Faith: An Existential, Phenomenological, and Biblical Integration

Philip Brownell. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

When I was a child, every week, on television, people broadcasted a religious meeting, a so-called healing service conducted by Oral Roberts. It was so vivid, startling, and compelling. It was on a black-and-white television screen. Oral Roberts was up on a stage, in the center of it, but in front of the stage, there was a ramp leading up to him from one side and leading down and away from him on the other. As Roberts preached loudly about God, crippled people on crutches and those in wheelchairs approached the stage. He leaned down, put his hands on them, and yelled authoritatively, “Be healed!” Then they stood up or stood alone, having thrown down their crutches, and walked away. The audience, meanwhile, wept, moaned, and waved their hands.

In later years, as an adult working in ministry, I occasionally watched on color television programs in which people were once more yelling and weeping, waving their hands, and all the while focused on healing. The makeup seemed more vibrant. This time, people were also being “slain” in the Spirit and falling down uncontrollably. The ministers made fantastic claims, including that they had raised the dead. Once again, I was amazed and baffled; however, by that time, I had some theological armor and immediately began to pass judgment on what I was seeing.

I have never found a satisfying answer to the experience of the miraculous as seen in such Christian media. In the face of that, I have wondered about Jesus’s statements (Mk 5:34; Mt 21:21; Lk 17:19, 18:42)1 that it is faith that opens the door to miracles, and it is a lack of faith keeping that door closed (Mt 13:53-58; cf. Mk 6:1-6). If faith is the door through which so much opens up in life, it seems fitting to explore faith in its own right, and not simply as a means to an end.

What is faith? Are there differing kinds of faith? Is faith just a religious construct? Early in the twentieth century, psychology conceived of a continuum between belief and certainty all built on the objective evidence that either did, or did not, compel one to believe. At one end of this continuum, a person had enough objective reason to assert with reservations something as fact. At the other end was the superlative sense of belief taken to its utmost and resolved in certainty. However, altogether different was faith, conceived as a subjective attitude that did not consider objective evidence observed, but supplied whatever was needed to set uncertainty aside in favor of cognitive certitude (Ward 1920). Thus faith has been denigrated and suspect. It has been compartmentalized and marginalized as not belonging to the enterprise of normal and pragmatic living, let alone the naturalistic process known as science.

What follows is an existential, phenomenological, and biblical exploration of faith. Although existentialism and phenomenology overlap somewhat in mid-twentieth-century psychological literature (Maslow 1962; Sonneman 1954; May, Angel, and Ellenberger 1958; Pervin 1960), some of their relative features will be considered separately for the sake of clarity. This is not an exhaustive exploration, as that would take an entire volume or more. It is more of an integrative look at faith, using these various perspectives to create a more robust comprehension of some of the factors involved. As will be seen, that integration comes together tangibly in the clinical use of contemporary gestalt theory of psychotherapy.

An Existential Perspective on Faith

Some people consider existentialism to be more of an antiphilosophy (Dreyfus 2006) than a coherent philosophical system of its own. As such, it is seen as a rebellion against the prevailing, and stifling, philosophical systems of the times in which it arose. Others maintain that existentialism is simply a very practical way of doing philosophy and is as old as philosophy itself (Flynn 2006). Søren Kierkegaard is the prototypical existentialist, and he marks the start of existentialism. While there are precursors to Kierkegaard in Pascal (Dreyfus 2006) and Schleiermacher (Crouter 2005), it is Kierkegaard’s work that strongly identifies the paramount concern in existentialism: the individual, Gerkin’s living human document.

Kierkegaard lived in a time similar in some ways to our own. He objected to a prevailing contempt for the individual. He observed a search for science and objectivity motivated by Kant and Hegel, but in place of that, Kierkegaard substituted subjective truth, choice, and passion, and he turned attention back to the individual, away from the idea of the collective (Solomon 2004). His ground was his own Christianity and his rejection of Hegel and the church as burdens imposed on free people. He lived as an existing individual, and he propagated both the concept and the lived experience of existence in a way that directly influenced Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Jaspers. With this pervasive influence, his thought became the ground and wellspring for European existentialism (Gaffney 2006).

