“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
When we hear the word “faith,” most of us associate it with religion — with what’s often called “religious faith.” The idea of faith is so closely linked to the idea of religious belief that we often treat them as indistinguishable, as when asking, “What is your faith?” while meaning, “What is your religion?”
But faith and belief are not identical, not even in a religious context. Certainly they overlap, as illustrated in the Venn diagram below, but that hardly makes them the same:
So what do we mean when discussing “faith” as a fundamental spiritual principle, aside from the special context related to any particular religion? How else do we use the term?
Courts of law enforce legal contracts undertaken in good faith because the parties who make such contracts must rely on them. Similarly, the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution means that states must respect one another’s legal judgments so that citizens can rely on them being honored throughout the country.
The notion of faithfulness or fidelity in marriage is also connected with reliance-not only in our present day sense of relying on our partner to have no other lovers, but in the very roots of faithfulness in marriage as the only way a husband could rely on being the father of the children to whom he passed on his inheritance.
This relationship of faith with reliance is also true when we consider faith as a general spiritual principle. When we have faith in something — such as the promise of a friend — we don’t just believe in it, but we rely on it. We think and act in full confidence that what we have faith in can be trusted.
Those who fail to appreciate the role of reliance in faith usually confuse it with belief and often disparage it as contrary to reason. This is why many who consider themselves atheists regard faith as completely irrational, appealing only to weak-minded folks who lack the intelligence to think clearly. They especially attack religious faith as if it were, as one online dictionary puts it, “unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence.” ¹
But such a definition begs the question of faith’s rationality by slyly redefining it. Let’s look at Webster’s less biased definition in the same sense: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” ²
The gap between “unquestioning belief” and “firm belief” is big enough to drive a solar system through! The derisive qualifier “unquestioning” feeds some folks’ mistaken belief that reliance on science is somehow superior to and different from faith. They fail to understand that real faith-whether scientific or religious or any other kind-is firm only because it stands up to vigorous questioning and doubt. As the noted theologian Paul Tillich expressed it, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
There’s an equally huge gap in these definitions between “no proof” and “no evidence.” First, “proof” is a logical concept that applies to mathematics but not to scientific theories, which can no more be proven than the existence of God.³ Second, while mere belief does not require evidence, real faith-such as faith in a scientific theory-definitely does!
For instance, although you might believe a shooter’s claim that he can hit an apple at 100 yards, you probably won’t let him try shooting an apple off your own head without more evidence than just his word! If he hits ten apples out of ten tries, that doesn’t prove that he’ll hit the next one, but it might convince you to have faith in his ability. When we act on a belief that evidence suggests we can rely on, then we are acting on the principle of faith.
We cannot prove that the sun will “rise” tomorrow. However, based on a theory of the world that makes sense and past experience supporting our faith in it rising, we feel confident in planting gardens and otherwise acting as if certain that the sun will rise, instead of getting paralyzed by worry or going on a devil-may-care rampage of self-indulgence since there’s no proof that tomorrow will ever come.
One of the immediate benefits of choosing to live in faith is that it gives us the power to enjoy true peace of mind every day in spite of being at the mercy of forces that we cannot control. Without faith, how could we board an airplane that might crash, killing everyone on board? How could we drive on a congested freeway? Or let our children go out into the world on their own?
Once we begin to truly understand the nature of faith, we soon realize that it is hardly an irrational belief, but the very essence of rationality, as intrinsic to our daily functioning as conscious beings as the very air we breathe.
If hope is the power that enables a rookie batsman to step up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, then faith is the power that enables him to concentrate completely on the pitch, without worrying about the outcome: What happens if he strikes out, pops up, hits a line-drive to the shortstop? What about his contract? Will he be sent back to the minors? What if he makes a fool of himself? What if the press says nasty things about him?
Faith is what keeps all the “what ifs” at bay, and lets us get on with what is.
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³ Mathematics and other forms of logic deal in proofs, but science does not. Science is based on falsifiability (see “Science as Falsification,” by Karl Popper). It deals not in proofs, but in probabilities. In the absence of disconfirming evidence that would falsify a theory, then the more evidence that supports the theory, the greater the probability that it’s true — and the more faith we have that it can be trusted and relied on.
Links to more information about Faith:
The Wikipedia entry on Faith at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith
From NewAdvent.org, the entry on Faith in the Catholic Encyclopedia
Psychologist David G. Myers’s article “Psychological Science Meets the World of Faith” at PsychologicalScience.org
Recommended Books about Faith:
Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience
Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher and author of Lovingkindness, writes about faith not as part of a religious belief system, but as a principle of action based on what we have learned from our experience in life.
James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning
An academic study that provides an overview of the role faith plays in human development and maturation, based on interviews with hundreds of men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds, including most religious faiths as well as none.
Jeff Levin, God, Faith, and Health: Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection
Levin examines the growing body of evidence illustrating the positive relationship between spiritual/religious faith and physical health and well-being.