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Essay

This issue includes a special section on language that begins on page 35. For writers and artists concerned with faith, words, though slippery, can be like the air we breathe and the water we swim in: the medium that allows for conversation, makes our common life possible, and shapes all our experiences—even, as the distinguished poet Mark Jarman writes in this guest editorial, faith itself.

IN A RECORDING I have of W.H. Auden reading his great poem “In Praise of Limestone,” it sounds as if he is making a slip of the tongue in the poem’s last lines. Reading, “Dear, I know nothing of / Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love, / Or the life to come…,” at the syllable “fault” he begins to say, “faith.” That is, I hear him pronounce the syllable fay, but then he corrects himself. I have always wondered if he meant to say “faithful” or “faithless.” As a disciple of Freud, he would have known he was demonstrating the theory behind The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and it is interesting to think that he allowed the recording to remain as it is. The word “faith” and its synonyms and opposites occur often in Auden’s poetry. Frequently he is referring to the loyalty or fidelity of lovers, a form of faith that Auden wished for but never really enjoyed, particularly in his long relationship with Chester Kallman. In Auden’s poems about that fidelity, he echoes the provisional nature of Matthew Arnold’s exclamation in “Dover Beach”: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.” But keeping faith in that way is best understood by its absence, as in Auden’s lyric, “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” which he begins, “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.” Later in the poem, he reiterates the fragility of any connection: “Certainty, fidelity / On the stroke of midnight pass / like vibrations of a bell.”

For Auden, then, faith as word and concept is best understood by its opposite or by its transience, that is, in some form like the word “faithless” in which it is diminished by human failing. And that may be the only way we experience it in what he calls “our mortal world.” It is a splendid and transcendent definition of faith that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us, in the first verse of chapter 11, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But like all Platonic definitions, this one describes an entity or entities (those “things”) of the ideal world, a higher level of reality, certainly, but not the one where we live, at a mortal remove, in its shadow.

That the word “doubt” or some form of it must attend the word “faith” in anything we write seems to be also a manifestation of the region of “unlikeness,” Saint Augustine’s name for our plane of existence, one of division, of unsatisfied desire, separate from the ideal plane of unity, likeness, wholeness. In the Greek of the New Testament, there is only one word for faith, pistis, but many different words for doubt, its opposite, some meaning hesitation, some disputation or argument, and so on. Often, when Christ heals in the Gospels, he assures the one he has made whole that his or her faith has made the miracle occur. However, when he heals the woman with the flow of blood, there is an energy that passes from Jesus to the one seeking his power; he even says that he feels it pass from him. But in Luke’s version of this story, when the woman reveals herself to him, Jesus says, “Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith has made thee well.” Doesn’t this imply that a person’s faith makes it possible to be well, unified or whole? The faith we need to be healed is purely potential, and it may go a lifetime without being tapped. Jesus could be saying, “It takes two.”

The difference between faith and its opposite is dramatically expressed in Matthew 14, when Jesus appears walking on the stormy sea toward the boat that holds his disciples. Peter, first asking permission, leaves the boat to join him, walking a little way on the water, too, but then sinking and crying out to be saved. The King James Version describes the response of Jesus like this: “And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’” The Jacobean English is very close to the Latin translation of the text, with the cognates faith and fidei, doubt and dubitasti. But there is an interesting difference between the English and the Greek original. While “thou of little faith” in Greek employs the root pistis along with the word for little or few, oligo (i.e. oligopiste), the word for doubt is actually a form of the word “hesitate,” distaso, in a second person form, edistasas. One literal translation, “two-standing,” suggests that Jesus is punning on Peter’s sudden lack of surefootedness. There are many ways to lose your faith, like your footing, or to find it has been undermined. But those ways are as much inherent to the human being as faith itself. The miracle, always, is that this transcendent force can be experienced by the otherwise faithless or hesitating or doubting human being.

