Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Faith and Belief

A couple of months ago I had a good email exchange with a friend concerning many things including whether the existence of God can be a concluded from logical arguments. Anyone familiar with me knows that I do not see God as a logical necessity, but rather as something approached with faith.

In one exchange with my friend, I blithely quoted Psalm 3:5:

"Trust God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding....”

I was taking a bit of a pot-shot, hopefully with good humor, pointing out that his basic belief was that we can trust our own understanding.

His reply was, “You’ve got to believe in Him first.”

I disagree with this.

I do not think that faith requires a belief in a specific version of God. So does faith require any beliefs? I do think there is at least one - an acknowledgement of human limitation. I firmly believe that I do not know everything! The implication of recognizing our limitations is also to recognize a gap in our knowledge of things. To me, the attitude with which we approach this gap is what defines faith. Faith is when we open ourselves to possibility with an attitude of trust.

This is not just relevant within a religious framework. Consider a practical problem - say a problem with a co-worker. Is it better to worry about it a lot? Or to approach it with an attitude of faith - a sense of trust that this problem will untangle itself in some way? Herein lies the beauty and the danger of faith. The beauty is that it puts us in a better frame of mind, making our experience much more pleasant. The danger is that I think faith can lose this affect without action. The relationship between faith and works is a major consideration in the New Testament and in all our lives. But I think it can be argued that faith can contribute to an attitude that makes positive works more likely. In fact, a complete lack of faith usually results in emotional paralysis in my experience. There is great freedom in recognizing our limitations, relaxing, controlling what we can, and having faith concerning what we cannot. I am thinking serenity prayer.......

Here is my tentative definition:

Faith is a recognition of human limitation followed by an attitude of openness and trust towards the unknown. I do not define it as intellectual submission to a specific dogma.

Therefore perhaps a person could say with a clear conscience that she has faith in God, even if she does not know exactly what God is. Or - “I am not sure in what sense I believe, but I do have faith in whatever it is that IS.”

What do you think?


  1. Steven - I quite like your definition. As you, I am adamantly opposed to "faith" being used as an excuse for any number of ills; faith is not the antithesis of reason, it doesn't require you to be anti-intellectual, it doesn't require that you dispell all doubt or second thoughts, and it certainly doesn't require strict belief in and adherence to any specific dogma.
    I think friendship is a good, though imperfect, example (and it is not my own, but is something I read while studying the modern beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox church). I can meet someone and know nothing about him/her, and slowly become friends with that individual. How? I trust that person, and they trust me, a little at first, and more as the trust is "verified" experientially. I have faith that he/she is my friend, and will behave as such. Perhaps something will happen down the road to harm that "faith," but I do not behave now as though that is a likely possibility. It's not unreasonable (ie, anti-reason), but it also isn't completely based in fact (as I don't know precisely how my friend will behave tomorrow, or a year from now, or ten years). Similarly, you may not know what God is really like, or what the outcome of a "friendship" with God might be, but you have faith that the "friendship" exists and will continue to exist in roughly the same way as it does right at that given moment. That's a poorly worded version of the analogy, but forgive me - it's late here!
    I can say with a clear conscience that, though perhaps I don't know God in any kind of specific or meaningful way, I have faith that God is there, and can be known.

  2. Kelly,

    I enjoyed the friendship analogy! Thank you.

    It reminded me of an analogy my brother has often spoken of. He says that when he thinks of the phrase "I believe in God", the term "believe" isn't the same as in "I believe (or don't believe) in the Loch Ness monster." Rather he feels that it is more like believing in a friend.

    The analogy he uses is a parent watching her 10 year old steal the basketball and dribble towards the goal. She knows that he will probably not get the ball in the hoop, but she yells "I believe in you!" and she means it 100%. I love that.

    That belief is stronger than the reality it supposedly speaks to. The reality it actually speaks to the most is in the present moment - and that parent would never regret believing in her son, no matter if the ball went in the hoop or not.

  3. Do the terms faith and trust mean the same thing or can they be differentiated in some way? In using one to define the other, I find myself spinning in a circle.

    Perhaps faith, in this sense, might be reserved for ‘recipients’ that do not have a concrete, real-world presence and trust is reserved for more tangible things? “I trust that the sun will rise tomorrow / my friend will not take advantage of me / my brakes will not give out…” versus “I have faith that Poseidon will guide my ship through these waters / that I will be reunited with my loved ones / my problem will go away…” It seems like having a plausible or known mechanism has some effect on the trust/faith we place in things. I am not really sure if this works or how exactly to differentiate faith from trust, maybe you might help me understand.

