Thursday, September 29, 2005

What is faith? part 1

A couple of years ago in one of my philosophy classes, the issue of "faith" came up, and predictably, just about everybody understood faith to mean "belief in the absense of evidence," or something like that. One guy in there was a Baptist pastor named Billy, he said, and he was especially adamant about this definition. He seemed to think it was downright inappropriate to make arguments for the existence of God, because it destroyed faith.

In our class email discussions, Billy and I debated the issue. It was a short debate. I basically wrote an email spelling out all my reasons for disagreeing with him, and he basically never gave much of a response. In the next few blogs, I'm going to be posting that email. Of course I'm cutting out big chunks of it that I don't think are all that important. Here we go...

Billy: Belief in God focuses on faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of thing not seen. (Hebrew 11:1)

Sam: Okay, this is where I'm going to get theological, and since you're a pastor, you may have better insight into these things than I do, but I want to tell you my point of view and see what you think of it. It seems to be your understanding that "faith" is "belief in the absense of evidence." After thinking about this for a while, I went to a Bible study Monday night and asked the people there to define "faith" in their own words. I wanted to see how many people would say the same thing, and there were a few who basically agreed that faith is belief in the absense of evidence. The same sort of thing came up in our philosophy class when we were pitting faith against reason, and a few people had the same idea of faith. I mentioned in another post that I disagreed with that understanding of faith, so now I want to say why that is.

I guess Hebrews 11:1 is a good place to start. It says two things about faith. First, it says faith is the substance of things hoped for. Second, it says faith is the evidence of things not seen. I suppose it is because of the phrase, "things not seen," that faith is taken to be belief without evidence. But that seems inconsistent with the fact that it says faith is the EVIDENCE of things not seen. If we take "things not seen" as the object of faith, then this passage seems to be saying that although we don't see the object of our faith, our belief in it is nevertheless based on evidence. I don't see anything unusual about this because there are many things we don't see but yet believe in because we infer it from evidence. For example, we believe in electrons, but nobody has ever seen an electron. We infer the existence of electrons based on what we DO see, so in the case of electrons, we have evidence for something that is not seen. Why couldn't belief in God be infered in the same way?

According to Hebrews 11:1, faith involves more than mere belief. It also involves hope. So not only do we believe in the "thing not seen," but we also place our hope and trust in it. The reason I define faith as "trust in what we think is true," is because by definition, to believe something is to think it is true, and because believing, by itself, isn't what faith is, but rather, faith is also hope and trust in the object of our faith. It's possible for me to have some belief but not put my trust in it. For example, I may believe that my chair is able to hold me up without ever sitting in it, but to sit in the chair is to trust it to hold me up. In the same way, a person may believe the gospel is true, but to have faith in the gospel is to actually trust in Jesus for their salvation.

I actually don't take the phrase, "things not seen," to mean things like angels, spirits, and things that we have no visual perception of. I take it to be referring to the substance of the things hoped for. The reason I take it that way is because this passage seems to closely correspond to Romans 8:18-25 where Paul is talking about the renewal of the cosmos and the resurrection, which he calls the "redemption of our body." He says, "For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it." What Paul means by "seen" here clearly isn't visual perception. He's just referring to an event that hasn't happened yet. In the same way, I don't take Hebrews 11:1 to mean "belief in something you can't see," but rather, "hope in something that hasn't happened yet." See how the two phrases, "substance of things hoped for," and "evidence of things not seen," go together according to this undersanding? Our hope is in a resurrection to eternal life which hasn't happened yet, and we place our faith in Jesus for that hope. It has nothing to do with belief in the absense of evidence.

Part 2


At 9/29/2005 7:51 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, you are so incredibly right on this. If I had to put together a list of the top 5 misconceptions held by our culture at large and/or christians themselves this would be on this list and might be #1.
You are right in your understanding of Hebrews 11. The King James translation seems to be very confusing on this subject. As you said, faith itself isn't the evidence of invisible things (many Christians would say this based on this passage), but rather faith is the result of real evidence of things that are unseen in themselves.
Much like Plato's shadows in a cave. Those shadows are the evidence and the unseen puppets are what we believe in based on the shadows.
This misconception is why most of the world calls faith and science incompatible...simply because their mistaken definition of faith is that it's antithetical to evidence.

At 9/29/2005 2:58 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I promise I didn't write my latest post after reading yours, but we're in the same topical ball-park.

Here are some things I would say to this misguided Baptist pastor:

Are you denying that there is any evidence for the truth claims of Christianity, or do you just think it is wrong to explore them?

Faith is not something that stands alone; it must have an "object," just as glue must have something to bond. What's wrong with "faith" in the Book of Mormon, the Qur'an, or the Hindu scriptures? The answer he gives to this will ultimately lean on some justification that the Bible is the true one and the others are in error. He will show himself to be either a fool or a meager apologist.

This thinking implies that those with the least evidence would have the best "faith." This suggests we would be doing the church a service if we burned all the ancient manuscripts, and the best thing that could happen is if they found the bones of Jesus!

This view of faith being blind is more an invention of the secular culture, which has been imposed upon the church, than it is a position of the historical church. You, sir, have rejected your heritage.

When you witness to someone and they say something like, "I heard Jesus never even existed," what will you say to them that will not damage their chance at a full-flowered, blissfully groundless faith? Perhaps you will simply call them a "swine" and move on.

Please tell me why Yahweh was often found performing acts for the Hebrews and saying He'd done it for evidential reasons, i.e., "So that you may know..." Also, I would not like to be standing in your shoes when you scold Jesus for submitting Himself to Thomas in order to be seen and touched to quell his doubts.

Good post.

At 9/29/2005 3:25 PM , Blogger Vman said...

I agree. there's a difference between faith and blind faith. Having faith doesn't mean you're believing something without sufficient evidence.Nice plato reference jeff.

At 9/29/2005 4:23 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

Vman, I thought you'd like that. I've been thinking of that analogy a lot lately since you brought it up. It seems to apply over and over again to the issues we have been discussing.

At 9/30/2005 1:02 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul you make some good points. One of the things that used to trouble me about Christianity was that it seemed like my whole future--whether I went to heaven or hell--depended on my ability to convince myself of something I had no reason to believe. It seemed so odd to me that being able to delude yourself was such a great virtue in Christianity. And it seemed extremely counter-intuitive that the best thing to do for a person is hide any evidence from them that suggested Christianity might be true, since that would destroy their faith.


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