It can be difficult to distinguish between what is meant by faith and belief. For some, such a distinction doesn’t exist; to “have faith” means to “believe in X,Y,or Z.” Yet, for others (and I would put myself in this camp) there is an important distinction that must be made, while recognizing that they are interrelated aspects of our lives. Faith does not require the same sort of thing that belief does. And that thing is cognitive, conceptual, thematic, reflexive, explicit, propositional awareness, understanding, or assent related to a claim about Christianity.
We can see this in a more practical way when we pause to consider how we use the two terms in everyday usage. For example, to say that “I have faith that things will work out” suggests that the how or in what way a situation might be resolved doesn’t come to the fore. But to talk about like, “I believe that this thing will happen,” requires a particular object of consideration.
Faith is much more than belief.
Faith is the grounding of our very selves in the love and existence of God that oftentimes escapes conceptual reflection and concrete expression. It is about the relationship or experience of an encounter with God in our lives and in our world. It is what provides, as Karl Rahner might put it, the very condition for the possibility of belief — the fiducial context out of which our doctrines, scripture, and shared expression of that experience arises.
Just because someone cannot or will not “believe” in something, does not mean that the same person doesn’t intrinsically and in a very profound way have faith.
Perhaps there is no better example of this dynamic of human existence in relationship to God playing out than in our Gospel for this Sunday — the famous encounter (or initial lack thereof) between the Risen Lord and Thomas, called Didymus, and more popularly called “the doubter!”
Thomas’s doubt shouldn’t, I believe, be mistaken for a lack of faith.
Why? Thomas’s faith — that experience of God in Jesus Christ that led him to transform his life (metanoia) in following in the footsteps of the Nazarene — is what brought him to the moment when the question of belief and unbelief arose. I have no doubt that Thomas was well aware of the mystery of God’s action in the world and in his life in particular, but that doesn’t mean that he had an easy time making sense or conceptualizing or understanding what was happening in the everyday, categorical experience of his quotidian life. On the contrary, the author of the Gospel of John tells us that he, like the other disciples, were rather confused, uncertain, and deathly afraid (literally — they feared the same fate as Jesus). He was, like so many women and men — really, like all women and men, unsure of what to believe.
The story traditionally paints Thomas as something of a loser, a “bad guy,” a holdout. But, I think he’s the most genuine figure for which any modern disciple could hope. He is us, and because we are losers or holdouts or weak in faith. On the contrary, the experience of Thomas reveals that just because we have faith in the God who is love, who is our ground, who sustains us and, like we read in Exodus 3:15-17 in the theophany to Moses, is the God who is concerned about us and cares for us, does not mean that our belief in all aspects of our tradition will come easily and that we will always understand what is happening in our lives with clarity.
The end of the Gospel account from John reads:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
The author of this Gospel seems to make it clear that the purpose of the concretized, historical medium of kerygma or early experience and proclamation of the Christ event, is to serve as a means for Christians who would come after to believe. It presupposes the faith that is intrinsic to each of us by virtue of our being loved into existence by God and, therefore, seeks to help us make sense of what our lives are about, what it is we are supposed to do, and to understand better who God is.
That is the whole point of God becoming a human person in Jesus of Nazareth, something that God planed and desired from all eternity: to enter into an ever-more intimate relationship with all of humanity and creation. That is the point of John 1:18 when the author, at the end of the prologue, explains that the purpose of the Gospel that follows is to present what it means for the Son to reveal (exegete or express) the Father. That is the point of the Good News (Gospel), to lead our faith to belief, to give an account of what it means to bear the name Christ and to make sense of the faith that is already always present, even if we choose to ignore it.
Thomas isn’t such a bad guy, he’s just very real and extraordinarily normal. He helps show us that what brings us to God through Christ is the faith that is an expression of our a priori relationship with our creator, and that it is then the purpose of the Christian community to encourage one another so that we may then “come to believe” and, then, “through this belief you may have life in his name.”