Today was the day that I resumed teaching James Alison’s course, Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, after a summer break. And I found myself inspired by what I would call Alison’s ‘horizontal’ conception of faith.
Too often, he points out, Christians conceive of faith as something like a moonshot. We set up a series of beliefs, and we tell people that they need to believe these things if they want to be Christian or “in” or “saved”. These beliefs are set forth by some sort of appeal to authority, like “the Church” or “the Bible” or “God” or whatever. To be faithful is defined to be the ability to subscribe to these beliefs at the level of the mind. People are asked to accept the veracity of these beliefs “on faith”. This is what I would call a vertical conception of faith: on the one hand, an authority “up there” somewhere sets forth these beliefs as true, and we are asked to make a moonshot, to borrow Alison’s phrase: to subscribe and uphold these beliefs, and their implications for how we live, simply because we are told they are true.
This vertical sort of faith often creates tension and anxiety. On the one hand, those who are making the moonshot by subscribing to the beliefs that are set before them often find themselves wondering about whether these things are really true, but being unable to openly question them, because the authority that set them forth does not countenance such questions. And so the believer in such a position often feels caught in a tension between him-/herself and the established authority behind the beliefs. On the other hand, those who are somehow in authority in a Christian community also can experience tension and anxiety when they learn that people have reservations about these beliefs which they have been appointed to represent and defend. They need people to believe these things, because that is what it means (as far as they are concerned) to have faith. Sometimes, people in this position will respond with rigidity, forcefulness, or even violence to defend these beliefs and their authoritative connection to them.
Alison suggests that faith is not meant to be a tense, anxious experience. Rather, faith should enable us to relax into the One in whom we have faith. For Alison, the stories of the Bible show us that knowledge of and connection with God emerges from human experience. If we look at Jesus, for example, we see that everything he is doing is at the human level. He lives a human life, he gathers around himself a group of followers and witnesses to who he is and what he does, and his crucifixion and resurrection unfold among human beings, within a particular human community, and are witnessed by a particular set of people. Alison invites us to get wrapped up not in the crucifixion and resurrection themselves, for these are events that we did not witness. Rather, he invites us to attend to the impact of these events, what he calls a concavity. Just as a meteor that hit the earth millions of years ago left its mark on the earth, a depression or concavity which scientists and others can explore, so did the Christ event, as some have called it, leave a similar sort of concavity within the lives of the apostolic witnesses. The church, not as institution but as community of followers, is part of this concavity. When the apostolic witnesses told the stories of the Christ event, Alison suggests that they were not asking people to make a moonshot: they were not saying, “This is who Jesus is because we say so.” Rather, they were saying, “We had this phenomenal experience that completely changed and transformed our lives. Look at the effect of this experience on us and on those who come after us.” To follow Jesus is, in part, to explore this concavity left in the human experience by the Christ event.
And this seems to me to be a horizontal sort of faith. Rather than asking us to accept a set of beliefs established by some authority, it invites us to explore the experience through the stories passed down to us, both stories of Jesus and stories of the ways in which the apostolic witnesses were transformed; through exploration of spiritual practices, including rituals of prayer and sacrament, that seek to present this witness to us in a different way and to induct us into it. And as we relax into this exploration, we will discover ourselves changing, and as we do, we will become aware that there is a One who is behind this change, who is urging us into new patterns of being which that very One has made possible. We will discover ourselves coming to believe things not because an authority decreed them, but because they have become meaningful within our own experience. And this One does not make us anxious or tense, but rather enables us to relax into relationship with that One as we know ourselves to be loved by this One.
So faith is revealed to be not so much an act of obedience to an external authority, but a relaxed trust in the One who is working with us at our human level.