by Semyon Frank
Semyon Lyudvigovich Frank was, in the judgment of his biographer Philip Boobbyer, “arguably Russia’s greatest twentieth-century philosopher.” Born in 1877 in Moscow and raised in Judaism, Frank became a revolutionary atheist as a teenager, before reflection led him to baptism into the Orthodox church in 1912. Following the Bolshevik takeover, the government singled him out for his supposedly dangerous spiritual worldview and expelled him in 1922 on the so-called Philosopher’s Ship along with Nikolai Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov. He and his family eked out a living in Germany until 1937, when Frank’s Jewish ethnicity made it impossible for him to publish or work under Hitler. Frank wrote his book God With Us in France at the end of 1941 under the threat of poverty (he and his wife were soon to move into a shack where they cooked their food in the open air) and arrest (Germans and their collaborators were actively deporting the Jews of France). These circumstances make his powerful affirmation of Christian faith in God With Us all the more remarkable. True faith, Frank argues in this excerpt (translated from the Russian), far from being an informed guess, is nothing less than “the appearance of God within the human soul.” Frank survived the war and died in 1950 in London.
— Helen Bogolubov Desai, trans.
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How should faith be understood? What distinguishes “faith” from “lack of faith” or the “believer” from the “nonbeliever”? It seems that the predominant majority of people, due to a longstanding, prevailing understanding of “faith,” view it as a certain distinctive spiritual condition under which we agree to recognize, consider authentic, and affirm as true something that in and of itself is not obvious, that cannot be witnessed, for which there is no convincing foundation and, because of this, is an object of possible doubt and denial. Faith, in this sense, is confidence in that whose foundation is not given to us, whose truth is not obvious. So faith in God, in other words in the existence of an all-good and all-powerful entity upon whom all events in our personal lives and in the life of the world depend, is confidence in an actual entity that no one has ever seen and cannot be affirmed with full certainty. Precisely because, here, nothing can be perceived or proven with certainty, our belief in the existence of such a reality, the persistence of our conviction is faith. The merit of faith, from this perspective, consists exactly of that exertion of will that is necessary to be convinced, the stubbornness in recognizing that which, in and of itself, for a reasoned understanding, remains doubtful.
I will attempt to give the traditional view its due below, to show the measure of truth which it contains. Here, however, I must begin with a decisive denial. First, I will permit myself a personal confession. Perhaps, in this regard I am put together differently from others, but I have never been able to “believe” in the stated sense of this concept; further, I do not understand how it is possible to believe in this sense or why it is even necessary. I perceive the matter thus: the unauthenticated remains unauthenticated, to believe in something untrustworthy, to assert as truth that which is subject to doubt, either reveals thoughtlessness—our entire lives, sadly, are full of such thoughtless beliefs, for which life punishes us harshly—or to somehow coerce, to force a realization, to persuade oneself of that which, strictly speaking, remains doubtful for us.
To demand faith in this instance, would be, strictly speaking, to acknowledge the value and necessity of a certain subjective obstinacy, a certain distinctive condition of hypnotized consciousness unavoidably accompanied by an internal division. But it would seem that the first duty of our spiritual self-education is observance of full truthfulness, the distinct difference between “yes” and “no,” or between the credible and the controversial. In the stubborn attempt to vindicate unproven convictions, in the inclination or readiness to affirm the unauthenticated as possessing the quality of truth, I see neither necessity nor merit. And insofar as such an arrangement is almost invariably tied to interior vacillation, insofar as the creed “I believe” in the face of an honest, truthful self-knowledge frequently means, strictly speaking, “not I believe, but I would like to believe and so am convincing myself that I believe”—this is frankly a sin before God as the Spirit of truth. For, as the young Byron once said, “the first attribute of Godliness is truth.”