Faith, for Kierkegaard, was the most important work to be achieved in a person because only on the basis of faith can one become a True Self (McDonald 2006). Being a True Self, furthermore, means being true to oneself; thus authenticity and so-called bad faith (see subsequent discussion) were linked with choice and responsibility. For existentialist thinkers, a person is free, and that has tremendous bearing on existence, which can be understood as the individual-in-situation. What does individual-in-situation actually mean? It is a field-theoretical construct, for freedom and choice are experienced as a function of the person in contact with whatever is other in various spheres of interpenetrating influence. Self emerges from such interaction (Philippson 2003). As such,

there is no unique “core” to the individual. There is a person, who actively chooses, but he or she chooses among alternatives that are shaped by social processes in which he or she is an active participant. In making these choices, he or she defines a self that is specific to that situation. (Richert 2002, 82)

Thus both human behavior and one’s identity can only be understood through such concrete circumstances of living. Since all living requires an environmental setting in which contact, the interaction between the person and his or her contexts, takes place, existential faith is the mechanism supporting identification with self-experience, freedom, choice, responsibility, and authenticity (Crocker, forthcoming) in the risky navigating of one’s physical and interpersonal contexts. All this is wrapped up in the concept of an individual-in-situation, or existence. As Kurt Goldstein (1963, 201) told the assembled Harvard students during the 1938-1939 William James lectures:

Our observation of our patients shows that they cannot actualize themselves without respect to their surroundings in some degree, especially to other persons. The sick man is exposed to catastrophic reactions to a higher degree than the normal man; he can perform only if he finds a milieu which allows him to avoid catastrophic reactions. This implies that his behavior has to presume definite environmental conditions, in particular the existence of other men. The patient must develop an adjustment to others and limit himself according to the social actuality of others.

With this understanding, one is ready to consider the affirmation of the freedom of the individual. Paul Tillich claimed that a person is free in the sense of being able to determine himself or herself through decisions that reside at the core of that person’s being (Pervin 1960; Salzberg 2002). In dealing with doubt, for instance, he asserted that doubt is not overcome by merely repressing it, but by the courage that does not deny doubt, taking doubt “into itself as an expression of its own finitude” (Tillich 1957, 101) and affirming the content of an ultimate concern:

The offering of one’s heart happens in stages, with shadings of hesitation and bursts of freedom. Faith evolves from the first intoxicating blush of bright faith to a faith that is verified through our doubting, questioning, and sincere effort to see the truth for ourselves. Bright faith steeps us in a sense of possibility; verified faith confirms our ability to make that possibility real. Then, as we come to deeply know the underlying truths of who we are and what our lives are about, abiding faith, or unwavering faith as it is traditionally called, arises. (Salzberg 2002, 153)

This becomes a practical aspect of living in a world filled with ambiguity and uncertainty (Guinness 1976; Taylor 1992). Thus faith—the affirmation in question—is also an existential decision completed in some kind of action. Kierkegaard (1954, 31-37) expressed that when he wrote,

Each became great in proportion to his expectation. One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became greater than all…. By faith Abraham went out from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise … He will never forget that thou hadst need of a hundred years to obtain a son of old age against expectation, that thou didst have to draw the knife before retaining Isaac; he will never forget that in a hundred and thirty years thou didst not get further than to faith.

Authenticity and Bad Faith

“Authenticity involves a radical openness to the world, to others, and to one’s own experience; it involves honest and direct confrontation with the givens of existence toward the end of living in conscious harmony with them” (Walsh and MacElwain 2002, 257). Thus Abraham, Kierkegaard’s exemplar of faith, chose against the moral absolute, suspending the ethical to follow his faith in God. Abraham’s motives were “opaque to any outside observer” (Carman 2006, 231), and his behavior defied reasonable ethical interpretation. It is this radically individual and subjective faith that transcends external ethical commandments and standards, demanding that, come what may, a person must be congruent with himself or herself.

Authenticity is a matter of living the truth about oneself, which presupposes that a person actually knows oneself. People have wondered for centuries if there might be a self inside us somewhere that can be discovered. The classic statement of the midlife crisis is, “I’ve got to find myself,” but where can one find that? There is no outward trip, no spa, no guru outside oneself that can lead the way; rather, it’s a matter of settling down into the daily process of experiencing, in which one finds such things as attraction or revulsion, interest or boredom.

My wife and I have very different appreciations of color and style. When we first got married, she liked to shop for me, and she would bring home shirts, pants, and shoes. The experience was disappointing for her because I did not appreciate the look and the feel of those clothes; so she ended up bringing back most of what she bought. One might say, “How rude. Why didn’t you just go along with it?”

