Saturday, May 2, 2009

Faith Abides

One of Soren Kierkgaard’s most remembered essays is “Love Abides” wherein he shows that individuals with truly loving natures can never cease loving, regardless of the behavior of others. They are, after all, committed to love itself. His title, of course, comes from Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthian saints about charity (in 1st Corinthians 13).

Often overlooked in Paul’s letter, however, is his statement that faith and hope also abide. Kierkgaard’s argument about love is remarkable, in part, because it isn’t intuitive. We all know of instances where love has ceased. (And Kierkgaard does not deny this.) But the case for an abiding faith is no more intuitive than abiding love. In some ways it is even less intuitive.

There are not many people that we have complete faith in; that is, people in whom we trust at all times and in all places - people in whom our faith abides. Certainly, there are those in whom we mostly trust. A teacher trusts that her top student will perform well on the next exam. A husband trusts that his wife will fix a fine dinner. A farmer trusts that his crop will produce a harvest.

But then there are many other students that won’t adequately study for the exam, spouses that cook poorly, crops that fail. In fact these later examples are so common that the concept of an abiding faith seems suspect, at least in these less-than-perfect situations.

Paul, however, was not arguing about imperfect objects of faith. Most of the time that he mentions faith in his other epistles it is obvious that Christ is the object. Christ, as the object of our faith, is trustworthy. In Him our faith can abide. But this is really not the question at all. Christ’s trustworthiness is certain. The question is if our faith in Him will abide.

But even this question is not an easy one. A woman who lost her husband and all of her children actually grew in faith from her trying circumstances (see Thomas S. Monson’s talk, Be of Good Cheer, in The Ensign, May, 2009); whereas many others have experienced lesser trials and have lost faith. A leading physicist can look at the laws of nature and affirm his faith in the Creator; whereas a high school biology teacher, relying on materialist explanations of the creation may lose faith instead. An individual having committed grave sins may repent, and, having truly repented, will grow mighty in faith; whereas a lazy neighbor, having committed no great sin, will slowly lose his faith to indifference.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the many apparent contradictory examples of faith? Part of the problem, I think, is that we understanding of faith as a continuum leading to knowledge. This makes sense, and many people have discussed the differences between the two for ages - with important findings. But when considering how faith abides, the situation is different. Here, faith is not completed by a gaining of knowledge. Paul, in 1st Corinthians, talks about knowledge as something we might see through, as a glass darkly. This is in the same chapter where he discusses the love and faith that abide. To him, our current levels of knowledge are things that will pass away. Faith and love, on the other hand, abide.

It might be true that faith can lead to knowledge. But it is also true that it can remain with us, independent of what our level of knowledge is. The Lectures on Faith make it clear that faith can continue even when knowledge is complete. In fact, God Himself continues to have faith. The seventh lecture indicates that, “…it is by faith that the deity works.” And in an earlier passage, the authors (primarily Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon) use the 11th chapter Hebrews to show that the creation was an act of faith. The 3rd verse actually reads: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.” The significance of this verse is usually missed on us. A casual reading might suggest that the faith is with us whereas the entire chapter is about the faith of the ancients and is quite clear that it is the Creator that used faith.

So it is obvious that faith doesn’t just cease to exist - at least not the kind of faith that God has. Since it is true that God doesn’t have a rudimentary faith of things that He hopes someday to know for certain, we need to question the whole idea that knowledge is the culmination of faith. In fact, a faith that only completes itself in knowledge is hardly a sufficient faith to be counted on to abide. Knowledge is usually not that strong of a motivation.

So what kind of motivation would be strong enough to abide. I think the answer is charity. And in fact, it seems that Paul, in his discussion of abiding virtues, is telling us that for faith to abide, it must culminate in charity - or the love of Christ.

Now this is all nice but it might be frustrating as well. These abiding virtues may seem too difficult for us to attain. If they are God‘s virtues, how can they be our virtues too? Maybe the answer to this question is so obvious that it‘s easy to miss. If we have lost love and faith in others and yet continue to love and have faith - then maybe this should be evidence enough.

In the last chapter of Josephine Johnson’s novel, Now in November, we get a glimpse of how this might be. Marget and her family have been living on a farm in hard times. The threat of foreclosure hangs constantly over the family farm, even when the harvest is good. When a drought occurs, things go from bad to worse. Crops fail and the family loses their mother and a sister in death. For Marget things are particularly unbearable when Grant, the farm hand and her secret love, leaves and never returns.

Marget was left wih nothing to hope for. All was lost, or essentially lost. Her faith had gone undeveloped by organized religion, particularly since the family was embarrassed at church one Sunday because they were not members of the congregation. In spite of this, and in spite of her overpowering sense of loss, she discovers that a ray of hope still remains within her. It isn’t just the residuum of having hit rock bottom and having nowhere else to look but up. It is instead the spark of a faith that is only seen in contrast to utter darkness. It was always there, but no one could see it.

At this point, Marget admits that, “[L]ove and the old faith are gone. Faith gone with Mother. Grant gone. But there is the need and the desire left, and out of these hills they may come again. I cannot believe this is the end.”

Marget’s love and faith aren’t spectacular. In fact they are quite the opposite; but they remain. And it isn’t by accident that they remain together. The soul that cannot refrain from loving is almost always a soul where faith abides as well.

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