Thoughts to Ponder Number 101

A new series on the foundations of Judaism

The struggle for faith


Faith is one of the most difficult attributes to acquire. To have faith in God has become a struggle for many human beings, including those who are desperately looking for it. In modern times with their tendency to secularize nearly anything, the man of faith often feels alone in a world in which religious beliefs are often looked down on.

It is however not only the secularization of our world which has led to the suspension of religious faith. It is also the institutionalization and dogmatization of faith through organized religion which has played its part. No longer is it experienced as an event in which the deeper part of the human soul is lifted out of its slumber. Not only has it caused people to leave the religious world but it has become a major problem for many who try to live an honest religious life. For many faith has turned into a life of specific ceremonies in which little attention is giving to the deeper aspects of the soul. For others faith did not decline so much because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, sometimes even oppressive.

Carefully listening to these complaints reveals the disturbing fact that many no longer understand what faith is all about. Sometimes even the most religious have little connection with the world of authentic belief and subconsciously use it as an escape.

Before we are able to understand the real meaning of faith, we need to identify its components.

There are two kinds of faith: "Believe that" and " believe in" . One may believe that God exists but simultaneously not believe in God. In the first case one confirms His existence. In the second case one makes the point that although one believes in His existence one does not have trust in Him. Obviously a "belief in" always presupposes a "belief that". When somebody declares that he believes in his or her friend, it means that he or she believes that his/her friend actually exists. However the fact that one believes that somebody exists does not infer that one actually believes in him.

In most cases, although not always, "believe that" is more dependant on the intellect. One does not believe that something or somebody exists without having some kind of strong reason to do so. In the case of trust as expressed in "believe in", the emotional overtones are stronger and less intellectual. Often this is expressed in phrases such as: "I feel I can trust him or her."

The above observations are related to a famous debate about the first commandment of the "Asereth Hadibroth', the Ten Commandments. What is the meaning of the statement: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…."(Shemot 20:2)? Should one understand this indeed as a statement in which God introduces Himself to the Israelites and mankind? If so how can one call this a commandment? If however it is a commandment to believe that God exists, how would such a commandment make any sense? After all who is the one who is commanding this commandment? If one does not believe that the Commander exists, why should one then feel commanded to believe that He exists? No one can do the commanding!

The answer may well be that it is a commandment to teach people the belief that God exists or that this God is to be your God and not just a god with whom you have no personal relationship. It is however very possible that it relates to our earlier observations. Perhaps the commandment requires man to believe in God, i.e. to trust Him and see Him as a reliable God which is shown by the fact that He took the people of Israel out of Egypt, taking care of them all of the forty years they traveled in the desert.

It is indeed this aspect of faith which for many is the main issue. While many believe that He exists, numerous people have difficulties in trusting Him. They doubt that He will actually look after them even when they have put their full trust in Him. Obviously this matter is closely related to the question of whether trusting Him entails relying on Him in the sense that everything will be fine by our own standards or that one believes that what ever happens is in His hands and when matters do not develop in ways we had hoped for, one acknowledges that "higher reasons" only known to Him, may have motivated Him to do what He did, however much this is not to our liking.

Whatever the answer to this problem may be, it proves the point that faith as such is complex and that the attribute of faith has many aspects. One may quite well be a believer without having any faith. Or as Pascal once observed: "Faith embraces many truths which seem to contradict each other." (Pensees,81,1)

To be continued.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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