What is Faith?

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

-Morpheus played by Laurence Fishburne
from The Matrix (1999)

I thought about this quote as I was driving home this evening (as I write this) and wondering what happened between Monday and now. On Monday evening and into Tuesday morning, and even as far as this morning, something carried over from a new or rejuvenated sense of faith and spirituality. Then, as I was driving home, it was like a balloon popped and I could feel myself sinking back into my previous template, which is at a depth where contact with God is like a faint echo struggling to make its way through the cold deeps of a twilight ocean.

What’s stronger, something new or something old? Answer: something old. Something new is exciting in the moment, but what’s old, like old habits, have a much greater and firmer foothold on your life or, in this case mine.

To paraphrase Morpheus, “What is faith? How do you define ‘faith’? If you’re talking about what you can feel emotionally, what you experience in response to stimulating books on faith, on hearing rousing music with impassioned lyrics, then ‘faith’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

That’s a horrible realization and it was even more horrible that such a thought reminded me John MacArthur speaks against a faith based on sensation and experience. Of course, he goes in the opposite direction and believes in a faith based almost exclusively on the intellect and his version of Bible study, making him not unlike some Rabbis in some traditional corners of Judaism.

You’re a great one for logic. I’m a great one for rushing in where angels fear to tread. We are both extremists. Reality has brought us somewhere in-between.

-Captain James Kirk (William Shatner)
from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Apparently the 1990s were very good for movie quotes.

coastKirk and Spock seem to be polar opposites: an emotionalist always looking for his next adventure, and a logical rationalist, always seeking the calm of study, knowledge, and wisdom. But as Kirk pointed out, both of them are extremists. Reality (what is “real?”) is somewhere in the middle.

And so we arrive at attempting to define the essential elements of a life of faith. Certainly not just a stimulating book about a faithful man of God who could perform healing miracles, or music and lyrics that touch the emotions and hopefully the soul. Certainly not just the enthralling study of the Bible, of interesting commentaries, of Talmud and midrash.

Reality is somewhere in the middle because human beings are emotional and intellectual beings. Too much of either side of the equation leaves our faith woefully off-balance, and us teetering on the edge of plummeting into one abyss or another.

A little over two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post quoting First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael saying that faith is a platform supported by three legs: the Spirit of the Lord, the Torah of Moses, and the Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, the apostle Paul speaks of another three “legs:” faith, hope, and love. It seems we are not complete as devotees of the God of Israel and disciples of Messiah unless we not only value multiple elements in a living faith, but we allow those elements to exist in balance relative to one another. Depending too much on any one “leg” for support, will likely find us about to fall in the opposite direction.

I’ve heard it said that it takes six-weeks to either make a new habit or break an old one. I’m sure that’s overly simplistic, but if you are trying to break an old, unwanted but familiar and relatively comfortable habit, six weeks can seem like a long time. After the initial excitement at any resolution, after a few days pass, the old and familiar assert their influence.

I suppose I could immerse myself in inspirational books and music, but that’s just swinging in another extreme direction and it won’t last. What I think will last is establishing a balance, realizing that there will be moments of disappointment and let down, moments when things will seem dry and uninteresting, and that those moments do not have to stand in the way of a new or renewed sense of the presence of God.

Some habits are good. Continuing to read and to study the Bible is good. Listening to faith-based music is good. Set times of prayer and “davening” from the Siddur is good. Reaching out to God, not only when He seems close, but when He seems far away is good.

Most people who are religious I think organize their activities into the holy and the secular. It’s holy to go to church and secular to go to work. It’s holy to sing a hymn and secular to sing a rock song from the ’60s. It’s holy to pray, and it’s secular to wish.

Leonard CohenThat’s the problem. From God’s point of view, we are all His creations and thus we all share some small part of the Divine. As people of faith, the awareness of that state should be present in us…in me. There really are no times or circumstances or tasks where God is not present. It’s just a matter of whether or not I chose to be aware of the presence during those times I deem “secular”

A momentary pause in the music doesn’t mean the song has ended. The end of a paragraph or chapter doesn’t mean the book is done. And the realization that I won’t always “feel” that God is near doesn’t mean God isn’t near. Faith is continuing to act faithfully even if the physical and spiritual world seems silent and empty.

Faith isn’t a feeling and it isn’t a thought. Faith is a habit or at least it’s supported by habits…praying, singing, reading the Bible, pondering God’s wondrous acts and wisdom, opening your cognition and emotions to God, even if He should choose not to fill them.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

-Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

Faith is that moment when all is silent and void and yet there is still nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

10 thoughts on “What is Faith?”

  1. I like this post a lot, I think it can relate to everyone, whether they consider themselves a person with faith or not. After all. we all have habits! Something I found interesting was the faith we all have in science. We expect, for no reason at all, the laws of science to keep on working the way we think they work. If you’re interested, I wrote a post on it here: but yeah, keep up the good work!

