Understanding faith

by frankbeswick

The concept of faith is often misunderstood and misrepresented, but what is it really

Faith is central to Christianity, but not many people have a clear understanding of what it is. There have been several definitions of faith over the years, but some have done Christianity no service and even much harm. My belief is that there is no single description of faith, but faith is best understood as akin to enlightenment. Faith, however, is wrongly represented as opposing reason. Genuine faith, that is faith that lasts and endures through crises, is probably rooted in religious experience and works with reason to develop a meaningful understanding.

The origins of the concept of faith

Jesus used to ask for faith when healing people, but what he asked of those to be healed was not a full grasp of Christian theology, as Jesus did not do theology, but to open themselves to him in love and trust. It seems then that for Jesus faith was not a matter of getting one's doctrine absolutely right, but was a personal response to God in and through Jesus himself. Faith in this sense meant believing in a person rather than set of doctrines. This has great implications for Christian thought, as it implies that Christians need not be overdevoted to doctrinal accuracy in the minutiae of theological differences between churches, but should be more concerned with a the shared commitment to Christ that belongs to them all.

Faith was therefore a sort of practical reliance on God that produces action, so it can never be reduced to mere intellectual assent. For Paul, who argued that through faith we are justified, it was  reliance on the person of Christ rather than intellectual assent, though there had to be a cognitive component in it in which the believer assented as a precondition of trust.

Ancient of ideas of faith

 One of the first thinkers to discuss the concept of faith was Tertullian, about 197 A.D, a convert Roman lawyer with a taste for controversy, whose legacy is generally disastrous. Tertullian thought in black and white.  Part of this polarised thought was his contrast between faith and reason. Reason he identified with Greek philosophy, which could not explain Christian faith, so he dispensed with reason altogether, claiming "I believe because it is absurd", a term which means not rational. Tertullian went on to leave the Catholic church altogether, joining the ultrastrict Novatianist schism, but he has given ammunition to anti-Christian polemicists ever since,who have eagerly taken up his statement to berate Christian theology as irrational. Benedict the Sixteenth has insisted that Tertullian's statement does not reflect Catholic theology, which emphasises the importance of reason.

In the fifth century Augustine picked up the baton. A key element in Augustine's thought was that every thinker needed a starting point. This is a position inadequately grasped by rationalists, who are often unaware that their views have to rest on a foundation. Augustine grasped that even if we attempt to develop a logically watertight system of thought, it rests upon decision, a chosen starting point. This foundation was not irrational, but transcended rationality. It was rather similar to the concept of a blik, which was propounded by the modern philosopher Hare, a stance on the world which is pre-rational rather than irrational and which acts as the foundation for one's thought. It was Augustine's grasp of the need for foundations of reason that led him to the statement that I believe that I might understand. Belief precedes knowledge, in Augustine's thought. We believe in our starting point and our beliefs are confirmed by the way in which they work out in our lives.

For Augustine faith and reason were not opposed. Indeed, they both come from the same source, and both aim at truth. Reason can then be used to confirm the starting point. This suggests that there should be a two way interaction between faith and reason, in which reason reflects on faith and faith enables reason to grow beyond the limits of where it would be without divine revelation. Reason does not have the last word, in Augustine's view of things, but it is one of the twin pillars of the reflective, Catholic way of life. Augustine, therefore, gave the Catholic church a fundamental pillar of its theology, which is that faith and reason must be in support of each other, a belief upon which Pope Benedict has insisted.

In fact, Augustine's emphasis on reason led him to the view that Christians must not make stupid, unscholarly statements. In words that should be heeded by creationists, in his work on the literal truth of Genesis, he warned Christians against wielding poor scholarship against pagans who were more scholarly then they were. Those who concoct unscientific accounts to back up the literal truth of Genesis should take note of Augustine's warnings.

However,  a problem developing in the period of Augustine was the over-reliance on formal creeds. As doctrinal conflict raged Christians began to link faith with the conceptual content of various credal statements and to think that those who disagreed with them about the minutiae of these statements somehow lacked faith. This error has rippled through the subsequent history of the church and has meant that many thinkers furiously dismissed their theological rivals as lacking faith over some slight difference in doctrine.                            

The Middle Ages

Aquinas dominated mediaeval Catholic thought. Catholic thinkers have always been inspired by Augustine, and Aquinas was no exception. Aquinas developed the two storey [tier] view of theology. This derives directly from Augustine's emphasis on the importance of reason. Philosophy, the lower tier, could take you only so far. Thus it was in Aqiunas' thought possible for philosophy to prove the existence of God, but it could not prove the truth of the mysteries of faith, such as the incarnation and the Trinity. This kind of knowledge could only come from divine revelation from Christ mediated through the Scriptures and the authority of the church, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Such mysteries were beyond the full grasp of reason, but they were capable of being described and discussed in the light of philosphical systems.

Aquinas' originality was to replace the traditonal Platonism of the earlier Christians with the philosophy of Aristotle and to use this philosophical system to formulate and explain faith. It was through this unity of Catholic and Aristotelian thinking that the great mediaeval synthesis arose. This was an optimisti,c but ultimately doomed attempt to unite all religious, philosophical and scientific thought in one coherent system.

