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Faith As a Verb: Faith, Belief, and Doubt

I'm not much of a movie-goer, but I did see Roberto Benigni's film Life Is Beautiful at The Little Theater not long ago. It's a Holocaust comedy, an oxymoron if ever there was one. The scene is Italy 1939. The atmosphere is foreboding. However, the hero Guido seems oblivious to the ominous fate about to befall him. The first half of the film is light, airy, beautiful, funny. A series of comic sketches sets the mood and disarms the audience. Guido settles into a small town to start a bookstore, falls in love with a beautiful school teacher, marries her, and they have a child.

Then fate strikes. Guido is Jewish; his wife is not. Guido and their young son are arrested. His wife, against all reason, chooses to go with them as they are taken to a concentration camp. The second half of the film is the tragic tale of their imprisoned life. But Guido, ever the comic, does all in his power to keep his bewildered son's spirits up by pretending it's all a game. If you earn 1000 points and don't get sent home, you win a tank.

Life Is Beautiful is an endearing and triumphant film even if it stretches credulity at several points. Throughout, it weaves comedy and tragedy together, leaving the viewer alternately in tears and laughter. I'll say no more except that it won the Grand Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival and received a 20-minute standing ovation.

The most ironic feature of this unlikely movie is its title, Life Is Beautiful, the film set as it is in the most horrific historical situation. In the face of ultimate and inevitable tragedy the central characters - mother, father and son - exhibit an incredible faith in the possibilities of human existence. Benigni's film goes far beyond theological belief - it expresses a faith in the goodness of being that no suffering, no calamity, no tragedy can alter.

Life Is Beautiful contrasts belief with faith, even though there is little theological discourse here. Why did God permit such suffering? How can one believe in a God who would? There are no answers here. Yet faith is at the core of the film. While belief expresses our intellectual attitude toward reality that may well change over time, faith is that living confidence by which we regard life as so worthwhile that we give everything to it - even death.

That contrast of faith with belief was brought home last week. In his latest Papal bull Pope John Paul II stresses repentance in proclaiming the holy year 2000 celebration. Penitents who do a charitable deed or give up cigarettes or alcohol for a day can earn an "indulgence" that reduces time in purgatory, which is a kind of holding station en route to Heaven or Hell.[1]

For those of us who doubt or deny the reality of Heaven and Hell and Purgatory this may seem an arcane and irrelevant concept. My theological objection is not that I don't or we don't have things for which to make amends. However, the Pope's belief that repenting will shorten our stay in purgatory is a medieval notion with little currency today among theologians or ordinary people. The belief that repentance will bring reward or evade punishment misses the moral point - faith in the importance of being good for nothing. Do good no matter what.

It was reaction against indulgences that, among other things, unleashed the Protestant Reformation. But even that rebellion illustrates the inadequacy of belief. Martin Luther once moaned, "What is more miserable than uncertainty! Take away assertions and you take away Christianity."[2] He challenged the half-skeptical attitude of his great opponent, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had declared that he would rather go over at once to the camp of the skeptics, if only the authority of Scripture and the Church would permit him to do so."[3]

Both Martin Luther and Pope John Paul II illustrate for me the inadequacy of mere belief. Belief in both cases is an intellectual proposition about the nature of reality. I do not doubt their sincerity or that of the billion or so people who will take the Pope's assertion to heart. I only indicate my lack of belief in such a reality. I am forced to agree with what H. L. Mencken said about such faith, that it is "an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."[4]

Unfortunately, in our time faith does tend to be treated as something that you either have or haven't. The current issue of Life magazine exults over how many of us believe in God without really suggesting what that may mean for living our lives. Am I losing my faith? It is almost as if it were something you could find and lose like your car keys, only, of course, much more important.

Faith is usually thought of as a noun, but I choose to think of faith as a verb indicating that something is happening. "I have faith" is passive - possessive - a thing I happen to have. For me faith is much more like the concept articulated by English philosopher L. P. Jacks: "(Faith is) not belief in spite of the evidence, but adventure in scorn of consequences."

The faith I have in mind is not commonality of belief, for we change our beliefs over time as we grow religiously. It is not the creedal precision many of us have left behind. It is not suspension of reason. The faith I have in mind is a fundamental confidence in life, a basic trust in human existence, an affirmation of the worthwhileness of the human enterprise.

My faith is a knowledge there is more to life than eye can see and ear can hear, than thought alone can grasp. My faith is an affirmation of our human capacity to respond to all that fate flings against us, and yet proclaim to all that life is good. My faith, I hope, is like that exhibited in Life Is Beautiful. Of course I am a creature of beliefs - there are intellectual ideas about reality which make sense to me.