The answer is because those things had the feel of “not me.” As my therapist once said, “It is one thing not to do what you want, but it is another thing not to even know what you want.” Knowing oneself is a matter of ego. The Greek word for “I” is ego, and the strength of a person’s ego is not really just a matter of excessive self-importance. Karl Jaspers stated that ego strength was composed of ego-vitality (awareness of existence), ego-activity (awareness of one’s own performance), ego-consistency (unity of the self), ego-demarcation (self as distinct from the outside world), and ego-identity (identity of the self). A lack in ego-performance, for instance, results in disturbances of self-regulation, self-determined acting, feeling, thinking, and perceiving, while lack of self-identity results in weakening of the subjective gestalt (Kircher and David 2003). Perls, Herfferline, and Goodman (1951, 379-80) described the ego as the system of identifications that takes deliberate sensory-motor action as if isolated from its situation:

Organic need is restricted to the goal, perception is controlled, and the environment is not contacted as the pole of one’s existence but is held at a distance as “external world,” to which oneself is an extrinsic agent. What is felt as close is the unity of goal, orientation, meaning, control, etc., and this is precisely the actor itself, the ego.

Had I merely smiled and thanked my wife for purchasing clothes that had the feel of “not me,” all the while wondering what I was going to do with them, then I would have been acting out of bad faith. To act in bad faith is to avoid the risk that faith requires, for faith always comes as the bridge across uncertainty (Taylor 1992), and often, the anxiety of any given situation comes from the uncertainty over what might happen to oneself if one is authentic at any given moment. To remain true to oneself, to speak and act on one’s truth, is to manifest good faith, but to pull back, interrupting contact as an authentic, existing self, is to display bad faith. Thus Emily Dickinson remained true to herself, acted in good faith, and rejected God, writing (see Lockerbie 1998, 34-35),

Those—dying then
Knew where they went—
They went to God’s Right Hand—
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found—
The Abdication of Belief
Makes Behavior small—
Better an ignus fatuus
Than no illumine at all.
Choice and Responsibility

What comes linked intrinsically to the issues of authenticity and bad faith are those of choice and responsibility. That is because the existentialist emphasis on the individual requires a consideration of such concepts as autonomy responsibility choice, self-creation, and self-identity (Maslow 1962). Existential psychotherapists and writers, for instance, have stressed the importance of “the client’s free choice as essential to both the process and the outcome of psychotherapy. These traditions have rooted this process of choice in a well-articulated, highly individualized concept of self” (Richert 2002, 77).

While embracing these elements in an understanding of faith, one must keep in mind that such an individual exercises choice and experiences responsibility for such choice as properties of an emergent self, and the emergent self exerts a downward, causal influence over the brain, as the entire person is stimulated through contact in the environment (Murphy 1998; Greger sen 2000). The mind, the soul, and the self are constructs that overlap and point to the same thing, a dimension of human experience that “arises out of personal relatedness ” (W S. Brown 1998, 100). Thus to say that a person is an individual, and that the self is autonomous in making such choices, does not contradict assertions that people come into existence through relationship, are never actually apart from some kind of relation with others, are never set apart from the field in which they live, and are not able to thrive without it (Wheeler 2002; McConville 2001). Existential faith involves as much trust in oneself, something unseen and only experienced through contact and relationship with others, as in anything.

According to Kierkegaard, God places human beings in situations in which choices cannot be made rationally using moral categories and logic. These choices must be navigated without such criteria, and they are “essential to the life of faith. This is the brutal situation of human life and draws our attention to the fundamental character of decision: one’s very soul depends upon it” (Wildman and Brothers 2002, 362).

Since no individual is truly alone, such choices are always made with a measure of accountability to others, and this is known as responsibility: “The speech of the other provokes a response in me and my response is at the same time my responsibility ” (Moran 2000, 349).

Philip Yancey (2003) described the life of prisoners of war who had to work on the Burma-Siam railway during the Second World War. That was the group about which the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai had been made. Yancey described how the men had started out stealing from one another, fending just for themselves, and how life had become gruesome, until one day, a guard was about to shoot someone because the group would not divulge who had stolen a shovel. That’s when the speech of that guard, and the need of that other prisoner, prompted a different kind of response. One of the men stepped forward to confess having taken the shovel, and he was brutally beaten to death. Later that day, it became apparent that the shovel had never been stolen at all. His response, and the burden of responsibility that he took on himself, cost him his life. From that day forward, the character of the camp changed, and people began to look after one another. They nursed the sick and infirm, and they shared with one another their strengths and resources. The actions of that one man became a powerful speech that could not be forgotten; it demanded a response that was more than just skimming over the superficialities of life; it called forth accountability and responsibility.

