What if faith is more about feelings than it is about mental assent?
If you ask Christians what being a Christian is all about I have a feeling most of them would tell you that being a Christian is believing that Jesus is God and that he came to Earth as a human, died on a cross to pay for our sins and then rose again from the dead three days later. All these things are true but what if all these truths are only there to supplement something deeply more important. Christianity is a call to faith not to intellectual decision and mental assent to the truths of Christianity doesn’t give us faith. Faith starts and finishes somewhere beneath the skin of what we believe. A lot of people believe all the right things, know a lot about the Bible, and yet are never really changed. All their knowledge leads them nowhere. What really changes you is much deeper than intellect. At the heart of Christianity is faith and at the heart of faith is a feeling, a deep feeling that there is something bigger than all of this.
The great german theologian Frederick Schleiermacher called this feeling the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Whether or not you agree with some of the details of his assertions Schleiermacher was on to something and I think we have a lot to learn from him. For him this feeling of absolute dependence was the foundation of all religion and every ritual or act of worship was sprung forth from this feeling. It unites all spirituality. No matter how much we act upon the world we have limitations. We all have moments where we come to the realization that we are dependant upon something. We have needs which need to be met and we cannot meet them on our own. We are dependant upon something or someone to respond to our need and that someone or something is also dependant upon someone else or something else. If you follow this line of dependency it will lead you to the realization that there must be something bigger, something upon which everything is totally dependant. This realization is the feeling of absolute dependence. Religion is the acting upon of this feeling. Ultimately you will place your faith in whatever satisfies this feeling, in whatever gives us hope.
So if Schleiermacher is even close to being right then what are the implications on belief? What is the role of belief in a life of faith? If our religion is about the head and not the heart then it is meaningless. If the Christian faith is not a response to this feeling then where are we to find the response? Surely we will find it somewhere else. Our beliefs are what shape the way we live our lives but without being built upon what is truly in our heart they’ll lead us nowhere. So why is it that we are so quick to call people to belief before ever calling people to faith? Maybe we should spend more time responding to what is already in the heart than adding to what is in the head. It can be so easy to acknowledge God with your lips while at the same time your heart is far from him. It is the heart which matters to God and it will always be transparent to Him. But our faith reveals him to us.
Saint Augustine said “What is there in me that could be hidden from you, Lord, to whose eyes the abyss of my conscience are exposed, even if I were unwilling to confess it to You? In doing so I would only hide you from myself not myself from you. My groaning is witness to the fact that I am dissatisfied, but you shine forth and satisfy.” (Confessions 10.2) All of us who know God know this groaning. This groaning is common among us all but the shining satisfaction of the One God “in whom we live and have our being” (Acts 17) is only found in faith. It is in the feeling, the groaning that faith begins and ends and so that is where ministry begins and ends. The needs of the world are met in the heart.