Stuck in a rut that was centuries old, the Sadducees were hopelessly incapable of turning to the right or to the left to respond to the new revelation that was unfolding before them. To their minds they stood not in a rut, but in a trench. For generations increasing numbers of their countrymen had been seeing the hope of resurrection in the promises of God. But not the Sadducees: they saw themselves as the last line of defence against this invasion of an alien and teaching.
These guardians of anti-resurrection had assembled for their latest sortie. It was their most ambitious yet in their prolonged and increasingly irrelevant doctrinal war. Jesus of Nazareth was the new and most dangerous teacher of resurrection and their objective was to take him down. Their attack, however, was doomed from the start, Jesus simply had the better arguments — God is the God of the living, not of the dead. And yet the Sadducees though defeated were far from giving up. Nothing, not even an encounter with the resurrection-man himself, could shift them from the position that had been handed down to them by previous generations of anti-resurrectionists. It was they who, through the Sanhedrin which they controlled who sentenced Jesus to death. Perhaps they thought they would put his hope of resurrection to the test.
It is difficult to accept that people could hold on to a belief that crumbles in the face of Scriptural evidence and theological argument, still less that refuses to bend even when the thing being denied—resurrection—is embodied in the person with whom they are debating. But the Sadducees’ belief that there would be no resurrection becomes easier to understand if we see it as an example of borrowed faith, a faith that it passed down to us from authority figures (previous generations of Sadducees, in this example), is inflexible and doesn’t work for our benefit.
Borrowed faith is an expression of a very ordinary and necessary psychological phenomenon. We each internalise elements of the personalities of significant authority figures in our lives. The obvious and most significant example of this is the internalisation of the personalities of parents or caregivers. Those who provide care and protection as we grow up have a major impact on our personalities as some of the ways they think, feel and behave become patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving for us and some of their beliefs and ways of seeing the world are incorporated into our worldview.
All of which is necessary since it is by this mechanism that we develop ways to survive and get on in the world—our home environment and our relationships with our caregivers prepare us to interact productively with society and furnish us with values which we can then develop and amend as our own unique personality grows.
Problems can arise, however, when unhelpful aspects of this borrowed worldview remains unchallenged and untested which leads to us then failing to develop flexibility around our way of seeing the world and interacting with others. Where these beliefs are beliefs about ourselves then this becomes can a key component in setting up the internal conflict that generates and supports anxiety. Where they are about others then it can lead to prejudice and bigotry.
This same mechanism is to be seen in in our experience of faith. It is inevitable that our faith will initially have a heavy borrowed element in it. Our initial learning will consist of internalising the faith of those around us. However, if our faith then fails to make the transition from a borrowed faith to a faith that is truly ours then it will, to some extent begin to work against us.
Borrowed faith has a number of distinguishing features.
1. It is inflexible. For this reason it does not change over time and struggles to incorporate new ideas. This inflexibility also means that it does not genuinely interact with other Christian traditions or other belief systems. I’m reminded here of Charles Hodge’s proud boast on returning from heading up Princeton Theological seminary that during his entire time there not one single new theological idea had been put forward! This seems to be quite a good example of the inflexibility that comes with borrowed faith.
2. Things that are inflexible, such as glass, are also brittle. So it is with borrowed faith. This stands to reason since we haven’t challenged or tested our borrowed beliefs and so they do not possess the robustness of beliefs that have been examined and appraised.
3. Because of its brittleness we must construct elaborate defensive mechanisms to protect our borrowed faith from those forces that seek to bend it. These defences will be unique to us but may well involve paranoia, passivity, withdrawal, outbursts of anger, narcissistic grandiosity, or a collapse into drama. It is this aspect of borrowed faith that explains why some people of faith descend into extremism. As Paul Tillich in his book The Courage To Be points out, extremism is an attempt to protect a fragile and failing belief system.
4. When our faith is borrowed it will usually result in us having difficulty with an anxiety that is interwoven with our Christianity. The reason for this is that the internalisation of the faith of another person sets up an internal conflict between the internalised authority figure and our own vulnerability. This anxiety could take any number of forms, but a typical example would be a lack of assurance where standards for the Christian life being demanded by the internalised authority figure conflict with our feelings of guilt. Another example would be worry about God’s will for our lives where the expectation of our borrowed faith that we will follow God’s purposes for our lives is in conflict with our own self doubt.
It is possible for us to continue throughout our lives with a borrowed faith by protecting it as I’ve outlined in 3. above. What often happens, however, is that sooner or later we will realise that such a faith is inadequate for life and will ditch some element of it, or we may even ditch it completely. Anxiety will usually be the grounds for this realisation: the internal conflict that is anxiety will be too intense for us to tolerate any longer.
As we grow in our personal self-understanding so questions will inevitably arise which are directed at this borrowed faith. This is an essential part of growing a mature faith which means transitioning our faith from being borrowed to being genuinely our own. It is the role of the person engaged in pastoral work not to suppress these questions or to furnish them with easy answers as these encourage a regression back to an old way of believing that was no longer working. Rather it is their role to encourage this process and where it is evident that borrowed beliefs are hindering growth, to challenge them.
The objective here is not to destroy faith, but to aid the transition from a borrowed faith to a faith that is owned, one that fits into our emerging understanding of ourselves and the world. This can be a threatening experience. As I have already pointed out, few things generate more anxiety than examining and repairing the foundations of our meaning-making. But once again, the pastoral counsellor who is helping us through this process needs to resist the urge to rescue us from this difficult experience. What we need is to be supported in the experiencing of this anxiety. The message needs to be conveyed and repeatedly reinforced that this anxiety is OK. Without this support we will try to escape the difficult feeling with the result of reinforcing our borrowed, unhelpful beliefs.
In describing borrowed faith, I have not been describing some sort of spiritual pathology. To my mind, this process of taking ownership of our faith, a process that involves anxiety, questioning, doubt, examination and, finally, a reframing of our beliefs is a part of spiritual growth. As such it is to be welcomed. Difficulties will only emerge when either our own internal processes won’t allow us to challenge these borrowed beliefs or where our church does not support the expression of anxiety or doubt. It is then, when growth is not permitted, that borrowed faith can become a problem for us as the tensions that are necessarily present in order to encourage growth are not released and so increase to a point that creates difficulties and possibly even the collapse of our faith.