People speak in one form or another. It could be about something big or something small. It’s obvious sometimes, but other times, it’s like they are speaking to someone else, or not really speaking at all. It’s possible to skim past them, as if they were a rack of unwanted clothes, but they really are not. If one sees them, if one hears them, then they have spoken to those who have perceived it. It is as if they called out, “I am here.” And the response to that is at once a responsibility:

“I am here,” said the homeless person.
“I am here,” said the abused child in a family too ashamed to tell the nasty secret.
“I am here,” said the neglected wife of an alcoholic.
“I am here.”

A second meaning in the concept of responsibility denotes the subject whose experience it is. If, for instance, something is my experience, then it is not someone else’s fault. I own it. I take responsibility for my own experience, and I do not externalize it by blaming others. Thus responsibility can also be seen as a form of authenticity.

A Phenomenological Perspective on Faith

Faith is an experience, a part of living, and a phenomenon. In so-called biblical faith, one has the proof of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen; that is, a person is presented with a concept, a potential, or a precept, and the fullness of it, the reality of it—the Presence of it—is experienced in the absence of the physical perception or appropriation of the object of faith in question. As such, faith becomes the principle by which noemata (the intentional objects of one’s phenomenology) are experienced phenomenologically.

What is it like to experience faith? For that matter, what is it like to experience anything? Personal experience is the realm of phenomenology and has been explored more fully in volume 3, chapter 11. What remains is to examine various typologies of faith and the phenomenology of perceptual faith.

Typologies in the Phenomenology of Faith

There are many ways to conceptualize faith—what it is and how it plays out in the lives of people. Before considering two elements in phenomenology (intentionality and perception) that bear directly on faith, it is helpful to take note of several important typologies of faith. They overlap one another somewhat, but another way of understanding that is to admit that there are some commonalities involved.

Paul Tillich suggested two different types of faith: ontological and moral. Ontological faith calls forth a response to encounter with God, and moral faith calls for obedience to the laws and precepts present in God’s standards.

Every individual is the “bearer of a special experience and content of faith. The subjective state of the faithful changes in correlation to the change in the symbols of faith” (Tillich 1957, 55). Ontological and moral faith each make demands of absolute truth on the limits of a relative existence. Symbols of faith are those elements of reality that serve to point toward the transcendent value of what Tillich called the ultimate.

To understand ontological faith, one must first understand the idea of the holy (Otto 1958). It is mysterious, daunting, and full of awe. It is also irresistibly fascinating, and so there are two aspects of the numinous experience of the holy: a fear that causes dread and makes the hair stand up (tremendum), and attraction that draws one toward it (fascinans).“It is the first element which impresses upon us the holy ‘apartness’ of God, His greatness and His glory, His might and His majesty, so that we bow down before His presence and humble ourselves” (Martin 1974, 14). This is what happened for Moses as he drew near to the burning bush. This is Isaiah’s experience of the vision of God in Isaiah 6:5. This is John’s attitude during the revelation on Patmos. The experience of the holy is what calls forth a response of faithful worship.

It invades the mind mightily in Christian worship with the words,
Holy, holy, holy.
It breaks forth from the hymn of Tersteegen:
God Himself is present:
Heart, be still before Him:
Prostrate inwardly adore Him.

The “shudder” has here lost its crazy and bewildering note, but not the ineffable something that holds the mind. It has become a mystical awe, and sets free as its accompaniment, reflected in self-consciousness, that “creature-feeling” that has already been described as the feeling of personal nothingness and submergence before the awe-inspiring object directly experienced. (Otto 1958, 17)

Tillich (1957, 58-59) described the way the holy is perceived and operational in the community of faith as follows:

The holy is first of all experienced as present. It is here and now, and this means it encounters us in a thing, in a person, in an event. Faith sees us in a concrete piece of reality the ultimate ground and meaning of all reality…. There is no criterion by which faith can be judged from outside the correlation of faith. But something else can happen: The faithful can ask himself or be asked by someone else whether the medium through which he experiences ultimate concern expresses real ultimacy.

