Faith

Thomas inspects the wounds of Jesus to confirm his faith.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio), c. 1601–1602.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

Faith is a wonderful thing. Faith is belief without reason. From faith come miracles.

Christianity offers salvation. Eternal life in a new world. Salvation includes the chance for eternal life in paradise. But faith is required. Faith in God and his plan.

If you have proof of something, faith is irrelevant. Proof grounds faith and faith collapses. But something’s lost. Faith is a higher state. The wonder, the hope, the transcendence is in faith. For some, faith itself is the miracle. It comforts and fortifies and inspires. But there’s more to faith than that.

“​In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (​John 14:2-4​)

Unfortunately faith requires vulnerability, trust. In humans.

“Trust us,” said the Roman Catholic Church, God’s representative on Earth through direct transmission of the Holy Spirit by Jesus to the apostles (known as Apostolic Succession). “The Church will guide your way to salvation.” For many, ‘faith’ is simply going along with how they were raised.

Faust is unconvinced. Is Faust an atheist? That was rare, though it was an age of skeptics, and he has evidence if he needs it in the visit of Mephisto and other spirits. We won’t question Faust’s belief in the existence of God, just his faith.

“Life was nothing, wrote Petrarch to his brother, but “a hard and weary journey toward the eternal home for which we look; or, if we neglect our salvation, an equally pleasureless way to eternal death.” What the Church offered was salvation, which could be reached only through the rituals of the established Church….” A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara W. Tuchman

Does it remain to be explained why anyone would grasp at the powers of God?

Faith

Among the kinds of faith are: faith in the promise of salvation, faith in the word of God (the Bible), faith in God’s plan, and faith in God’s goodness.

Christian faith is more than just believing in the existence of God. Whether that faith was right and proper was always the issue for religious leaders because if they screwed it up, no one was going to heaven (which explains a lot of odd and intransigent behaviour in religion).

Seemingly trivial differences about different flavours of Christianity are critical to believers, and Faust, being about sinning, repentance, death and salvation and so on, touches on so many issues which must make sense as a whole that you could try to determine the writer/editor’s faith from the internal consistency of the tale – answering questions like what are the implications of his bargain? What are his sins? Could Faust repent? Will Faust be damned? Why doesn’t he get help? Does Faust have free will (and do any of us)? Where is God? What are the powers of the Devil? Of course that presumes the source’s beliefs are according to dogma.

Earliest publication details tell that Faust is a tale compiled from the circle of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great Protestant reformer. The story was compiled from older tales and printed by Lutherans a few generations after his death, at just about the time that early Lutheran orthodoxy was being established around 1580.1

Knowledge of, acceptance and trust in the promise of the Gospels are the hallmarks of Lutheran faith (Wikipedia). It includes faith in Jesus as the messiah.2

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
— Ephesians 2:8,9

Luther believed that God gave the gift of faith, through which salvation flowed. Your faith wasn’t up to you, and your faith didn’t exactly get you saved: rather, it was the conduit. Lutherans believe in salvation based on faith and nothing else, and that good works were only a consequence of a person’s faith (as was their social class for many).

A Lutheran Faust couldn’t impress God with his good works. He couldn’t find salvation without faith. Maybe he couldn’t impress God at all, assuming God adheres to Lutheran dogma of unconditional predestination which means that God has pretty much already decided if a person is saved or not, and Faust’s behaviour suggests he is not. But that doesn’t mean he’s damned. He can repent and pursue holiness and – if he has faith – be saved.

Faith in the Word

Wary of losing the way, Protestants rely upon the Bible as the word of God over any subsequent interpretations and opinions from humans, with the exception of some influential early Church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas.

While the Bible had not changed over the previous 1000 years, the existing Roman Catholic Church and the teaching had, and it was influenced by competing beliefs. Once the printing press made Bibles generally available, with people like Luther making copies in the local language, people discovered that for themselves.

In an age of oppressive taxation for dubious causes which enriched and pampered an inappropriately rich and powerful Church, riddled from top to bottom with corruption and immorality, it was easy to doubt that it was the legitimate Church of Jesus.

