Thursday, 10 September 2009

Tony Blair in Rimini: what is "Faith"?

In his address to the 30th Rimini meeting, Tony Blair speaks of "faith" in a way that has now become customary in public discourse but which has a certain novelty when compared to the way in which the word is used in religious discourse: "Faith", "people of Faith", "the world of Faith", "Faith communities". Interestingly, there is a passage in Tony Blair's address which removes a possible indifferentist understanding of this term (though one could ask whether it treats the different Christian denominations indifferently):
In my foundation - dedicated to respect and understanding between the religious Faiths - I always say clearly: I am and remain a Christian, seeking salvation thru our Lord, Jesus Christ. Globalisation may push people of different Faiths together. But it does not mean we all become of one, lowest common denominator, belief. We are together but retain our distinctive Faith. We respect each other. We are not the same as each other. However, we work together.

The use of the term "Faith" in this sort of way has a certain ambivalence. By the word "Faith" do we refer to the act of believing in certain things, generally seen as religious? Or are we referring to a body of belief, referring therefore to what it is that is believed? In the first of these, the use of the word is essentially undifferentiated in referring to people of widely differing religious beliefs, or indeed, to people whose beliefs might be loosely spiritual but in essence not religious at all. In the second case, the use of the word is still often undifferentiated - but it should not be so. Clearly the different religions have beliefs that differ greatly, so to refer to them under the one word heading "Faith" is to suggest an identity of content that is not fair to the religions themselves. It is to treat religions as a secular phenomenon (a secularist is not going to recognise differences between religious beliefs as being of importance, but simply to put them together as different manifestations of the same phenomenon); and to be fair to religions they need to be treated as religious phenomena. There needs to be an explicit recognition of their supernatural character.

To return to the first of these ways of using the word "Faith", the undifferentiated use may not even be justified here. It is not the case that "Faith" seen as the act of believing is understood in the same way by different religions - the difference in the what is believed has a reflexive kind of effect on the act of believing itself, and how that act is understood.

According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we can understand both faith as an act of believing (n.28) and faith as referring to what it is that is believed (n.32) - my emphasis added:
28. What are the characteristics of faith?
Faith is the supernatural virtue which is necessary for salvation. It is a free gift of God and is accessible to all who humbly seek it. The act of faith is a human act, that
is, an act of the intellect of a person - prompted by the will moved by God - who freely assents to divine truth.
Faith is also certain because it is founded on the Word of God; it works “through charity” (Galatians 5:6); and it continually grows through listening to the Word of God and through prayer. It is, even now, a foretaste of the joys of heaven.

32. In what way is the faith of the Church one faith alone?
The Church, although made up of persons who have diverse languages, cultures, and rites, nonetheless professes with a united voice the one faith that was received from
the one Lord and that was passed on by the one Apostolic Tradition. She confesses one God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and points to one way of salvation. Therefore we believe with one heart and one soul all that is contained in the Word of God, handed down or written, and which is proposed by the Church as divinely revealed.

There is a certain contradiction between Tony Blair's assertion of his Christian faith, as cited above, particularly if we imply that as referring to Roman Catholic belief, and his continued use of the term "Faith" in an undifferentiated way. There are also curious references in his address to "our Faith" and "our Church", into which it might be possible to read to much, but which would not be out of place in a secularised understanding of religious believing.

Towards the end of his address, Tony Blair offers what might be seen as his definition of what faith is. He refers to the role of Faith as representing God's Truth to the world, "Faith as the salvation of the human condition ... Faith as purpose in life. Faith, not as a mystery we seek to solve; but Faith as a mystery which expresses the limitations of the human mind". One can see something of the Compendium's description of faith as a full surrender of ourselves to God (n.25), but again, perhaps not. And Tony Blair's appeal for the voice of the Church to be heard in the world contains a persisting sense of the ambivalence of the usage of the word "Faith":
That is why the voice of the Church should be heard. That is why it should speak confidently, clearly and openly. Because within any nation and beyond it, in the community of nations, the voice of Faith needs to be and must be heard.

1 comment:

Catholic with Attitude said...

Tony Blair confuses me a lot!