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Faith in General and Faith Specific

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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The Fathers Day issue for this year of one of our local newspapers published an interesting article about religious belief caught up in the dynamics of the relationships of a man and his father. Playing on some basic Christian words, but really pointing to a sensitive struggle of mind and heart engrossing a son (the author) and his father who was facing death, the title is captivating. Flanked by a tall and imposing cross extending from the top of the page to its bottom, the title beckoned the reader -God and the father (Scott Montgomery, St. Petersburg Times, Sunday, June 17, 2007, section pp. 1E, 6E.)

The article is an engaging description of a more or less rationalistic son, who had all kinds of problems "understanding" faith and a father who simply lived faithfully, while not talking much about his faith.

The key passage was: "As much as a silent thing can, faith always held a defining place in the relationship between me and my father. When it came to God, I craved understanding, if not proof. Dad never had a doubt. Religion was central to who my father was, so central he hardly even talked about it. Believing in God was elemental to his world, like daylight tapering into night. For me, God was a provocative idea. A question, not an answer."

It was a wonderful experience to share in this dance of ideas and life between these two men, a man of unexpressed but also unwavering faith, and his son, who struggled to comprehend faith, and found he couldn't, until he understood that faith was much more than an issue of the mind's understanding and became more an issue of the heart.

The insight comes to the son, when he applies his mind in trying to understand his bond of love with his own child. He writes, "The more he expresses himself, in words, art, games, the more I realize how much of him I will never understand. This, I find unspeakably fulfilling. My love for my son is a deeply mysterious fact. But its one I can't prove."

When the elder father suffers from fatal cancer, the author tries to put what he has learned on paper, and he declares to his dying father, "I now see that you have always had the courage to connect to the world with your heart, and I have always employed the tentative filter of my head." After his father died he sums up: "Dad's lesson to me in those final months was not that I should be less skeptical. It was to show me that skepticism, so much about thinking rather than feeling, has nothing to do with it." So the lesson conveyed to me as I concluded reading the article, was "Faith is feeling; don't think about it too much."

One side of me empathized with the author, because as a young man, I too, struggled with "understanding" and with "faith." The more I reflect on this article, I understand the struggle, because I had shared in it myself. But I came out of it with a much different conclusion. No short reflection like this one could do justice to the great issues of faith and mind, belief and intellect, and the relationship of believer and God, but let me venture it anyway.

Days after reading this confession, I realized that it could only serve as a starting off place on a journey that will become richer, fuller and more complete in the years to come. For you see, it seems to me that "Faith in general" cannot be an adequate guide for life. Faith has to be specific.

First, it is a big mistake to disconnect our minds from our hearts. The whole human being is, as the Bible teaches, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). That means that the whole human being - each of us, you and me, everyone - is a complex reality. To put aside our minds from dealing with the most important aspects of our existence is to reduce our being to ever-changing emotions and feelings, full of illusion and fantasy. If God is rational, at least to some point a full and complete human being must also be a person who uses his or her God-given rationality. Yet, to stop there, as so many do in the secular world, disenfranchises us from the spheres of full life that draw on the other sides of our existence, also part of God's image in us: creativity, moral perceptiveness, self-determination and freedom, the appreciation of beauty, the remarkable bonds of family and friends, the ability to hurt and be hurt but to forgive and to receive and accept forgiveness, to find strength in adversity and to impart strength to those who suffer, to rejoice in accomplishment, to bear failure and loss with courage, and to find the completion of life in a caring, forgiving, loving, supporting and enabling gracious Redeemer and Savior, Jesus Christ.

And yes, fullness of human life, in the end, means to accept our own limitations of time and space, and to place ourselves confidently in the arms of a loving Heavenly Father, in supreme trust that we will be with the Lord in eternity.

"Head stuff" is essential to being human, and having a sense of who we are in the great scheme of things. As Christians we declare at nearly every worship service the concrete and specific things we believe about the reality of life:

One God ... Creator ... Incarnate Divine Son ... the world's Savior ... crucified ... who rose on the third day ... who will come in glory to judge the living and the dead ... and the Holy Spirit ... Giver of Life ... in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church ... the resurrection of the dead. . . the life of the ages to come (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).

This is concrete, this is specific, this is something our head can assent to. -but not to submit it totally to this worldly rational criteria. Our truths only share in, but do not completely identify with God's truths. There is mystery and transcendence that we must enter into to fully realize that "image of God" and that "likeness of God" which promises fuller and more complete human life.

Back in the second Christian century, the apologist Christian writer Theophilos opined, "The human being is not, as the croaking philosophers say, merely a rational animal, capable of understanding and knowing ... Rather, the human being alone is the image and likeness of God." If God bonds with His creatures, if indeed as the Bible declares, "God is love," then to be like God also means that there will be a life of Faith that not only includes our head, but also our hearts, and every other aspect of our total human experience. Together, mutually informing, mutually illuminating, mutually revealing the "truth that passes all understanding"(Philippians 4:7), every aspect of our existence shares in Faith, not just our heads, not just our feelings. Faith must be inclusive of our whole being, but also concrete and with specific content. That's when Faith has power in our lives.

And one of the scribes came up and ... asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:28-31).

The only way to share in that mystery fully, using every aspect of our human existence, mind, feelings, sense of right and wrong, sight, touch, smell, bodily movement, voice, apprehension of holiness and sanctity, repentance, personal commitment, spiritual exaltation, inner silence and outward expression -is worship. Worship stands paradoxically as awe and reverence before the Holy One, and comforting intimacy with the God Who is Love. This is how Jesus Christ expressed it:

The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years. Reprinted with permission of "The Hellenic Voice."


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