What is the primary movement of faith? More specifically, what is the primary movement of Christian faith. It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s a question that I’ve answered differently at various points of my life, in implicit and explicit ways. It’s a question that I answer differently at various points of the day, come to think of it. What ought the trajectory of a life lived in pursuit of the risen Christ look like?
In my childhood, I suppose I would have assumed that the primary movement of faith was from bad to good. These are simple enough categories (conceptually, at least) and they map quite naturally on to familiar frameworks of religion and what it’s for. Jesus wants me to be a good boy and not a bad boy. There are threats for being bad and rewards for being good (it’s not difficult to find isolated bible verses to bolster this view). Faith means that you’re gradually getting better at doing more good things than bad things
In young adulthood, my views morphed a bit and I probably came to see the movement of faith as a movement from ignorance to knowledge. I began to get a taste of how much bigger and broader the world out there was than the narrowness of my own little tribe’s teaching. I wanted to know if what I believed about God was true and why. This was a season for voracious reading and at times tortured writing about the big questions of life. I would fill journals with ruminations that dripped with existential angst. Jesus said that the faith of a child was sufficient, sure, but he also said love God with the mind, yes? Intelligence and commitment became the markers of devoted faith. Faith means that you’re gradually learning more and more about God and that you have the capacity to give a reason for the hope within, particularly in a secular context.
Of course, one inevitably bumps up against the uncomfortable fact that there’s always more to learn, more to know, that your perspective is limited in countless ways, and that the biggest and most important questions don’t really admit of decisive answers. And that in the gospels Jesus seemed to have little patience for super-smart religious people. These were, indeed, his main obstacle. I thus began to think that the primary movement of faith is the movement from fear to love. The world is scary and our place within it is tenuous. There is the dread of unknowing, anxiety about the future (personal or global), the knowledge that all that we hold dear could be snatched away in a moment by freak accident or the ordinary pain of human existence. Faith, surely, means moving from a life defined by the terror of existence to an expansive life of love. Love that risks rejection and failure. Love that does not depend on reward or social approval. Love that is a response to the love that we believe is the ground of being itself and that holds all things together.
Personal piety, a pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, love. Each of these, surely, are important parts of the life of faith. We do well to move toward these in the life of faith. The last one, particularly. I’ve sketched them out in a linear and chronological way for the purposes of simplicity, but the truth is they’re all still operating, on some level, in my own faith journey. I still happen to think it’s preferable to be good than bad, more admirable and faithful to be informed and curious than ignorant, and more excellent to love in the face of uncertainty rather than capitulate to the fears that come so naturally.
But lately, I’ve been thinking of the primary movement of faith in a different way. Not a better way, necessarily. Not a way that doesn’t have room for all the others. Not a way that is really even terribly different. It’s just a way of reframing things that seems to better isolate one of the crucial dimensions of specifically Christian faith. I’m coming to think that primary movement of faith is the movement from self to God and neighbour.
I’ve noticed something in my forty-plus years on the planet. As human beings, we are rather fond of ourselves. We think quite highly of our projects, our views, our accomplishments. We pursue naturally things that make ourselves look good or bring ourselves pleasure and security. We listen poorly more often than we listen well. We speak quickly and self-congratulatorily. We evaluate the actions of others based on how they impinge upon our desires and our freedoms. We love self-interestedly. We accumulate and hoard for ourselves. We take the easy way when the hard way seems like it will cost too much. We would rather be entertained and distracted than more fruitfully engaged. Even our acts of selflessness are often displayed for the approval of others. This isn’t all true across the board for all people at all times. But it’s true enough of the time to be a problem. Our default setting seems to be inward. Mine does, at any rate.
And Jesus consistently, patiently, stubbornly, at times, pushes us outward. Away from the self. Toward God. Toward neighbour. He commands us to die to ourselves that we might truly live. To take up a towel and serve, to take up a cross and follow. He commands us to love as he has loved us, which goes far beyond the impoverished notions of love that clog up our hashtags and filter through the detritus of pop culture. He models and invites us into a love that is an expenditure of the self, not an extension of it, a love that involves giving instead of taking, a love that is a rising toward instead of a falling into. This is a love that I still sometimes feel like I barely understand and struggle to want as I ought to. But this is, I think, the primary movement of Christian faith.
I was recently listening to a friend speak with some trepidation about the upcoming visit of their mother from out of town. The relationship was complicated, strained, difficult. It wasn’t going to be an easy visit. “It just seems like she never really stopped being a teenager. It’s all about her,” they said. I smiled, grimly. As a parent of teenagers, I knew well what they spoke of. I thought about what a sad indictment that statement was—someone well into their last third of life, still acting like a petulant kid. Someone whose life should have exhibited more movement by now, still stuck within the small, stifling confines of the self.
And then, Jesus inconveniently directed my attention to something he once said about logs and splinters…