Biblical Faith and False Faith

One of the major distinctions between the faith about which the Bible speaks and all other faiths is that biblical faith is rooted in historical reality.  Some may lay claim that history does not matter.  Rather, it is the “idea” on which faith focuses that makes it genuine.  From this perspective arises myth.  Myth, legend, and fable have the aura of the story, moral didactic, and speculation.  These elements are more important than actual history to those who embrace myth, legend, and fable.  They feed the imagination for carrying forth specific culture, ethnic claims, or national identity through time.

The 18th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher once stated,

Our faith in Christ and our living fellowship with him would be the same even if we had no knowledge of any such transcendent fact [as the Holy Trinity] and even if the fact itself were different.” (Schleiermacher, Friedrich in Toon, Peter, “Ways of Describing the Holy Trinity,” Reformation and Revival, Volume 10:3 (Summer 2001): 108.)

While he addresses the Trinity as possible myth, he points to the core of Christian faith – the triune God.  If we follow his logic to its conclusion, we could say the same thing about God, the coming of Jesus in the form of man, or any number of other biblical truths.  In other words, truth does not have to express truth to be the grounds for faith.  This assessment of the Christian faith goes counter to genuine biblical faith. It establishes faith in a god unknown to the biblical authors and denies the core distinctiveness of the God the Scriptures uphold. Schleiermacher undercuts the historical, source, word, and foundation of faith by dismissing God and history and making faith a leap into a vacuum – no object and no connection with reality (history).

Often, the myth or legend changes or evolves to capture the minds and hearts of the current generation for prolonging the myth within a cultural backdrop.  Most of the world religions have their basis in myth through both oral tradition and sacred writings.

For example, Buddhism had its source in Siddhartha Gautama.  According to myth, Siddhartha meditated under the Bodhi tree and received enlightenment.  Rather than perpetuating leaders in the way of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama designated the Dharma (or teachings and doctrine) as the “leader.”  His own words and sayings were part of the Dharma.  Therefore, his words in fact are the leadership for furthering disciples.  Additionally, they were means of enlightenment and not so much sources of historical reality.  Consequently, Buddhist faith found its roots in the sayings, teachings, and doctrines for communal living and social order.  It had its rules and disciplines for leading to enlightenment from self effort and personal insight.  Ideas and not history dominates Buddhist enlightenment through one’s own efforts and meditation (contemplation).  Concerns about what was (history) is a distraction to wise thinking.  Enlightenment takes the path beyond such concerns to Nirvana through a speculative philosophy, the place of no attachment or desire.  Such enlightenment differs according to the philosophical school.

Other Eastern and Western religions and philosophies take a similar approach – history is irrelevant.  As such, it can undergo revision or be replaced or modified as myth.  It becomes divorced from the here and now in terms of meaning and application.  Rather the myth of an event or person, regardless if it is true, take precedence over historical reality.

In the episode of Star Trek “Rightful Heir,” Worf travels to a Klingon planet to engage in religious ceremony ushering the second coming of Kahless.  He prays for several days until during his prayers, Kahless appears before him.  Doubt rises within him as he questions Kahless about past battles and Kahless fails to deliver the correct answers.  Later, Worf discovers that the religious leaders of the planet had cloned Kahless for Worf’s benefit, which causes a crisis of faith for him.  When he returned to the USS Enterprise, Worf has a conversation with Data who shares about a crises of faith he also had as a machine desiring to be human.  He informed Worf that he chose to believe that he was a person instead of a machine.  He informed Worf that he took a leap of faith.  It did not matter that Data believed a lie about himself.  A leap of faith helped him to dismiss the lie.  Worf concluded from the conversation that the actual existence of Kahless was unimportant for his faith.  Rather it was the idea (or the myth) that counted as the basis for faith.  This enabled Worf to resolve his crises of faith.  To him, the historical reality of Kahless and his leadership in returning the glory of the Klingon Empire was irrelevant to his faith.  For him, faith can have a lie for its foundation.  The idea or myth replaced historical reality according to the philosophy of Star Trek.

The problem with this philosophy is having faith depending on myth or a lie.  Faith in that which is fiction is faith in falsehood.  As Worf discovered, it required a leap of faith.  Such a leap is groundless, for it has no basis in reality.  Biblical faith teaches a very different kind.  It is faith grounded in the reality of history.  Accordingly, God created the heavens and earth, including humanity.  He gave us purpose and direction for living and communicated them to us through His word in the Bible.

Humanity’s rebellion alienated us from Him and that purpose and direction so that all of our searches lead us to meaninglessness, or according to postmodern philosophy nihilism.  As we attempt to ground ourselves in material existence, our grounding slips through our fingers like jello.  Human philosophy provides no meaning in itself for covering all humanity.   Rather, it is grounded in a million opinions about human existence, the past, and the future.  Experience fails, because, again, everyone has a unique experience and an interpretation of it.  Experience reduces truth to “my truth may not be the same as your truth,” cancelling any resemblance to a universal truth from which even people in a similar culture could receive direction.  Human philosophy has too many wrinkles and scars resulting from violence, mistrust, warfare, and interpretations and responses to these events.  Each generation has a different take on the importance of behavior, events, and priorities.  Each builds it own monuments and icons to venerate something meaningful or someone of importance for attempting to give life significance and purpose.  However, through the decades and centuries, those monuments crumble and return to dust as does every man and woman.

