I am going to try to get back in the blogging habit by reposting some old stuff when I can't think of anything new to say. This post is from March 2012.
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I do believe; help my unbelief!" -- Mark 9:24
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Darwin excerpts a cordial discussion between some theists and some atheists about the meaning of the word "faith."
It's worth reading on its own, and I am not going to respond to the entire excerpt, but just make my own comment and expand on it here.
Some proposed definitions from the excerpt:
- "Faith is knowing by testimony rather than by experience. I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, because the scientists tell me so, and I believe them. "
- "[F]aith is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities. If, say there is a 70 % probability something is the case then to conclude more than that 70% probability is faith..."
Darwin chimes in to make two points. First, what "faith" originally means:
The old Catholic Encyclopedia in its article on faith describes the Old Testament use of the term to be essentially "trustfulness" or "steadfastness".... This usage still informs the way that we use the term in reference to interpersonal relationships. I have faith that my wife loves me. She has faith that I am faithful to her. Etc.
faith is an act of the will.
Darwin's points are both correct, but he does not go as far as I do. He classifies "faith" as being an act, and this is correct; but it seems that he identifies it too much with "belief," or with being convinced "enough" of something. Here is the statement of Darwin's that I disagree with:
This usage still informs the way that we use the term in reference to interpersonal relationships. I have faith that my wife loves me. She has faith that I am faithful to her. Etc.
Obviously, in this sense one can have faith in any number of things or people, and as it notes, faith in this sense necessarily presupposes belief. I can hardly have faith in my wife's love (as in, trust in its existence and steadfastness) if I don't really believe that I have a wife or don't really believe that she loves me. When Christians talk about "having faith" however, they're pretty specifically talking about "having faith in God" -- that combination of believing in God's existence and of trusting in God to remain steadfast and trustworthy in His love for us.
Darwin is failing -- at least clearly -- to make a distinction between "I am faithful to my wife" and "I have faith in my wife."
The first is concrete. The second is the metaphor.
The faith that Christians are supposed to have is not the same thing as trust that God's love exists and is steadfast to us. The faith that we are supposed to have, I am certain, is faithfulness *to* God -- fidelity to the laws and precepts that He sets out for us insofar as we are aware of them. When we are told to have faith, this is not at all a command to believe something. (How can you be commanded to be convinced of a truth?) It is a command to do something: to live your life, in your body, in your mind, in accord with the will of a God.
Faith is not trust in God's steadfastness; it is a firm determination to remain steadfast to God. It is as the original Hebrew meant.
And the point that I want to make, the point where I disagree with Darwin, is that faith understood in this way does not presuppose belief.
Faith understood the way (I think) Darwin is trying to understand this would presuppose belief, because he is identifying faith with belief. "I can hardly have faith in my wife's love if I don't really believe that she loves me." Well, of course, if "faith in my wife's love" == "belief that my wife loves me."
But my understanding of faith does not presuppose belief. Darwin could choose to remain faithful to his wife -- by which I mean nothing more nor less than the earthy sort of "faithful," i.e., he could remain sexually faithful to his wife, forsaking all others, and not abandoning her or their children -- even if he lost all confidence in her love for him. Indeed, he could (and should) choose to remain sexually faithful if Darwin became thoroughly convinced that MrsDarwin did not love him at all.
And what if he did not believe that he even had a wife? Well, millions of still-single people find themselves in that situation every day, not having promised marriage to anyone, and yet they can still be "faithful" to the future spouse they might or might not have by living a chaste life. Such is faith: steadfastness.
One may be "faithful" while having severely impaired belief, even no belief at all. (Which raises the question: Why would someone who did not believe in God ever strive to live according to God's laws? I will not answer the question here, and maybe will bat that question back to Darwin, but I will simply note that it is not logically impossible to be faithful in this way without belief; whereas if faith == belief, it does become logically impossible to have faith without belief.)
The idea of "faith" as a purely mental or spiritual assent to a theological statement is, I suspect, a highly Protestant innovation. Because if you understand "faith" to mean "faithfulness" or "fidelity," then there is no distinction, none at all, between faith and works. The whole concept of "faith vs. works" presupposes that it is even possible to segregate a thing called "faith" away from the daily acts of living and interacting with other human beings and with our God. I say, it is not possible.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?i 15If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?j 17So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. 19You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. 20Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?k 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.”l 24See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?m 26For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
The Greek word for "faith" in James 2 (the faith and works discourse) is the same Greek word (pistis) translated as "belief" in the passage from Mark that I quoted above. Does pistis mean "steadfastness" in any way? Or does it only mean an intellectual assent? It goes on to use pisteuis in the next verse to mean "believe" as in "You believe that God is one" and then "pisteuousin" in "Even the demons believe, and shudder." The "faith" mentioned in James is then the same as the "belief" which even demons can have.
I don't really think of demons as "steadfast."
Anyway, as I said in my comment to Darwin's post, the image of a faithful spouse is apt. Faith in, and faithfulness to, a spouse are very precisely designed to be an image of faith in, and faithfulness to, God. They are so bound up in each other as to not be separable; but at the same time, it is possible to "be faithful," to "do faithfulness," even in times of doubt or -- God forbid -- abandonment.
This is what I would like to get across to anyone who says they wishes they could have faith but that it has never come to them. Anyone can, without committing a single act of intellectual dishonesty. It is simply a matter of becoming a faithful servant, or spouse, or child of God. To act faithfully -- the precise nature of the "acts of faith" depends on our state in life and our circumstances -- is to have faith. The ability to act faithfully, the possession of faith, both come from grace, the only thing by which we are saved.