TWO TYPES OF FAITHLESSNESS

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

 

The problem of faith or of faithlessness undoubtedly constitutes one of the deepest and darkest mysteries of spiritual life. In general spiritual matters, the demarcation line of black and white is not only inapplicable but also especially dangerous. It is all the more so, when one deals with the relationship between God and man, in which case one cannot say, with absolute certainty, at which point is this relationship characterised as faithful or faithlessness. An especially characteristic case is the prudent man who, while still addressing Christ his benefactor, did not dare unreservedly to classify himself among those who believed steadfastly, but with contrition and humility stated, "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

It is precisely this mysterious nature of the problem of faith or faithlessness which demands that we be very sensitive and careful, namely absolutely honest, when called to judge our fellow-people who are sincerely tested in the dual meaning of the word — in this precipitous question. In any case, one of the marks of our times is that many people, from among those who feel neutral or are undecided on the subject of faith, do not hesitate to classify themselves among the so called "agnostics". Some admit it freely and without self-interest, believing that it is a matter of sincerity not to conceal it. Others, however, do it with an almost provocative disposition, thinking that it is the mark of an especially progressive man to express doubt in matters of faith, if not also the display of faithlessness.

In the midst of this confusion, therefore, of personal convictions in matters which people today, very generally and abstractly, call "metaphysical anxieties", we must say that what basically distinguishes the faithful from the faithless is the concrete and fundamental question about God, namely whether God exists or not. Thus, those who unreservedly accept the existence of God, irrespective of how they understand His relationship with the world, are characterised as divine and pious (or faithful). Again, those who do not recognise the objective existence of God, but consider religion as one of the many inherited superstitions of the primitive and unphilosophical man, are rightfully called godless (or faithless).

Yet, the general category of the so called godless or faithless is not always a homogeneous and single ideology. It has a variety of grades and nuances, as we have already hinted above by way of introduction. This variety, however, in the last analysis, can largely be classified into two types. On the one hand, there is the man who confesses that, despite his good disposition, he cannot believe, without meaning by this that he does not respect those who believe. On the other hand, there is the man that axiomatically excludes the possibility of faith, and therefore not only he himself does not believe, but he also speaks ironically of the believers.

It is worth looking at these two types of faithlessness more analytically, because they illumine fundamental aspects of the entire problem of faith. The first type of the faithless, namely the person who, with the modesty and sincerity of a true philosopher and not the conceited one, confesses that he cannot believe. Sympathetically, he could be said to be like any other weak or incapable person, but this type of the faithless ascribes, indirectly yet explicitly, the cause of the problem to the place where it belongs, namely to himself. This lets us understand that something is wrong with his temperament, training and upbringing since childhood, his way of life in general and his association with others.

It is significant, however, that for his faithlessness he does not accuse anyone else except himself. Now if we call to mind the significant truth that faith essentially is not a personal achievement, but "grace" that comes "from above", we believers are not entitled to boast about our faith while sympathising for those who confess their faithlessness in a spirit of sincere human solidarity. Such unbelievers existed at all times and we must admit that sometimes they were much more sympathetic than many pharisaic believers were. A very characteristic example of sympathetic unbeliever of our times is the tragic Albert Camus, who with all his writings became for contemporary secularised Christians of Europe the teacher of a humanitarian spirit of rare sensitivity. Furthermore, many among those who are self-styled as "atheists" or "agnostics" often put to shame our own hypocritical "faith" with their righteousness, friendship and honesty in all their relationships up to the last detail of daily life! These convincing examples of the moving behaviour of people, who do not dare call themselves "faithful" in the accepted meaning of the word, must surely not only surprise us. Furthermore, these people even sometimes put us to shame; they should especially make us at least more hesitant in pronouncing hard and unjust judgements against them. For, in the last analysis, our negative pronouncements do not so much offend these supposed atheists but the very God, who created them "in His image and likeness". For this reason, therefore, they are not altogether deprived of His grace and His gifts, even when they are not ready to confess that they believe in Him in the manner the Church teaches.

In relation to all that is said above, I will never forget from my early childhood the words of an eminent modem Greek writer, the late Stratis Myrivilis. I was still in the unforgettable Theological School of Halki, when Myrivilis visited the School during this pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. When we gathered to hear him, who was not considered to be particularly religious, he said, "The Church called you here from the four ends of the earth in order to tell you that within the breast of even the greatest murderer there is concealed a Saint in fetters. It is your task, then, to free the fettered Saint, wherever you find him".