When justifying such an understanding of faith, reference is sometimes made to its analogue, to that faith with which we are forced to guide the most sober orientation of our practical life. From the time of Hume’s perspicacious and irrefutably clear analysis, we know that all our lives’ workings are founded on “faith”; our beliefs and opinions are guided by that whose actual wisdom we are unable to exactly attest. We go to sleep in the evening with the certainty that night will be replaced by day and that we will awake in the morning; we can “prove” neither one nor the other strictly speaking, and, reasoning abstractly, we even know that at any moment some world catastrophe can upset the usual order of the exchange of day and night and, even more easily, sudden death can overturn our faith in waking from sleep. At each step of our lives, we are guided by faith in the immutability of that which we call the “laws of nature”; however, this immutability, in essence, is guaranteed by nothing, and our faith in it is truly blind, guaranteed by nothing exactly. Having faith in the continuous action of the “law of gravity,” I will not jump out of a top floor window being certain that, because of it, I will fall and be smashed up: but if certain proof of the immutability of gravity were to be demanded of me, then not only I, a layman in the field of physics, but even the most learned physicist, would be put in a difficult position. And we all know that one must be crazy to be ready to jump out of a top floor window only because the inevitability of falling cannot be proven with exact, mathematical evidence.
Even more clearly, the convictions on which we lean in the realm of human interaction, in other words in the calculation of our neighbor’s actions, have the same characteristic. The whole mechanism of our joint human lives would fall into disarray or, rather, would become impossible if we could not be certain that people with whom we have dealings will, under certain conditions, behave in one way rather than another. How would life be possible if we did not have certainty that people, with whom we have ties or whom we encounter, would through their actions ensure us the conditions of a peaceful life—that, for example, buyers and sellers would not, at the conclusion of their business, rob one another; that a faithful friend would not trick or betray us and so on? Our whole life is based on such certitude but none of this can be “proven” and in individual circumstances, reality sometimes refutes our expectations and calculations—which is evidence that here we are not dealing with certitude in the logical sense of the word but only with “moral” reliability, in other words, something only “probable” but not absolutely necessary. In this sense, our whole life is based on “faith,” on convictions whose truth cannot be proven with irrefutable persuasiveness.
All this in and of itself is completely just. But if considerations of this sort are used to explain and justify religious faith (such is, for example, the founding principle of Cardinal Newman in his Grammar of Assent), then I think it is not hard to show that what occurs is a confusion of ideas. Precisely because in our practical life we find ourselves in the realm of the probable, our assumptions are founded on certain calculations of probability to distinguish between more likely and less likely; naturally—and the science of the theory of probability gives this a strongly rational justification—we prefer the first; and if there always remains the possibility that we make a mistake, in other words, that the lesser probability occurs, then we still have a greater chance of being right than in the case of assuming the opposite.
In other words, we are not guided here by arbitrary faith as something contrary to knowledge; we do not give preference to the unjustified ahead of the justified; to the contrary, not being able to hold with certainty reliable knowledge, we choose from several possible assumptions that which most closely approaches knowledge (though it does not achieve the necessity and exactitude of the latter). This choice is a matter of the intellect, thoughts in the realm of knowledge, which does not allow absolute precision. We speak in these cases of experienced knowledge not by accident or arbitrarily; hypothetical knowledge—potential and possible knowledge—is actual knowledge, though by its nature it differs from necessary knowledge (for example, from mathematical knowledge). If an element of faith is preserved in it, then our will is directed toward that element existing in the smallest amount so that such faith would, if possible, approach knowledge.
Within the realm of religious faith, the matter is completely different. That belief is, from a rational point of view, from worldly experience, not more probable but more likely less probable; we believe in that which to “Greeks”—that is, to rational thinkers—is “folly.” Faith in God is not, from the perspective of a rational understanding of the world, “the most plausible hypothesis.” Attempts at this type of apologia—a “learned” or a generally rational proof of faith’s truth—always contain in themselves something “contrived,” artificial, carry an imprint or a limitation of falsehood or sophistry. This is equally applicable to attempts to prove the “hypothesis” of God’s existence using scientific knowledge of the world’s structure—at least that of the God of love, whom the human heart seeks and whom Christian revelation heralds—and to pious attempts to explain the tragedy of personal life in terms of the entirety of God’s providence.
This type of explanation is met with mockery not just by skeptics—such mockery must naturally be accepted through scrupulous thought; in the brilliant, deep, religiously-infused pathos of the Book of Job, these sorts of pathetic explanations are rejected by the lips of God himself as blasphemous arrogance, as an unacceptable distortion of the essence of faith, an attempt by human thought to penetrate an unapproachable mystery, to measure the supernatural sphere, the divine, by earthly standards. The essence of the difference is, in the narrowest sense, that “hypotheses,” opinions about the most likely, which we have the right to believe in the earthly empirical realm of life, are ultimately approached through verification: our lived experience either confirms or rejects them. To the contrary, in the realm of religious faith, we do not have such a straightforward, precise measure of truth; in this, our assumptions remain unprovable merely because by its very nature such “experimental” verification—in the usual understanding of “experimentation”—is not possible. In this, there can be no calculation of probability and so any concept of the probable loses all meaning.
