Teaching Faith?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Pastor Craig. I remember having faith in God at a very young age. It has built over time as life experiences have happened. I don’t know how I could live a day without my walk with God.  I understand how different religious paths can be taught to people, and lessons on right and wrong, but do you think one can ‘teach’ a person to have faith? Thank you for your time, which is precious these days.”

Thanks for the great question, Stevie.  The short answer to your question is, “No.  I do not believe you can ‘teach’ someone to have faith.”  I do believe, however, that you can teach people spiritual disciplines like prayer practices, how to engage the sacred texts of one’s religious tradition, provide opportunities to help/connect with people (i.e. missions), etc.  And a pastor can certainly model what one model of faith looks like.  At the end of the day, however, an individual must make the decision to live a life of faith for her or himself.

Your question provides me with an opportunity to talk briefly about an important shift that’s taken place within me recently as I help people engage this notion of “having faith”.

There are a lot of folks these days who perceive faith in a pretty black and white way.  They believe you either “have faith” – which means you embrace spiritual notions that look like the religious traditions with which you were raised, or you don’t have faith.  A lot of folks who say they don’t have faith (especially those who weren’t raised in religious traditions) are tortured by this black and white approach.  They want to “have faith” – but have no idea of what it takes to let go and embrace faith.

Here’s what I tell such folks these days.

Every human being on the planet already lives a life of faith.  That’s true of atheists; agnostics; and people of every label on the planet.  So the real question one should ask oneself is this: “What is my faith in?”

For some, their faith is in their reason or intellect.  For others, it’s in science.  For some, their faith is in a particular political party or candidate.  For others, it’s in the wisdom of a particular author.  For some, their faith is in the connection they feel to the universe when they are out in nature.  For others, it’s in the warmth and goodness of their family.  To use the language of the 12-Step movement, each of us as “a god of our understand”.

The key, then, is to help people first realize where their faith lies.  Once they do that, they can begin to understand they already have a great deal of experience in living a life of faith.  The remaining question they must wrestle with then becomes this: “Does the thing in which I place my faith provide me with a life of peace and serenity that connects me to a world larger than myself?”  If so, then the person can continue to live her or his life as usual.  If the source of faith is NOT doing that, then it is time to talk about exploring something new.  And that’s where I’m happy to step in and help them begin that process of spiritual exploration.

Those are a few of the thoughts that Stevie’s question raised for me.  I would love to invite you into the conversation.  And for those who don’t want to join this conversation, what question would you raise for our online community today?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 51-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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5 Responses to Teaching Faith?

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    As an atheist, I think the problem many of us have with the word “faith” is that we’re uncertain exactly what religious people mean by it. Most of the time I get the sense that they’re talking about a choice to believe in something supernatural, like a deity or afterlife, in which case I can say I do not have faith. Sometimes it seems to mean believing in things that can’t be quantified, like love and goodness, in which case I do have faith. Sometimes, as with Craig’s essay here, it seems like they mean faith is trusting that building your life around something (God, science, nature, etc.) will bring you peace, joy, fulfillment, or whatever good feelings you expect it to make you feel. In that case I’d say you’ve defined faith such that everyone by definition has to have it, except maybe people who are so depressed they don’t believe anything can ever make them feel good.

    The one thing all these kinds of faith seem to have in common is that they involve believing in something by choice rather than by reason, and committing to believe in it unconditionally. And that’s where you lose a lot of people like me.

    We know that there are limits to human knowledge and reason, and that getting through life requires choosing to believe things we don’t fully understand or know for sure. We don’t have to fully understand how gravity works to believe if we drop something it will fall down. We don’t have to know for sure how much our partners love us to believe our relationships are solid. But we do need to be able to extrapolate those things from things we can understand and know: our experiences with dropping things and being loved, and our accumulated knowledge of gravity and love in general. If our extrapolations stop producing expected results—if dropped items stop falling or our partners start behaving in ways incompatible with love—then we have to question our beliefs, and maybe change what we believe if the contradictory evidence is strong enough.

    If a belief that is based on extrapolating from known facts/experiences and conditional on expected results continuing to occur counts as faith, then okay, I guess I have faith. But that definition seems at odds with both the casual and theological usages of the word.

  2. Sharon says:

    HUH? Ms. Saling, did you read Craig’s answer?

    • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

      Yes, and I tried to respond to it honestly and respectfully. What about what I said makes you think I didn’t read it?

      • Sharon says:

        I believe you did read it, according to your reply, you didn’t “hear” it. What Craig said was great.

      • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

        Okay, what according to my reply makes you think I didn’t hear it? I’m perfectly willing to concede there may be something there I’m missing or not understanding, but if that’s so I’m going to need some help figuring out what it is. Can you help me with that?

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