Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reflections on Faith in General and in Relation to Christian Obligation


One of the problems with the word faith is it has different meanings, and intending on the meaning one uses, the term can be used in a positive sense or in a pejorative sense:

1 complete trust or confidence.

2 strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Which Definition Do We Mean?

The common tactic used to attack religious belief is to use the second definition, making it out to seem as if the religious believer follows out of an irrational superstition.  But is it right to consider it to be this way?  Or can we consider faith, in the sense the Church uses it, to mean something different.

I think the first definition, while inadequate, comes closer to the mark.  We put our confidence in one one who is considered trustworthy.  If a person tells us a thing, and there is not a way to verify it from a different source, we have to either accept it or reject it based on the trustworthiness of the individual who makes the claim.  If we accept it, we are putting our faith in the fact that the person who has made the statement is trustworthy.

Is Faith Only Religious?

In this sense of understanding, faith is more widespread than one might believe.  People who are not skilled in medicine put their faith in their doctors to help them get well.  People who are not scientists put their faith in the claims of scientists to make judgments on various things.

If we cannot prove E=mc^2 for ourselves, we either have to accept or reject the credibility of the claim based on the trustworthiness of the one who makes the statement.

Of course in the real world there are consequences for not accepting certain things on faith.  If I deny the formula E=mc^2, people are going to want to know on what basis I make such a claim.  In other words, they want to know what makes me trustworthy to be a source of authority to reject the formula.

Even atheism is a "faith" in one of the two senses.  Either they found influential people whose arguments seemed reasoned or reasoned based on what they observed.  They may hold to it based on what they consider trustworthy sources, or they may hold on to it on personal conviction without reason.  [I've encountered both kinds].

Likewise, some Christians believe in God from sources which are trustworthy and some who believe from reasons which seem weak and likely to collapse under pressure.

Considering Faith in God… Or Lack Thereof

Ultimately I think faith in God or lack of faith comes down to this.  Philosophical arguments about the nature of God are quite valuable in understanding what it means to say God is omnipotent for example.  However, philosophical arguments alone can only tell us certain things about God.  However, if God reveals Himself to us, we have to make a decision: Is the source of the revelation trustworthy?  If we do believe He is trustworthy, people will no doubt ask us reasons for our faith.  If one does not, it is not unreasonable to ask an account of why they hold their view.

Personally, I believe the reasons for faith are quite valid.  I may not always be able to articulate my reasons for faith particularly well, but this does not mean they do not exist.

The other side of the coin however is when people not only deny the reasons, but instead claim the opposite.  If a person claims no God, the question is on what reasoning they can provide: Do they have credible reasons for denying the existence of God?  Or is it merely a "because I say so" response?

The "Because I say so" argument, whether used by a theist or an atheist, is an argument based on the second definition of faith.  There is no reason for it.  It is merely an expression of this is how we think the universe should work.

Do Our Perceptions of Another's Faith Match What He Believes?

Of course, we need to be certain that we are properly assessing the reasons for a person's faith.  It's no secret to the regular visitor here that I reject the idea of atheism.  In various works of apologetics here and elsewhere, I have encountered many who seem to hold "knee jerk" atheism, where quotes from Bertrand Russell or Sam Harris are thrown about, but when questioned, the person quoting them does not understand the significance of what is meant.

Now, does this mean all atheists hold "faith" in the second definition of the word?

No, it doesn't.  This would be trying to draw a universal conclusion from a limited sample.  Some atheists are reasoned people.  I believe they err in their basic assumptions, and I think the philosophers they consider reliable are in error as well but aside from that, they seem to believe what they hold sincerely.  Not all atheists are nasty, not all of them are bigots.

However this works the other way as well.  A person who has met a good number of believers who believe the old circular argument "The Bible is good because it comes from God, and God is good because the Bible says so" would be wrong to assume all believers think this way.  Saints like Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas believed very strongly in reason and asked hard questions, finding answers they find satisfactory.

There seems to be a common problem shared by both certain Christians and certain atheists, where the person is judged because he holds a creed.  One judges another's arguments to be untrustworthy and unreasoned simply because they hold a view the person judging disagrees with.

This is not to be understood as Indifferentism

I don't say the above with the view of saying "as long as you're sincere, that's enough."  It is important to recognize there can be very real errors about the nature of what is.  The person who thinks 2+2=5 holds a fundamental error which will throw off all his abilities to do math.  A society which believes humanity is nothing more than a talking animal will probably treat humanity like nothing more than an animal.

Certain ideas are wrong and must be challenged.  But how we take on this challenge will shape how fruitful our efforts are.

PART II: The Christian Obligation in Sharing the Faith

If we who are Christians believe that our faith comes from One who is trustworthy, it is important to recognize that we have an obligation to give an account for our faith.  We also have a duty to carry out this account in a way which is not arrogant.  How we act will be a representing of how the Faith is being seen by others.  (It is unfortunate that in nations once colonized by the West, the Faith is seen as a byproduct of the colonization and not for what it is.  This is an example of badly representing the faith by actions).

Now, we're all human.  We've all had to deal with someone who, through ignorance or through malice has attacked us or things we hold important.  We've all lost our temper, or been sarcastic or rude.  Hopefully all of us will remember those failings in ourselves when facing another who behaves in such a way to us.  As Christ has told us in Matthew 7: 1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

I think this is important.  If we get offended with those who consider us irrational zealots, let us not behave as if those we deal with are irrational zealots.

"Turn the Other Cheek" Does Not Mean "Be A Doormat."

Of course this can only be taken so far.  We should deal with others who do not share our faith in a way which is charitable, and if we fall, seek to change our behavior.  However, when we do come to people who come with the intent to mock or distort or deceive, we have to be firm, and not allow them to have their way.  "It is not charitable to be silent when truth requires us to speak" as one of the saints put it.

We should be prudent though.  If we see an attack on our Faith, and we sense we are shaking with rage, it is prudent to wait until we are calm before responding.  Just as an enraged warrior makes errors a cool swordsman can exploit to dispatch his opponent, an angry response can be exploited by a calm opponent to make you and what you believe look foolish.  [Yes, unfortunately I do speak from experience over the past several years, where I allowed myself to be baited]

Be Knowledgeable

Now those of us who profess the Christian faith are not at the same place, or have the same call.  Some may be people with a university degree.  Some may be housewives or laborers.   Some may be single with much time to devote.  Some might have many responsibilities which draw on their time.  But we should be knowledgeable in what we believe, and in dealing with those who do not believe, we should seek to recognize how they consider their faith to be based on what they deem trustworthy.

Be Centered In Christ

No person was ever argued into the Christian faith.  Our reason and intellect is a gift from God which we use to carry out His will.  We can use these gifts to expose errors and to explain where the proper knowledge is understanding. However, we cannot use these gifts to "make someone believe."  Only God can provide faith.  We can merely use our gifts to remove stumbling blocks to the faith.

If I write the most brilliant treatise on why we should believe in God, but my trust is in myself, I am doomed to fail.  We need to remember Christ is the Lord of our life, and we seek to serve Him, not win glory for ourselves.  Where God makes use of us, we need to serve, but we must not treat it as our work where God assists us.

Because of this, prayer is the most important thing we can do.  We need to remember that without Him we can do nothing

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