In the first chapter of the letter from James, he says this about the one who has faith, in contrast to doubt:
“But let him ask [for wisdom] in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8)
Notice, therefore, two connected claims:
- Faith is unity of mind. It denotes a stance, a kind of consistency, single-mindedness, in one’s willing, desire and mind.
- Doubt denotes the one who is ‘double-minded’. The one who doubts is inconsistent; a doubting person goes back and forth, left and right, incapable of making a firm decision.
These two claims debunk a popular myth about the nature of doubt. Doubt is not, as some often think, a refusal to believe something as strongly as possible. It isn’t the refusal to ‘just believe hard enough’ upon a particular proposition, or some wish that one desires. Doubt is not about the ‘force’ of one’s believing. Rather, doubt is a lack of consistency. It is a lack of a firm commitment in one’s life, a lack of reliable volitional unity towards a goal, which implies that one’s life is a sort of fragmented picture.
In a previous post, in which I reflected on Oliver O’Donovan’s account of faith as a meaning-conferring act that provides a unifying narrative that connects all of our actions, I said this:
Faith, therefore, is what enables us to give a coherent account of all of our actions, and it allows us to see those acts not as moments of random flickers connected merely by the string of time, but rather as intelligible expressions of a life who is a part of the story of God. It gives purpose to those events and acts, and it provides the context in which we deliberate about the future and reflect on the past.
Faith, therefore, is about a life devoted to God, based on the conviction that God is for me, and has my best interest in mind. Thus, the faithful person has one’s life oriented towards God. I think these are all elucidations of what James has in mind when he writes his first chapter.
In the past few weeks I’ve been revisiting the thought of the Danish Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. He says some striking things that reconfirm the above thoughts in my mind.
First, for Kierkegaard, to live purely for worldly and changeable things is to lack an ultimate coherence in one’s life – a stable and meaning-conferring standpoint from which all of the other acts could be rendered meaningful. Only a view from the eternal can provide one with the solace one needs. Consider these poetic words:
How, then, should we face the future? When the sailor is out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal. By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed. – Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 19
Second, Kierkegaard argues that a truly authentic hope is one that is grounded in a faith that is unified. It requires one to set one’s sights on a particular highest good. Again, in a typically eloquent way, he writes this about the conditions that may (or may not) make one a knight of faith:
In the first place, the knight will then have strength to concentrate the whole content of life and the meaning of actuality into one single wish. If a person lacks this concentration, this focus, if his soul is dispersed in the manifold from the beginning, then he will never come to make the movement [and become a knight]. He will act shrewdly in life like all those financiers who invest their capital in all sorts of securities in order to gain on the one when they lose on the other – in short, then, he is not a knight.’ – Fear and Trembling, 36.
One’s highest good, therefore, cannot be in some mundane goal focused on some temporal affair. The one who sets one’s securities in the temporal life is “not a knight” precisely because he or she would be moving in an unstable, incoherent, kind of life. Only the one who focuses on some eschatological, final, end can also secure the mundane tasks into a meaningful context.
This eschatological and highest good, the ground of one’s faith, the focus of one’s hope, is what Mark Bernier likens to a vanishing point in a painting – it is always present without being immediately visible, it sets all other things in place.
this good cannot be fully defined, since it is not reducible to any particular worldly end, or exhausted by the sum of worldly particulars. It is to some extent apophatic. We may compare it to the vanishing point in a painting, which is the geometric point around which all the objects and landscape of the painting are organized. The effect is to create the illusion of a three-dimensional expanse. The vanishing point is never seen, however. It remains hidden, never an object among other objects in the painting. It is neither shadow, nor line, nor shape. Yet it is present in the sense that every shadow and line and shape relate to it, and through this they relate to each other. In the space of the geometry of the painting, the vanishing point is infinitely far away. Yet the whole of the painting is organized around it, by creating measurable relations among the parts. A painting that lacks a vanishing point may contain other principles of organization, but it will not exhibit the same sense of reality and harmony. A similar thing may be said of the spiritual good. It acts as the infinite point around which all the elements of the self are organized – the eternal intruding upon the temporal. A self that lacks this is like a painting that lacks the third dimension provided by a vanishing point; and like such a painting, the self would be stuck in a two-dimensional existence.’ – Mark Bernier, The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard, p. 99.
These are provocative and generative insights. It suggests that the flourishing life is not defined by riches, gain, prestige, or merely worldly successes, though it certainly doesn’t preclude these ‘aesthetic’ goods. Rather, the flourishing life, the life well-lived, is a life with unity – a unity set on the eternal that ultimately gives all other things its meaning, locating them into their proper place.