Krista's Journal: Images and Sayings on Faith

October 7, 2004

"The thing about spiritual truth is that it wants to be spoken. It is too important, too transforming to be left alone in silence. It seems to have speakable content. The problem is that once you speak or show the words to someone else, then both of you are different. The words have changed both of you. And now you must start all over again. I believe that in one form or another this making of words is the touchstone for all spiritual traditions and of all spiritual renewal: To say what is just at the outermost edge of what can be spoken is to deal with words that are so primary and dazzling that they are infinitely personal and intimate."
   —Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder

"Religion" and "spirituality" are tricky, loaded words in our time — meaningful for some and alienating for others. This program, Speaking of Faith, was hard to name in the beginning, partly because of the baggage around all of the words we use to discuss our beliefs. We arrived at "faith" as a kind of compromise. But the truth is, "religion," "spirituality," and "faith" are vague in the abstract. We give them meaning with our lives. The quote above, from one of the guests in this week's program, inspired me years ago as I imagined how this program might open minds about what it sounds like to "speak of faith." Each week on this program, our guests illustrate the intersection of spiritual truths with human experience — and they do so with vividness and particularity.

This week, we take on the word "faith" itself, inquiring after stories that define this word in a few surprising lives. The ultimate challenge of "speaking of faith," of course, is that we are trying to put words around ideas and realities that ultimately defy words. But as I listen to this week's show, I'm struck by an unusual number of lovely pithy sentences and images. My reflection this week, from here on out, is a collection of some that will stay with me.

"Faith is not what some people think it is… They think that when you hear the Gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, 'I believe.' But because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing, and reform doesn't come from this faith. Instead, faith is God's work in us that changes us and gives us new birth from God… It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith."
   —Martin Luther, from the introduction to the book of Romans in his 1522 translation of the Bible into German

"At the end of the Book of Job, if I read it correctly, in the whirlwind speech—I think it's Chapter 38, 39—God sort of shows Job the ultimate Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom video with lions ripping apart gazelles and vultures tearing carrion and hailstorms and earthquakes and all. And then God says to Job, 'What do you think of that, Job? Hope you like it 'cause I'm in that, too. Goodbye.' That's a challenge: to try to find sacredness in ever increasingly less likely places and events. Which doesn't mean — I want to hasten to add — that we are not still obligated to try to make the world the best place we can by whatever good talents and offices we have at our disposal. But it does mean that from a religious point of view, we're always considering the possibility that there's something bigger and holy coming down and that there may be a meaning even for that."
   —Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

"Questioning means longing to know the truth deeply and insisting that we can."
   —Sharon Salzburg, Faith

"A memory came to me then of our pastor, Veronica, telling us just the week before how she gets direction from God in prayer. She said that when she prays for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step. She moved away from the pulpit to demonstrate, stepping forward shyly, this big-boned African-American woman tramping like Charlie Chaplin into an imagined spotlight. And then after standing there looking puzzled, she moved another step forward to where the light had gone, two feet ahead of where she had been standing and then again. "We in our faith work," she said, "stumble along toward where we think we're supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what's so amazing: We end up getting exactly where we were supposed to be."
   —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

"The stranger says, 'Now tell me about faith, about imam.' The Prophet says, 'Faith is that you have faith in God, the angels, the Scriptures, all the messengers and the last day.' Again, the stranger says, 'You have spoken the truth.' And it's at this point that he introduces even a higher category, one that is called ihsan. It's almost impossible to translate this term into English. Some have suggested 'spiritual excellence' I prefer the term, 'the actualization of goodness, the realization of beauty,' which might be more accurate, but it's a mouthful.

"At this point, the Prophet says, 'Ihsan is that you worship God as if you see him, as if you see God, and even if you don't see him, to remember that nonetheless he sees you.' What's so interesting about the progression of this narrative is again you have a hierarchy where that which we ordinarily think of as religion, Islam, is only the first step. It's the lowest common denominator. After Islam comes faith, faith that illuminates one's heart. But one doesn't stop there. The highest point that one should aspire to is this quality of ihsan, of spiritual excellence, of actualizing goodness, of realizing beauty — and that, of course, is a never-ending goal. It's to live life as if one sees God and, if we don't, to remember that he nonetheless sees us."
   —Omid Safi, reflecting on the Hadith of Gabriel

"Jewish psychology would believe that personality and what we're calling faith follows deed, follows right action: 'What do I believe? Well, let's see, I went to synagogue pretty regularly. I gave charity. I studied the holy books. I was a good person. Well, my God, look at that. I think I'm a person of faith.'"
   —Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

"Faith is a verb."
—Anne Lamott

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is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.

is a rabbi in the Reform tradition of Judaism. His books include Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians.

is the best-selling author of many books including Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Colgate University and Co-Chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion.