Faith, Meaning, and the Irony of Christ by Ed Burns

Faith is a way of seeing and interpreting the world. There are many, many kinds of faith, perhaps as many as there are people. Since faith is akin to a lens through which a person “reads” the world—that is, a perspective by which one organizes his or her own worldview and the meaning of his or her experience—a person’s faith can neither be proven nor disproven. Faith precedes all formal reasoning and rationality.

I imagine this sounds like a strange statement to make. But suppose that I hold a worldview that considers scientific truth as the only legitimate source of knowledge. This is my perspective, my window on the world, so to speak. Given this worldview, all that scientific truth can provide me is a series of facts about the universe and, for that matter, about myself. However, when it comes to determining the meaning of these facts, I have immediately moved away from the discipline of science, the world of pure facts, into another realm of knowledge and understanding. To put it simply, science cannot tell us what things mean; even less can it tell us what our lives mean. When we start asking ourselves, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”, we have entered into the world of meaning-making, which is another description for the realm of faith.

Here are a number of examples of how people see and interpret the world and their lives in it: 1) Life’s a bitch and then you die; 2) He who dies with the most toys wins; 3) Life has no meaning—when you’re dead, you’re dead; 4) You will never amount to anything; 5) From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return; 6) It’s a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race; 7) You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased; 8) There is no God; 9) There is a God.

Can any one of these beliefs—for that is what they are—be proven or disproven with absolute, objective certainty? I would answer no, none of these statements can be proven as true or false beyond the shadow of a doubt. They represent an individual’s way of seeing and interpreting the meaning of their world and their lives. If this is the case, then it leaves each and every one of us with some form of faith, some form of conviction regarding what our world is and what our lives mean that can lead us into deep despair or profound joy.

This idea is in direct contrast to the general contemporary understanding of how we acquire knowledge. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, Western European Christendom underwent a profound revolution. Prior to this era, the presumptive authority regarding how we came to understand ourselves and our world was entrusted to the teachings and hierarchy of the churches. During these two critical centuries, however, the gaining of knowledge became the domain of natural reason. Inductive, empirical study of the “book of nature” became the commonly accepted source of all legitimate knowledge. In effect, while matters of faith were never quite rejected by the makers of the modern mind, the popular and accepted understanding of how we gain knowledge always placed reason in a position of prominence. Any contribution that faith—any kind of faith—might have to offer this process was considered of secondary importance. Faith thus became a sort of “stepchild” of human reason. The temporal sequence for gaining knowledge and understanding of our world and our lives was—and, for the most part, still is—reason first, then faith. Following this to its logical conclusion, the model of how we come to know anything ultimately separates faith from human knowledge.

This is about where we stand today. We notice this whenever we hear people discussing faith and reason or religion and politics. But there is a whole other way to envision the acquisition of knowledge by the human mind, and it is this: In the development of human knowledge, it is always faith—any kind of faith—that comes first. In this alternative model, faith is not seen as an add-on to reason, but as a primary drive in human nature to seek meaning. This drive precedes what we ordinarily call knowledge.

Think of the circumstances between a newborn child and its mother. What does that child know? How does that child learn? It knows and learns a great deal between the time of its birth and the time we might characterize as the age of reason, which ordinarily begins around the age of seven. Within those first seven years, the child has come to know many things that are crucial to its survival. It has come to know—that is, to believe—that its world is full of promise and fidelity, or of betrayal and treachery. It has learned that it can have a fundamental sense of trust in the universe, or a fundamental sense of mistrust. It has learned that it is the center of the universe, or that it is not the center of the universe. These are matters that the child has come to know, and know intensely, at the core of its being. And this kind of knowledge that is essential to its future has originated out of that primary drive or elemental force whose other name is faith. It is this child’s faith, in the sense that I am using this word, that has preceded all that it now knows. Reasoning, as we ordinarily use the term, has not yet entered into the child’s experience.

Granted, the faith of a child in its early infancy must be educated and refined. At such an early stage in its development, the child absolutizes all of its thinking and feeling. Her mother is the whole of reality. But when knowledge and feeling begin to be more relative, they also begin to be more educated and mature. And so it is with the faith of an adult, whatever that faith is. Our faith too must be educated and refined if it is to be mature and strong. This is an ongoing process as we progress through the stages of our lives. It can sometimes be painful, requiring us to let go of some of our own absolutes and deeply held images of ourselves and of the world in which we live; images, for example, of our own self-sufficiency, or that we can trust everyone, or that we can trust no one, or that we must always have beautiful and kind feelings toward others, or that we can do anything we make up our minds to do, or that we can put off growing old indefinitely. In effect, living life itself educates and refines and purifies the faith of most of us. We confront difficulties, we wrestle with them, we somehow survive, and our faith in life becomes stronger.

Christians undergo the same education and refining process as everyone else. But Christian faith is formed and educated by Christ himself. St. Paul says at one point, Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ Jesus. Christ is the model and meaning and the icon of Christian faith. Christian faith reads and interprets the world and one’s life in it in the same manner as Christ interpreted the world and his life in it. In this respect, from our perspective, Christian faith is full of irony. It possesses an ironic imagination in which the values of the world undergo a complete reversal. It restructures the world according to its own terms. For example, the Beatitudes totally upend ordinary experience. To believe that the poor are blessed puts an entirely different light on things. So it is with all that Christ lived and taught. Even death itself is educated and refined by the irony of Christ. It is to the weak and human parts of us, those parts of us that shall die, that the promises of Christ are made and the revelation of Christ is given.

So, to sum up, faith—any kind of faith—is the originating force driving us to find meaning in our lives, the most primal and elemental force in human nature. Whether we are born into a world full of promise and fidelity or a world full of betrayal and treachery, that original faith must be educated, refined, and purified. That process takes place as we move through the various stages of our lives; for the Christian, it is rooted in the person and presence of the irony of Christ, which transforms and restructures our ways of seeing, interpreting, and making meaning of our place in the world.

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.


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