What is the Work of Faith?

The following is a guest post by Andrew Irvine (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College). He is the editor of Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (Springer 2009), The present essay comes from a talk that he gave at Maryville College on September 10, 2013. He can be reached at andrew.irvine@maryvillecollege.edu


Matthew 6: 20-33

“Faith works” is obviously an ambiguous phrase. Is it a simple, two word declarative sentence asserting that “faith works” – that is, that faith is a useful tool or a skillful technique for getting us what we want and where we want to be? Is it a classificatory term, distinguishing one kind of work or activity among others? “Faith works” as opposed to, say, “secular works”? Is it an exclamation – “FaithWorks!” – like maybe the title of the next big show from Cirque de Son (That’s the name I came up with for an imaginary and ghastly “Christian” Cirque de Soleil? Get it? Soleil. Sun. But, “Son” spelled s-o-n, not s-u-n.) Or (my last alternative), is “Faith Works” meant to alert us to something about faith’s own nature? Perhaps that faith is its own dynamic power, that faith of itself works change and transformation of some kind? Then faith matters for its own sake, and not just in reference to further ends, to specious limitations of the sphere of religious concern, or to dismal trends in popular taste.

Of these possibilities, I am particularly interested in the first and last. The first, however, instrumentalizes faith. It puts faith to work as a tool in service to other, presumably more valuable ends. I’m tempted to condemn this unequivocally, as a bad and blameworthy thing to do, but I suspect that would not be entirely fair. For it seems as though faith may invite its own instrumentalization. Interesting studies in the last decade or so have found correlations between religious practice and, for example, health and healing, sexual satisfaction, a general sense of contentment. These studies beg many questions, about how the terms of inquiry are defined, about research design, and so on, but more than a few of them are careful about their terms and serious about design. So, then, if I want better health, better sex, a better life all around (yes, please), and if faith works to give me those things, well, Praise the Lord!

But this attitude seems problematic – to my way of thinking, at least – because the work of faith, as I conceive it, concerns bringing us before God, and God before anything else. But if we instrumentalize faith then we value God for the sake of something else, in which case that “something else” is really our God. Of course we do this all the time. We “believe in” God, without really giving much critical thought to what God is really like. We “have faith” that our God will give us what we want and get us where we want to be. But any God whose chief worth is to serve my wants is what in Australia we would call a Claytons God: the God you have when you’re not having God – the God for those who don’t care to be God-intoxicated, the God you have when you want to stay in control. In other words, no God at all.

Unlike a Claytons faith in a Claytons God, faith, at least as I conceive it, will not settle for less than an object of truly ultimate concern, that absolutely transcends every God I can put at my disposal, every idol of my self-interest. And if faith cannot be satisfied, still it does not rest.

Now, I admit, I’m a person of a particular time and place and experience, and my idea of faith likely shares in my personal limitations. Perhaps faith has not always been this restless inner drive toward something we can never have. Or perhaps faith is just one way of relating to God, a way that was unimportant, that became very important, and that probably will lose its importance someday. Worse, maybe I am just foisting my personal mid-life psychodrama upon you, under the tragic delusion that I have some sane and healthy idea what faith is! Maybe I should just relax, not worry so much about what God is really like, and enjoy the fringe benefits of faith.

Well, maybe if I was someone else, I could. But I am not someone else, and faith as it works in my life is mostly like a restless, driving force that will not settle for a Clayton’s God; Faith wants a full-strength God, however much I may be in two minds about that. This is the real irony about my thoughts here: not that I am mistaken about faith’s work, but that I don’t truly believe myself. I’m in two minds, crying “Lord I believe, Help my unbelief!” Am I, in my whole person, a person of faith as I am describing it? Surely not. Faith has much work to do with me, before my testimony can be true.

So perfect faith lies ahead of me and likely always will. Perhaps true faith can nevertheless be something less than perfect. The great Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, treats faith as an intrinsic mark of existence as such; faith for Tillich is a kind of basic dimension of being human. In other words, faith itself I not something you do (or don’t do), have (or don’t have). In everything a person does, his or her faith is manifested. Faith can be considered then not only in terms of its divine object, absolutely transcendent and ever elusive, but also in terms of its own dynamics. Faith is a way you are. You may be in a bad way. Maybe you’re in a good way. Or, like me, perhaps the symptoms are confusing. But because faith works in us to clear our way of Clayton Gods, to set aside the idols of self-interest, faith shows itself as a focusing power that would concentrate our scattered souls, for better or worse, before the presence of what ultimately matters.

Can anybody live well with such faith?

