Repurposing an Old Word

7 Jun

The word “faith” has been around, at least in English, for about 800 years.  It derives from the Latin term for “trust,” and it has always functioned as a noun—until now. Traditionally, faith has denoted a trust or confidence in a person or thing, or, a belief that is not based on proof, or, a system of religious belief.

But cultural forces have conspired in the past fifty years to make faith more difficult for the average young adult to obtain and/or maintain.  For a multitude of reasons—the breakdown of the nuclear family, the submersion of community-strengthening voluntary societies and civic organizations, the overwhelming success of the scientific method and quantification and the loss of a common cultural lexicon—it has become increasingly difficult for young persons to have confidence in the institutions that serve as the foundations of our society, be they the nuclear family, the schools, the government or the church.

Into this cultural vortex has come a new way of using the word “faith”—as a verb.  I first heard our colleague at the University of Kansas, Thad Holcombe, use the term “faithing” several years ago.  I don’t know whether he coined the phrase or borrowed it from another thoughtful person, but even though it sounded odd to my ears—indeed, doesn’t recognize the term as a “real” word—Thad has been using it for years to refer to the task undertaken (primarily) by today’s young adults of quilting together a patchwork of persons, ideas and things that lend meaning to life.  “Faithing” is the intellectual and spiritual work of finding the kind of meaning in life that gives us the confidence to continue living and, hopefully, flourishing in a very complex world.  “Faithing” used to be a very circumscribed endeavor, especially in the mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  Bound by the systematic theology worked out by the great theologians of the church, finding faith, finding meaning, formerly involved consent to the intellectual constructs of the masters.  But young adults today have largely been set adrift from these theological moorings and must now engage in the hard work of “faithing” to make sense of the world, their identity and their calling.  Whenever we, as campus ministers, invite young persons to engage in “holy conversations” about the things that matter most in life, we are participating in this divine work.

On a recent spring break mission trip to Joplin, Missouri, our hosts distributed to our band of volunteers ball caps imprinted with the assertion: “Faith is a verb.”  This is different from “faithing,” yet closely related.  Whenever we lose ourselves in service to others, whenever we so express the love of God, we are participating in The Way foreshadowed by Jesus.  Like “faithing,” this, too, is divine work that lends meaning to our lives and those touched by service rendered with compassion and concern for the needs and dignity of others.  The biblical writer, James, put it this way: “Faith without works is dead.”

Employing “faith as a verb” and, subsequently, the practice of “faithing” is simply putting the action-reflection model of theological understanding to good use.  How are you doing in this regard?  Are you finding opportunities for your students to both practice “faith as a verb” and then, further, helping them to reflect theologically upon their experiences, that they may see God at work in the world?


David Jones is in his 16th year as campus minister at ECM (Ecumenical Campus Ministry) at Kansas State University.  For almost 27 years he has been married to Linda, with whom he has two children: Nathan (22) and Lindsey (20).  When not hanging out with students, he enjoys staying physically active via yoga, running, walking Bear (his dog), swimming and gardening.  He earned his Ph.D. in Church History from Vanderbilt University, a M.Div. from Saint Paul School of Theology and a B.A. in psychology and religion from Augustana College (S.D.)

One Response to “Repurposing an Old Word”

  1. paul walley June 8, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Another winner, David. Like the “faithing” intention. More power in your ministry! See you at Yale for the Global.

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