In the first instance, we must make something clear about faith: It is not religion. Neither is religion faith. The moment we equate the two, we begin to have serious problems.
It has never been the case that the man who attends church dutifully every Sunday is faithful, or that the faithful attend every Sunday. The two are not mutually exclusive, but we must remember that human religion is by no means the substance of divinely gifted faith.
Recently, I wrote about the pointlessness of questioning the origins of faith. I suppose it would seem beneficial to us to know how faith is created and where and by whom, but I don’t think it an innocent curiosity. We are always ready to play the God game, and knowing more about faith than we do (which is, in fact, next to nothing), would be detrimental to faith itself. It’s not quite the same as a surgeon wondering where a cancer comes from so he can remove it. A surgeon still cannot tell you, specifically, what causes the cancer in the first place, which is precisely why we still have people who die of that horrible disease.
And, on a much brighter note, why people continue to have faith. Now, I can speak little about what faith is, because it is so personal and so varied as to be impossible to define. But we can be certain about what faith is not. For starters, faith is not, as I mentioned before, attending mass every Sunday. Faith is not saying the rosary; it is not sacrificing our goods to God; it is not surrounding ourselves with incense; it is not donating our wealth in any sum to the church; it is not daily reading the Bible or daily not reading the Bible; it is not praying; it is not going to confession; it is not even, in the most basic sense, receiving any sacrament. To be very clear: faith has nothing at all to do with what we do. If it did, we would all be out of the job, and, quite frankly, out of hope. Because, if we could in some way affect a faith according to habitual prayer or persistent attendance at church, we would have some say in how faith comes about, how it engages us and we engage it, and perhaps even more—how to make it come and go. Given our tendencies, I hardly think faith would be faith at all if we were key to its creation. That’s all pure nonsense, and we must put it out of our minds.
I stress this point because we cannot earnestly discuss faith as a greatly varied humanity if we do not first recognize what we create and what is gift. The former we manipulate at will, both to good ends and to bad. If faith were of the former, we would be de facto gods and there would no need to believe in anything but our own prowess. Some would say that’s exactly the way things are, but if “god” implies omnipotence and full knowledge, we run a bit short of the mark. We make pretty pathetic deities if the sum of existence is not in our ken and, more than that, if we have no idea how certain things came to be and what they’re doing here in the first place. The logical leap is to assume something greater operates in our existence; logic mingles with a nascent faith until, at some point, we are willing to accept that there are questions and answers beyond us entirely.
At the risk of being redundant, I will recapitulate: There is no common ground between the religionist, who proclaims God is necessarily present in religion and nowhere else, and those whose faith tells them something quite different. That is a discussion of two different things: that religion is the key of faith, and that faith is self-sufficient. This is not a discussion I am interested in having.
Please don’t misunderstand me—those whose knowledge of religion is great are those whom I seek out. But there is an awareness of the difference between faith and religion which must first be evident before interfaith dialogue can go anywhere at all. I am not interested in talking only about religion as a historical or cultural entity, but as a means of sharing one’s own faith in a community of fellow-believers. Religion is an important means of understanding one another; its cultural, historical, and political significance is what makes pursuit of mutual understanding necessary. But as I have said before, religion often serves as a means of common expression of faith. There must be faith at its beginning and end if we are to make any progress whatsoever.