Particularly, it didn’t seem that any church could claim special powers otherwise reserved to God, especially not forgiveness of sins, or pathways to salvation. There was no evidence of magic, not since the death of the Apostles in the second century, anyway. There was nothing in the Bible about saints, popes and priests having special powers to invoke or control spirits. They weren’t magicians. Neither was there any magic against the Devil though, just faith.

Faust could be forgiven his disenchantment and his skepticism, even though he was educated in divinity. Well, maybe that was part of his problem — he was educated, independent, doubtful and drifting.

…reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. — Luther’s Table Talk. “Of Baptism”, section CCCLIII – 253) [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/tabletalk.v.xiii.html]

It is a hazard of learning which the Faust legend stands as a warning against that knowledge can erode faith and leave one further away from God. The same knowledge can be used to challenge one’s god. And to destroy – accidentally and purposefully.

But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? Galatians 4:9

Faith in the Promise of Salvation

I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:23–26

“If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why then, belike we must sin and so consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death.” — Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Doctor Faustus.

For Protestants, there’s little in the Bible to suggest there’s eternal damnation in Hell ahead (unless you make reservations like Faust did). Nor is there much else, really, except possible correction and eventual annihilation. Except for the gospel of Jesus, that is. Jesus offers a place in heaven for the very few elect who have faith and are sinless. Faustus didn’t get his quote quite right:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 8. King James Bible

Faust is supposed to confess and repent and have faith (and so are we), but he doesn’t.

Well, faith is the path to miracles. Does Faust believe in miracles? He believes in deals, but God doesn’t make deals (we understand). Salvation isn’t bought by faith, it comes through faith. Salvation is never for sale.

Except it was. The Roman Catholic Church would sell you “indulgences.” You could buy your way out of punishment on Earth for lesser sins or reduce time in Purgatory by buying forgiveness from the Church.3 It quickly became another money-making scheme in which unscrupulous Pardoners would even promise you salvation.

That was a large part of why Luther and others like him were so upset.

Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer:
Seeing Faustus hath incurr’d eternal death
By desperate thoughts against Jove’s deity,
Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,

Letting him live in all voluptuousness;
Having thee ever to attend on me;
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.
— Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Doctor Faustus. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

There is no salvation without commitment. But salvation is for the very few. Does Faust calculate he is unlikely to be saved and could make a better deal for himself?

Salvation – what is it good for? Faust lives in this world and has appetites. He needs to serve himself. Why live life in worshipful servitude under a God who expects gratitude and will repay it only to very few?4 Faust is self-reliant and proud–an individual. He placed his faith in himself, in this life, and so doing, necessarily cut himself off from God. Religion – comfort for children, but adulthood comes and one must bear the consequences. Was that a wise thing to do?

…know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
— Galatians 2:16

Faith in the Plan

God only knows what He’s up to, so have faith that it will all work out in the end, because if you don’t it certainly won’t.

At least religious faith in a better afterlife had meant that Christians were happy to leave this world alone to follow God’s inexplicable plan. It took the gradual emancipation of the individual to suggest that humans could make a paradise on this, the Devil’s planet (by Protestant reasoning that the Earth was flawed and Paradise perfect), and that idea was–and is still–percolating throughout Europe–progress to Utopia, a god-less Eden on Earth.5

Protests of “…but God’s plan…!” were rationalised away. He wouldn‘t have invented socialized health care if he wanted us to suffer. As far as the rest of the world went, God had given us control in the Garden of Eden, so we could impose our will. That’s progress justified.

Abandoning God’s plan paid off–so far. Their power – our power now – came from their express lack of faith for practical purposes–they accumulated knowledge built on physicality, cold reason, observation and facts, all done in a meticulous, standard, reproducible and communicable way that made for easy dissemination, and it worked very well. It still does. Too well at times. The Faust theme warns about the dangers of too much power in incapable hands and Faust’s story is a bellwether of our own progress along a similar path.

