What’s so great about faith?

What’s so great about faith?  It depends on what you mean.  Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,”  in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven.  Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.

Real faith is given by the grace of God.  We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it.  Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.

But how do I know if I have received grace?

There are two answers.  If you have to ask, you haven’t.  If you think you have received grace, you haven’t.  Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace.  In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for.  What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?

Revelation

Revelation is central to religious faith.  We don’t simply have faith in things unknown, like ghosts.  To have faith is to believe in revelation, as it is expressed in the Holy Scriptures.  Christianity is a revelatory religion, originating in the person and sayings of Jesus, whom Christians believe is a man-God who entered into history at a particular time and place.  The historical evidence supports time and space.  Paul’s letters and the Gospels support the rest.

But is it reasonable to believe in revelation and faith?  A little basic philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) helps.  Objective statements, such as scientific statements, can be shown false.  Not true, because even science is never certain.  Think of all the scientific statements once thought true that are now held to be false.  What’s special about science is not that it’s statements are guaranteed true, but that its statements can be shown false by comparison with objective facts (Karl Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery). 

Lots of important statements can’t be shown false.  They are neither objective nor scientific.  Love can’t be shown false (unless you think it’s all about pheromones), but love can be real, deep, fatuous, and many other things besides.  Many of the most important things in life, such as the beauty of a poem, or the pain of loss are subjective truths: statements that become true because we feel or believe them.  Faith in God is more like love or beauty than it is like science.  Faith in God may be subjectively true or false (I have it or I don’t), but it cannot be proven or disproven.  The same goes for the claim that faith in God is reasonable or unreasonable.  It’s neither more, nor less, reasonable or unreasonable than love, beauty, or poetry.  

Faith shouldn’t be blind

Pistis, the word almost always translated as faith (over 240 times in the NT) was used regularly by ancient Greeks to refer to the presentation of evidence.  It is also used to mean “to be persuaded” by the evidence. 

Christian faith is not belief in the absence of evidence. It is the proper response to the evidence. (www.bethinking.org/truth/faith-is-about-just-trusting-god-isnt-it)

Faith isn’t blind.  It is not guaranteed by the scriptures, but it uses the scriptures as evidence.  However, since the first accounts of Christ appear over two generations after his death (Paul’s 1Thessalonians, circa 50 AD), we must assume that Paul was relying heavily if not exclusively on oral tradition. 

The first Gospel was written by Mark, sometime around 70 AD, relying on an oral tradition and written sources now lost.  Matthew, Luke, and John were written several decades later.  Faith in “scriptural inerrancy” makes no sense to me.  Primarily because the gospels were written with an agenda.  One part of the agenda was to show that Christ fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament.  The other to demonstrate that he was divine.  He may have been, but while the scriptures provide evidence, they are not proof.

Faith should be approached in this light.  Those who base their faith on sound scriptural evidence have done what they can, as much as faith can ask.  Faith cannot ask for more (or it wouldn’t be faith), but neither should it be judged by less. 

The biggest enemy of faith is the common culture

The biggest enemy of faith is the common culture. Think about it.  Less than two centuries ago, almost all North Americans and Europeans would have had subjective certainty about God: his existence, the existence of heaven and hell, and so forth.  Today most lack this certainty, and many hold their beliefs casually, as though they hardly matter.  The result is change, but can one with any certainty say that it’s progress? 

Not progress, just cultural plausibility, is the reason for the loss of faith, and rise in religious skepticism, as science and technology unravel nature, and smart phones take the place of God.  (I’m only half joking: your smart phone never sleeps, and always knows where you are; many owners seem to treat them as sacred objects.)  It’s not just smartphones, of course, but progress in science, technology, and medicine that have made God seem less plausible.  But none of these bear on subjective truth, the realm of faith.

Faith depends on imagination, the ability to imagine a world other than it is, mere matter.  Scientists imagine how matter can be rearranged, and so sometimes change how we experience the world.  But poets have been changing and rearranging how we experience the world, and how we feel about it, for millennia.  Faith comes closer to poetry, and we have been losing our poetic and metaphysical imaginations for some time now.     

Faith communities and “the individual”

If the common culture is the biggest threat to faith, then faith communities are the greatest threat to authentic faith.  How is it that most Christians seem to have the same experience of God?  Because God is the same for most Christians, or because faith can too easily fall victim to group suggestion and group pressure? 

Subjective truth is the most creative truth, and the truth most vulnerable to group pressure, intended or unintended.  This is what my favorite religious writer, Søren Kierkegaard, was thinking about when he said that he wanted his tombstone to read simply “the individual” (it doesn’t).  Kierkegaard believed that Christianity can be true even if only one person in the world believes.  He’s wrong; religion is a communal experience, as the Jews and first Christians understood.  But faith is an individual experience; it happens one by one.  If it doesn’t then it’s not faith, but something else, like conformity.

The problem is insoluble

The problem is insoluble.  Faith is an experience of revelation through scripture. But these experiences of revelation are so socially impressionable, and so difficult to separate from socially held beliefs, that they are in constant danger of becoming little more than consensus and tradition.  Both have their place, but not at the heart of faith.  

The best we can do is to ask people who make faith-based claims what the scriptural authority for that claim is. Doing so would mean taking faith seriously, and not just something someone wants to believe, or is afraid not to.   

 

 

 

One thought on “What’s so great about faith?”

  1. I think the part on Faith and the common culture is important.We don’t realise we have restricted ourselves to what is popularly believed now.Like that Science is the only faith of value.
    There’s another aspect which I am unsure if I can formulate immediately.It’s related to Perception,We know taking certain drugs can alter it but so can other things.Illness,peace and quiet,meditation,love, being alone for a long time.
    Then there is focused attention which is like a strong but narrow beam of light used to solve certain kinds of problems .And wider attention when we look at what is here “without memory or desire”.
    There are ways of seeing which are being destroyed by the speed of life and the urgent feeling the narrow focus on our own desires gives us.I suppose keeping the Sabbath free of work might have been a way to preserve this.It wasn’t. We found it more punitive than relaxing.Sometimes being ill is a way but there must be others.
    Even silence can be experienced in different ways.A full pleasant one or a fearful,cold one which can make us feel paranoid.
    I think perception is very important and yet neglected.Ideally poets and artists might change our perceptions and that will change our actions.it is not all about will power which often fails.
    I

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