For Aquinas faith was not the equivalent of natural belief, akin to believing in worldly realities. Faith was a supernatural gift of God that came solely through God's grace, his free gift of himself through the medium of his Son and his church. Thus philosophy could only take you so far, and the life of faith needed to be nourished by sharing in the life of the church through prayer and sacrament.

Yet Mediaeval thinkers continued with the notion of faith that had developed as the creeds were formulated. They began to regard faith as a set of beliefs and equated these beliefs with church doctrines. Thus those who disagreed with the official doctrine of the church were regarded as having defective faith or no faith at all. This was a kind of demonisation that led to persecution.        

The Reformation and Afterwards

Luther returned to a more biblical doctrine of faith, as he believed that  faith was about trust in God and he linked it to his view of salvation by faith alone. This was his attempt to say why good works do not count for salvation, as all salvation is by free gift of God which must be received in trust and gratitude. This is the fundamental tenet of Protestantism. The Catholic Church continued with its traditional two storey theology.

But new problems were arising. A powerful force in European thought was the emphasis on reason that gave us rationalism. Attempts began to be made to base Christian doctrines on reason. This gave rise to natural theology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglican church. Natural theology was an older, mediaeval term for the sue of knowledge of the natural world as part of religious belief, but in the natural theology of Anglicanism it became a powerful tool in the hands of Christian apologists. Ultimately, it failed, as Christian doctrines cannot be rephrased in terms of secular reason but are based on revelation. Deism, the belief that there is a God who does not or cannot "interfere" in the world began to arise. Another great synthesis was tried by Hegel, who attempted to  absorb Christianity into his idealist philosophy.This attempt was apparently successful for a while, but ultimately failed to convince and certainly did not convince everybody. Most Catholics were not taken with it, and it was strongest in Germany, though it had adherents elsewhere.  

As always there were counter-movements. Fideism arose within Catholicism. This movement rejected reason altogether and its polarised anti-rational stance gave us the notion of blind faith and the belief that faith is irrational. This idea of blind faith has been eagerly taken up by anti-Christian polemicists, even though it was never accepted by the Catholic Church and does not reflect any official doctrine.Fideism is in a dificult position, as it has to accept that Theology must use language and this presumes some standard of rationality.

Kierkegaard, a Danish Lutheran philosopher, introduced the notion that of the leap of faith, which has been mispresented as a leap in the dark. One of his great concerns was to oppose German rationalism, which derived from the Hegelian system, whose exponents presented it as providing the light of reason. For Kierkegaard reason could only go so far, it was like a circle of light on the edge of darkness. But God was calling from beyond the sphere of reason, so to respond to him you had to leap into darkness. But it was not an irrational,leap, but an act of grace, a response to the call of the word of God. Kierkegaard is misrepresented as a fideist, he never was one. However, he believed that the total commitment required by faith was far beyond what could be rationally justified, so he thought that faith was not so much an intellectual leap, but a personal leap  There is some affinity between Kierkegaard's leap of faith and William James' awareness that there is a will to believe which is at the root of all belief. We cannot escape decision in matters of belief, whether it be for theism or atheism.

What now for faith

In the modern age what are we to think about faith? Is it a remnant from a bygone age or an essential part of a fulfilled life, or what? To answer this question we must distinguish between the act of believing and the sources of faith. Faith is a decision, but the decision can be backed up in many ways. Furthermore, it is not or should not be a one-off event.All faith is an on-going dialogue within the mind and heart. One who closes his mind to dialogue does not therefore escape it, he merely enters into a different kind of dialogue that the open-minded person does, one that meshes him into bad faith. A faith that stands still is not adequate and will, I suspect, shrivel.

Faith is not only an endless dialogue, but also an ongoing decision in which the self is inextricably and inevitably entwined. For this reason faith cannot be merely an intellectual matter, for when the self is involved it becomes a matter of personal commitment. Christian faith is a commitment to a person, Jesus Christ. This involves conceptual understanding of this person and the grounds of his claims, but goes beyond them in an existential commitment of one's life.

It is important that faith has some grounding so that it is not a blind, irrational choice. It is vital to emphasise that faith must not be founded upon mere authority. This is a weak and immature foundation for belief. Faith must have roots in religious experience, what we call the sense of the holy or the sacred. This dimension of experience, which Buber called as sense of presence/power, is generally mediated through institutions.From another angle we might say that faith should arise as a verbal/conceptual expression of divine influence in the mind,what Christians might call grace.

Thus faith is not blind, or should not be. Insofar as the influence of the divine in the soul, whether we call it grace or religious experience opens its recipients to a dimension of experience that cannot had from secular epistemological sources, faith must be considered a movement from darkness to light, at least in one sense. Thus it is best regarded as enlightenment. But it  is not instant enlightenment done all in one go, but a life long journey in which the believer must go ever forward.

 

Bibliography

www.vision.org/visionmedia/article    Philosophical Faith, Peter Nathan

Early Church Fathers: Tertullian, Geoffrey Dunne, 2004

Faith and Reason in the Thought of St Augustine, Robert E Cushman, Cambridge Journals Online.

Catholic Encyclopaedia: Entry on Fideism

Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard, Cambridge Texts in Philosophy

The Will to Believe, William James, Elibron Classics, Adamant Media Corporation

Updated: 02/27/2013, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 04/04/2013

Thanks

BrendaReeves on 04/03/2013

Very well written article and philosophy of faith. I agree with you 100%.

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