The law in the moral type of faith demands obedience. This is a statement, or codification, of the way life ought to be. It is not so much faith in the encounter with a divine person as it is faith in the value of divine structure:

The divine law is of ultimate concern in both old and new Judaism. It is the central content of faith. It gives rules for a continuous actualization of the ultimate concern with the preliminary concerns of the daily life. The ultimate shall always be present and remembered even in the smallest activities of the ordinary life. On the other hand, all this is worth nothing if it is not united with obedience to the moral law, the law of justice and righteousness. The final criterion for the relation of man to God is subjection to the law of justice. It is the greatness of Old Testament prophetism that it undercut again and again the desire of the people and, even more, of its leaders, to rely on the sacramental element of the law and to neglect the moral element—the “ought to be” as the criterion of the “being.” (Tillich 1957, 67-68)

James Fowler (1996) presented a developmental taxonomy of faith stages in his book Faithful Change. He claimed that faith is a multidimensional construct that is “foundational to social relations, to personal identity, and to the making of personal and cultural meanings” (Fowler 1996, 55). As such, Fowler claimed that faith is generic to all human beings. He offered seven stages in faith development, summarized in Table 13.1.

John Mabry (2006) offered a taxonomy of ways in which people live faithfully in the world. It illustrates that faith is something people do, and not just something people have. A complete explication of his model is beyond the scope of this chapter. It consists of a consideration of eight features of the faith in question: (1) how the Divine is imaged, (2) the nature of one’s relationship with the Divine, (3) how one constructs meaning in the world, (4) what sources of spiritual wisdom are accepted, (5) how spiritual growth is assessed, (6) what spiritual disciplines and practices are honored, (7) what the advantages of any particular way might be, and (8) what its disadvantages might be. He used the illustration of a six-pointed star, composed of two overlapping triangles, and each point in each triangle corresponded to a different way of manifesting faith.

Avery Dulles (1994) also identified several models of faith. Although he had much to say about these models, it is instructive to see the short, summary descriptions he offered to identify these respective versions. They offer a quick grasp of some of the various ways in which people conceptualize their exercise of faith.

Intentionality and Perception

Underlying all these types, stages, styles, and models of faith are two phenomenological considerations that are more mundane, yet deserve attention. They arise from contemplating intentionality and perception, and they provide a simple ground for contemplating a biblical explication of faith and belief in miracles.

Intentionality is a central concept in phenomenological philosophy. It refers to the power of a mind to be about or to hold as figure, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties, and states of affairs (Jacob 2003). Franz Brentano claimed that in every mental act, something is included as object within itself. For instance, in presentation, something is presented; in wanting, something is wanted; in faith, something is “faithed” (i.e., something is believed and/or trusted, expected, or counted on). Central to any such experience is its intentionality because all experience is directed toward something by its content or its meaning (Smith 2002).

The intentional object can be present to the senses or absent. It may be a little of both. For instance, consider a box. Viewed from one concrete position, a person can only have one perspective at a time on such a box, and in that experience, a person can only see one side of the box at a time; however, the entire box is presented phenomenologically. One does not contemplate a two-dimensional picture of a box (or else that is what the experience would be about—a picture of a box); one contemplates the entire box, the real box, including those sides that cannot be seen fully, or seen at all. Thus what is not seen is believed to exist because those unseen parts are aspects of the holistic gestalt.

In a similar way, intentional objects that are not actually physically present can still be aspects of experience. Indication signs point toward an absent object, but a real object nonetheless. A hat reminds someone of a best friend. A picture brings to mind a remembrance, stimulates an imagination, or promotes an anticipation. These can all be experiences of intentional objects that cannot be seen, but are of actual objects, places, events, or people, not present to the senses but presented to the mind. Categorial intending, on the other hand, presents “states of affairs and propositions, the kind that functions when we predicate, relate, collect, and introduce logical operations into what we experience” (Sokolowski 2000, 88). Thus, when we read a newspaper headline and suddenly contemplate the construct of justice, we are experiencing categorical intentionality.

All these features of intentionality, in which one involuntarily comprehends something through a partial perception, a symbolic indication, or logical implication of reason, can be considered automatic (Moors and De Houwer 2006); they are examples of intentional faith. Why? Because they are held in the mind as real, even if only for the purposes of contemplation. They are not held in the mind as false positives unless presented as false positives.

