Beyond Self-Aware Faith

If you ask someone if they have faith in Christ, they might reflect on how often they experience religious feelings or have religious thoughts. The more that Christian ideas and religious experiences fill your consciousness, one might think, the more faith you have. I think this is a wrong understanding of faith.

Is it possible to have faith in something without being consciously aware of your faith? Of course it is. I take “to have faith” in the sense of “to trust” or “to act with confidence.”

I have faith in the strength of a chair when I sit on it. I may not think about the chair at all. I usually don’t reflect on its engineering or the physical properties of its materials. I ordinarily don’t consciously admire it, but neither do I quiver with fear, thinking, “This time, it might just fall apart.” I just sit down.

That’s not to say that thinking about God and the things of God isn’t important, or that conscious awareness of one’s place in the economy of God means nothing. In my tradition, we talk about the “means of grace” – those instruments through which God has chosen to work in our lives. There are both cognitive and non-cognitive elements to God’s means of grace. There is a difference, however, between means and ends. The goal is not to produce mental or emotional awareness, but confidence in action.

Photographer Ken Rockwell distinguishes hobbyists who spend a lot of time studying and thinking about photographic equipment from photographers, who take photographs with whatever camera they happen to have. Photographers know their equipment well enough to use it without thinking much about the camera itself. Their use of the camera is natural and instinctive. The end product is a good picture, not photographic knowledge.

The interior lives and devotional practices of Christians differ from person to person, and some Christians are surely fooling themselves about the detrimental impact of their lackadaisical approach to faith. The end product of faith, however, is not simply constant (or even frequent) religious awareness. On the contrary, faith results in unselfconscious confidence in the promises of God that demonstrates itself in Christian worship, community and faithfulness in the world.