For example, I believe in the "benign indifference of the universe."[5] That is, Ultimate Reality does not play favorites - the cosmos unfolds as it should whether or not it meets my personal approval. Yet, like Guido, with all the pain and problems of existence, it is beautiful. What Guido believes about God the movie does not suggest. Yet this film portrays a man who exhibits faith in life. He lives it. Faith is an action.

Here is an image of faith lived, a metaphor attributed to persons as diverse as Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King: "If I knew the world was coming to an end tomorrow, I'd still plant apple seeds today." Faith is a process of encountering life with the courage to be. Faith is a verb. Something is happening.

I didn't always think this way. I preached my first sermon at the tender age of 14 and I find I preach much the same message every single, solitary Sunday - though my language is decidedly different. I began "Are you a true Christian or a Christian only in name?" - my first words from the pulpit. I had happened upon the notion of integrity and its evil twin, hypocrisy. I was beginning to discover that faith was not a belonging that one either has or hasn't, but a way of living.

A later sermon in those teen-age years was "The Atheist Who Believed in God." Again I had stumbled on the observation that proclamations of belief - no matter how pious or how articulate - were nothing compared to the living of one's truth. I had observed many who claimed belief and failed to love their neighbor and many others who loved their neighbor faithfully but proclaimed no belief.

In college I was enamored of doubt and doubted much of my teen-age piety - including belief in a personal God. I was an agnostic heading for the ministry. Today I regard myself a mystical religious humanist and recognize doubt is an essential part of religion deeply felt and lived. Over the years I have gradually lost all but academic interest in the existence of God. Instead I have found fascinating what it is in human nature that supports us in despair, that commits us to sacrificial action, that sustains us in good times and bad - the faith that life matters.

That faith is not so much held or grasped or found - it is simply experienced, a reality whose presence I sense whenever I take life seriously and faithfully.

I feel it Sunday after Sunday as part of a worshipping congregation;

I expect to feel it this Thursday as human rights activists gather in candlelight witness to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

I felt it this week as I stood transfixed in our church parking lot under a full moon on a balmy December night;

I feel it as I read Frank McCourt's autobiographical Angela's Ashes with its account of faith in life overcoming oppressive poverty;

I experience it as I hear today's magnificent Magnificat moved by its beauty even though I do not accept its theological base, vital to so many. Though I do not believe the Christmas story as history; I do find inspiring this mythology of birth and the hope it embodies; I do not believe in the Virgin Birth, but celebrate the joy of parenthood; I do not believe in the Star from the East, but when I walk out under a clear December sky I know I am part of something cosmically exhilarating. This faith far transcends any set of beliefs.

The faith I have in mind is not a matter of belief. It cannot be proved or disproved intellectually. It cannot be weighed in the balance nor tested in the crucible. This sensed reality is never very far away. It is a presence not personal, but real. It is what sustains my life and makes it worth the living. It is a conviction that life is worth our giving all we have to it - unconditionally. And a conviction is not a thing we possess; it is something we are when we are at our best, our deepest, our most confident.

We are confident even when we do not know the meaning of it all, even though we have not grasped the ultimate truth, even when we understand we are not in ultimate control of things, but that the adventure is worth it despite the consequences.

The journey of faith has been likened to the growth of a tree. "As a tree grows, it adds rings to expand and mature, but the previously formed rings are still present in the central core of the tree's trunk." [6] The rings are the beliefs we develop and discard, modify and mangle - but faith is the capacity of the tree to grow. Faith is a verb.[7]

Faith is not belief despite the evidence;
It is adventure in scorn of consequence;
Faith is not credulity in the face of occasional miracle,
It is discerning the miraculous in the daily round;
Faith is not blind confidence in the hereafter,
It is the will to live in the here and now;
Faith is not clinging to creedal assurance,
It is grasping the uncertain with conviction;
Faith is not confidence in salvation which lies beyond,
It is trust in the life which surrounds us here.

With film director/actor Roberto Benigni, I can say life is beautiful no matter what. Life matters. Being able to say those words and mean them is good. Being able to live them is an act of faith.

As poet George Santayana put it so eloquently:

"Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of Faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine."

Richard Gilbert
December 6, 1998

  1. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 11/28/98, 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Paul Tillich, "Faith and Uncertainty," The New Being, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 75.
  4. Source unknown.
  5. Albert Camus.
  6. John Westerhoff, in Faith As a Verb.
  7. See Stokes, 11.