I was very lucky to spend some extended time this past summer in China and in Argentina. In China, I was engaged in a Confucian studies program, reading classic Chinese philosophical and religious texts with Western and Chinese academics. In Argentina, I was meeting with people who, in a variety of ways, serve God by joining with the poor and marginalized to transform the values and priorities of their society. In these two places, I was reminded of two important, and I think overlapping, ways in which faith can take effect and issue in a life lived well in the presence of what ultimately matters.

One of the most striking qualities shared by the people I met in Argentina was (unassuming) courage. From 1976-1983, Argentina suffered what has come to be called the Dirty War, a largely indiscriminate campaign of disappearance, torture, and murder carried on by a military dictatorship in the name of combating a violent communist insurgency. I met Maria Eugenia, whose sister was arrested and held without charge for seven years in a prison where torture was routine. Maria was a teenager at the time. She saved her sister from some of the worst by coming to visit her sister every week. Maria was subjected to all manner of harassment, including being strip searched and handled. It routinely took three hours to pass through these “security procedures,” after which she had half an hour to see her sister, with a pane of glass to separate them. Many women received no visitors, because of course any visitor became a suspect.

I met Aida Bogo, one of the founding members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers whose children began disappearing in the Seventies. No one would help them find their children – not the police, certainly not the military. So the Mothers began to assemble in front of the presidential palace each week, silently calling for the truth. They were harassed by police officers and soldiers. They were infiltrated and betrayed by members of the military. Some of the Mothers themselves disappeared and were never seen alive again. Aida is 84 and awesome. She lost her 22 year old daughter in the Dirty War. “What do you do when you’re afraid?” one of us asked. “I’m always afraid,” she said, “but I just keep going.”Aida is 84 and awesome. She lost her 22 year old daughter in the Dirty War. “What do you do when you’re afraid?” one of us asked. “I’m always afraid,” she said. “But I just keep going.”

Faith shows itself in courage, courage to never settle for less than truth in love. The courage of faith is not the opposite of fear. The courage of faith is not bluster and intimidation of others. It is utterly honest about fears and frailties, and embraces them in the concentrated presence of what ultimately matters.

The Confucian virtue of cheng is commonly translated as “sincerity,” although it is not so far-fetched to translate cheng as “faith,” and it certainly is not at all off track to see cheng, like courage, as work of faith.  The person who is cheng, sincere, entrust herself without any pretense. The person who is cheng seeks simply to present herself in the presence of what ultimately matters, unconcerned to benefit for herself but simply to be herself. So highly does the Confucian tradition value cheng that the sincere person is sometimes envisioned as entering into concentrated communion with the ultimate creativity that courses through all reality, the dao. The classic text, Zhongyong, has this to say:

“Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their own nature. If they can fully develop their own nature, they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth, they can thus form a trinity with heaven and earth.” (Zhongyong 23, Tu translation)

Such sincerity is a creative force – a key condition of the kind of action called in Chinese wei wuwei – actionless action,….action so focused in harmony with the whole that it creates a perfection far more effective than instrumentally directed technique aimed at some less-than-ultimate end. Cheng, sincerity, is a kind of love for truth, which can bring things beautifully true.

Then let me have a stab at saying what true faith is. Faith is a way of being who we are. It is courage to be sincere about what we are, about our strengths and our flaws, letting them present themselves to us and to the object of our faith – to God. Perfect faith, then, would be utter sincerity about who we are before my God, a sincerity so transparent that we seek no special concession or benefit on the basis of who and what we are– just letting ourselves be in the presence of what ultimately matters. I can’t do this – entrust myself to truth in love – if I am not utterly sincere about myself and equally courageous not to try to change it. And ironically, who and what I am does not matter ultimately. What matters is just that I give myself, as I am, to God, for nothing. (Sincere as a bird of the air and courageous as a lily of the field.) God will give whatever work comes next.

You can see, I trust, how it is ludicrous to try to reduce faith to a tool or technique for gaining something else. All that faith can give you is yourself. But, then again, it is yourself in the presence of what ultimately matters. So let faith work. Then God will give you work, and God’s yoke will be easy, and the burden light.

So, I believe. Help my unbelief.


Andrew Irvine :
  • J Aaron Simmons

    Hey Andrew. Thanks for a great essay. Let me ask you an odd question. In the preface to Works of Love, Kierkegaard claims that because he is writing Christian Discourses, the book is about “works” of love and not simply about love. I wonder if faith would yield a similar sort of distinction? That is, if one talks about Christian faith, one must talk about works of faith, and not merely faith? It would seem that your account would support such a connection. Yet, how might the comparative dimensions of your essay problematize such a notion? In other words, would ANY determinate religious tradition require speaking a about works of love and works of faith? Is the key to “works” the idea that one moves away from conceptual speculation in order to inhabit the existential investment of lived commitment?

