What is faith? Observant readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that this question is present in almost everyone of my posts. Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, defines faith as immediacy after reflection. I realize that many of my readers are rolling their eyes at this point and some have already left this post in search of better reading. “Craig”, some are thinking, “you started off so well with a clear question (What is faith?) and then you jumped into a muddy philosophical lingo.” Many of my readers, always with good taste and respect, have teased me about the philosophical (ie undecipherable) nature of my writing. I’m guilty as charged. Thanks to all who have tried to understand what I write. You have given me a great compliment. I hope you’ll bear with me a little while longer. In this post I want to show why this definition or view of faith means so much to me.
Let’s start with ‘immediacy’. What does this word mean? I find it helpful to think of the experiences of a child. As children we have an immediate trust of our world. We assume it’s safe and right. We trust our parents, that they love us and will care for us. We have this trust even when it’s undeserved. A child’s trust isn’t easily destroyed. Immediacy, in this sense, is joyful. For most of my years growing up I went to a school for children with disabilities. From the outside this may have looked to be a sad place. One would see wheelchairs, braces, crutches, amputees, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and more, and all this suffering would be borne by children. A closer look, however, would reveal that we were, for the most part, very happy. This wasn’t because we were special or knew some life secret. It was because we were children. We accepted and enjoyed our world as children do. We knew an immediacy before reflection.
Of course, it’s not only children who experience life in this way. As adults, we may find ourselves reverting to our childhood or finding new forms of immediacy. We fall in love, find a friend, see our children being born, meet our grandchildren and the world is good and beautiful. We may even experience immediacy over fairly insignificant events. I’m embarrassed to tell how delighted I was to see my beloved Green Bay Packers fell the Saints last Sunday.
Climacus might give us two warnings about this childlike immediacy. First of all, he might point out that this kind of immediacy isn’t faith. It’s on the road to faith, but it’s not faith. Faith is immediacy after reflection. Secondly, he might give a warning to those of us who tend to look down upon this childlike immediacy. We may be convinced that we’ve matured. We’re grown up now. We have no need for childish immediacy. Climacus might ask us to make sure we’re even on the road to faith. Do we look down on expressions of immediacy because we’ve made so much progress in our own journey or because we haven’t even started our own journey? I find this warning especially relevant to those of us who tend to think a lot about theology. When we find ourselves looking at others and saying “How immature” or “How naive” it’s time for self examination.
What, then, is reflection? In California I had a next door neighbor who lived, as a child, in Hitler’s Germany. Her mother was arrested. Before being taken away this mom promised her young daughter, “If there is a God, I will return.” After that day my next door neighbor never saw her mother again. I was told that story almost thirty years ago and I still can’t even think about it without shedding a few tears. Reflection takes place when all that we think we know and love, in our immediacy, is assailed by doubts. Our world, as we know it, is shaken at the foundations.These doubts may be intellectual. They may be experiential. We look at what we believe and begin to see that we have no sure intellectual foundation for our beliefs. We look at death camps and totalitarian regimes and wonder if we can ever again sing “This is my Father’s World”. In our doubt, some will tell us to just believe. They want to protect our faith. Climacus, however, might warn that it isn’t faith but unreflected immediacy that’s being protected. Faith is immediacy after reflection.
So how do we make the last movement? How do we get to immediacy after reflection? How do we get to faith? Climacus, by his own words, won’t be able to join us for this part of the journey. He can describe faith. He can admire it from a distance, but he hasn’t experienced it himself. As children we believe our world is safe and good. This gives us joy and room to experience love. As adults we find we have no right to these beliefs. Our world is dangerous, continually threatened by death, suffering and evil. How do we find, after reflection, an immediacy that brings joy and love? Perhaps this isn’t something we do at all. Perhaps it’s a gift. We bring broken promises, disappointed hopes, tears, fear, doubts, powerlessness, despair, failure and brokenness. Our Lord gives faith. In him we have a new immediacy.
I’ve used this view of faith often when I prepare sermons. For example, Jesus’ mother asks him to handle a problem at a wedding. There’s no more wine. Mary has a confidence in her son. She knows he can solve the problem. Then something shocking occurs. Jesus rebukes his mother. It’s a gentle rebuke, but still a rebuke. Mary must find her confidence in Jesus this time after reflection, after the rebuke.
I’ve also found it helpful in pastoral counseling. I don’t mean that I start teaching about Kierkegaard. I use it more as a reminder to myself. My goal isn’t to cut off immediacy or reflection, but to point through reflection to a new immediacy in God. When I’m faced with what might appear to be a naive faith, I rejoice. When reflection comes I don’t try to stop it. I encourage it and I weep. Then I pray that God will do what I’m not able to do.
This week I’ll be preaching from Luke 18:15-17, a text where Jesus tells us “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” I probably won’t mention Kierkegaard, Climacus, immediacy or reflection. It isn’t wise for a pastor to put a congregation to sleep. You, however, my blog readers, will know what I’m thinking and asking. Faith is immediacy after reflection.