Without Faith Go to Hell

This post is about words about holy words, about technical words, about words that are holy and technical because they must be since the stakes are high for so many.  The title is a sentence I heard made of words my Dad preached once.  (It’s a 15-minute post, and I’m only saying that to ask your forgiveness.  And I may really need it.)

“Hell” slipped out of my little kid mouth once, however, and my Daddy said, “Mind your language, boy.”  Actually, it was “Go to Hell!”  And, actually, it was more than just a warning Daddy gave me.  It was punishment that I suffered for an eternity.  I wasn’t even supposed to say, “Go jump in a lake.”

Knowing that, my brothers and I, playing long games of Monopoly during the long rainy season, on afternoons after we’d made a muddy mess of our clothes outofdoors, would relish one thing.  We’d love it whenever anybody’s token landed on the unlucky “Go to jail” square.  We’d chant in unison, loudly, “Go to Jail!”  And we’d add, “go directly to jail.”  And “Do NOT pass Go!”  And “Do not collect $200.”  You see, we could say “Jail” because it was in the rules.  Also in the rules was that “Get out of jail free” card.  What we’d learned in Sunday school was that “faith” was that “get out of jail free” card.  And Jail, of course, was Hell.  So we said Jail because we could but not Hell because we mustn’t.  It was important to get the “Get out of jail free” card; and it was a must that you “get” Faith too, because so much was at stake.

Well, when older, I learned that “faith” was really English for a Greek word.  And now that I’m much older, I just read what Yancy Smith wrote that James Kinneavy wrote.  Kinneavy wrote Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: an Inquiry. Kinneavy wants to get the Greek word right too.  So not only Baptist preachers but also rhetoricians, and not only academic scholars who are rhetoricians, but also linguists, linguists over at Better Bibles Blog, where Smith made his comment.

The funny thing is that on this word, rhetoricians and linguists and theologians and Christian preachers don’t agree.  Once I was very interested in that:  “beliefs” becomes “pisteis” or “proofs” or “persuasions” only in the works of Aristotle and his contemporaries.  Before Aristotle and after him, well, the meanings became pretty fuzzy again, not so technical.

And in Romans, where Paul seems to make such a big big deal out of “faith” in the Christian Bibles, there’s less certainty, or much certainty with different emphases, in the Bibles of the Jews.  Hmmm.  More recently, I was interested in that, I mentioned some of those Jewish translations here.  Here they are again (as I quote myself again quoting them):

This erasure of the Jewishness of Moses and Paul (and even Jesus) is what translators such as Willis Barnstone and David Rosenberg have had to work against.

Barnstone, in his Restored New Testament, translates as follows:

“Shaul/Saul/Paul” – quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew –

What shall we say that our forefather Avram
Discovered by way of the flesh? If Avram
Was justified by his works, he has something
To boast about, but not before God. Genesis
Says Avram believed God. For his belief
He was accounted with justice.

– Romans 4:1-3

He didn’t flag in his belief in God’s promise.
Indeed, he was strengthened in his belief,
Giving glory to God, fully persuaded
That what God promised he could fulfill.
So his faith counted as goodness in him.

– Romans 4:20-22

As Avraham had faith in God, and he
Was singled out for justice,.

– Galatians 3:6

“Yaakov (James)” – quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew –

And so the scripture was fulfilled that said:
…And Avraham believed God and he was counted
…Among the good.
And he was called a friend of God.

– James 2:23

(James, of course, was for [Martin] Luther, that “strawy epistle”)

Rosenberg, in his Abraham: The First Historical Biography , translates Genesis 15:6 as follows:

He trusted Yahweh, and it was accounted to him as strength.

Likewise, Robert Alter, whose Genesis translation Barnstone praises and follows with respect to translation practice, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:

And he trusted in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit.

Similarly, Everett Fox, whose English translation typically conveys the Hebrew wordplay, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:

Now he trusted in YHWH,
and he deemed it as righteous-merit on his part.

Perhaps a “classic Jewish” translation is the JPS Englishing of Genesis 15:6 –

And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

Now, I’m not arguing that I get to say “Hell” or any other unspeakable word.  What I’m hoping for is to begin to see how the stakes for a person determine really how technical they want the definition of their important word to be.  The more abstracted and less embodied the definition, it seems to me, the more they’ve needed it to be really important in their world view.  I’m not saying Aristotle or my Dad was wrong or is wrong.  I do think that precise definitions must be very important.  For Aristotle, the word for “faith” he called “the body of the enthymeme” and he viewed that as a very important, very consequential thing for “rhetoric.”  For my Dad, once upon a time, the word “faith” was the biblical word that was, for me and my brothers, that “get out of jail free” card.  For me now, I’m still learning to mind my language.


7 responses to “Without Faith Go to Hell

  1. Wow. The post written above was written too quickly. By “quickly,” I mean sloppily which is just as well since, often, we human beings use language just this way, even we we’ve already got fixed in our heads what such and such a word must mean for everybody for eternity. This sort of fixed defining of terms is not only dependent on precise definitions cut out of binaries using logic and formalism — the binary — above people; but this sort of bifurcation also separates us individually within ourselves. This very morning, I read something a Quaker, Richard J. Foster said about this (and I’m guessing somewhere at sometime in his life he himself has experienced it): ‎

    “Many of us today live in a kind of inner apartheid. We segregate out a small corner of pious activities and then can make no spiritual sense out of the rest of our lives.”