However, because God created us in time and history, we engage history as we pass and live through it.  Not only do we engage history, but God has revealed Himself to us in it.  He came to us in history to deliver us from our state of alienation and purposeless existence due to the rebellion we exhibit toward Him, others, and our environment.  The Bible calls this rebellion sin.  God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile us to Himself from the strained separation we have had with Him throughout the days, years, and decades of our lives.  Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin dealt a blow to the decay, disease, violence, and death we face regularly in our cultures, societies, governments, communities, and environments.

Jesus came in real time and history so that our faith rests on actual historical events and not on myth or legend.  He broke through space and time in the form of a baby and grew into adulthood as we do.  His coming, death, and resurrection were facts.  That makes our faith based on reality and not fiction, thereby making that faith genuine and with foundation.  In Jesus’ coming to us in the form of a man, He showed us God the Father and the richness of what it means to relate to Him.  He loves, gives, cares, and desires us.  These are not fictitious characteristics found in a novel but real actions toward us from a real God.  Unseen as He is, He revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus informed one of His disciples, Philip, when Philip asked to show them the Father,

“Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father'” (John 14:9)?

Jesus reveals God to us.

God Himself makes the distinction between true biblical faith and false faiths.  We do not define real and genuine faith.  God does.  He imparts to us what it means to trust  and love Him as well as how to trust and love other people.  He is the only one who can, because we are such a distance from the truth about real faith that we cannot know it or God without His disclosure.  In human terms, faith takes a different turn of meaning – lacking in substance and evidence and dependent on what one sees.

God gives faith substance.  It is not in something ethereal, mystical, or mythical.  Biblical faith is from above, from the one who created us and loves us.  He showed that love through His Son, Jesus Christ.  This act of God in sending His Son into the world in time and history turns faith away from being a leap, because God took the initiative to come to us.  We could not leap over the gap from the created world to the realm of God.  God did this through revelation of Himself and His initiative to cross the barrier between Himself and the material world.

Why, then, does faith seem or feel like a leap for us?  The Bible gives us a very clear answer.  We do not see God.  One of Jesus’ other disciples, John, informs us,

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:14).

We cannot even see our own spirit or soul, and for that reason many claim these do not exist.  However, they do exist, because God breathed spirit into us, and we became living beings (Genesis 2:7).  We are spiritual being clothed in material substance of skin, muscle, and bones.  Since this existence is true of us, it is difficult for us to think in terms of spirit, especially of God who is spirit.  We are more familiar with what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands.  Invisible realities leave us with doubt of their existence.

Therefore, when any thought of God enters our minds, we question whether any such being exists.  Yet, there He is in the thoughts we think as muddled as our thoughts make Him, so much so that we concoct other gods to replace Him in our thoughts.  We would not even conceive of God if He did not exist just like we cannot and do not conceive of the non-existent.  One might ask, “What about science fiction?  People have never seen all of those creatures people imagine.”  Yes they have – in the form of themselves or other creatures mixed together much like the Greek and Roman gods mingled human and animal and formed them out of sticks and stones.  All such elements for God rises from the seen things of creation as distortions of the unseen God.  Although the thought of God enters our minds, our alienation from God completely distorts Him as we attempt to make Him into something from the created order.

For us, coming to grips with the unseen God and unseen realities calls for what we define as a leap of faith.  We call it a leap because we cannot grasp it.  Therefore, like Data in Star Trek, we leap into belief to overcome the crisis of having a God consciousness and not “seeing” or “feeling” this God.

This is where God enters the picture.  He recognizes our limitations, finiteness, and alienated state from Him and how these characteristics place us in a situation of grasping for what seems to slips through our fingers like the wind.  God then must come to us and wake us up from our spiritual deadness.  He imparts faith in us for grasping His revelation of Himself in His word in the Bible and recognizing His Son Jesus Christ.

We do not have to be like Pontius Pilate whom Jesus faced at the end of His life who asked Jesus, “What is truth?”  We do not need to seek love or goodness in all the wrong places, because God showed us real love in real time – in history.  He also distinguished false love and goodness from real love and goodness through His activity in time in the person of Jesus.  He showed them to us in Jesus.  Real and genuine faith finds its grounds in the God of history.  Have you discovered that God?

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.

Faith, Mysticism, and the Sufficiency of Scriptures

Faith and mysticism grew in parallel from the first century.  However, in many ways they have taken different paths while claiming to be joined.  But are they?  If we dive deeper into biblical faith and mysticism, we discover their departure from one another at several junctures.  Hebrews 11:1 states,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Two key elements of faith this statement surfaces consist of “substance” and “evidence.”  Substance relates to hope or the future.  Evidence turns on unseen realities.  As we read the illustrations of Hebrews 11, we discover several examples of both substance and evidence with those who encountered God.  The unseen God created all that exists (11:3).  Abel offered sacrifices to the unseen God (11:4).  Noah acted on God’s promise (hope) that God would spare him and his family in the flood He would send on the earth.  Abraham obeyed God to move from an idolatrous people in light of the promise of offspring and the Messiah.  The passage says, “By faith, he dwelled in the land of promise…for he waited or the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:9).  The many others mentioned cast their faith on substance and evidence and left us a legacy of genuine faith in the God who delivers on His promises.  Accordingly, these historical figures expressed the dual foundations of true biblical faith.

