What Do We Mean by Faith?

indexFor most modern secularists, as well as many nominal believers, “faith” is something one “has” or “uses” when there is no “evidence” upon which to support a belief. It’s a form of wishful thinking, at best, but may in many cases amount to a dangerous delusion. As a skeptic friend once put it, faith is the opposite of reason.

With this working definition in mind, it’s little wonder that so many people are moving away from the church. Science has transformed this world, bringing a higher standard of living to every society it touches. It has shown us, in many cases, that what we thought was the cause of a problem is actually not the case at all. Doctors, for instance, no longer bleed patients to alleviate what ails them, since they now know the actual causes of disease. For many today, those who cling to their “superstitious” faith traditions stand in the way of progress.

But what do Christians mean when they speak about “faith?” Is it a short hand term for believing “without evidence?” Of engaging in delusional thinking for the purpose of making sense of things we simply don’t understand?

To answer that question, we must first attempt to flesh out a definition of faith. The dictionary includes definitions such as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof” and “allegiance or loyalty to somebody or something.” Before looking closer at a Christian definition, a couple of things bear noting: when considering “faith,” we need to clarify the person or thing in which the faith is attached; what exactly is it that we are holding to? Second, there must be an assessment of the degree to which “logical proof” is present or absent. Speaking of faith generically, then, is not particularly helpful. Faith, like any other thought process we engage in, may be sound or flawed, well-placed or foolish. There’s no way to know which without further analysis and reflection. For instance, the faith I place that my car will successfully take me to the mountains depends in part on my knowledge of the car – its current condition, its history of maintenance, the conditions on the roadway. It would be nonsensical to say as a blanket rule, “you should never have faith in your car” because you have “no evidence” or you’re engaging in wishful thinking. It would be fair, by contrast, to point out that a rust bucket that’s been sitting out back unused for the past decade is unlikely to get you there, even if you are somehow able to get it to start.

Most secularists I know think that Christian faith involves believing “in Jesus” despite the absence of evidence; that Christians “trust” that there was a Jesus who can save us even though there is no adequate proof of him. Some will say that nothing was written about Jesus until centuries later, or that they he is simply a myth. Others conclude that the transmission of information about him is like the “telephone game,” changed through time by mistakes in repetition. Often, these are conclusions they have reached without having a basis in fact to support them. They are mistaken conclusions. I believe that Jesus lived, that he existed as a real person in history, because the evidence supports this conclusion – not in spite of the lack of evidence. I believe that he lived a model life and taught a radically new way of relating to our fellow human beings, and to God. I further believe that due to his teachings, he was vilified and put to death. These things I believe because of the historical record that has been left behind. Finally, I believe that as he predicted, he did not remain in his tomb, but that he rose in physical form and that he interacted in that form with his disciples and with many others. All these things I believe because there is solid evidence to support that they occurred.

So what, then, is the actual object of the “faith” in Jesus, if not that he exists? Part of Jesus’ radical message was that there was only one means for man to be re-united with his Creator. Adam’s fall had caused a rift between God and man that man could not cross. But God, in his goodness and mercy, wanted to restore that broken relationship, and the means to do so is Christ. His sacrifice atoned for our transgressions; he paid the price for our sins. His life became a gift – for salvation – for us. But like any gift, we are free to either accept or reject it. As the writer of Hebrews puts it: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Many examples of faith are given in the remainder of the chapter. The point is clear: there are many things we simply can’t know from direct or personal knowledge. Who created the universe is of course one of them. But more importantly for each one of us: who created us and what happens to us after we die?

Jesus said that he knows the Father; indeed, he and the Father are one. He has prepared a place for us to spend eternity in paradise. The alternative, for those who die in rebellion to God, is a place of eternal torment and anguish. I would like to go on living forever in paradise. This is true of all of us. So, when I place by trust in Jesus – when I have “faith” that only he can save me – what am I putting my trust in and how logically grounded is that trust?

I’m putting my trust in the veracity of Jesus’ words. That he lived and spoke those words does not require faith. These things are a matter of history. But that those words are true? That he can actually deliver on that promise? Those things require faith. Jesus understood this, as did the earliest apostles. That’s why the gospels were written, so that those who learned of Jesus’ miracles, and of his ultimate miracle of rising from the dead, would be justified in believing that Jesus knew what he was saying, and that he could deliver what he promised. The miracles provide the grounding for the faith we hold.

We may be mistaken of course. Perhaps Jesus’ words have been twisted. Perhaps the disciples conspired to create a false religion. But putting these concerns aside is not a flight into fancy; it is instead of matter of study and contemplation. And it is that study that we should place our time and energy into, so that the decision we make –as to this most important of issues – is a logical and well-grounded one. Dismissing “faith” as wishful thinking stops the skeptic before he begins.  

Posted by Al Serrato

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