One of the mind games people learn somewhere in a usual education is to ponder the question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” The solipsist would say that there would be no sound because it takes a hearer to constitute a sound—humans being the measure of all things and such. To that, representationalists claim that we do not have actual contact in our surroundings, but that our brains reconstruct the perceptual stimuli so as to make them manageable, understandable to us. Thus we might actually hear a tree fall, but we cannot know if the sound we hear is actually the sound that that tree makes because everyone’s ears convert the sound waves in their own manner of hearing. The philosopher and phenomenological thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968) coined a term, perceptual faith, to indicate that some things must be taken, in a modified realism, to be what we perceive them to be.

I hear what sounds like a tree falling in the forest. It does not sound to me like a jet plane, a bird singing, or a cat calling in the night air. I think, “A tree fell out there somewhere in the forest,” and my question is not what happened, but exactly where it happened. I instinctively know that a tree fell because I have immediate trust in my perception—it is suitable to me on the basis of perceptual faith.

For psychologists, this issue might be covered under the term validity. In reference to perceptual faith, it might be refined to refer to phenomenological validity. How accurate are the perceptions in question, and thus is any given occasion of perceptual faith well founded? Good perceptual faith would be trust well founded, but bad perceptual faith would be trust ill founded. Why? Faith that is founded on something that is not true, that is not actual, leads to mistakes. Thus issues of philosophical or logical validity stand behind the construct of perceptual faith.

I used to go round and round on these issues of faith, trust, validity, and truth with a friend of mine, Sylvia Fleming Crocker. Sylvia is a gestalt therapist living in Wyoming, who wrote a good book a few years back (Crocker 1999), and she believed that there is a difference between religious faith and mundane faith. She believed these two were actually diverse categories. I contended that faith is faith, but that the objects of faith might change, giving the appearance that religious faith was one thing and mundane faith was something else.

The Bible defines faith as the conviction of things unseen, the proof of things hoped for, and the trust it takes to act on what one holds to be true (see subsequent discussion). Without that last part, action based on what one holds to be true, Jesus’ brother James asserted that faith is dead. Is this any different from perceptual faith? Certainly we trust in our perceptions. In fact, this is Merleau-Ponty’s point, that we trust so much in what we perceive that it is rather automatic and leads to a holistic, lived-body response. We act in accord with our perceptions. We see the kitchen knife, we reach to pick it up and cut the onions, and we do so without questioning if we are actually seeing a real knife, or if the knife is actually there. The only people who do question such things are those who have lost their perceptual faith because they have suffered some neurological or psychological disorder that interrupted the normal flow of their perceptual experience:

The methods of proof and cognition invented by a thought already established in the world, the concepts of object and subject it introduces, do not enable us to understand what the perceptual faith is, precisely because it is a faith, that is, an adherence that knows itself to be beyond proofs, not necessary, interwoven with incredulity, at each instant menaced by non-belief. Belief and incredulity are here so closely bound up that we always find the one in the other, and in particular a germ of non-truth in the truth: the certitude I have of being connected up with the world by my look already promises me a pseudo-world of phantasms if I let it wander…. It is therefore the greatest degree of belief that our vision goes to the things themselves. (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 28)

Thus, to me, faith is not a tremendous leap, some kind of fanatical loss of reason that makes a person trust in Jesus Christ, for instance, but a specific application of a dynamic principle of life so common to human experience that we could not live without it.

A Biblical Perspective on Faith

Alister McGrath (1993) described the Christian community’s understanding of the word faith as comprising belief that something is true, trust in that veracity, and entrance into the substance of whatever issues are involved with actions based on such faith. He used the illustration of having a disease and having a bottle of antibiotics. One believes that, in truth, the antibiotics can heal the disease, but one does not trust and enter into the benefits of faith until one actually acts on that belief and takes the medicine.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1963) championed biblical faith as expensive; it was not merely intellectual assent because it cost a person something to act on what he or she believed. That could be the risk of the loss of life, but it could also be the risk of the loss of esteem and respect in the eyes of significant others. Cheap grace, by contrast, would be the love of God and faith taught as mere conceptions—an intellectual exercise as part of an academic conversation that could be enjoyed by all without loss of respect because devotion, allegiance, and investment in the truth of concepts discussed would never be tested. Dallas Willard, quoting Luther, claimed that such faith, such cheap grace, was never conceived to be biblical faith because faith in its nature is busy and powerful. It cannot cease doing what is good; so the person who does not actually do good is a person who lacks real faith. That person feels around looking to find faith and good works but can’t find them because he or she does not know them deep inside and cannot recognize them in others. By contrast, Luther held that faith is well-founded confidence in the grace of God that is so precious, so strong, that it would never surrender its conviction (Willard 1991). Such faith is transforming; it stimulates a person to tell others of the great impact such faith has had (Jackson and Jackson 2005; Yancey 2003; Monroe 1996).