The second type of faithlessness may result either out of a person who believed for a period of his life — usually as a child or youth — and then for one or other reason lost faith "on the way". Alternatively, it is a person who never believed because of pride or thoughtlessness and never wished to repent.

In both cases we usually have no longer to do with a sober or modest — if we may say so — atheism, as we have already described it, but with a negation of all transcendent authority which is dynamically expressed as polemical atheism. The faithless person of this type has an unexplainable wrath against faith. It is as if one wants to take revenge for the contradiction of one's personal vision or as if one feels that one has the special task of protecting one's fellow people from false hopes. It is obvious that this type of unbeliever looks at believers not only with arrogance but also with enmity. He does not consider his inability to believe as his own defect and personal fault, but regards it as strength and wisdom of which a simplistic believer is deprived.

Now if the polemical atheist were to offend only his fellow people with his faithlessness, then the matter would certainly be unjust and sad; it would not be insolence and blasphemy. With polemical atheism, however, one transcends "the boundaries" and offends God Himself. The Apostle John clearly characterises this type of unbeliever by saying, "he who does not believe God has made him a liar" (1 John 5:10), thereafter explaining how one exposes God as liar with one's faithlessness! John's basic teaching is the Logos of God, as God's boundless love for the world. It is mainly for this reason that John was named "the disciple of love", and not only because he was "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23). For John not only saw the relationship of God with the world as love, he also saw God's very essence as love, boundless love. He did not praise any other perfection of God, whether His wisdom or His power or His holiness, but only His love: "God is love" (1 John 4, 18). For this reason love of God and the Logos of God are for John synonymous.

The Logos of God, expressing the essence of God, is the love of God in general and for the world more particularly, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). However, when John says the measure of God's love of the world is that God "gave" His Son for the sake of the world, one should not only imply the sacrifice of Golgotha. We should also be reminded that the Apostle John speaks even in the very prologue of his Gospel of another relationship of the Son and Logos of God with all beings: "all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3). It is precisely for this reason that John in his Revelation characterises the Son and Logos of God as "the slain lamb from the beginning of the world" (Rev 5:12). Consequently, the Son and Logos of God is the deeper root of beings, the foundation of all existence. For this reason, the Fathers of the Church, especially St Maximos the Confessor, spoke of the "logos" of created beings, thereby meaning the fundamental root that every created being received from the one and only Logos of God. When later it was necessary for God's Logos to become Incarnate within the world, it is only natural that He comes to bear witness precisely for this already preexisting and neglected love of God towards the world. Thus, the Son bears witness as to who the Father is both during the Creation of the world and during the Incarnation. The Father also bears witness as to who the Son is, in both cases. When one does not accept this witness with faith, which is always "in the Holy Spirit", of the Son for the Father and of the Father for the Son, then one is not merely "ignorant" and "doubling", but becomes clearly an accuser of God, whether consciously or subconsciously. For the negation of witness, such as John's that goes through all phases of divine economy, accuses God of being a liar. Thus John concludes his thought by directly relating Creation and Incarnation, or as it is also called, the first and the second creation: "He who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that god has borne to his Son. And this is the testimony, that god gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son" (1 John 5:10-11).

From what has been said above, it is obvious that since God, both with the act of the unified creation (Genesis) and with the act of unified salvation (Incarnation), gave the irrefutable testimony of His love for the world in the person of His Son. As the pre-eternal and Crucified Logos, there is no excuse for any intelligent person to be faithless. The Scripture, therefore, rightfully considers faithlessness to be a "privilege" only for the "fool". "The fool said in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14:1). It is this general "information", for all people, concerning God's love that St. Paul appealed to, as is known, in order to remind the responsibility each person has before God which precisely renders him which precisely renders him unaccountable in any case: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law" (Rom 2:14). Yet, those who received the special Revelation of God, in the form of the Old and of the New Testament, surely have an even greater responsibility in the case of faithlessness than the various idolaters do and the Gentiles have. Again, from among the faithful of the two Testaments, the responsibility of the faithless of the New Testament is bitter and graver than that of the faithless of the Old Testament. This is because the Incarnation of God was the fullest and absolute form of Revelation: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:1). In any case, it is only natural and right that one is judged according to the degree to which one has known or has not known the truth. It is also for this reason that the Gospel concisely states that "the servant who knew much … shall receive a severe beating" (Luke 12:47).

from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 11/8-9, August and September 1990
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

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