In reality, that which is understood as “faith” by supporters considering its meaning has no relation to an assumption of the value of “most likely” truth. The value of likelihood is a matter for rational thought that is, to the contrary, rejected in principle by supporters of “faith”; they demand a blind, unthinking, unverifiable faith. It is not hard, given this, to discern the justification of such faith and why it is required. Faith is conceived as the expression and outcome of an act of obedience, of submissive trust in authority. Just as children must obey their parents, trust them, consider that which is instilled in them as truth as they themselves are in no condition to understand life and relate to it properly, so must people generally believe in certain echelons that are wiser than they are and thus whose statements must be accepted as infallible truth. This is generally how faith, based on “revelation,” is conceived.
However this higher authority is concretely discerned—in Holy Scripture, in synodal church traditions, in the infallibility of its leader (for example, the Roman pope), or—penetrating more deeply—in the exhortations of the very founders of religion—Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha—there is still the sense of a superhuman authority, through which God himself speaks and, because of this, disbelief and the refusal to obey is unacceptable impiety.
Without a doubt, this purely psychological explanation of faith’s essence corresponds to reality. It is justified not only by the historical past of all religions—human religious thought’s elementary stage is exactly this sort of blind, unexamined faith, submissive subordination to authority and the actual psychological nature of most believers’ faith even in current times. Religious consciousness of all peoples of the world, in its elementary stage, is a spiritual condition where people are aware that they are ignorant, blind, spiritually helpless and, with a reverential belief and obedience, accept as true that which is proclaimed by chosen preceptors whom they perceive to be superhuman wise men, “the illuminated,” or leaders of heavenly mystery. But even now, the psychological source of faith for most people is the influence of parents, mentors, hierarchs and, through these means, habitual opinions illuminated through the ages, which acquire in our consciousness a sacred, inviolable character—truth never proclaimed by God himself, which induces in us a feeling of blind faith, rejecting verification as something unacceptable. There can be no substantive justification through psychological explanation.
It is not hard to see that neither a justification nor a foundation of faith can be achieved this way but that such an explanation is completely untenable since it leads to a vicious cycle. For example, a Catholic, believing in the infallibility of the pope, considers himself obligated to believe—and after all is actually taught to believe—in the truth of the pope’s doctrinal positions. But it is clear that this dogma of the pope’s infallibility cannot be true because it is expressed by the pope himself. He relies on something else—for example on the infallibility of a legal ruling by a convened council (the Vatican Council). But then the same question applies to the next level of authority. Faith in the infallibility of the church council cannot be based on a decree of the council itself. Obviously, the council’s authority itself is characterized either as part of the church hierarchy or because its decisions correspond to generally acknowledged church traditions or testaments of Scripture.
So, through a series of links we must reach a certain supreme level of authority which must possess not a derivative but a certain primary absolute authority. (This same reasoning, obviously, applies to all other theories of faith which are based on authority; for example, Protestant teaching asserting the infallibility and absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures must answer the question as to why exactly this book must be read as infallible authority and so on.) But what does this mean—the primary supreme level of authority or absolute authority? Obviously, no human level of authority at all can by its own immanent nature be such a supreme authority. What remains is to acknowledge that it is inherent only to God himself—all human levels of authority are authoritative only as the expressions and organs of God’s will, God’s voice—in short, as something in which we perceive the presence and actions of God himself.
Must we say, then, that the only authentic primary “authority,” obedience to whom defines our faith, is God himself? This would be a very vague, unsuccessful formulation—almost a play on words. Thinking clearly about the definition of “authority,” we must understand that we trust or submit to it because we perceive it is the guide and mouthpiece of that which is true, valuable, sacred. So to call God himself—the primary source of truth and goodness—the “authority” is absurd. God is not an authority but the source of any authority. Or must we obey God not as an “authority” but simply as a dogmatic supreme ruler out of fear before His omnipotence? No matter how widespread such a representation is, it is not only blasphemous (a merciless tyrant of the universe would not deserve the sacred name of God) but is even unconvincing.
