On having faith

An atheist friend asked me recently what reason there is to have faith in God.

Now, first, let us properly understand faith (my friend surely didn’t). Faith is, essentially, trust in what reason has revealed as truth and revelation has ratified, and vice-versa. To have faith is not to believe something for no good reason but to believe it for every good reason. Faith may be likened to a man who is deathly afraid of flying, but who nevertheless boards the plane, firmly reminding himself how unlikely it is to crash. He’s right and not irrational to believe the plane probably won’t crash — it’s a perfectly rational belief and he has every reason to believe it. Faith isn’t quite so much the believing but the accepting, the adhering of the will to that truth.

To ask what reason there is to have faith is to ask why reason obliges us to have faith. But if faith is simply the acceptance of truth, then the atheist is really asking (though he doesn’t know it), “Why does reason oblige us to believe that what reason has revealed as truth is truth?” Phrased this way, we see how silly the question is. It couldn’t be otherwise: to have faith just is to be reasonable. One may as well ask why triangles can’t have four sides.

10 thoughts on “On having faith

  1. “To have faith is … to believe [something] for every good reason.”

    I agree with this, but one aspect of the situation is that reason usually isn’t airtight. Except in mathematics there’s always a gap between a proposition and the evidence we have for it. Even in mathematics you can’t be altogether sure you’re not confused, so that what you think is a proof really isn’t a proof.

    So there’s always room for doubt. Belief, and therefore the possibility of knowledge, always involves a sort of trust in something you can’t altogether nail down. Pascal’s “intuitive mind” (esprit de finesse) and Newman’s “illative sense” deal with this issue. How do we come to reliable conclusions from considerations that can’t be ignored but can’t be made crystal clear either?

    • .. so that what you think is a proof really isn’t a proof.

      You don’t really understand what the word ‘proof’ means, do you?

      • The intended meaning of the final sentence in the first paragraph is “Even in mathematics you can be confused and overlook a problem, so what you think is a proof may not in fact be a proof.”

    • Right, and it is because of the lack of *utter* certainty that one must have faith at all. Similarly, we aren’t *utterly* certain that the plane isn’t going to crash. If we were, we wouldn’t need faith, because we wouldn’t be afraid of flying.

  2. In reasons to believe, I refer to Unamuno, whose argument I cursorily state here. He is quite right to explain that reason, by itself, leads to annihilation, to death, and to its negation, in a terrible vicious circle. Basically, we need faith to live, like we need breathing. Reason cannot provide a reason to live, as that exists outside reason. Since the time of the Stoics and Epicureans, rationalists have been trying unsuccessfully to find in rational-materialistic truth some consolation from the materialistic fact that human conscience will be annihilated with death.
    So, basically, the “reason” to have faith in God lies outside reason, although not contrary to reason. Without faith, there is no hope, no appreciation of beauty, no need enjoy or do good, no need to make an effort for future generations, no need for anything. If you are going to disappear as if you had never existed, why? Thus, we need to believe, and we pray to God to grant us more faith. Like the desperate father of the possessed child, we cry to the Lord “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
    So, he is right when he says that reason (which we would call materialism) is a strictly monist point of view, and very limited at that. So, there are reasons to look beyond what we can see. Once we can at least accept that we need to search for more, and that we are willing to look for more, to open our minds to the possibility of God, the rest becomes easier.
    Those that are really despicable not only deny God, are angry that others believe in him. What is it to them? Why do they care? “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.”’

    • What people say in this area seems to depend on how they conceive of reason. If “reason” means “that which gives us absolute certainty” then it gets us nowhere. Descartes never gets out of his hole, since he can’t be sure there are no unstated and unproved assumptions in the concepts he’s applying, or that he remembers correctly the line of reasoning that would entitle him to be sure of anything beyond his immediate subjective experience.

      On the other hand, if we go beyond the indubitable where do we stop? In your description Unamuno seems to stop at something like the world as described by modern natural science. But that position seems hard to maintain rationally, if only because modern natural science has no place for meaning or therefore itself as a system of meaningful propositions.

      The effect is that in order to think or speak at all, we have to trust in something beyond what is strictly demonstrable, so we have to have faith. If reason is the way we should form conclusions, then faith has to be part of reason. The issue then becomes which faith is most reasonable. That view of the matter may be consistent with Unamuno’s, but expressed differently.

  3. Even Richard Dawson, who makes his career out of belittling faith, when he gets up in the morning, can only work through his daily agenda on the faith that his various errands have some meaning beyond their mere formal completion. He has to have faith that the “Extinction Asteroid” will not strike the earth just after breakfast. (Otherwise, why get out of bed?) Never minding the various semantic shades of the word “reason,” even strict materialists must have “animal faith” (as Santayana called it) that the physical world that they study will behave predictably into the indefinite future, a continuity that no syllogism (that is, no feat of “pure reason”) can guarantee. Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things” is a faithful paean to the consistency of the universe. I would guess that Third Century Christianity had its ranks swelled by Epicureans making a quite natural conversion from one lucid faith to another.

    • I would posit, however, that the rationalist-materialist doesn’t have a problem with that kind of faith, i.e. that of a physical world with existing regularities, especially when the ability to predict that physical sciences exhibit seem to reinforce that view.

      The problem exists with a reasonable faith in God, and how does one get there? How does one go from “I have faith in certain physical regularities” to “I have faith in God”?

      My view is, “what other choice do I have?”, as the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. So, in a sense, Pascal’s wager is the best I can come with. Once I accept the premise of God, then the most reasonable of faiths is the Christian one.

      • The issue to my mind is what the universe has to include to make sense. The rationalist-materialist universe, for example, doesn’t include qualities like rational or meaningful. All it includes are particles or vibrations or whatever in space. So it doesn’t give the theory of rational materialism any way it can exist let alone be better than some other theory. That being so, the theory makes no sense. It doesn’t allow for its own possibility.

  4. Pingback: Outrageous Faith « L.E.G.A.C.Y.


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