Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Role of Faith in Spiritual Advancement

A dispute exists between the teaching of Paul (the so-called apostle) and James The Just, the brother of Jesus, on the roll of faith. We know who won this argument within later generations of orthodox Christianity but let's examine the merits.

Paul on Faith

"In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to the last, just as it is written; the righteous will live by faith."
Romans 1:17

"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access (by faith) to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God."
Romans 5:1-2

"We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, (yet) who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."
Galatians 2:5-16

James on Faith

But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind.
James 1:5-6

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works."
James 2:14-18

The two positions are diametrically opposed. Paul says, man is "justified" through faith alone. James retorts, faith without works is dead. James recognizes that faith plays some roll in spiritual advancement but designates works (right action) with prime importance. Notice the correlation between statement of James (demonstrate faith through works) and Jesus "Ye shall know them by their fruits." Matthew 7:16.

Is there any way to reconcile these two positions? Consider this quote from Abd al-Kader, Algerian Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic (1808 - 1883):
His faith is no longer of any use to him. In fact his faith is only useful so long as he is veiled and has not obtained direct vision and evidence. . . . When that which was hidden becomes evident, when that of which he was merely informed is directly seen, the soul no longer derives any profit from that which it believes but only from that which it contemplates and sees.
The Spiritual Writings of 'Abd al-Kader (1995), Kitab al-Mawaqif. Link.

For Abd al-Kader, the beginning spiritual aspirant needs faith to take the initial steps on the path. But the mystic who has had direct knowledge (gnosis) of the divine no longer requires the crutch of faith. "Faith is no longer of any use to him." Is there any parallel teaching in the Christian traditions? I think so. See the following from the Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi library):
Farming in the world requires the cooperation of four essential elements. A harvest is gathered into the barn only as a result of the natural action of water, earth, wind and light. God's farming likewise has four elements - faith, hope, love, and knowledge. Faith is our earth, that in which we take root. And hope is the water through which we are nourished. Love is the wind through which we grow. Knowledge, then, is the light through which we ripen. Grace exists in four ways: it is earthborn; it is heavenly; [...] the highest heaven; [...] in [...].
Per the Gospel of Philip, "faith" is the first step in spiritual growth. Knowledge is the last step on the path. I would go one step further and say that faith is a necessary element on the path but, once it outlives it's usefulness, the doctrines of faith must be shed least they become a burden to further advancement. An infirmed person relies on crutches while in physical therapy to regain full use of one's limbs. But once the ability to walk is regained, the crutches no longer have utility for him and, in fact, become a burden were he to continue dragging them around. Once the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, the cocoon must be shed.


Anonymous said...

Hello JJRay. I just left a comment on one of your other blogs and then stumbled across this one as well. I think that you and I have quite a bit in common just by my initial reads...I would like to say that I do not see the assertions of Paul and James as contradictory. Actually, I see them as what the view looks like from within---looking outward in different directions---for lack of a better way of saying it. But I will try to explain this as concisely as possible...

...When Paul says that we are "justified" by faith. I hear him saying that our reasoning flows from that which we stand on. If what we are standing on is genuine in nature; then it follows that we are proven reasonable---or "justified".

However, James is simply saying that we can reason all we want; we can think beautiful thoughts all day long; we can even "have faith so as to move mountains; hand our body over to be burned; but if we have not love, etc..." [I understand this is not the exact quote, but you get the idea---and yes I purposely have used Paul's quote here]---to me, I hear James reaffirming this same theme in a different way. Basically, that if we DO love our neighbors as our selves, then we are busy doing things that prove it.

Thus, Paul [IMHO] is saying that we are proven reasonable by standing on the idea that love is what sustains us and James is saying that we always know when a person is loving, because they are busy doing things to show it...

I greatly appreciate your thoughts here. They got me excited about this stuff in a way I haven't felt for quite some time!

jjray said...

spaceroq, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Paul's epistles contain beautiful language but it's hard to ignore his insistence that one is justified / perfected by faith alone. Love has nothing per se to do with faith. Love is an element of the law. And Paul shifts the emphasis of love from our fellow man to an abstract notion of love of God and/or Jesus (and the love of God & Jesus for us). Yes, Paul tells his followers to love one another but it's not his core teaching and not central to perfection (i.e., getting to heaven) in his theology.