However frequently believers speak of the necessity of the “fear” of God, this must obviously be understood as more than simple fear, an instinctive self-preservation. Fear is not a feeling whose necessity can somehow be proven or affirmed; under such an understanding, a fearless rebel against God (remember the image of Prometheus or Byron’s Cain) would be completely invulnerable.
Even more important if different: to obey God, it is necessary first of all to know, to have certainty that He exists. And to submit to authority—that level of authority which is the guide and agent of God and His will—it is necessary on top of that to know that it actually is such a guide and agent. Neither kind of knowledge can be faith based on blind obedience of authority; otherwise, we fall into a vicious cycle when what is needed is direct judgement arising, as all knowledge, from some direct credibility or evidence.
This last realization, whose persuasiveness is irrefutably clear, appears decisive. All faith-as-obedience, faith-as-trust is founded on submission to authority, ultimately relying on faith-as-authentication, faith-as-knowledge. This follows by its very nature; it remains valid whether the actual believer is aware of it or not—exactly as the connection of logic to truth remains valid whether or not it is actually perceived. To assert that faith recognizes the unproven on the strength of trust in authority and obedience to it is somewhat like primordial cosmology wherein the earth stands on a turtle, the turtle in turn stands on an elephant; the question being, what the elephant is standing on, but more is not considered due to lack of thought or imagination.
Just as the earth, to avoid collapse, must somehow and somewhere have an absolute foundation for its equilibrium without which it would be necessary to “lean” on something else, so must faith “lean” on trust in something which, in the final analysis, has its own foundation, on that which is in and of itself credible—in other words, which has strength, not “leaning” on anything else. Spinoza’s logical assertion that the standard of truth and error is, in the end, truth itself is also applicable to assertions of faith. The primary basis or essence of faith is not blind trust but immediate credibility—a direct and spontaneous judgment of faith’s truth. Though it is true that faith is founded on revelation—“revelation” must not be understood as something we think of as revelation or that we, through the subjective disposition of our souls are prepared to recognize as the transmitter of revelation (no matter if it is the word of the founder of our religion, or Holy Scripture, or church teaching) but only revelation itself in the literal, strict sense of that word—the self-revelation of God himself, His own manifestation to our soul. His own voice speaking to us, His own will which we freely receive within ourselves, which we follow because we know that it is His will—holy will, the will of the Sacred, bewitching and attractive to our souls—something possessing for us internal, freely-accepted persuasiveness and worth.
Faith, in the final analysis, is the encounter of the human soul with God, the appearance of God within the human soul. It is true that only rarely and only to a very few of his elect does God show himself with perfect clarity, revealing himself in all the all-conquering, all-illuminating power of his light. To the rest, His voice is heard only as though from a distance maybe, barely discerned in the midst of the noise of earthly impressions or only as a friend’s whisper heard in the greatest depth of our consciousness during infrequent moments of solitude, concentration, and quiet. But even so, whether we perceive God’s reality strongly or weakly, clearly or dimly, nearby or at a distance, this reality, finally, cannot be attested by anything other than one’s own self. However complex the network of wires connecting the human soul to God, that light which we call faith can only emerge from the original source of the light’s energy—from God himself. Whether the believer is aware of this or it is hidden from him through misunderstanding—this, I repeat, changes nothing in the essence of the corollary itself.
This corollary, in and of itself, is completely obvious. But it is possible and beneficial to explain it from a different, completely practical, psychological angle. How does a nonbeliever turn toward faith, how does the first acquisition of faith occur? Let us leave aside cases of a return to the forgotten and lost faith of childhood. We live in a world now in which millions of people have no religious impressions even in childhood, where they grow up in an atmosphere of nonbelief which they breathe in from birth. Regarding such a soul, all references to sacred authorities are powerless because it does not acknowledge or even understand them; what does it mean—sacred authority? Is such a soul blocked from access to God, to faith? Experience shows us that it is not. But if all human levels of authority, which for a believer serve as guides toward God and exponents of God’s reality are, essentially, eliminated and powerless, there remains, obviously, only one possibility: faith can ignite in such a soul only directly and this means through God’s direct action, through a living, direct perception, however dim, of God’s own reality.