At the root of mysticism are desire and connection.  Most people seek some sort of desire for spirituality, authentication of their significance and purpose, or a yearning for the divine beyond human limitations.  Limitation combined with alienation from God because of Godward rebellion give incentive to desire and connection with a temporal existence.  Even if that divine is internal, it is something that appears elusive at times and beyond our immediate feeling, language, or mental capacities.  When asked about a given mystical or spiritual experience, a person having one simply expresses a visual or claims words are not sufficient.  It is at this point that the imagination and mental images are sought.  Dennis Martin states,

Many attempts have been made to describe the fundamental characteristics of mystical experience.  Traditionally it has been asserted that the experiential union of creature and Creator is inexpressible and ineffable, although those who have experienced it seek imagery and metaphors to describe it, however imperfectly.  As noted above, it is experienced union or vision, not abstract knowledge.  It is beyond the level of concepts, for reasoning, ideas, or sensory images have been transcended (but not rejected) in an intuitive union” (Martin, Denis D., “Mysticism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pp. 806-808).

Martin highlights several qualities of mysticism: experience, imagery, metaphors, vision, transcendence, and intuition.  Often desire becomes sensuality and lust, and connection is grasping for the visible things of the earth and worshipping them instead of the unseen God of hope.  They ground faith in the visible and temporal rather than the invisible and eternal.  They displace substance and evidence and surface the visible and temporal as authorities for living out our lives.  Because we are so connected to our experiences, we cling to them for direction, meaning, and purpose.  Experience is inescapable in our present physical and temporal state of being because we live within experience.  Experience naturally gives way to the visible even in our dreams.

Therefore, experiences tempt us to lift them up as authority or even divine.  Images, metaphors, and the visual amount to the visible whether in the external world or within our imaginations.  Our imaginations borrow from the visible world and integrate mental images, dreams, and visions into patterns of worship toward God (or gods).  The problem with this scenario is that it begins with oneself and attempts to work its way to God.  The authority becomes the experience or imagination.  Faith directs its attention on God through the content of His word found in the Scriptures.  The Scriptures, as God’s word, serve as the authority for judging experience, feeling, thought, and the things of the world.

The stark differences between faith and mysticism becomes evident in their source and expression.  Faith looks to and trusts God.  Mysticism focuses on oneself and places trust in the visible things of the world in seeking for spiritual authentication of the divine whether it be the Christian God or some other one.  The visible is far more attractive than the invisible and offers a more concrete reality.  Because of their close proximity to our lives, they displace the authority of God’s word in favor of the visible things of the temporal world.  Faith is a difficult matter and requires divine intervention.  In writing to the church in Rome (book of Romans), Paul illustrates this divine intervention in stating,

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

That is, the Scriptures give rise to faith.  By contrast, genuine faith cannot come to expression apart from the Scriptures.  God’s spoken word possesses the power to give birth to faith toward God.  God’s word causes a person to look to God and not to oneself for true spirituality and authority for living in the temporal world.  Faith enables us to transcend the temporal and visible to the eternal and invisible, that is, its substance and evidence: hope and the promises of God.  The word of God guides our experience through faith and acts as a dividing line between right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, and good and evil.  All of these are experienced based, but relying on experience and the visible things of the earth cannot serve to distinguish between them.  Some laud evils as good and good as evil.  Some turn right into wrong and wrong into right.  Conflicting judgments, philosophies, theologies, and societal laws illustrate these inversions.  Therefore, experience cannot act as their arbiter and standard.

They must look to that which is beyond the temporal world of the visible and experience, that is, God and His word in the Scriptures.  He created all things and gave them foundations for their existence, including a moral compass and the capacity to relate to Him.  He alone set the terms for that relationship and revealed them in His word.  He and His revealed word offer the only sufficiency for true spirituality, authentic existence, and life with God.  Mysticism fails because of its grounding in the temporal and visible world.  It has no substance and offers no evidence except for a multitude of conflicting and unique experiences, imagination, and personal yearnings for connection.  These are not sufficient for relating with God, because they act from individually established terms, which amount to as many terms as there are individuals, and shift authority from God to oneself.  Those who seek mystical experiences are not satisfied with the Scriptures alone for living the life of faith.  Continued restlessness draws them to seek out the visible rather than resting in the invisible promises of invisible God and trusting His providence and guidance from His word.

Only the gospel found in the Scriptures is the power of God for true connection and salvation from rebellion against God.  That power rises from the God who raised His Son from the dead to close the gap in our alienation with God.  Faith in Jesus fulfills authentic living, spiritual desire, and yearning to connect with God.  Faith in Jesus Christ offers the only way for eternal life with God.

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.