Faith and Practice

For in Christ Jesus the only thing that has power is faith being effective through love. –– Gal. 5:6*

During worship at Gunpowder Meeting yesterday, Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s (very disappointing) proposed queries on social concerns were read, beginning with the following.

“How have I expressed my faith in action? How are my actions grounded in my faith?”

I was struck immediately by the apparent assumption of a disjunction between faith, whatever that might mean here, and practice. That assumption seemed to contravene something essential to primitive Quakerism; namely, the experience-based conviction that faith and practice are one. With my worship disturbed by thoughts stirred by the query, I allowed myself to ruminate for much of the remaining time. Eventually, I was able to reach an understanding through which the query spoke to my condition. The following describes the process by which I arrived at that understanding.

If there seems to be a disjunction between faith and practice in my life, I ask myself, what does that mean?

To begin to answer my own query, I must define the word “faith.” I suspect that the BYM queries assume a definition of faith as belief (as in the popular phrase “faith tradition”)—probably, in our liberal Quaker milieu, belief in some tradition-derived principles and perhaps, growing out of that, in the content of selected inner experiences. But primitive Quaker texts have taught me to understand faith very differently, as trust in the enlivening power of love working in my heart. That power, according to those texts, is what is signified by words such as “gospel,” “Light,” “Christ”; to experience that power, they say, is to experience God. Faith is trust in the present, effective power of love as the ultimate good. But belief and trust are very different things, and they reside and act in very different loci.

If my faith were belief, then it would reside in me, for in belief I accept something from another and hold it within me. That something is assimilated into me, becomes a part of me, is absorbed, if subtly, into my narcissism. Then, if I am honest, I begin to discover a disjuncture between faith, so defined, and practice: I can’t always live up to what I believe; the “better” part of me is often overridden. The temptation to mitigate the demands of the belief can then become irresistible—which helps explain not only the exodus of later Quaker thinking from that of the primitive Friends, the doctrine of perfection being among those left behind, but also the modern emphasis on subjective “experience” as source of truth. Even so, I can vitiate Quaker principles only so much; some relationship to the tradition’s origin, even if tenuous, must be maintained. It is, then, inevitable that I will fail to measure up to internalized standards for as long as I understand faith as belief in principles (such as nonviolence and simplicity), in the ideal of love itself, in a divine source of morality, or in some other transcendent object.

But if faith is trust, it resides not in me but in the other: I give my trust to, place my trust in, another. In trusting, I give something essential of myself to be held by, and to live in, the other. I become a part of that which I trust, that to which I entrust myself. For me as a Quaker, that in which my trust is placed is love. To the extent that my trust abides in love, my actions are loving: this I know experimentally. Therefore, an apparent disjunction between faith and practice is actually a symptom of lack of faith, of lack of trust in love. It is a sign that my trust is turned back into my untrustworthy self, a sign that my object of faith, whatever and wherever it seems to be, is a part of myself. The primitive Quakers taught that the primal sin, the fundamental missing-of-the-mark that is mythologically enacted in the Fall, is to turn one’s trust back to oneself instead of placing it in the God who is love. Sin is lack of faith (Rom. 14:23), lack of trust in love, which is why, as Paul taught, we are made righteous—just—through faith (Rom. 3:28), and why, as James taught, “faith apart from the acts is dead” (James 2:20).**

Here, then, I have an answer to the question of how it is that often I do not act lovingly. There is no disjunction ever between faith and practice: my actions always express my faith, always express where my trust lies. To the extent that I continue to return my trust to myself through assimilating beliefs, principles, and ideals—which includes trusting in the internalized schemas of what primitive Friends called “the world”—I remain unloving, even when I appear to be doing good. But to the extent that I and my “world” do not block the power of love by retaining trust, to the extent that I really do place my trust in love, my actions are expressions of love.

I am not, therefore, as the BYM queries (at least when asked in isolation) might seem to imply, tasked with bringing behavior into conformity with beliefs and principles. To work at that would be to continue to misplace (and displace) my faith. I am, rather, invited to allow myself to experience ever more fully the transforming beauty of love, an experiencing that empowers me to surrender my trust further and with increasing confidence. Far from attempting to attain an ideal, obey an imperative, put principles into practice, or please a god, I am simply receiving and responding to love’s invitation, the promise of the power of “trust being effective through love.” In and only in that, I find, are faith and practice one.

* My translation, paraphrastic in that it omits the now-anachronistic reference to circumcision and lack thereof.
** Characteristically, Quakerism found the coherence of the seemingly disparate doctrines of those passages. (The translation of the James passage is from Young’s Literal Translation.)

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