And we witness a soul, hardened in nonbelief, that in a moment of deathly danger begins to pray to the God he or she does not know, or when the word of the Gospel plunges the soul into deep emotion before the indescribable beauty of God’s truth—how then the closed eyes of the soul open suddenly, how it begins to sense beyond the limits of the earthly sphere glimpses of a certain heavenly radiance, and it overflows with bliss and peace exceeding all human understanding. Such a soul knows that the voice of God has reached it and has, if only for a short moment, faith-as-authentication. But in fact, every believer has this exact same experience in the moment when he feels that his soul has been touched by that which is called the grace of God. And he who has never felt this cannot at all be considered a believer even if he has recognized all authorities sanctified by the church.
Another example: we live in a world with many different faiths. I leave aside distinctions between Christian denominations. But the world contains Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and various “pagans.” Is there any chance at all, if not to “prove” in the exact logical sense, then to persuasively illustrate the truth of any of these faiths or, more precisely, its superiority over the others? For Christians, this boils down to the question: is there any chance of persuading a believer of a different faith of the truth of the Christian faith, to illustrate this truth? Missionary experience is evidence that such a possibility exists. I do not know how Christian missionaries actually work, and I do not have the need to undertake complicated psychological guesswork. The essence of the matter, in and of itself, is completely obvious. For a believer of a different faith, references to sacred authority are, obviously, just as powerless as for the nonbeliever. If a Christian argues by referring to the Gospels or his church traditions, then the Jew will oppose this with his own faith in the Old Testament and Talmudic traditions, the Muslim will go to the holiness of the Koran—books which in his faith were written in the heavens—and the Buddhist—on the sacred strength, for him, of the sayings of the Buddha. The authority of the Roman pope will be countered with the authority of the Dalai Lama by the Buddhist-Lamaist. Must the representatives of these religions just disperse, unable to agree and understand one another? Does a common language exist between them—a language of Truth itself? And if so, what is it?
But, strictly speaking, this same question presents itself or should present itself in every human soul. Even if there were times when people of one faith lived in their own closed circle, not witnessing the existence of other faiths or knowing of them only through hearsay and perceiving them as incomprehensible deformities and perversions of ignorant and blind savages, then those times have long gone. Humanity, notwithstanding all political, national, and cultural segregation and discord, has long since in reality lived a certain common life; its separate parts are in close contact with one another. The West and the East, the Christian world, the Muslim world, the Chinese—not even speaking of Jews who are scattered around the entire world—find themselves in uninterrupted and close mutual association. If the Gospel has been translated into all languages of the world then so have the sacred books of the East been translated into the languages of Christian Europe. We do not have the excuse that we do not know of faiths other than our own. Each human soul must, in essence, ask itself this question: which of the many faiths is the true faith? Where is genuine religious truth located?
Of course, the vast majority of people are guided only by their own irrational sympathies, following the proverb: “We don’t like that which is good but consider good that which we like.” But the soul, full of a responsible awareness of the necessity of discovering the genuine truth, cannot be satisfied by this. If I am a Christian only because I was born and raised in a Christian family, surrounded by Christian culture, am accustomed to it and grew to love it, and if only for this reason others continue to follow other faiths, then all faiths of the world become empty conventions, the fruit of random historical circumstances, and we have no guarantee of the truth of any of them. But when we must choose between various faiths with opposing authorities, all of whom claim sacredness and infallibility then, clearly, no authority can be the foundation of our faith for we must have criteria for choosing between them, for evaluating their claims. What is the exit from a seemingly hopeless stalemate?
The solution is very simple—nothing other than what a scientist, forced to choose between different and contradictory scientific theories, must do. Just as science requires choosing the most correct hypothesis—and for this everything must be examined, actual reality compared with supposition—so also in the sphere of faith. If I, being a Christian, cannot prove to myself and others the truth of my faith with a simple reference to Scripture or the teaching of the Christian church, then I must and I can persuade and show that the teaching and person of Christ are higher, purer, more beautiful, more persuasive than the teachings and person of Moses, Mohammed, and the Buddha. And this means that I must see and show that through the teaching and image of Christ, God’s own truth is revealed more fully, deeply, clearly, and correctly than anywhere else.
