Faith as affection | What does it mean, Christianly speaking, to have faith?
What does it mean, Christianly speaking, to have faith?
When I was 20, I took a study trip abroad to Russia, recently reorganized after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. I attended several Orthodox churches, all of which introduced this Midwestern holiness boy to a strange new world. The first of these Sundays, I remember seeing a little girl asking her mother to come get her so that she could kiss her favorite icon at the back of the church.
I felt a conflicting energy pounding inside me at the sight. I didn’t know how to recognize this iconic kiss as an act of faith. Faith for me was an intellectual conviction about the identity of Jesus, held with sufficient sincerity. The lips were meant to say confessional prayers peculiar to Jesus, not to kiss icons. But something awoke in me at that moment, a curiosity. If this child showed her faith, and so did I, then what is faith? In some ways, my journey into theology began around this time.
Cs lewis Talk about the kind of love that is about deep memories, a connection to familiar things, a feeling of belonging to a world with other people, objects, experiences. Affection, we call it love. When this child kissed the icon, I saw affection. And when I felt the tension of this act with the sermons, teachings, pool baptisms and testimonies that populated my early years, I also felt affection.
Maybe faith is some kind of affection.
Paul’s affection problem
Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks of a similar arousal to curiosity. I hear a question there about what it is in our acts of faith that make us righteous companions of God. The question is quite simple: “Is God the God of the Jews only?” Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? (3:29). If the answers to these questions are “no” and then “yes”, then Paul thinks we need to ask ourselves how the two groups come into the company of God. What is the form of human fidelity?
Judaism is central to the love of God’s gift of Torah. “Oh, how I love your law! It’s my meditation all day. (Psalm 119: 97). It is affection that fuels their faith. I imagine that when Paul read Psalm 119 he was inundated with memories of holy days as a family and of communities gathered for prayer and study.
Is it “just faith?” Is this the kind of affection we should consider bestowing on a righteous and holy God? How does it fit in with affection for the story of Christ’s death and resurrection?
Well, Paul’s first answer to his own question is, “It is God who justifies” (8:33). His curiosity receives the theologically sound and very non-diagonal response of “nunya business”. Yet Paul enjoys the challenge of working the story of salvation through fear and trembling, so he gives his curiosity a lead. So can we.
What happens to Romans
By the time the letter dust has settled, the Romans seem to me to be saying something like that.
God comes to us twice. Once through the Son, who lived and died as one of us, and whom God raised from the dead. And once by the Spirit, by whom affection for divine things has been poured out in our hearts (5, 1).
These two sendings are what the later tradition calls the two missions of God. I love Sergei Bulgakov’s language a doubled mission, because it suggests that both shipments were accomplishing the same goal. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit to make us righteous companions of the holy God.
As Paul watches his fellow Gentiles being baptized and falling in love with the story of Jesus, he sees a new affection taking hold. He sees, that is, the work of the Spirit. When he looks at his fellow Jews and sees their love for Torah and prayers, and their lack of affection for Jesus Christ, he is confused. It is almost as if the Spirit is pouring out so strongly into their love for Torah that they do not need Jesus.
Now, Paul doesn’t think it does, and he’s hoping that these two affections, Jewish and Gentile, will eventually come together in a great celebration of affection for the two sendings. This is what it is about in Romans 9-11.
Justification by diagonal affection
Throughout the letter, however, Paul is certain that the justification of faith is the work of God. Justify faith, or let’s say name it as a humanly appropriate way of expressing affection for divine things.
God’s work, however, is always work that involves us, therefore work that falls on the diagonal. For this reason, that same Spirit that is poured out in our hearts in chapter 5 returns to chapter 8. Now, the Spirit is the one who interprets all this affection in the ear of the Father. “All this messy affection they’re expressing?” They try to say ‘Abba.’ They’re trying to have faith. So our momentum becomes, by grace, a momentum.
Our calling as people of faith is not to determine what is the right way to believe. We come to love what God has given us to love, and the Spirit is there, loving with us, in us, and interpreting all that affection as “faith”. And then jUstification is God’s response to all this messy affection. “Yes to all of that. Bible verses, candles, icons, Torah: that’s what I made you for. Love that way.
Paul hopes this will be God’s response to the faith of Jews and Gentiles. He hopes so despite the differences in affection. My theological curiosity was aroused when I felt affection for divine things in a Russian Orthodox church. I was curious: I wanted my own faith to be justified, and I couldn’t see how both could be.
For this reason, I am glad that the justification of these beliefs is not my job. I think Paul is happy with that too. The Spirit can hear, then and now, our disorderly and imperfect attempts at faith, and interpret it to heaven. “They are trying to say ‘Abba.'”