  2. @James — I find myself a bit perplexed at this particular musing, especially its conclusion that redefines faith as an essentially irrational emotional state (which is, of course, what Lenny Cohen was mistakenly expressing in his song). At the risk of being dismissed as a heartless intellectual, I’ll offer a counter-assertion that faith is a decision to exercise trust in the evidence that the living G-d has presented throughout history. Just as “faith without works is dead”, so faith without evidence is meaningless. The fact that all of our sensations and experiences and thoughts are carried by electrical impulses in our brains does not justify the misinterpretation that they must all be subjective illusions. That is the stance of a materialist reductionist.

    However, we might look at another passage (James 1:5-7)
    5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
    6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
    7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord,

    This passage offers an interesting connection between faith and wisdom, and presupposes an objective reality outside of the world reflected inside our heads. The fact that unexpected events may occur, and new thoughts, different from any we have ever considered, may be presented to us by external sources, provides evidence of external objective existence. The unexpected and the different, by their very nature, provide hope. Maybe that is one of the reasons why HaShem’s people, the Jews, have been always so “peculiar”, so different. Our choice is expressed in the question: “Will we trust that evidence, and other evidences like it?”. Trust may be reinforced with emotional energy, but it is at base an “intellectual” existential action. Many kinds of physical action may be mustered subsequently in support of the decision of faith, which is to say, a decision to rely upon the evidence even when it seems overwhelmingly threatened by counter-claims that challenge it and induce doubt. Our actions and our attitudes, then, are the means by which we may seek to impart holiness to that which is merely ordinary (“kedushat ha’hol”). This also is the exercise of our faith, which, like any exercise, strengthens that which is exercised and tried and tested.

    Perhaps this takes us back to considering the letter to the Hebrews (as in your immediately previous post), particularly verse 11:6 which says that “… without faith it is impossible to please Him [HaShem] , for he who comes to G-d must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”.

  3. @moralessence: Thanks for the complement. I’m bending my rule to not allow first time commenters to post links to their own websites/blogs. I welcome discussion but please don’t use my blog just to drive traffic to your’s. Thanks.

    @PL: This blog post is a direct result of my personal experience over the past few days with the whole cessationist/continualist argument playing in the background. I don’t believe I concluded that faith is an “irrational emotional state.” Rather, I was trying to express a sense of balance regarding faith, that it engages all that we are as intellectual and emotional beings.

    When Yeshua quoted Deut. 6:5 in Matthew 22:36 stating that the first of the two greatest commandments is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he was addressing this issue. Faith, like love, engages all that we re on all levels. When we focus on one of those elements to the exclusion of the others (hence my commentary on extremes and extremists), we get out of balance, so to speak, and do not apprehend as much of God as we might.

    I tend toward the more brain-centered side of things (though I’m hardly a scholar) but have recently been attempting to experience faith rather than just read about it. Whole new vistas open up but striking the right balance is difficult.

    Consider today’s “meditation” as my report at arriving at a particular stepping stone along the way.

  4. My take is that although we interact with the divine via our intellect and emotions (both centered in the brain) our initial point of contact is through revelation which is beyond both. Our intellect as well as our emotions/experiential nature are both flawed and corrupt.

    I was having a discussion last night with some who thought that faith meant strong belief, and used the Greek to back that up. But this is not what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew word, “emunah,” has its root, “aman,” from which we get, “amen.” This refers to a foster mother or a wet nurse, and would indicate nurturing and holding onto a seed until it is matured and ready for birth. The word picture might be, “strong waters of life revealed.

    Faith is also based upon relationship, rather than just facts and evidence. My son has faith that we will pay his rent this month. He doesn’t have any proof, except that we have always paid his rent every month.

    1. Shalom, Chaya — You raise a key point about the nature of faith, which is that it has an object. Faith doesn’t stand on its own, but is always a matter of trusting in something or someone. Your son would, no doubt, be mistaken to trust in the mere historicity of his rent having been paid faithfully, because it is your concern for his well-being that is the real basis for any faith that the rent will be paid yet again. “Emunah” is an expression about something (or someone) that may be relied upon, and its appropriate synonym in English would be reliance.

      Now, it is possible to place faith in some object falsely, unjustifiably. It is not any the less faith for the unreliability of its object; it is merely misplaced. Of course, the consequences of placing faith in an unreliable object are well-known — just ask any disappointed lover. In such a case neither intellect nor feeling is any help whatsoever.

