Borrowed faith

February 8, 2011

Woven deeply into the fabric of
Protestant Christianity is the idea that faith is something you must own
or possess if it is to be real. American frontier religion in the 18th
and 19th centuries, with its emphasis on dramatic conversion
experiences, helps to explain the origins of
this idea, as does, I think, contemporary consumer capitalism.
Ownership–a nice house, a new car, a stellar reputation–is what we spend
our days working for as we strive to possess something that will give
us comfort or pleasure, security or status.

And so Christian faith is
routinely commodified along the lines of ”got milk?” Do you possess an
authentic, serviceable faith that will give you what you need when you
need it?

The bald utilitarianism of this
view is troubling enough (and worthy of its own
reflection/discussion/blog post), but I’ve been more interested lately
in a counter claim that shouldn’t be as odd and unfamiliar as it seems
to be: that Christian faith–the lived complex of belief and
practice, disposition and character, orientation and outlook–is less
about something we possess within ourselves and more about something we
borrow from others, something we take up (or ”put on” as the Apostle
Paul puts it).

I’ve found this to be true in my
own experience. In times of crisis, faith has generally not been a
stockpiled possession, ready and waiting to be summoned into service. I
didn’t (don’t) have the necessary reserves to draw on (to keep with
the market metaphor); in fact, I need to borrow great sums from others
in order to weather the storm. (Along these lines, Rodney Clapp
writes about letting others do our praying for us when our troubles are too intense or when the words won’t come).

This seems like cheating if you’ve
been playing by rules that assume Christianity is a game of continual
self-improvement for individual achievers. But there’s enormous relief
in refusing to play a game you can’t win. The imagery that St. Paul
returns to again and again is that of “putting on Christ” or “clothing
ourselves” in compassion, kindness, and love. The interesting question,
then, is not so much “are you a person of faith?” but “what are you
wearing?” Have you borrowed the right clothes, so to speak? Have you
stopped kidding yourself that you can pull off the life of faithful
discipleship by your own cleverness or willpower?

Christian faith is always
mediated, and always modeled by those who, through seasons of
struggle, gracefully share some of their hard-won wisdom with the rest
of us–having received it themselves from friends and mentors in the
faith who themselves . . . well, you get the idea.

We are, all of us, shameless
beggars and borrowers of a faith that is never fully possessed because
it isn’t a manageable commodity, a prize, a moral achievement. We
glimpse it in the well-lived lives of others. We try it on ourselves,
sometimes having to grow into garments too big and awkward for us.
And we trust that in time we will learn to hand this faith down–to be
shamelessly and happily borrowed from.

is the messiness and mystery of lived discipleship: the faith we
confess sometimes falls from our own lips and sometimes is confessed by
others on our behalf. We lend and borrow, give and receive, circulating a
gift that can only be shared, never fully and finally owned.

Originally posted at Intersections.


Another Generation After

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. "Having" faith does sound a bit possessive, doesn't it! Many years ago my father passed away. I had the pleasure and the burden of going through his papers. I found stories of his father immigrating to the US and the German-speaking communities in which he lived. My father spoke German until he began attending grade school. Communities changed, languages changed, and people changed, but there was something constant throughout. There was always the church. There was always faith. There was always God's watchful eye and caring hand, steadfast and strong from generation to generation. It made me wonder about the communities where I have lived and the language I have used. Will this faith live on another generation after? And another and another? It is indeed a borrowed faith, gifted from God, shared with His people and through His people. God bless you.