So, limiting myself to only the most elementary indications, it is enough to remember that Moses, despite all the grandeur of God’s truth that he revealed, ordered, in the name of God, the merciless killing of foreigners and pagans but that Christ taught love of all people without differentiation—even strangers and enemies—so that from this alone, I know that Christ revealed to people a truth of God which is fuller, deeper, and more correct than did Moses.
It is enough for me to recall that Mohammed married a rich widow, led a commercial enterprise, had many wives, was a conqueror and a cunning politician while Christ lived as a homeless pauper who had no motivation other than the profession and selfless fulfillment of God’s will which He revealed to be an all-embracing, selfless love as the essence of this faith for me to know with full credibility that the person and teaching of Christ are, at the very least, immeasurably closer to God than the person of Mohammed and that, by comparison with the superhuman perfection of Christ, Mohammed, even if one truly sees in him a prophet of God, shows himself to be only an imperfect and sinful mortal.
And even the sublime preaching of the Buddha, teaching people to achieve the bliss of Nirvana by renouncing earthly desires, obviously and completely concedes in full the truth of Christ’s preaching that selflessness and love for our neighbor is the path to eternal life and the bliss of the Heavenly Kingdom; just as the image of the Buddha as a young prince and as an old man dying peacefully under the tree, with all its beauty, does not compare with the image of Christ, the homeless son of a carpenter, whose heart burned relentlessly with the Godly light of love and who met an agonizing death on the cross to save the world from the power of sin.
In such a comparative appraisal, we must, it is true, guard against spiritual narrow-heartedness where love of one makes us blind to all else and is even tied to the rejection and hatred of everything different. On the contrary, setting aside all blind human biases, we can and must see reflections of God’s truth everywhere where they are actually found—even in forms that we find most alien and unfamiliar. In fact, all the great religions of humanity contain elements of truth which we not only can but are required to accept. Moses, the Jewish prophets, the Buddha, the creator of the Upanishads, Lao Tse, the ancient religious wise men, and Mohammed can and must be our teachers—especially where they appropriately express genuine truth, the voice of God. Especially because the Christian sees the absolute expression of God and His truth in the face of Christ and His revelation, he knows that this truth is universal and that its echoes were always and everywhere heard by the human soul and were partially expressed. Recognizing one religion as truth does not mean rejecting the others as lies, it just means to see in it the fullness of truth and thus, a standard for the relative truth of other religions. In short, a comparative assessment of various faiths is just an understanding of their correct hierarchical relationship, the ability to discern the truth in their composition from delusions, fullness from limitations, the Godly from the human.
But, one way or another, we have the opportunity to evaluate various faiths, to differentiate within them greater and lesser truth, to see in which of them the light of God’s truth shines more clearly, opening our soul with maximum fullness and relevance. Where is this opportunity found? How do I know this? Let’s remember once more the words of Spinoza: “Truth is the measure of itself and of error.” And we repeat again its analogue: of God and His truth, the final evidence is God himself. Faith-as-trust—faith—obedience to authority—is based on faith-as-authentication. I am not a Christian, I do not have faith in Christ and His proclaimed teachings because I feel obligated to reverently honor the word of the Gospel or the authority of the church which teach me this faith. On the contrary, I believe in the Gospel because through it, through the preserved image of Christ in it, I see God himself, recognize truths which in themselves I perceive as the voice of God himself and I honor the church because, in the words and acts of its great preceptors, confessors, saints, and sages, I perceive with authentication the truth and wisdom of God.
Though this corollary, as stated, remains true regardless of whether the believer understands and is aware of it or not, for an extremely substantial faith of durability, relevance, and comprehension, he or she must recognize it. I spoke above about the opposite—and until now predominant—understanding of faith which has its roots in all religious thought of the historical past. All the more important to take note of the moment in the history of religious consciousness when understanding of the true essence of faith was first awakened and expressed as faith-as-authentication, in other words, as the free, direct judgment of God’s truth, or as awareness of the meeting of the human soul with the reality of God.
We first meet this insight, if I am not mistaken, in the significant words of the Prophet Jeremiah proclaiming the New Covenant which God will enter into with Israel: “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them . . .” (Jeremiah 31:33-34.) Isaiah 54:13: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord.” And we have a completely clear indication that it is precisely this insight of the Hebrew prophets which defined the form in which Christ’s revelations conceive of the essence of the New Covenant—in other words, the true Christian relationship to God. In the Gospel according to John, Christ himself cites the words of Isaiah: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord,” to confirm His Own words: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him . . . Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.” (John 6:44-45.)
