For many people faith is something that is nebulous and ill-defined. Sure, you can go look it up in the dictionary and explore the various usages of the word in English… but that is not really what we are talking about. In this article, we are seeking to explore the term “faith” in the context of a firmly held world-view, perhaps one which intersects with a belief not based on proof.
To put this into some kind of context, let’s explore the most common approach to conversation between two people of different faith perspectives. From my own experience, this will be one of logical discourse about various interpretations of evidence.
For example, the Christian will be challenged to prove the existence of God, or to explain the logical paradox of a “good God” and a world filled with “evil”. The Orthodox Jew might be asked to provide evidence for the ten plagues of Egypt, while the Hindu is challenged about the source of their beliefs in Dharma or of the worship of Vishnu.
To my mind, all of this misses the point.
When asked by a philosophy lecturer at my old university, “What is faith?”… well, a Christian in the room quoted from the book of Hebrews:
“…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11: 1, NIV)
For that Christian the question was, in a sense, nonsensical. To then move the lecture to present an attack on faith using logical, evidential arguments simply missed the point.
Many people of faith are simply not concerned with evidence-based attacks upon their beliefs. In that statement, incidentally, I include the atheist because the atheist requires as much faith in the negative position as their opponent in discourse. As any beginner to the philosophy of religion will know, there is no empirical proof either for or against the existence of God. If there were… well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, for one thing.
So… where to begin? I’d like to suggest beginning somewhere away from evidence for or against this or that.
What Influences Faith?
Starting to think about this, I’d like to propose that faith is something that is informed by at least four key influences:
Western culture has, at least since the time of the Enlightenment, placed Reason upon a pedestal. Certainly the use of our critical faculties plays a large role in the formation of our ideas… but, perhaps, not as large a role as we might like to believe.
Reason is an excellent tool for any human to utilise in making sense of the world around them. But, as Spock would certainly concede, logical deduction is limited by the assumptions from which one argues. Thus, in forming our world-views, beliefs and (ultimately) faith we are reasoning from somewhere. I’d like to ask you, “from where?”
Tradition, in this context, refers to cultural tradition. In Jewish culture this includes the traditions of the home and synagogue; for a Hindu, this would include the culture and traditions of India.
We are surely influenced in our beliefs by our upbringing. Home life has a formative impact upon our world-view, as our parents share their own ideas about the way the world works. Our teachers develop this formative influence as they (perhaps) challenge those preconceptions we import from home. Those other people whom we come to care about and trust perhaps lead us to consider further adjustments to our world-view; even our bitterest opponents challenge us to explain ourselves.
From the perspective of a faith our beliefs are often, to one degree or another, either a confession from or a reaction against these cultural values and views. I have yet to meet an atheist who wasn’t reacting against some perceived “evil” of religion; similarly, many people are uncritically confessing the views that have been given to them from youth.
Tradition, I would suggest, is the basis for our response to faith.
Religious faith certainly draws strength from reference to some form of external authority.
By way of example, Christians will point (variously) to the Bible, the Pope, the Ecumenical Councils, their Minister/Priest/Pastor, and (ultimately) to Jesus of Nazareth. Muslims will point to the Qur’an and to the Hadiths. Jews will look to scripture, especially the Torah. Hindus might point to the Vedas, Buddhists to the four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, and Sikhs to the Guru Granth Sahib.
What of atheists? They will point to the writings of philosophers, scientists, and politicians; they will trump the authority of the scientific method.
All of us, even the ones who claim to be agnostic, will be drawing upon authorities outside of ourselves to inform our world-view. We might well be a confused mix of beliefs, unable to feel at home professing “faith” in any of the above, but we are all drawing from the experience of our forbears. I suspect that even the lone human, untouched by the great history of our species and left alone for a lifetime, would still be reaching out somewhere to draw meaning from something other than themselves. Even the most hardened post-modernist, professing the rejection of all authority, will ultimately cite someone else to support their belief.
Adding authority to tradition gives us a firm footing in our faith.
Perhaps it is our own experience that plays a role in the development of our faith?
I remember, as a young man, rejecting Christianity because I did not experience the teachings lived out in the so-called expert Christian life, that of the local Anglican Priests. This experience profoundly shaped my own search for meaning. I was reacting against my family’s culture of atheist materialism and found myself drawn to seeking other means of explaining experience.
What about you? Perhaps your earlier beliefs were challenged by events in the lives you have experienced? When the tornado destroyed your home, did you wonder, “Why me?”
When you get talking to people who have strong emotive responses (positive or negative) towards the concept of religion it is quite common for their world-view and reaction to have been informed by a powerful personal experience. Often our own personal experiences overpower tradition/culture, challenge and topple external authority, and lead us to reason a path to another set of conclusions. This helps to explain the sudden shifts between faith perspectives that litter the history of humanity.
Yet… how conscious are we of how our experience has shaped our world-view, our faith?
What are we so sure of and how did we get to believing it?
Before anyone misunderstands, let me say that each of these four influences stands on its own. There is no hierarchy between Reason, Tradition, Authority and Experience.
For one person, Reason reigns dominant while for another it’s Experience. Perhaps, for you, Tradition stands tall, or Authority.
The thing is that the order and dominance of the elements is less important than the realisation that we are influenced by them all, to one degree or another.
Yeah, ok… so what?
Well, let me suggest that the next time you find yourself conversing about faith, religion, world-view and/or philosophy you consider dropping the default evidence-approach and try something new.
Why not explore one another’s influences?
What cultural traditions are you both from? What authority do you respectively recognise? How have your experiences shaped you? From where are you reasoning?
Instead of getting into a bun-fight over evidence, why not have a rich conversation about one-another’s assumptions? A respectful and patient exploration of these questions will enrich all the participants and offer alternatives to your own faith perspective.
Do you really think that you can reason someone into your faith?
Get real: until you help others to understand your culture, tradition, experience, sources of authority and meaning, and ways of thinking you will not be able to connect. Only once your respective positions begin to connect will you stand a chance of sharing something fresh.