything else.


Sandalstraps said...

Alison's distinction between the reality of the work of God and the systems of belief which form up around that reality, attempting to describe that reality (which is what I hear you saying - I may be hearing you wrong, or you may be wrong about what Alison is saying, which I wouldn't notice since I am not familiar with his work) reminds me a little of the Jewish theologian/philosopher/mystic Abraham Heschel, who wrote:

... the certainty of the realness of God does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the real of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is, on the contrary, a transition from a preconceptual awareness to a definite assurance, from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to an awareness of His existence. What we attempt to do in the act of reflection is to raise that preconceptual awareness to the level of understanding.

In senseing the spiritual dimension of all being, we become aware of the absolute reality of the divine. In formulating a creed, in asserting : God is, we are bringing down overpowering reality to the level of thought. Our thought is but an after-belief.

In other words, our belief in the reality of God is not a case of first possessing an idea and then postulating the ontal counterpart of it; or, to use a Kantian phrase, of first having the idea of a hundred dollars and then claiming to possess them on the basis of the idea. What obtains here is first the actual possession of the dollars and then the attempt to count the sum. There are possibilities of error in counting the notes, but the notes themselves are here.

Here, as with what you're saying, the starting point is not our reflections but rather the reality of the work of God. For us and for Alison that is made clear in the person of Jesus the Christ. For Heschel it is found in Jewish mysticism. For us and Heschel, it is found in every work that comes from God.

Anyway, interesting reflection. The work of God rather than what we believe about that work should be the starting point of our faith. Our faith then is less belief in things about God and more an experience of the person of God, however our rational, reflective minds end up describing that person.

PamBG said...

The work of God rather than what we believe about that work should be the starting point of our faith. Our faith then is less belief in things about God and more an experience of the person of God, however our rational, reflective minds end up describing that person.

I like the way that you worded this and yes, I think you've "got" the overall gist of what I think Alison is saying. (I think I'm substantially correct on his overall idea; I may have some details subtly incorrect.)

Alison would say - I think - that the reality of the Triune God is anterior and foundational to any human experience (not just of God, but even our own human experience). It sounds like there is a correlation with Heschel; just using different language.

For Alison, this Truth (capital T intentional) is either discoverable via painstaking experience or something human beings can receive through revelation.

Sandalstraps said...


While there seem to be many similarities between what Alison and Heschel are saying, especially in terms of their approach, we might not want to totally gloss over the differences.

I imagine that Alison's emphasis on the Triune God and the work of Christ in revealing the nature of God differ in more than just language from Heschel's radical monotheism. I'm certain that Heschel would bristle at the notion that he and Alison were saying the same thing in different words, as it would rob him of his distinctive Jewishness as much as it robs Alison of his distinctive Christianity.

That said, I basically agree with you. Finding concepts of God to be principally metaphorical rather than literal, if we allow for the differences in their religious belief systems to stand, aside from those differences Heschel and Alision are saying roughly the same thing. The overlap here is interesting to me, making me want to learn more about Alison. When did he write? Was it before or after Heschel? If after, was he influenced in any way by Heschel, or did he arrive at this point independently of Heschel? It is all so fascinating!

PamBG said...


Alison *is* writing at the moment. He's just brought out a new book, "Undergoing God" (http://tinyurl.com/y9fz4y); I think he's about 47 years old. He's Girardian by anthropology and a Catholic priest; I think he would call himself a dogmatic theologian, but his theology flows from the Girardian lens. He converted to Catholicism from conservative Anglicanism in his late teens / early twenties.

For me, has managed to express in a coherent and consistent way things I've intuitively understood from the bible, but which I could never bring together. A friend joked with me that I was behaving as if I'd "discovered Jesus again" when I first read Alison. And he actually did do that much for my own faith.

I'm doing an MA in Pastoral Theology (I would have rather done an academic degree, but the church tells you what they want you to do!). For my dissertation, I want to try to present his theology of atonement in "everyday language" on the internet (not going to divulge my methodology if that's OK with you) and guage people's reactions. Unfortunately for me, a good part of the dissertation will be marked on the techniques of observing and evaluating people's reactions, which I see as social science and not theology. I'm interested in whether people react well, but not the slightest bit interested in doing the formal part of the observation myself. So I'm feeling a teensy bit resentful of the dissertation at the moment.

Although I've already turned in my dissertation proposal, I'm trying to think of a way that I might still be able to do a pastoral theology paper in a way that might be more "theological", but that would involve re-writing my dissertation proposal. I'm not adverse to that, but I need a good idea!

