There can be a vast difference between a living faith and adherence to a system of religious beliefs. In the Gospels faith has nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs about Jesus, and everything to do with trust in Jesus as a mediator of God’s grace and love.
For example, a woman suffering with a chronic bleeding condition that rendered her unclean according to Jewish law believed that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothing she would be healed. She obviously held to a popular cultural myth that claimed that the healing powers of a healer (there were other healers in the ancient world besides Jesus) extended to the healer’s clothes.
When she touched the garment of Jesus healing power went out to her, without Jesus intending it. Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has made you whole” (see Mark 5:25-34). There is no suggestion at all in the biblical account that she believed Jesus to be the Messiah or anything like what later Christians meant when they ascribed to Jesus the title, “Son of God.”
In this story faith constituted a simple, humble, and risky (the woman risked the hostility of the religious authorities because everyone she touched in the crowd she rendered unclean) act of trust in Jesus as the mediator of the healing power of God.
A living faith enables us to be sensitive to God’s presence and connects us to the renewing, healing grace, forgiveness, and mercy of God. It is not some doctrinal or dogmatic belief about Jesus; it is, rather, a child-like trust and vulnerability that opens the disciple up to the dynamic presence of the living Christ.
Years ago, early on in my spiritual journey, I thought that what one believed about Jesus was what changed a person. I was wrong. The evidence is fairly conclusive. Some of the most doctrinally certain Christians can be the most difficult to get along with. Confident in their beliefs “about” Jesus, they lack the love, grace, and humility “of” Jesus.
A Christian belief is what we think and endorse about some aspect of Christian teaching (God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.) at a particular stage in our faith journey. As we grow in love and grace our beliefs change. If our beliefs never change this is probably a good indication that we are stagnant and are not growing spiritually. I have discarded many of the beliefs I once held, but my faith is stronger today than it ever was.
I am not suggesting that faith is devoid of all belief or intellectual content. There is something to be said for a reasonable faith, as opposed to a blind faith or one that lacks intellectual credibility. But faith does not deal in certainties and reason alone does not open us up to God. Certitude is usually rooted in fear, which explains why some people become so defensive about their beliefs.
“We see through a glass dimly,” says Paul in his great exposition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. There’s no infallible experience of God: no inerrant Bible or infallible tradition or perfect anything. But we can and do experience love and love is foundational and essential to the nature of Divine Reality.
A living faith exposes us and makes us receptive to the Divine Love that pervades the universe—a Love that Christians believe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
Intellectual assent or doctrinal belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, heaven, or anything else does little in and of itself to change us. It is our experience of love that frees us from our ego, opens us up to the Mystery, and is transformative in our lives and relationships.