David Lose: Is 'Faith' a Noun or Verb?


Recently I had a chance to reconnect with several former students while teaching in Minot, ND. One reminded me of a distinction I'd made some years earlier and, more importantly, shared with me the impact it was having on some of the young families in his congregation. The distinction was simple (and one no doubt I'd borrowed from others!): Is "faith" a noun or verb?

The answer, of course, is both. But the distinction matters when it comes to how we understand our faith in our daily lives; do we, that is, on a day to day basis think of faith primarily as functioning as a noun in our lives or as a verb.

If it's a noun, then our faith is primarily about what we should believe. Creeds, catechisms, statements and formulations of faith, and so on. Faith understood primarily as a noun stresses the cognitive dimension of our faith. And while this is important, it can easily devolve into concerns not simply about what we believe, but about believing the "right" things and, if truth be told, about whether our neighbors (especially those with whom we disagree) are believing the right things. More than that, over-stressing the cognitive dimensions of faith - faith as a noun - can lead to a rather static faith, one focused on getting your theology in order rather than actually doing anything. This is one reason that, while faith understood as a noun was a predominant way of accessing faith a generation or two ago (when denominations flourished by clarifying what they believed differently from other Christian traditions), many in an emerging generation interested in making a difference in the world find approaching faith primarily as a noun relatively off-putting.

Which is why I think reclaiming faith as a verb is really important. Faith understood this way is more active than cognitive, as it stresses living our faith in the way we treat others, in how we raise our children, in how we spend our money, vote at elections, care for those in need around us, and more. Faith understood as a verb is about our daily activities and practices and stresses acting on our faith rather than just thinking about it. This kind of faith, in other words, invites us to get out of our theological armchairs and get into the game - the game of life, of loving neighbor, of trying to do the best you can in any given situation and then hurrying back to church on Sunday for confession, absolution, encouragement, and sending. Further, this kind of faith not only allows but actually invites questions. Questions about, well, faith - the point isn't getting it right but figuring out what we believe together, trusting that one of the best ways to figure out questions of faith is to try to live our faith and see what answers and responses suggest themselves while we do.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against thinking theologically - trust me, it's one of my favorite things to do. : ) But I think we've sold our faith short when we think of it primarily as a noun rather than a verb and risk losing the emerging generation to boot. But inviting people to serve, to act, and generally to do something is a great way for folks - especially those not that familiar with church - to get involved in a low-key way, build relationships with other Christians, and have an opportunity to act and feel their way into faith rather than just think about it.

So I'm curious: do you experience faith more as a noun or a verb? And does the community of faith of which you are a part give you more opportunities to think about the faith or live it? And what might we do together in our faith communities to invite a more active, verb-like life of faith? Thanks for sharing your thoughts in the comments.

From David's blog, "...In the Meantime"