Sixteenth-century thinkers identified three levels of biblical faith: notitia, assensus, and fiducia (Sproul 2003). Notitia is the content one is poised to believe. Assensus is the intellectual assent to a proposition. In terms of a biblical faith, it is the belief that something is or is not factual. Fiducia is personal trust and reliance on such facts; it is the belief in the propositions or persons in question:

Upon reading or hearing a given teaching—a given item from the great things of the gospel—the Holy Spirit teaches us, causes us to believe that that teaching is both true and from God…. But faith is also “the evidence of things not seen.” By faith—the whole process, involving the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit—something becomes evident (i.e., acquires warrant, has what it takes to be knowledge). And what thus becomes evident or warranted is indeed not seen. This doesn’t mean that it is indistinct, blurred, uncertain, or a matter of guesswork; what it means is that the belief in question isn’t made evident by way of the workings of the ordinary cognitive faculties with which we were originally created. (Plantinga 2000, 260-65)

In the Bible, two words account for most of the references to such faith. One is a Hebrew word and the other is a Greek word. The Hebrew word is aman, and the Greek word is pistis.

The Hebrew word is related to the English word amen, which is often said at the close of prayers to express certainty. That is the essential significance of the Hebrew word in the context of the Old Testament as well: “The basic root idea is firmness or certainty” (Scott 1980, 51). It is sometimes conveyed in the figures of the strong arms of a parent upholding a child or the pillars of support on a building. At other times, a causal nuance is understood, so that it means to cause to be certain or sure. In the Hiphil conjugation of the Hebrew verb, the meaning becomes “to believe,” indicating that biblical faith is “an assurance, a certainty, in contrast with modern concepts of faith as something possible, hopefully true, but not certain” (Scott 1980, 51).

The word pistis can be traced to the classical Greek period, at which time it referred to the trust that a person might place in other people or the gods, credibility, credit in business, guarantee, proof, or something entrusted (Michel 1975). The concept took on religious overtones at an early date; in Homer the gods vouched for the validity of an alliance or treaty, and the trustworthiness of an oracle could be applied directly to divinity. The power of the gods to save in times of trouble was something addressed by pistis. During the Hellenistic period, which was characterized by increased skepticism, pistis acquired the sense of conviction as to the existence and activity of the gods, and a didactic element emerged as the basic meaning: pistis as faith in God indicated a theoretical conviction. Stress was, nevertheless, placed on how one might live, given such a conviction. The Stoic perspective accepted a divine ordering of the world, with the individual as the center as an autonomous, moral being. A person’s fidelity to his moral destiny led to fidelity toward other people. In the mystery religions, one abandoned oneself to the deity by following the deity’s instructions and teachings and by putting oneself under the deity’s protection. In secular Greek, then, pistis

represents a broad spectrum of ideas. It is used to express relationship between man and man, and also to express relationship with the divine. The particular meaning is determined by the prevailing philosophical and religious influences. Originally it had to do with binding and obligations. But Stoicism made out of it a theoretically based law of life which brought the individual man into harmony with the cosmos. There was also a dangerous development in which pistis was demanded in response to a claim of revelation which was not subject to any control. (Michel 1975, 595)

The Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew aman in the niphil conjugation to mean “to be true, reliable, or faithful.” An emphasis is made on the word of God preserving dependability and being confirmed subsequently by some kind of action (1 Kgs 8:26; 1 Chron 17:23ff.). In addition, Gen 15:6 is important for the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament (cf. Rom 4:3, 9, 22ff.; Gal 3:6; Jas 2:23). Abraham’s faith is his readiness to adhere to the promises of God, finding security and grounding in the word of God; in turn, God responded to this trust as “behavior appropriate to the covenant relationship” (Michel 1975, 596).

In the New Testament, pistis means “faith” and “trust” (Arndt and Gingrich 1957). This can refer to things that stimulate trust and faith in others such as the reliable work of a servant (Tit 2:10) or the example of someone else’s enduring faith (2 Thess 1:4); it can also refer to trust, confidence, and faith in the active sense (Rom 4:5, 9, 11-13, 16; Eph 2:8; Col 2:12; Heb 11:4-33, 39). More pointedly, it can refer directly to that which is believed—the object(s) of faith (Gal 1:23; 1 Tim 1:19, 4:1, 6, 6:10; 2 Tim 4:7).