    You also mention that you think faith can contribute to an attitude that makes positive works more likely. Do you see this as a one way street, or is it also the (arguable) case that faith can contribute to an attitude that make negative works more likely?

    Good job on getting those around you to think about things.

  4. Excellent points.

    I think I would differentiate between faith and belief - And I think they can both be present at the same time.

    I have faith the sun will come up tomorrow, but I also believe that it will. What if I heard that the sun is not coming up tomorrow? It is going to burn out at 6AM tomorrow. I now no longer believe it will come up, but instead of freaking out, perhaps I will live my last day as if it were going to come up tomorrow - I still have faith in the sun and what it has given us, but perhaps no longer belief. Maybe this is too nit-picky. How about - I no longer believe that the sun will come up tomorrow, but I still approach tomorrow with hope and positivity. That may seem that I have shifted faith to tomorrow from "the sun", but faith is only possible in the absence of belief - so if tomorrow is unknown (no sun - no tomorrow) then there is room for acceptance, hope and trust. Trust in what? I don't know - just trust! Why? Because what will happen will happen, but what we can control is our part in the equation.

    Can faith have negative effects? I think so. I think it can keep us from action as well as inspire us to action. But faith is usually meant in a positive way. People may believe in God and the devil, but they wouldn't say they have faith in the devil, as they would with God.

  5. Oh man, I think I am just getting more and more confused! I like where this started with faith being defined as a recognition of limitation followed by an attitude of openness and trust, but I am not sure that trust adds anything here if we cannot differentiate it from faith itself. Are faith and trust swappable terms? If this is the case, I might suggest that we already have word that applies equally to the religious and the secular, and that the definition you are giving for faith is piggy-backing on the uncontroversial term trust.

  6. Skyhook brings up a good point. Is faith, as I mean it, an unnecessary word that could be replaced with trust? I should point out that all words overlap in meaning. If they didn’t, how would a dictionary work? But I do think that trust and faith could almost be swapped out, but perhaps not quite.

    Faith is the state of having trust. Trust can be a verb or a noun, but faith is alway a noun. It’s the state of mind of having trust. To me, there is a feeling of openness and acceptance that is a little different than trust in its broadness. Perhaps faith is trust as a larger worldview, rather than in a specific instance.

    Here are the first two definitions of faith at

    1. confidence or trust in a person or thing
    2. belief that is not based on proof

    My definition favors the first, although the “person or thing” is the unknown in a more general sense. The second definition might be good if they replaced “belief” with “trust”.

    Of course “faith” can also mean a specific religion as in “the faiths of the world” or “the Jewish faith.” It’s probably obvious that this is not the aspect of the word I am focusing on.

    Yet I suppose my main point is that faith, to me, is closer to trust than to belief, therefore Skyhook’s point is well-taken.

    Another important word to be thrown in to the mix is “hope.” Perhaps faith is hope plus trust. And hope does not necessarily entail expectations. A person working for human rights in a third world country might work with a strong hope that one day all humans will be treated equally, even if she does not spend much time expecting this to happen. This isn’t delusional if it drives her mission, makes her life better - not to mention the lives of others. She will die one day, completely justified in her hope, even if it is never realized.

  7. No, faith is believing in something without supporting evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence, period. And yes, blind faith by itself IS submission to a specific dogma -- that's what dogma is, unchallengeable.

    Communication depends on people agreeing on what words mean. You can't redefine words to your liking -- let's declare that "toast" really means "eggs" and see how that goes.

    This sort of essay confuses people, particularly children, whom I'm afraid are going to read this and a) come away with some fuzzy concept of what this word means, and b) think that it's acceptable to simply redefine words to your liking. It's intellectually dishonest.

    I'm sure that you meant well, but communication depends on a mutual trust that we will all agree on what words mean.

  8. I will have to disagree a bit Dan. Words are nuanced and are the servants of our meaning, not vice versa.

    Perhaps more importantly, as I pointed out in a previous comment, "faith" has several definitions in the dictionary. Yours is certainly one.

    I might also add that words describing abstractions like "faith" are different than words like "eggs". They are quite open to interpretation, I think, but your point is well-taken that we must strive to do so with some discipline. I think my meaning jives with the dictionary.

    Also, according to the definition you put forth, at what point does belief become faith? What level of evidence (or lack of) is sufficient to distinguish the two? I'm sure people could write blogs along these lines as well.

    In the meantime, I will continue to try to describe my usage of faith more along the "trust" and "hope" lines than the "belief" line.

    thanks for stopping by!