The altar of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Madison, Wis. Sunday, April 19, 2009, second Sunday of Easter.
I feel called upon to help translate the Christian faith into English. Actually, the words that came to me were, “Explain Christianity through English.”
Ah, but you say, the King James version of the Bible is nearly 400 years old, and many other translations, including one by Noah Webster, already exist. What work remains to be done?
Well first of all, I’m not proposing to retranslate the whole Bible from Hebrew, Greek and Aramiac, just certain passages. It’s not even the Bible itself I’m worried about, but the way the meaning of certain key terms commonly used to discuss religious faith have drifted or become fuzzy (or always were fuzzy). I want to make sure the meaning of key terms is clear in contemporary American English, where so many words have become debased. In addition, English is not always a precise language; it often takes a few words in a phrase to convey the meaning of a Latin, Greek or French term. Or we just use the foreign term.
With that bit of background, let me meditate on a key word, perhaps the most basic term of all: faith.
“Faith” strikes me as a word that is open to a lot of interpretation. To say, “I have faith,” seems to beg the question, “In what?” And while Christians and Muslims speak of “the Faith” and know what they mean, other prideful rationalists rejoice in rejecting belief based solely on faith.
Digging back into the derivation of the term, I find it’s not originally a religious word. It comes from the Latin fides (think “fidelity), meaning “to trust, have confidence in, believe.” It was filtered through Old French as feid, and fei, then into Middle English as feith, a spelling I rather like.
The first definition in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) is: “1. Unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence.” That’s what I would call “blind faith” [good band], if I were making fun of it, and “divine faith” or “divinely inspired faith” if I felt it, which I do. Interestingly, while my faith in God came to me through grace and I accepted it unquestioningly, I have also been provided with ample proof and evidence of both the existence of God and the power of God’s will in human life. “Proof after faith” might also seem like a delusion to rationalists, but there are plenty of Christian apologists to take them on. I’m just working on our vocabulary.
The second New World definition is the more familiar: “2. Unquestioning belief in God, religious tenets, etc.” To convey this meaning, I would use a modifier, such as “religious faith” or “faith in God” rather than the bare word. Because the religious cannot own the word “faith,” even when they capitalize it. It’s a gentle, warm word to me, meaning complete trust, having complete confidence in something or someone, to rely on someone without question, as a child does a loving parent, or as loving spouses do.