      Hence we must consider one of the key features about faith in HaShem as being His longstanding record of reliability or faithfulness, even as He has demonstrated to the Jewish people who still continue to exist and receive His blessings despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (to understate the matter with Will Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet). This is the evidence that I offered to James in my previous reply as the basis for trust. It is not any more real or reliable if it is reinforced with feeling, though our motivation to be reliable ourselves in our continuing response to it may be stronger — much as passion strengthens the immediate response of a lover, though it is not something which can be sustained continuously over a lifetime, nor does such long-term love require it to prove the continuing reality of the love. (It may be said, nonetheless, that “a little passion, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”)

  5. @James — On the subject of the V’ahavta, and its inadequate translation into English as “all your heart, all your soul, all your mind”, I’d like to point out that the heart was not the seat of feeling in Hebrew idiom. Oddly, this notion was associated with the kidneys as an object representing the sense of the “inward parts” of the body. The heart actually represented the intentions that modern cultures regard as a function of mind. The “neshamah” or soul represented the breath of life or one’s very existence. And the final term “meodecha” would be best rendered in modern colloquial English as “with everything that you’ve got!” (or, perhaps less dramatically, “with all the resources at your disposal”). Now, the notion of “everything you’ve got” certainly encompasses both intellect and emotion, as well as everything else we might possibly categorize as human sensation, perception, memory, et al.

    I suppose the statement to which I had the most negative response was your final one that invoked Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”. With all due respect to Lenny’s musical and poetic capabilities, I find that this piece irritates me tremendously. I have tried to teach myself over the course of the years not to over-react to various things; but with all due consideration I find cause to “get my dander up” over an egregious misrepresentation in this piece of the Hebrew term that is an exhortation for a multitude to extol HaShem. Its feeling is ecstatic, triumphant, joyful. Lenny presents it as a mournful expression of a dejected, almost defeated man reaching upward with a hope-against-hope attitude that is entirely at odds with true faith. He is truly expressing a feeling not uncommon in modern humans disaffected from the true G-d, but he is barely even expressing hope, because he is doing so irrationally and true hope is just as rational as is true faith or true love. It is a malady of twentieth-century philosophical views absorbed into the culture to eschew rationality, to place unjustifiable hope in irrationality, and to seek validation in feeling. It is not unrelated to the charismatic malady that seeks ecstatic experience as validation of godly reality. I’m not unconvinced that the most proper response may be an unquenchable unrelenting anger. (Sorry about the multiple negatives in that last sentence, but some are there to indicate internal deliberation and uncertainty about the severe implication of the others.) I don’t think that Lenny would have expected to invoke this particular response; and I certainly and categorically reject the association of this piece with the notion of faith.

    On the other hand, what does it matter if there is an occasional misstep along a path of stepping stones, if it may represent a learning experience that improves one’s ability to recognize a truer path toward an ultimate goal?

  6. Well, once again, I am humbled by the responses (both public and private) to my wee little missive above. As it seems, my small cry to God as published on the Internet has resulted in me learning a lot more about faith than I ever knew existed, or at least that I was conscious of.

    Sometimes the best part of writing a blog isn’t what I write at all, but how others respond. Thanks.

    And Good Shabbos to you all.

  7. I see faith as a blend of dependence and trust.

    If you don’t acknowledge your dependence, then your trust is moot. If you distrust that on which you are dependent, you are paralyzed.

    Do we have the evidence we need to trust in God? Are we really acknowledging our dependence on Him? This is where most of us struggle. It’s also where the great people used mightily by God (e.g. Hebrews 11) succeeded.

  8. @James — I noticed a link here at the end of your post to an earlier article from almost two years ago on the subject of “trust”, which is, of course, inseparable from the notion of “faith”. One of your key themes there, however, was the question about trusting HaShem in spite of the many negative events that may be observed to occur to various other people who supposedly trust in Him, as well as events that occur to ourselves despite that trust. So the evidence about HaShem’s reliability does not appear to guarantee absolute freedom from suffering. Hence the question to be asked is: “What is it exactly that we can rely upon?” The beginning of the answer may be found in Avraham’s question to HaShem in Gen.18:25 “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” What we can trust in may be expressed in a few lemmas: one, that He is just and the end result of all events will bear that out; two, that He cares for the well-being of all His creatures, particularly the human ones with whom He wishes to interact; three, that He keeps promises over the course of a very long period of what we experience as time; four, His perspective on what constitutes our well-being encompasses not only a span of time that exceeds our physical lifetimes but also a breadth of knowledge about our innermost needs and about external events that far exceeds our own limited perceptions or imaginations. Thus our confidence in Him cannot be allowed to be limited to what we ourselves perceive in the short term. That places us in a scary and uncomfortable position if we expect something which has not been promised, especially since we are warned by the scriptural record that we should be expecting to endure a bit of trouble, that we should be ready for it and that we may still be confident in the ultimate outcome.

  9. Yes, those links are automatically generated based on some sort of algorithm. Yes, God promises to be just and we can depend on Him for that, and I agree, God doesn’t promise a pain-free life. Sometimes we get anything but freedom from difficulty. I still believe He’s also a God of mercy, and for many of us, we probably get a lot more mercy than we deserve. God doesn’t just put us in a room full of trap doors to see how we’ll react. If the universe was created for a purpose, then so were we. We each negotiate a relationship with God individually, so no two people will walk the same path. Faith and trust is the means by which we proceed forward, believing in the ultimate outcome and putting one foot in front of the other not knowing what is in-between where we are now and where we’re supposed to go.

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