What Is the Relevant Definition of Faith?
Phil Torres has opened our discussion with a clear statement of the question: what is faith?; and with a proposed answer consisting first of all in these properties he assigns to faith:
1. Faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable
2. Faith and reason are in conflict
3. Faith is unreasonable
Phil quotes 1 from John Bishop in the Stanford Enc. of Phil. Points 2 and 3 come from nowhere. Phil presents them in sequence as if they follow from 1: that since faith goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable, therefore faith and reason are in conflict, and therefore faith is unreasonable. But 2 does not follow from 1, nor does 3. The conflict obtains only if one assumes that reason can only accord, conflict-free, with that which is ordinarily reasonable; but much of life and even of science goes beyond what is ordinarily reasonable. Torres quotes Kant, who is himself a great example: his antinomies suggest that there is a certain necessary unreasonability to the world that reason can identify but not apprehend.
As my article here progresses I will show, at least in an introductory way, that 1 is not the only possible definition of faith, that it is not the relevant definition, and that there is a relevant view of faith by which there faith is not in conflict with reason. This will only be an introductory treatment of these topics, since this is but one step in a continuing dialogue. We’ll have time later to question each other and work out the important details and implications.
Back to Phil’s article now. He goes on to state that the conflict he describes is “more or less the consensus among philosophers and theologians; that this is why “theist philosophers typically desire to show that faith is not ‘contrary to reason;’” and that the apologetic industry exists “precisely because it’s ‘widely held’ [among philosophers and theologians] that faith is unreasonable.”
What makes faith unreasonable, then? Phil goes on to state that faith refers to beliefs that are unjustified in terms of evidence. In support of that opinion he takes it that John Bishop considers faith to be improperly proportioned to evidence.
All of this I grant as constituting a view of faith held by many. Phil goes beyond that, though: he claims it to be the consensus view and therefore the relevant view of faith as applied to Christianity. He says it applies to other religions as well. Maybe it does, too; but that’s of no interest to me, because the view of faith I am defending is the one that I take to be a biblical Christian view. (It’s unlikely on the face of it that faith means the same thing in Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism, but we need not go into that.) My only concern is with faith as understood, experienced, and practiced within a biblical Christian framework.
There is more yet to question about Phil’s belief he has presented us with the consensus and/or relevant view for these purposes. He offers absolutely no support for his conclusion that theologians hold it. John Bishop says it is “widely held,” but by whom? Not everyone, obviously. Not by me, and not by a whole host of Christian theologians, too many to cite. Liberal theologians may (or may not) accept this view of faith, but their view is again irrelevant to biblical Christianity, since liberal theology generally rejects biblical revelation to a significant degree. Liberal-theology faith is very different from biblical faith.
So in contrast to Phil’s definition of faith I propose my own. I had done so earlier, in very brief terms, which he criticized as a “jumble of terms.” And indeed it is a jumble the way he quoted it. Perhaps it was a failure of on-screen typography and appearance. He took my em-dash to be a hyphen, which changed everything. I wrote, “Faith is confidence built on an awareness of genuine love——factual awareness,” using the em-dash to set “factual awareness” in apposition to the earlier part of the sentence. He saw the em-dash as a hyphen and took me to be speaking of some kind of love-factual awareness, which is of course jumbled. (I have no idea what love-factual awareness could possibly mean, either!) I understand how that could have been misread that way, and I trust my meaning is clearer with this explanation. I intended to say (perhaps I could have stated it more clearly) that faith is what follows upon a fact-based awareness of certain realities.
Having cleared that up, I hope, I find it harder for to understand how he took that jumble to be my definition of faith in the first place, for he left out those realities of which the faith-filled believer is aware, those things which form the foundation of it all. I had written,
Faith in God is actually a fact-based confidence or trust in him as a person, that he will be for me today and for all in the future the same God that he has been for me and many others in the past. It is trust that God will continue to be a promise-keeper, as he has done in the past. It is confidence built on an awareness of genuine love – factual awareness.
(I added spaces around the em-dash and italicized a word this time to make it more clear.)
Biblical faith, I take it, is trust based on knowledge.
Throughout the Bible one finds appeals to evidence, the signs of God working in empirically available history and experience, as well as to rational reflection. Throughout history since then one finds Christian theologians explicating evidences and rational reasons supporting the knowledge of God’s reality, the reliability of the historical accounts recorded in the Bible, the coherence of the Christian Way, and so on. This is not (how could Phil possibly have thought so?) because it’s widely held that the faith is unreasonable. It’s because faith is based on factual knowledge. There is no discipline, no field of science, history, literature, or anything at all, in which it’s considered out of the ordinary for persons to provide reasons for what they take to be true and factual. That’s what apologetics is.
So there is a basis of fact underlying faith. What more then is there to it? Simply trust that we can count upon that which we know. Let me illustrate. Yesterday my wife and I marked our 25th year of marriage. What a glorious gift she has been to me! It feels like we’re only just beginning our adventure together, and I hope we get another 25 or even more years together! When I proposed to her in 1987, though, I had no factual information to prove that we would thrive together in marriage. I had past experience with her. I had a current relationship with her. But it was not a marriage relationship. When I asked her to marry me, I was entering into the significant risk that she would turn out not to be a good spouse (she was taking an even higher risk with me, I assure you!).
But I had confidence in her character because I knew her. I had trust in her, again based on knowledge. I put faith in her as my partner, because I had good reason to put faith in her.
Likewise faith in God is not contrary to reason. It is a commitment of trust based on reasonable knowledge. Yes, it goes beyond the evidence, as my proposal to Sara went beyond what could be proved of her, but not in a manner that is contrary to evidence or even that ignores evidence.
This is then the relevant definition of faith for Christian theism as I understand it: knowledge-based trust. There are other definitions, but they apply to other circumstances and are irrelevant to biblical Christianity.
Phil questions how one could come to any reliable knowledge on these matters. I do not propose to go into that in my article today, because I want to give Phil opportunity to respond to me on this particular, relevant use of the term faith. The question, if faith is knowledge-based trust, then how can we reliably acquire such knowledge? is premature until we agree that faith (in the sense relevant for biblical Christianity) really is knowledge-based trust.
I might be hoping too much to suppose that Phil would accept my definition here as the one relevant for these purposes. He might ask me to to show where I find the above-mentioned appeals to evidence, experience, and reason in the Bible. He might ask me to support my claim that Christianity through the centuries has been characterized by the same sort of reason- and knowledge-based thinking. That’s up to him; if he asks for it I’ll be glad to comply.
And if it’s too long a leap even then for Phil to accept that my take on faith is the relevantly true one for these purposes, I will ask him to answer this at least: is it even possible that there exists a form, or definition, of faith by which said faith is not contrary to reason? If not, why not? What makes my definition of faith impossible?
P.S. Faith is a multi-dimensional term. The definition I have given for us to work with is (in my studied opinion) true though not exhaustive. There are other ways of viewing or discussing faith that apply within Christian theism, but I hold that this one is (a) true within that spectrum of meaning and (b) specifically relevant to Phil’s charge that faith is contrary to reason. Other modes or ways of viewing faith complement this one, and together they fill out the full sense of the term. They are not contradictory to it. We could go into further discussion on them, but the first step, in my opinion, is to probe whether faith is contrary to reason, which is what I have tried to do in this article.