I form the light, and create darkness:
I make peace, and create evil:
I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:7 — King James Version (KJV 1900)

Faith in Goodness

Faith includes trust in God’s goodness and benevolence. God loves His children, and faith is especially for when it appears He doesn’t.

People of Faust and Luther’s 15th and 16th centuries were familiar with God’s love from the cold weather, pestilence, pillage, taxation, famines, armies and brigands and plagues which preceded and came and went throughout their lives. At least they were dead by the 30 Years War (1618 to 1648). That war–considered one of the worst European conflicts, including the World Wars, was partially fought over who would decide what your faith was (“Cuius regio, eius religio“) — though Roman Catholic or Lutheran were the only possibilities.

While God may be good, He will kill you. He kills everyone, often horribly. People gloss over that. After He kills you, he will probably destroy your soul because you suck, but that’s okay because you’re not good enough and you should be happy you’re not messing up paradise for your betters.

One of the great accomplishments of Christianity has been coming up with a God who is good and lovable, even though He’s responsible for all of the suffering and evil too.

So Faust put his faith in magic, and magic could only come from the Devil the story maintains. It was power Faust was after, not miracles. Faust isn’t directly about the rise of science and technology but science and technology is what magic became. Signs and symbols and invocations gave way to more of the same, facilitated by the cold water bath of Protestantism. Protestantism made the connection between the Earth and the Devil. The Faust story made the connection between magic and the Devil. We live in a world of symbols and representations which perform magic, enticed by power and idolatry, progressively alienated from natural reality, subject to manipulation by hidden and malevolent powers.

We are Faust’s descendants further along the path–no one is unaffected. We trade faith for magic and power. Lutheran fears realized, we have abandoned faith. Faust is everywhere and the Devil wins. All he had to do was invent the printing press and hand out Bibles and let the people decide for themselves or be swayed by new contenders.

Thanks to the Protestant values of hard work, discipline, suffering, joylessness (a rejection of the Devil’s temptations to sin) and knowing your place (if you can’t be saved, then serve), technology and industry have flourished. Ironically, Lutherans themselves have played a large part in that, too.

They were part of our emancipation from faith, but their intent was that there be a renewal of faith which had become stale and lost. There was, but it too, leads somewhere, to another renewal in another heretical form or to abandonment.

Salvation is not enough, goodness is painful, the Plan is inconvenient, and the Word is just promises. Faith becomes a burden. Promises are not enough. We progress towards paradise on Earth instead. We hope. We don’t have much choice. Did we ever? We can only offer platitudes and anodynes: one has to have faith. It takes a leap. What’s more powerful than faith? When all hope is lost, necessity remains the mother of invention and the survival instinct remains strong (for now).

Come Armageddon, if we have betrayed God, we will have to defend ourselves. When all hope is lost there is faith.

Who wishes good, should first be good,
Who wishes joy, should mollify his blood,
Who asks for wine, the ripe grape should he press,
Who hopes for miracles, more faith possess. — Goethe’s Faust6
Pasted from <http://www.einam.com/faust/pages/priest_part2.html>

Notes and references

  • Baron, Frank. Faustus on Trial: The Origins of Johann Spies’s Historia in an Age of Witch Hunting. Tiibingen: Niemeyer, 1992. 230 pp.

Footnotes
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_orthodoxy. []
  2. Faith in Jesus as the messiah — See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Lutheranism []
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indulgence. []
  4. That’s the vision of hell many would be living in if we had proof of God! []
  5. “A number of humanists joined the Reformation movement and took over leadership functions, for example, Philipp Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, John Calvin, and William Tyndale.” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_humanism. []
  6. “Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe’s early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. His later spiritual perspective incorporated elements of pantheism (heavily influenced by Spinoza), humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust. A year before his death, in a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée, Goethe wrote that he had the feeling that all his life he had been aspiring to qualify as one of the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region who, in his understanding, sought to reverence, as being close to the Godhead, what came to their knowledge of the best and most perfect.”
    –Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Wolfgang_von_Goethe). []