This is not an accident, a single word from the Gospel taken out of context—one of those quotes which, as is known, can be used to prove anything. On the contrary, the very essence of the New Covenant is expressed in it, that new understanding of the relationship between the human soul and God, that Christ brought and heralded. If we leave to the side the content of Christ’s revelations and concentrate on the revelation of the very relation of the human soul and God, then its entire meaning, its whole revolutionary significance, consists precisely of the disclosure of God’s immanence in the human soul, His direct proximity and accessibility. For this reason, from the very essence of Christian revelation, it follows that faith is the direct knowledge of God, that knowledge which can be clearer in infants than in “scribes”—experts in Scripture, laws, and traditions.
This is expressed with particular clarity in the Gospel of John which, whatever its historical origin and value as a source of the life of Christ, is completely obvious (as is the Epistle of John) as the deepest and most adequate essence of Christ’s revelations for those “having ears to hear.” Just as Christ himself knows God (“I know the Father . . . and if I say ‘I do not know Him’ I shall be a liar like you . . .” (John 10:15; John 8:55); “I know where I came from” (John 8:14); “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen” (John 3:11)); so must his Apostles know God: “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also,” (John 8:19); “sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4); “you know Him (the Spirit of truth), for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17); “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God” (John 17:3). From the Synoptic Gospels: “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10).
It is the same in the first Epistle of John: “But you have an anointing from the Holy One and you know all things” (1 John 2:20); “He who knows God hears us,” (1 John 4:6); “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7); and the remarkable basis of faith in knowledge. “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us because He has given us of His spirit.” (1 John 4:13; 3:24). All teaching about the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the disclosure of that power or hypostasis of God, through which God is immanently present in the human soul and reveals Himself to it. Such are exactly, according to the words of Christ, those “true worshippers” that the Father seeks; those who worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). The designation of the Christ-Messiah by the name “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23) illustrates that through Him and His New Covenant, the world received the relation embedded in the words “God with us”—the immanent presence of God in our soul, his immanent proximity and clarity.
It is precisely on faith-as-knowledge, on faith freely verified by the human soul itself, that the proclaimed Christian revelation of the liberty of man is based: “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17)—that liberty which the Apostle Paul persistently instills in the Galatians and that Christ himself proclaimed: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing . . .” (John 15:15)
I, of course, already foresee objections by supporters of the opposite understanding of faith. They will tell me that the stated view widens the scope to endless religious subjectivity and individualism, threatens to drown out genuine and accurate religious truth in the chaos of empty and hazy human reverie which can always lead to destructive misconceptions. I will be told that this outlook completely eliminates the positive revelation on which Christian faith rests, just as well as all other world religions; that this, in essence, rejects the necessity for a Christian to follow Christ, to believe in Christ as the only infallible source of God’s authentic truth. It will be pointed out that the books of the New Testament do not tire of instilling in people that only faith in Christ and His proclaimed revelations reveal authentic truth; that, therefore, outside of faith-as-trust—precisely trust in Christ, submissively following Him—there cannot be enlightenment and salvation; they will cite the solemn, significant proclamation from the prologue of the Gospel of John: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18; Cf. John 4:46 and 1 John 4:12).
As I have already noted at the beginning of this reflection, I do not reject that this dominant view of the essence of faith that I have criticized still contains a measure of truth. And not from a blind allegiance to the letter of Scripture but from a personal internal conviction, I admit that his [John’s] just-quoted words, which seem to disagree with my outlined opinion, contain truth essential and necessary to the human soul. I just think that this sort of consideration, just like the quoted words of the Gospels themselves, do not contradict my opinion which, as was just pointed out, can rest on the entire spirit of evangelical revelation and even directly on his other words—otherwise it would be necessary to admit that the Gospel contradicts itself. John’s words only witness that what is said above about the true essence of faith does not yet exhaust these themes fully and demands a certain fleshing out, which itself will make necessary certain reservations and corrections.
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Helen Bogolubov Desai is an Orthodox Christian and heritage Russian speaker who lives in Richmond, Virginia.