I’ve been thinking about the kind of testimony and faith I want to nurture in myself and others, and I’ve got a couple of way over-extended metaphors to throw out.* I have experienced at least two different kinds of faith, and I’ve seen these differences in others, too: Faith like a rock, and faith like water.
There is a rock-solid kind testimony that sees the world and the words we use to relate to the world and to history in very concrete, definite terms. This can be a great strength. There are reasons that the edifice of the church is said to be built upon such foundations. These kinds of testimonies rest upon or incorporate specific points of history, certain witnesses, and a kind of firmness of mind about those specifics that weather all kinds of assaults. Rock-like faith speaks of knowing. It values certainty. It has firm boundaries, dividing truth and error. Evidence here is important. It is the kind of approach that marshals logic, the careful connection of facts to consequences and of law to outcomes in a crystalline lattice of truth that holds its shape and position durably—so durably that it can become a blade or a blunt instrument, a weapon, for better or worse.
One of its dangers, then, is that it can be overly rigid, legalistic, and dogmatic. Jesus spent a lot of time warning about this kind of corruption of what was otherwise a divinely appointed and sound system. For all of its strength, the rock of faith can be brittle. When evidence, the sine qua non of this faith, is subjected to logical or evidentiary counter-pressures, the rock of faith can sometimes break down. This is because reality is a massive and complex thing that is beyond the capacity of any person or set of people—no matter how inspired and well-intentioned—to fully grasp or to perfectly represent. Because all revelation is a product of a divine-human interaction, all human expressions of the divine (scriptures, testimonies, anything of the sort) are liable to misconstrual or misstatement. Joseph Smith prayed: “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” Vulnerabilities inhere in both the original expressions themselves and how those expressions are translated into the understandings of other people. Such flawed, human inclusions in the bedrock of testimony end up being unavoidable. They might be unnoticeable or seem insignificant in one generation, but with the process of time and the unrelenting pressure of reality, they can eventually add up to catastrophic weaknesses. Paul speaks of this when he says that if there be prophecies, they shall fail; if there be languages spoken, they shall cease; if there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part (see 1 Cor. 13:8–13). Because we cannot know anything except in part and cannot speak in anything but limited, broken tongues, we are wise to be cautious about how much weight we place on the rocky foundations of this kind of testimony. It is not a question of whether there be faults, or whether those faults be the mistakes of men. The question is what might come crashing down if the faults should ever slip.
When Moses the lawgiver smote the rock at the command of God, the rock split open and out flowed life-giving water (Num. 20:7–11; Is. 48:21). When the law breaks down, as it is meant finally to do in the revelation of Christ, out flow the waters of mercy, of grace, of faith. Faith like water is something very different than the strong but flinty faith of stone. At first it appears to be so unstable and so easily yielding as to have no rigor at all. But fluid faith has strength of a different nature. It cannot be cleft by anything; it will never “crack” under pressure. And it can go anywhere.
Those with fluid faith recognize their own nothingness before the uncontained immensity of reality, and they give themselves to filling it’s measure and its form, whatever that be. This kind of faith dances; it brings it’s own dynamic, adoptive boundary with it. It is content to say of good things that they are good, whatever their provenance. It does not require knowledge, witnessing, and certainty. Like love, it believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Joseph Smith exhibited this quality of faith when he said that “I believe all that God ever revealed, and I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.” To the mind and heart of someone with fluid faith, evidence opens new possibilities for reading reality without foreclosing previous readings. The totality of explanations for a given scriptural claim or prophetic utterance is ever increasing, resulting in an ever more complex, diffuse, and diverse field of possibility. Faith like a river absorbs, relates, resolves, and patiently finds its way. It readily yields to adamant stone, but over time it can carve a path through that rock without ever losing its own perfect essence. The sea of faith is not constructed, it simply is—plentiful, generous, abiding. Logical arguments and evidence are not important to this kind of faith. Its ceaseless motion and seeking are the essence of its constancy, flowing without compulsory means for ever and ever.
But how can anything as indefinite and variable as fluid faith be the basis for the Church of God? What of the foundation stones and the pillars of eternity? What will they rest on?
My answer is that the nature of being itself takes on a new aspect when we begin to live with fluid faith. Heaven is no longer an arcade with keystones and pillars at which we arrive. It is no destination at all. It is wherever our soul already happens to be on it’s cosmic odyssey. With the water of faith we realize that we are embarked on an unending journey—a voyage on the sea of faith. The ark of the covenant carries us, and God is our helmsman from above. An eternity of growing and becoming lies ahead of us aboard the good ship Zion. Fluid faith is venturesome and celebrates possibilities rather than certainties. It is enough for us to know we are buoyed up by her, and we can be on our way. The journey itself is the destination, forever.
The drawbacks of this kind of faith are that it can fail to adequately discriminate truth and error. It can be too passive, too welcoming. As a universal solvent, it can become polluted; as a running fluid, it can be spread too thin, diluted by its own generality. In such circumstances, water can lose its capacity to give life or to be effective. So faith like water actually needs care from outside of itself. It needs wise stewardship to keep its vitality. But when that stewardship is present, it will give life to a thousand things. Another drawback is in the nature of our human desire and even need for some certainty. We cannot live without some fundamentals, it seems, any more than we are suited to live indefinitely adrift on the ocean, all at sea. We come to crave the solid earth of safe harbors and the freedom of horizons unbounded by vessels of our own devising. The good news is that water also flows on land, allowing us passage and sustaining us through all kinds of wonderful terrain.
And so we want both—faith like a rock, and faith like water. And because we are human and so are made to contain contradictions, we should claim both, recognizing that either one is insufficient alone.
*I’m sure my analogies here aren’t all that original, and I can’t wait to read in the comments all of the ways that they can be turned on their heads and pushed to ridiculous extremes. But Steve Evans gets what he pays for at this blog, and I come cheap.