In one of the classic assertions of the New Testament, faith celebrates “the reality of the blessings for which we hope, the demonstration of events not seen” (Lane 1991, 328).

A Clinical Integration

Kierkegaard claimed that to take a leap of faith was to risk losing one’s footing, but not to take it was to risk losing one’s self (Gaffney 2006). Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, the founders of gestalt therapy, said (1951, 343), “Faith is knowing, beyond awareness, that if one takes a step there will be ground underfoot; one gives oneself unhesitatingly to the act, one has faith that the background will produce the means.”

Thus faith becomes the instrument of knowing and an essential principle of contact. In a gestalt therapy training group, for instance, when a student takes that first step of working as therapist, the student entrusts himself or herself to the other people present and to the process of training, and that faith becomes supportive. No matter what, it will turn out for the good because even if the trainee does his or her worst work, the training group will make good use of it. Such faith is one of the means by which the student learns and comes to know the experience of working as a therapist, of taking risks and of experimenting. Without such faith, one would not likely take those steps and find ground underneath.

Just so in the spiritual realm: one steps out believing God for something, and there is further experience; the ground really does show up under the foot, so to speak. One pushes back, toward God, trusting in the relationship, and there is confirming experience; it is a response only those who engage God through dialogical encounter can understand. This is at the core of Martin Buber’s thinking on dialogue.

Kierkegaard’s individualistic, passionate, and decisive faith, Goodman’s ground of faith, and Buber’s encounter with divinity are all at the heart of both existentialism and gestalt therapy. Indeed, gestalt therapy is an existential-phenomenological system that is built solidly on faith. One cannot be present unless one is present authentically and responsible for one’s own experience, but that is risky, and it requires trust in the process. One cannot practice a phenomenological method without exercising perceptual faith, trusting that what one observes of the client and what one experiences in the presence of the client is contact within a real context, forming intentional figures of interest in a natural cycle of formation and destruction.

Indeed, the bracketing involved with such a process is for the purpose of attending to the data themselves, the about-ness of it all, presented to the therapist through the presence of the client. That is perception in the lived-world through the lived-body. Gestalt therapy is also a phenomenological field theory, meaning that the individual experiences of therapist and client meet and form an intersubjective sphere of influence; however, biblically speaking, they are not alone. Instead of a two-person field, it is a three-person field—a meeting of therapist, client, and divinity:

Someone who has learned to yield to the world of “Holy Spirit consciousness” has tapped another reality outside the province of language and rationality. This shifts from the normal analytical arena, where things occur in sequence and on a line, to a more holistic gestaltic perception. It is not enough for someone simply to have had “mystical” experience for this ability to accrue. Indeed, the Scriptures clearly talk of “walking in the Spirit” and “being led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1,14; Gal. 5:16). This denotes duration and a learning process, as God the Holy Spirit seeks to teach us to become like Christ. Spirit-directed living has as its result not a separation from humanity, but deep involvement in interpersonal relationships. (Tarr 1985, 13)

By faith, a gestalt therapist can open himself or herself up to the presence of God, seeking God’s help in understanding and working with any given client situation. This is more than a mere cognitive gimmick to shift the thinking of the therapist; by faith, the believing therapist engages in a dialogical relationship with divinity, practicing a partnership with divinity that allows the therapist to ask God’s help to remain present to the client, to risk self-disclosure and authenticity as appropriate, to abide the anxiety of the safe emergency that might not always feel so safe, and thus not to hold so tight to the therapeutic process. By faith, the therapist can choose to shift the emphasis in how he or she is working, moving from a phenomenological emphasis to a dialogical, or to the freedom of an experiment, or to a field theoretical strategy—all mainstays of gestalt therapeutic process (Brownell in press).


Existential faith requires freedom, choice, and authenticity. It takes responsibility for one’s experience. Phenomenological faith includes the automaticity of holistic gestalts in intentional objects of perception and categorial intentionality. It also includes the basic elements of perceptual faith. Biblical faith celebrates the reality, the certainty of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. By biblical faith, one enters into dialogical relationship with God and can practice the presence of God in every aspect of life, including that of therapeutic process. Through faith, a person can remain present to contact in the midst of otherwise challenging situations and relationships. Faith is a basic condition and supportive principal of contact by which people come into being and sustain life. Belief in miracles calls on all of these dynamics and thus is not an unexpected phenomenon in a moment or experience of perceived unconventional experience.