Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It is probably the only explicit definition of faith offered in the New Testament, perhaps even in the whole of the Bible. And what an interesting definition it is. For it doesn’t point us toward anything concrete, but rather toward insubstantial notions like hope and conviction. And the conviction is about “things not seen”. On the whole, this definition of faith doesn’t seem to provide us much to hang our hats on. And that is precisely the point.
In a recent blog posting on The Huffington Post, Frank Shaeffer talks about religious conservatives and liberals sharing something in common: Fear. He says, “Fear comes from being afraid we’re not certain about the facts of faith or non-faith. Atheists and Christians all strive to be correct in our views. But what if the very struggle for certitude is a dead end? ” He goes on to say, “What is needed if our faith is to live, is for us to re-mythologize our holy traditions and texts, not to try to reduce them to what is true and not true as those terms are used for reading airline schedules. There’s another way of seeing things: Something can never have happened and still be true.”
That’s a remarkable statement: Something can never have happened and still be true. Schaeffer goes on to use a flying analogy to amplify his meaning. He points out that there is a difference between dreaming about flying and actually knowing how to fly a plane. Indeed, people dreamed of flying before there ever were airplanes that could in some sense make that dream a reality. The Bible, he says, is “telling us why we dream to fly not how airplanes work.” He concludes that “the least interesting question about religion is to ask, ‘Did this really happen?'”
And this gets us back to that definition of faith from the Letter to the Hebrews. Just as the Bible is not seeking to impart to us the kind of knowledge contained in a airplane manual, but rather an invitation to the dream of God (and a recognition of the way human beings tend to get in the way of that dream), so faith is not committing one’s self to a set of “facts” about God and the world and then holding tightly to them no matter what any other branch of human knowledge may reveal. Faith is not about committing one’s self to certain doctrinal statements as if those could be objectively verified in some laboratory somewhere. No, faith is about what we as human beings hope for, and about the conviction that there is One who hopes with us. Faith is about a conviction that our life, and the world in which we live, is more than what we are able to see. It is our embracing of the dream of God that has been passed down to us.
In these latter days, we have handled that dream carelessly. We have handled it in such a way that too many people are no longer willing to embrace that dream because it seems to them more like a nightmare. And to the degree that we have contributed to that nightmare, we have betrayed that dream, and betrayed the very notion of faith itself.