Comments on your post follow in my next post.

PamBG said...

While there seem to be many similarities between what Alison and Heschel are saying, especially in terms of their approach, we might not want to totally gloss over the differences.

I agree. Sorry, that was just me being Christian! I take on board the fact that such an approach would horrify Heschel and that radical monotheism would be vitally important to his approach.

That said, I basically agree with you. Finding concepts of God to be principally metaphorical rather than literal,

I'm not sure that I understand that phrase. Alison would certainly see God as "really real" and not "metaphorical". It's our language he would see limited to "metaphor". I'm assuming that is clear, but I just want to check.

Personally, I think that all good theological language almost has to be "metaphorical" by virtue of the distance between us and God.

Sandalstraps said...

To say that a concept of God is metaphorical is not to say that God as God is metaphorical. Rather, it is to say that when we speak of God we speak metaphorically rather than literally. That is, I cannot describe God as God, but I can use metaphors as a way of speaking about God, understanding the great distance between God as God and God as I see God. It is another way of saying that we cannot really speak of God, but instead only speak of how we percieve God, and how we reflect on that perception.

So, I think we agree:

God is real, but we can speak of God only (or at least principally) through metaphor. This limitation is one of language and concept rather than a limitation inherant in the nature of God.

As for your dissertation: sounds interesting, but difficult. I've always had a hard time turning academic theology into pastoral theology. At least in the states there is a tremendous difference between the classroom and the pulpit, and a similar distance between the pulpit and the pews. This perhaps more than anything else accounts for the rise of fundamentalism over here. Fundamentalists are not afraid to simplify things to a point where everyone can understand them.

The great difficulty in pastoral theology, at least as I understand it, is this:

How can we communicate a complex theology in a comprehensible way. To dumb down our theology is to do both it and our congregations a great disservice. But, if we do not dumb it down, we must at least translate it into a new language, far removed from the efficient jargon of academia, because that jargon is so unfamiliar to the average Christian.

We must also, I suspect, translate not only the language, but also the concerns of the theology. Academics and, say, plumbers have very different concerns, very different questions which they bring to God and the church. Academics must understand that the concerns of the plumber, or the Kindergarten teacher, or the flight attendant are no less interesting or important than their own concerns, and construct a theology which addresses them. Similarly, pastors and preachers, as theological translators, must take the work of academic theologians and apply it to the concerns of those plumbers, etc.

I'm not sure I'm up to that task, which is one of the thousands of reasons why I no longer have my own pulpit.

I'm not sure if that mediatation on the difficulty if not impossibility of true pastoral theology is of any help to you. If I were you, and I'm not, I'd try my best to resist the temptation to change course on my dissertation. It will never be perfect, but it is probably already good. Unless you simply can't identify any longer with your present topic, it would be much easier to press on.

But, on the other hand, I have no idea what I'm talking about, so when it comes to your dissertation perhaps you ought not listen to me!

PamBG said...

Yes, sandalstraps, I think we are saying the same things about God, language and metaphor.

I think for me, translating academic theology into pastoral theology is not about trying to communicate the whole shebang at once, but simply about using images that are true to what I have come to believe is true about God - as best as I can determine "true".

If you don't know Girard or Alison, it may be hard to recognise the images, but the two sermons I did for the last Sunday in October are loaded with Girardian images. In both sermons I used the image of Jesus as someone who deliberately moves to locate himself with the outsiders - this is classic Girard. (http://tinyurl.com/yed3kl)

I was just playing pop Worship Songs in the car and, as I got out, someone sang something on the order of "I'm free because Jesus paid the debt-sacrifice I owed to the Father" (not the acutal lyrics, but the theology behind them). I would never, ever, use that imagry. I always talk about Jesus dying "because of our sin" - i.e. we killed Jesus. People's evangelical ears accept the phrase "Jesus died because of our sin" and I'm just going to keep using the images that I believe to be true to the Gospel.

The problem that I think I will have with my dissertation is that the panel will expect a "plain language version" of Alison's theology that is intellectually and academically rigourous to the Nth detail. They have already told me as much and have suggested that I might want to change my approach!

I can appreciate where they are coming from as an academic review panel marking dissertations, but I'm not sure that this is the way to communicate theology to people in the pews. I think that we have to change the metanarrative the people have in their heads over time about what consistutes salvation and what "the problem of salvation" is. Alison would, I think, argue that this is exactly the approach that Jesus took.

I forgot to say that someone has started a James Alison website, if you want to have a look at some of his lectures: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/index.html