I have no interest in debating those who feel Paul is right. Let each human be guided by that which lies within. However, I do believe the theology of James (successor of Jesus) stands opposed to Paulism and it's justification by faith alone.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I'm surprised by your responsed somewhat, but I will certainly admit that Paul's stuff is perhaps the easiest to take the wrong way---and especially if the premise of the entire gospel is rather askew. I will not debate you. It's okay to disagree about things. As far as *I* am concerned, Paul, James and even Jesus were all human beings. The inclusion of their understandings and their teachings in a book as important as the Bible is to my mind a testament to the importance of the principles they urged acceptance of more than anything. But how they dispensed the message individually was as individual as they them selves were.

It is about WHAT is right, not WHO was right as far as I am concerned...For instance, Pontius Pilate had a small [but significant] role in the whole story; and he had one of the BEST points to make in all of it if you ask me---"what is truth?" This is a great question to ask even if he DID have Jesus put to death shortly thereafter. I know that might sound random but its not...

I do hope that you can keep in mind that there once was a point when *I* had given up on Paul my self. There were way too many snags with his choice of words and with how he went about saying the things he said and especially with how they seemed to stack up against everybody else's point of view. But then again, I suffer much the same difficulty, so who am I? And that is also the beauty of it! He sounded like somebody who was simply trying to pound a beautiful new movement into submission by steering it toward his own selfish aims---but then I began to consider how readily he TOO gave his life and how many miles his legs had to put into the message that he conveyed. These things at the very least have his money where his mouth was [and more]. And one must definitely take a seriously look at the love passage in which he even tosses faith to get at love if he is ever to come in line with the rest. I am not saying he was "right". I am saying he was worth a second chance for ME, that's all [perhaps a 45th chance actually]. Who or what is right is for individuals to judge for them selves ~ not for ME to make a blanket statement and expect the acceptance of those who hear it. I believe that people use what is reasonable to their minds once they have all the proper facts in place.

jjray said...

>>Paul [IMHO] is saying that we are proven reasonable by standing on the idea that love is<<

Sorry, I disagree with this as well. Throw out the Epistle to Timothy. It wasn't written by Paul. In my view, Paul says faith swallows up the law, including the royal law (love one another). Faith in Jesus is the one and only law. Right action (acts of love) is a byproduct of faith in Jesus.

IMHO, Paulinism opens the door for the complete bastardization of a central tenant of the Jewish reform movement founded by Jesus--renunciation of material wealth. It is easier for camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of god. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Sell all your possessions and come follow me.

These are not mere suggestions. My read of the Epistle of James is that James tells us renunciation of material wealth is part and parcel to the royal law of love. One cannot love God and, also, material wealth. It's one or the other.

The writing of Paul allow for justification merely by possessing a faith in Jesus as God. The formulation of Jesus / James is much more stringent.

Paul is not here to defend himself. Perhaps he did not intend for such a result. But his writings have had disastrous consequences. Look at the immense wealth of the Vatican. The hordes of wealth racked in by television evangelists. The list goes on.

I'm a fan of snippets of the Paulinian literature, especially his notation of forming Christ within. But this blog post was about the central and important dispute between James and Paul on faith v. works (which really is another way of saying the law). There is no avenue to reconcile these two views IMHO. I don't believe in proselytization. Those drawn to follow the Paulinian faith should do so.

Anonymous said...

Hey JJRay. Perhaps I can clear something up here before our misconnection on a few [relatively] unimportant thoughts snowballs out of was never my intention to defend Paul. He's had plenty of time to speak for himself. With that much being said, we clearly take much different thoughts away from his books than each other does. I'm okay with that thought and I hope that you are as well...

...I, like you, have no need to "convert" anyone to a set of beliefs. I personally don't believe that is ultimately even possible to tell the perfect truth about it. Where you've illustrated points about "blessed are the poor" and various comments pertaining to what appears to be a monetary focus; I hear illustrations of what arrogance is made of; intellectual goods or "wealth". One can be quite poor monetarily and still be guilty of cosmic greed when it boils right down to it. If we are stingy with the things that lead us to greater understanding and peace of mind----this to me is the true greed out of which all other forms of it spring...

So that you know. *I* have no attraction to Paul's faith whatsoever. But I do speak for my own---that is more than enough for me. I've said enough. I wish you well and I hope that this clears a few things up. Thank you for inspiring me regardless of our differences.