Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Middle Voice of Faith

“It just seems weird to me,” I said about some theological point (we’ll just say it’s irrelevant for now; context would be distracting). “It’s not that it’s offensive or that I know it’s wrong per se, but it certainly doesn’t make sense, and it feels strange.”

The Catholic seminarian listened to my qualms patiently for a while, and then said what might prove to be one of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard about faith.

“I understand it sounding strange to you,” he agreed, “and truth be told, it might always sound strange to you. But it might be helpful for you to remember that the majority of Christians throughout the centuries have been in agreement about this. It might be helpful to remember that your misgivings are a minority opinion, and your inability to understand it could be somewhat of a deficiency on your part, rather than on the part of the theology.”

Aside from the specific theological point we were discussing, it strikes me as a radically different way of approaching faith than I am accustomed to, an approach that directly meets some of my doubts from this spring when I didn’t even know if I believed in God’s redemption anymore.

I grew up in circles that considered faith a matter of the heart. Faith meant a feeling of God’s presence, a sense of his spirit and an experience of his power that would overflow into our lives. In some ways, then, to believe was to feel.

I matured in circles that considered faith a matter of the mind. Faith meant a grappling with the reasons behind what we believed and delving into the nuances of an overarching view of the world. In a powerful way, then, to believe was to understand.

I rebelled from both these a bit in college, and pursued an alternative idea that faith was a matter of action. Faith was the incarnation of ideas or emotions into the tactile grit of life. Perhaps, the idealistic college student pondered, to believe was to do.

And what struck me in conversation with my seminarian friend the other day was that faith to him seemed to mean none of those things. He did not seem frazzled by the fact that I did not feel comfortable with the theology. He did not try to explain the point to me so that I could understand it. He did not suggest an action I could take to produce faith. He allowed that I may never have the feelings or the understanding of faith.

Faith, he suggested to me later, is a gift, a thing that we receive from God rather than something we can produce. On our part, it involves receiving, a surrender of our right to reject what does not feel right or does not make sense. But (and believe you me, this is good news for me!), if our senses and our understanding do not ever manage to join in, it does not mean there is no faith. Faith, after all, is not something we are called to form; it is something that forms us.

Faith then may not be the absence of doubt or despair; it may rather sit in the presence of doubt and despair, acknowledging that the doubt and despair are one’s own deficiencies, and not be threatened by them.

As a completely esoteric analogy from the throes of Greek boot camp, faith may be the middle voice. Greek, in addition to having an active voice (The boy ate the banana) and a passive voice (The boy was eaten by the banana) also has a strange thing called a middle voice that I cannot for the life of me explain: it takes mostly passive endings and has an active-ish meaning, sometimes reflexively (The boy ate himself) or some other self-centered sort of emphasis (The boy ate for his own benefit). But the important thing for the analogy is that it looks passive, and it is indeed not active; it is somehow neither or both. English does not have a way to express this. Neither does my theology.

But the next time I feel alone and cannot understand God’s presence, the next time I feel outraged at injustice and cannot understand God’s redemption, the next time I feel weary and cannot understand God’s goodness, it may be helpful to receive the faith that can sit with my doubt and despair rather than assuming that they are mutually exclusive. It may be helpful to consider my doubt and despair to be my own deficiencies, not God's deficiencies but also not my sins, deficiencies that he is welcome to tend to as he will. That seems a whole lot more passive than I thought I would ever hear myself suggest, but only because it is clearly not active, and my theology has never had to make room for a middle voice.


Casey said...

Your last paragraph really struck me. I guess I've never thought of it like that, or at least heard it put like that. That is, to consider my doubt and despair my own deficiencies...yet they are still things that God still welcomes. It puts a really interesting spin on things. Thanks for sharing this!

Chestertonian Rambler said...


I think this may be another aspect of my fascination with non-protestant Christian traditions (Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.)

It is also where one of my favorite moments in scripture is the first half of 1 Corr. 12:9--"to another [is given] faith by the same spirit."

I like the idea that I can be a part of the Body of Christ, in which many people are given more faith than me (and some less). It seems this is part of what you're getting at. As Protestants, we are all (as one blogger insightfully put it) "little competing popes" figuring out everything for ourselves. But if the Body really is made up of diverse parts, it seems we don't have to be master--or even jack--of all theological trades.

Does that make any sense?

Em the luddite said...

Chester, it's good to hear that other people have noticed that we are seem to be our own personal popes; I think by the time I was about 17 or so I was already wearing of having to be the rock on which Christ would build the Church. There is much grace in being part of a body.

Grace even in our doubts, I am realizing. It's good to hear from you, Casey, and I can't wait to see you in a couple weeks!

Kate said...

Being a fellow Greek geek, I really appreciate your analogy of the middle voice. I like what you've written here and want to sit with it a bit more - there's something that really resonates, but I can't quite put my finger on what.

Thank you.

Daniel Cox said...

I once posted on the silliness of "defending"one's faith. Reading your post tickled me because this understanding of "faith as gift" is what drove my understanding.

I subscribed long to the "faith is of the mind" school, and by extension, the school of action. It wasn't until I realized that faith is based on "things hoped for and not yet seen" that I began to understand that faith isn't necessarily a "logical" thing. Sometimes, it makes no sense at all. BUT, it is a gift. And in my experience, that is enough for me.

Elizabeth said...

Wow, this post really blew me away. What a lovely insight into the nature of faith. You articulated your perspective so poignantly. Thank you. The middle voice. Wow. Something to really chew on. Thank you so much for sharing!

NC Sue said...

Wow. I think I could read this post repeatedly and still find more to think about. Thank you so much for this post.

I belonged to a series of Protestant churches. Part of the reason I converted to Catholicism is this notion of "little popes" (although I'd never heard it expressed quite that way). There were many other reasons, but when you used that phrase, it struck a chord with me.

And I was also struck by the wisdom of the seminarian who spoke with you about the theological point that that worried you. I think that, too, explains some of the "pull" I felt toward the Catholic church.

I'm not arrogant enough to claim that you must be Catholic or be damned, but it works for me.



Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. The first thing that came to mind when reading of your "middle voice" is from Mark 9:24:
Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.