Americans are, by most accounts, the most religiously observant people in the developed world, so "faith" is a topic frequently covered in our news media — all the more frequent now, since it's an election year.
Yet there seems to be a great deal of confusion over what faith is, and even more over what it's good for. Many people seem to think that the word is synonymous with belief or opinion.
As a Christian who happens to be a priest, I take responsibility on behalf of Christianity for the confusion. Although the good readers of this column are undoubtedly relieved by this noble act, I want to do more to clear up the matter.
The Christian sacred story, commonly called the New Testament, was written in the common Greek that people spoke in daily life because it was intended to change lives, not just minds.
The writers had the explicit goal of spreading and strengthening faith, for which they used the word pistis, and its verb form pisteuo. Since the English word faith only exists as a noun, we're at a serious disadvantage before we even start working on a definition. When the gospel writers were trying to get their readers to pisteuo, they meant us to act with loyal, trusting commitment to the God who, they were convinced, had very recently done some new and remarkable things.
To be specific, they told the story of a small-town rabbi from a working-class background whose teachings were strongly rooted in the ancient, foundational Jewish tradition of serving the poor, sick, and outcast, the widow, the alien, and the orphan, and all those on the margins of society.
He favored using memorable, provocative stories to teach, but more than that, he taught through actions. Unlike the powerful and prominent religious leaders, who were focused on maintaining favor with the ruling class and power over the public, Jesus got his hands dirty actually helping people, and insisted that his followers do the same.
The same writers also spent a lot of time telling the story of how Jesus went to the trouble of dying and rising again in order to make salvation available to all people. His death and resurrection showed just how strongly God loves the world, and how deeply worthy the world is of our concern and service. They also ensured that his followers would devote even more effort to following his example of loving service, since we never have to worry about salvation, much less fight over it.
Jesus did teach theological truths, and the Holy Spirit has revealed more of them to the Church, but Jesus also made it clear that doing the right thing is far more important than thinking or saying the right thing. Thus, some members of other faith traditions, and indeed agnostics and atheists, are more faithful followers of Christ than some Christians who practice their piety before others yet lift not a finger to ease the burdens of the world.
The meaning of faith, and therefore the life lived by faith, is even bigger than we generally suspect, since God has blessed us so abundantly with gifts and resources. Our diverse talents and abilities suggest that there are equally diverse ways to put them to good use, serving, healing, and building up the world God loves.
Some have tried to twist faith into a false gospel that gives material wealth to its practitioners while somehow ennobling the world by the fact of their fiscal engorgement. When this dark mirror image of faith reaches its logical conclusion of contempt for the poor and oppression of the marginalized, it finally reveals its true nature as an irreconcilable enemy of God.
True faith includes a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices when they are necessary to accomplish its work where it is most needed. While the pain of such sacrifices is real, it is accompanied by a greater and deeper joy than any the material world can offer.
This can be hard to believe, but if you doubt me, just ask anyone who has been there. Or, better yet, make your own leap of faith and try something new: put your abilities or resources to work for the benefit someone who needs them, or ask someone you respect if you can join them at worship this week.
Only if you open your arms wide will you embrace the life of the world.
The Rev. Bret B. Hays is rector at Saint John's Episcopal Church on Middle Street in Gloucester.