As I mentioned in my previous post I love H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay Faith in Gods and in God, which is a chapter in his book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, but I think his definition of faith needs some adjustment. We’re not only dealing with the nature of faith here, but the nature of idolatry also. Niebuhr’s definition of faith is “a personal, practical trusting in, reliance on, counting upon something”. He’s getting close to saying something really groundbreaking but can’t quite formulate it, but there are quite a few hints. I don’t think understanding faith as reliance is going to get us very far.
I think before I try to explain the adjustments I would like to make to Niebuhr’s essay we should look at a couple of classics of western literature. Specifically, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I think it is fair to say that both Madame Bovary and Don Quixote are idolaters. What is the nature of their idolatry and thus what constitutes their faith? In these novels faith is not defined as reliance, but I think as becoming, as in they want to become what they idolize.
Don Quixote uses Amadis of Gaul as his model / mediator. (I’m making an obvious use of Girardian terms here). Don Quixote’s actions and understanding of reality are modeled and mediated by the books he has read on chivalry and knight-errantry. Don Quixote sees and understands the world through the eyes of Amadis of Gaul. His relationship with people and things are determined by Amadis of Gaul. Don Quixote’s desires and understanding of reality are dictated by someone else.
Emma Bovary desires through the romantic heroines she reads about in her books. Madame Bovary imitates the exterior appearance and interior thoughts of her models. She has freely chosen a model, but the model chooses her desires. Her desires are given to her by the heroines in the books she reads.
I’ll write more on this idea of faith as choosing and imitating a model / mediator later.