In The Dynamics of Faith Paul Tillich argues that dynamic faith, that ultimate concern which is the focus of the whole person, must include an element of doubt, for the purpose of risk. Faith for Tillich is an act of courage. Doubt makes it so. And used in this way doubt may bring to mind its archaic meaning: fear. The way we think of doubt nowadays is closer to skepticism and its need for reasoned argument. But to think of doubt as fear makes courage an even more pertinent element of faith. It takes courage to overcome fear and take the risk of faith, like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. And that brings to mind another poem by Auden, “Leap before You Look,” which begins with an expression of that risk:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

The poem ends with a turn to the personal and the recognition of the uncertain nature of faith when it is seen as a version of fidelity:

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

It is true that Auden waited all of his life for a lover to take the leap he was ready to make. But it is even clearer here that the cosmic and theological dimension of faith envelops the more limited sense of personal faithfulness. And yet, though a philosopher like Paul Tillich can define faith in such a way as to make its definition irrefutable, I think most of us have to see faith in more personal terms and to think of the word in relation to those we love, in hopes that that love bears some resemblance to the love Christ has shown us.

I asked my friend the poet Garrett Hongo if there was a word or concept in Buddhism that would be akin to the Christian idea of faith. He inferred that I was thinking of faith purely in salvific terms and suggested that there was little or nothing like that in Buddhism as he understood it, but he put me in touch with a scholar who led me to the word saddha, which may be translated as faith. What was interesting to me was that the deeper I looked into the word’s complexity of meanings and associations, the more complex the word “faith” itself correspondingly grew. In Buddhism, faith or saddha is mainly acquired through increasing wisdom by learning, study, and experience. A spirit of awe, untinged by skepticism, might indicate faith; otherwise it seems to derive from discipline and application and not by the grace of God, that is, not as an inherent attitude given to all in order to connect with God. On the other hand, descriptions of how faith is acquired in Buddhism suggest that, like Christian faith, it can be seen as a potential, like intelligence, developed by training. Surely when Jesus calls Peter one of small or little faith, he implies that Peter will have to increase his faith somehow. As a teacher, the Rabbi Jesus gave his disciple the learning and experience that would allow him, like a bodhisattva, to grow in wisdom and consequently into a greater and more enlightened faith.

Nearly thirty-five years ago I stood in the National Gallery of Art in London in a room where a painting of Abraham and Isaac hung. I believe it was the one by Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier. It depicts the father and son alone in the land of Moriah, Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice on his back and Abraham behind him carrying the fire and the knife as they make their way up the mountain. I was fascinated by a man in a wheelchair with an attendant who had taken a place before the painting and was talking about it in a way that was very hard to understand. I am pretty sure he had some degenerative condition which made speech difficult. Even his attendant had to lean close to understand what he was saying. It must have been a response to the painting and the incident in Genesis which it represented, the testing of Abraham. What I did hear and understand was his attendant’s response: “That’s ’cause your faith’s so strong, innit?”

Not only the English dialect struck me, but the use of the word “faith.” The wheelchair-bound man must have made some comment about Abraham’s faith or perhaps Isaac’s, which we never really take into account when we think of the story. Considering the condition of the severely disabled man, I have to say that I wondered in what way faith was operating in his life, what made it so strong. The tone of the attendant’s response was one I would hear many years later when I lived and taught in England for a year and came to understand a certain way the English responded knowingly, curtly, and somewhat archly to sincere comments. It was a tone which actually kept sincerity at bay, sanitized it by always suggesting that anything said sincerely was obvious, already well-known, and perhaps need not have been mentioned. But in the case of a person deprived of so many of the physical pleasures of life, it was a tone that also acknowledged that faith, in this case, must be strong in him, for how else could he endure the life he was forced to live? In the statement, “That’s ’cause your faith’s so strong, innit?” which at the time sounded dismissive to me and vulgar, the word “faith” shone like a brilliant in a crude setting. I have since realized that the tone was one of brisk recognition and acceptance, even good cheer, in the face of obvious suffering. Strong as the faith was in the man in the wheelchair, the only healing power that had passed from Christ to him seemed to have been the strength of that faith.

In the first chapter of The Dynamics of Faith, entitled “What Faith Is,” Paul Tillich speaks of faith and community. Almost as if he were foretelling Stanley Fish’s theory of the community of readers, he exclaims, “For only in the community of spiritual beings is language alive. Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience!” If this is so, then how do you speak of a word like faith except as it would be understood by that community of spiritual beings? For all the decades I have wondered what exactly the man in his wheelchair said about the painting of Abraham and Isaac, which caused his attendant to use the word “faith” in its profoundest sense, albeit in a tone that suggested otherwise, I have known because of that word and even the tone in which it was said what he must have been talking about. We were part of the same spiritual community and spoke a common language.

 


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