    • Andrew Irvine

      Not an odd question, but a challenging one – existentially but also because I don’t know Kierkegaard nearly as well as I would like. : ( Thus, it is not clear to me what would be at stake exactly for SK in distinguishing a Christian work as necessarily about “works of faith.” I am guessing this is about being concrete, rather than offering a speculative philosophy of faith “as such”?
      I suppose that, yes, any determinate religious tradition – at least among axial traditions – offers normative models of a faithful humanity to which adherents are obligated. (E.g. Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Kongzi; Thekla, Angulimala, the Monkey King?). But I’m not sure that “works” require movement away from conceptual speculation or other ostensibly “impractical” matters. After all, traditions may be determinate, but they are not wholly determinate, they are not definite. Much that is undetermined at any given time will be determined, and adherents do some of that determining. If they want to be faithful about that, they are going to have to be at least somewhat speculative some of the time. Is this pertinent to your points, Aaron?

      • J Aaron Simmons

        Hey Andrew, yes, thanks for your response. Part of my sense of SK’s distinction is that it requires speculation to be, itself, a matter of our living it out. As a Pentecostal, I am deeply attracted to what I would term the “embodied speculation” that occurs in those religious traditions that see works of faith and works of love as inescapably intertwined (though not reducible to each other, perhaps). I also think that your comment about determinate religion, but not wholly determinate religion, to be spot on. It is this basic idea that I have elsewhere termed “religion with religion.” The importance of the deconstructive hesitancy to be offered in relation to the shared history and personal identity by which one is at least partially defined, as I see it, is that it allows for the “work” of living one’s faith, while allowing it to be a “critical work” in that challenges the ease and complacency that would come from thinking that speculation (by itself) would be sufficient for religious existence.

  • Kerry Mitchell

    “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made” — Jean Girardoux. Sincerity can be instrumental. It can convince someone to have sex with you. It can convince you that you have faith. I suppose it can be sincere, but I worry about duplicating the work of tautology. Doing so causes me to lose confidence – not in object of assertion, but in the act of asserting. It’s like hopping onto a self-perpetuating linguistic circle for a piggyback ride. I worry that I would fall.

    At the risk of gross generalization, let’s say that before the Protestant Reformation, faith was something clear and discernible. To believe was to affirm. How can you have doubt that you are affirming? But eventually this whole modernity thing happened. Sincerity arose as a by-product of doubt. To the ever-present question of “yes, but do you really?” which could be laid onto any affair of the heart, there arose but one possible satisfactory response (if you believe it): “Yes! Really!” The only thing you could add would be exclamation points.

    This may sound cynical, but I do not mean it so. If, before the modern period, the assertion that God is a mystery was an article of faith, in the modern period faith itself became a mystery. And so we made an idol of confidence. Perhaps, then, the true work of faith is doubt – a perpetually cycling work that drives us in and out of ourselves in a quest for
    God and love. We become insatiable idol smashers. In order to believe, we must

    I hope this helps.

    • Andrew Irvine

      “Duplicating the work of tautology”! I like that, Kerry : )
      I also like what you say about losing confidence in the act of asserting. Lurking in the background of what I tried to sketch out in the post (which began life as a chapel address/sermon) is Tillich on the circle of faith and doubt, and also Harry Frankfurt’s tarring of (modern) sincerity as bullshit.
      Given where I am coming from, if being faithful is asserting or affirming some factoid or other, “with exclamation points” if pressed, then I am dismayed. There is not even the hint of mystery or the shadow of a doubt there, in which case, one can’t even know how to begin to have faith. So yes, losing confidence in the act of assertion is a good place to begin, I think. Faith is iconoclastic. The flipside might be that any god that enables one to be more courageous, more sincere, is a good enough god in the circumstances. Then one must be brave enough and insightful enough to recognize when the cirucmstances change and the time to move on has come.
      My interest in Confucian sincerity is caused by its apparently ontological/cosmological ramifications. I get the sense that Confucian sincerity is (ideally, of course) less about self-assertion than about letting self be, and of opening up to an environment. Perhaps it is a matter of self-revelation as receptivity? Hall and Ames translate cheng as “creativity,” and point to something like this ecological attunement as justification of that choice.

  • Joe Norskov

    Kay Campbell might be interested in this article.

    Excellent discussion of faith from two cultural perspectives.

    I’m glad that Maryville College hired you.

    -Joe Norskov