    At any rate, to slow things down a bit, as if to back them up some, let me quote Aristotle and then Paul side by side here. And do know that readers of Aristotle who show really really know, say this (which William M. A. Grimaldi says in his essay “The Centrality of the Enthymeme”: “In actual fact the word πίστις in Aristotle’s text will not sustain the univocal interpretation (i. e. proof, way of proving) which has been imposed upon it”). And do know that readers of Paul are still arguing (i.e., “Peter and I against Yancy and Mike”), hoping, it seems, to define and to fix what Paul surely wrote and must mean, against what their opponent says. Now, Aristotle, then Paul:

    αἱ γὰρ πίστεις ἔντεχνόν εἰσι μόνον
    τὰ δ’ ἄλλα
    προσθῆκαιοἱ δὲ περὶ μὲν ἐνθυμημάτων οὐδὲν λέγουσιν
    ὅπερ ἐστὶ σῶμα τῆς πίστεως

    ἐπείπερ [ εἴπερ] εἷς ὁ θεός, ὃς δικαιώσει περιτομὴν ἐκ πίστεως
    καὶ ἀκροβυστίαν διὰ τῆς πίστεως
    νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως μὴ γένοιτο
    ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστῶμεν [ἱστάνομεν]

  2. Great post, loved your paper … I was also a student of Richard Enos the year before you took Medieval Rhetoric, in Classical and Rhetorical Interp. My favorite teacher of all. Time. I really enjoy reading your posts. Like you, I do not see much use in trying to pin Paul’s meaning down but using Paul to mean lots of things, well … that is just plain fun. Nothing mean in that. And we have been up to that since he wrote and began to be copied.

    • Thank you; glad you read the paper. One thing I love about Richard Leo Enos is his interest in how yesterday meets today. His Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle is an important work. Took four courses with him myself (and an indep. research project and dissert prep — he was chair until his sabbatical to recover Etruscan rhetoric got extended). As for Paul’s language, the bit most experts don’t attend to so much is the position of the translator. And don’t you love how translator Phyllis A. Bird puts it?:

      “It is not the translator’s duty to make her audience accept the author’s message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.”

  3. What could it possibly mean to “believe” in God and why should it make any difference at all? How could a mere mental state take precedence over acts? Even Peter Pan required not merely belief to save Tinkerbell but an actual action: namely clapping hands.

    Moreover, how can one possibly compel oneself to believe? One can reason, and then come to a conclusion. Or one can experience sensory data, and then rememberthe sensor data. But can one believe merely on command, divine, Pauline, or otherwise? If one believes merely on command, where is the value in that belief — one is merely a puppet who alters one’s mental states on command — and thus one’s belief is not an expression of will, but rather of hearing.

    What if Paul had told his readers that they needed to believe in fairies so Tinkerbell would not die? Would their blind obedience and alteration of their mental state constitute an act that should be commended? And in that case– is the creative act — is the mitzvah — that of the recipients or that of Paul.? If I drop a dollar in the charity box, who receives the credit: my hand that blindly obeys the nerve impulses that my body generates or me?

    Other commandments famously require struggle: one must conquer one’s animal instincts. But how can belief require struggle: because that supposes two opposing beliefs, and thus one does not really wholly believe but “believes with a doubt.”

    Menachem Kellner famously posed the question: Must a Jew Believe Anything? and answered it negatively.

    Belief is overrated. It is just too easy and too hard. When one is required to love one’s fellow man as oneself (easy for the neurotic: “I hate myself, and I hate everyone else too”) the requirement is not for some emotional state, but rather to treat one’s fellow man with respect and dignity. (“I love you, but please keep your distance — and keep off the grass.”) The passage you quote may be a commandment to follow God, or to obey God, or to keep God’s commandments, or to worship God, or to declare God’s existence, or to teach about God: but surely it is not a commandment just to self-brainwash oneself.

    • Belief is overrated. It is just too easy and too hard.

      In fact, the LXX translators were not dealing with Peter Pan but with Abraham when they brought in the very rhetorical, overdetermined word πίστις at Genesis 15:6. It’s sort of like starting a big novel with “Call me Ishmael” and publishing for a Sept. 11 book signing at Ground Zero NYC post 2001. Paul takes this translation, so it seems, as key to his arguments to Greeks and to Jews in Rome, and he’s the only writer of the heavily Semiticized Greek (“New Testament”) to use the word “logic” with Aristotle’s and Plato’s technical suffix, as he writes, again, to these Greeks and fellow Jews in the capital of his racist and ruthlessly racist iron-fisted rhetoric-obsessed empire. He was a natural born citizen who writes, you know, in the same letter of his obligations to both Greeks and βαρβάροις. The words are charged.

      Now you bring in “belief” to the blog conversation here. Oh, right. I brought it in. Yes, but you brought in “love.” Sigh, How does anyone command love and get away with it? Who gets credit for obedience when the command is love? We puppets now are all clapping our hands in unison to the sure answer. We don’t even have to sit in first class now when flying, when watching Icarus falling below. What was he thinking anyway, the narcissist? If only he’d believed his father. Well, then! Never mind that in Neverland. The rules are so different here. No need to paint, or appreciate, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Keep clapping.

      Thou shalt not disbelieve. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt believe the words “believe” and “love” are really volitions therefore unless thou shalt parse them differently.

      You’ve inspired me to want to post on this. But I can’t, I believe, help myself. Thank you again for your always insightful, always thought-provoking comments!

  4. Pingback: Belief Barcodes and Faith Formulas | Mind Your Language

  5. Pingback: the invisibility of English | BLT

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