Spiritual: December 2010 Archives

Faith

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"Faith, to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things for bad reasons, and when they have good reasons they immediately rely on the good reasons." -- Sam Harris on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday a few weeks ago

On one level, this is complete nonsense. My faith is not my giving anyone permission to believe things. If I have faith, that's trust in God, not permission for others to believe things. I'm not sure why Harris thinks it has to do with your attitude toward others' beliefs. No one really believes that, and I would include Harris in that.

But what he's saying reflects a common attitude toward what faith is. Perhaps he's even right that in most contexts the English word turns out to mean something to do with believing things without good reasons (which isn't the same as believing things for bad reasons, I would insist). That's at least how many people have used the term since Kierkegaard's corruption of the concept of faith.

This is not, however, how faith has historically been thought of. Augustine saw it as a kind of knowledge, just not one based in the usual sources. Its grounding comes from God and his role in giving us the faith. Thomas Aquinas distinguished it from knowledge but saw it as equally well-grounded as knowledge, just from a different source. Both of them, in fact, took the Bible to be God's word, and thus they took it to be a reliable source to get the information God wanted to convey. God is, in fact, the most reliable source of any information, and thus believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs. Those who don't accept the Bible as God's word would not accept that conclusion, but what they say follows from accepting that about the Bible. The Bible itself takes faith to be simply trust in God and what God says, and it does not treat faith as some irrational acceptance of things we probably shouldn't believe.

There are plenty of debates about whether religious beliefs can be justified or warranted and how they could be if they can. I certainly have my views on that. But there's a problem before you even get to that point. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what a lot of religious people mean when they talk about faith and what most people mean when they talk about faith. Several recent Bible translations pick up on this and use only terms of the belief-family and trust-family for the biblical words usually translated into the faith-family of English words. I think there's something to that. But might this not be a fight worth having? Sometimes it's worth giving up a term because of the confusion about what it might mean. Do we want to give up on the faith-family of terms?

We probably don't need the term, but if we give up on it there's at least one unfortunate consequence. People will completely misunderstand much of the tradition, including Bible translations that use it in the traditional way. So I'm not ready to give up on it. It's a bit of work to explain ourselves when we use the term, and it will take work to convince those who are out of touch on this point that they actually need to do that, but it's work worth engaging in, in my view.

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