The word “faith” is a much misunderstood term. In contemporary discourse it often means the act of believing in something that lacks empirical evidence, something that one affirms through intuition, the interpretation of a particular personal experience or the interpretation of a publicly observable phenomenon. However the term, in its more theological sense, has much more in common with a particular way of living.
It could be said to be an act of protest against the type of philosophy that Paul condemned in the Bible. The philosophical wisdom tradition has always been deeply marked by the idea that life simply is and that we should not impose meaning on it. While we tend to experience certain people as special and invest particular activities with significance (e.g. eating with someone we love) such a view claims that people are just people, that the meaning we see in the world is something we impose upon it and that the universe is simply made up of uniform particles (or vibrations etc.) occupying locations in space and time.
To speak of faith is to refer to a protest against such wisdom. What is important to bear in mind however is that this protest does not necessarily disagree with such a position any more than it agrees with it. To live in faith is to live as though the world has meaning, as if matter is special, as if what we do is significant. It has then nothing to do with belief, doubt or certainty but rather with a particular mode of living as-if.
Some theologians thus use the word “faithing” rather than “believing” to get to the heart of what Paul meant when he spoke of how we approach the divine. In this reading we are not believers but rather faithers. The notion of believers or unbelievers thus falls away in light of the question as to whether we are faithers or unfaithers. In other words, whether we engage with the world as infused with meaning, wonder, enchantment, mystery, divinity and beauty, or whether we don’t. It refers to a way of participating with reality in a different way, not believing an alternative mythology.
Faith thus exists in a different register to the categories of belief, doubt and certainty. It exposes the implicit impotence of these categories when applied to the event of Christ. To have faith is to see differently. Indeed the word “mystic” might be appropriate here as the term suggests closing ones eyes in order to see. The person of faith metaphorically closes their eyes to the wisdom that sees the world as without significance in order to see it as saturated with significance.
This is not however something we can muster up; we can’t simply tell ourselves to see the world in this way, it requires being taken up in love. To grasp this take a moment to think about how those who love the world cant help but experience it as meaningful even if they believe that it is not. Just as those who do not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if they believe that it is in fact meaningful.
Faith then is the experience of being taken up in the experience of meaning, of feeling the world to be wonderful, the other as sublime and our neighbour as worth dying for. We cannot will such a way of engaging with the world into being, at best we can invite it, hope for it, wait for it, pray and weep for it.