In academia, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude that people with religious faith are intellectually dishonest. While possibly excusable for non-intellectuals – the attitude goes – we enlightened thinking-types ought not rely on faith; after all, as Dr. Temperance Brennan in the popular TV Series Bones says, “Faith is an irrational belief in something that is logically impossible,” right?
A fairy-tale wall tower at the Tower of London
Pardon the polemical introduction. I exaggerate slightly to make a point… although perhaps the exaggeration is not particularly far removed from reality in some cases? But as a Christian academic, I ask myself the question, what is faith? Is it really the irrational belief in the logically impossible? Perhaps if I have faith that the world will end on Dec. 21 or that fairytales are historically true accounts, I’m approaching that kind of faith. But what about faith in the Christian God and in his gospel (good news)? Are we crazy and irrational?
Rev. Mick Leary of The Church of the Redeemer, PCA in Cortland, NY recently preached on biblical faith, and its main points stuck with me as concisely capturing what true faith looks like:
What is Faith?
Rev. Leary suggested that true faith comprises knowledge, belief, and trust.
True faith is first based on knowledge, or, more precisely, justification in its epistemological sense; in other words, faith has good reason to believe. Justification involves both good information or evidence and good reasoning. As Christians, we have good information about God and how he interacts with the world – especially his gospel.
Romans 3:21-26 (emphasis added)
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (NIV)
We have a historically reliable book that claims to be the revelation of God’s word to his people through history: the Bible. Of great importance, then, the content of Scripture reveals much about who and what God is – invisible, eternal spirit, creator of the physical world and universe, sovereign over human beings, holy and righteous, etc. – and about how he interacts with human beings. The Scriptures contain verifiable historical events which demonstrate God’s reality, prophesies fulfilled that demonstrate his faithfulness, and future promises that may be presumed to hold true based on previous information.
At this point, the skeptics will already be ready to pounce, for the previous statements are based on further evidence – historical accuracies and a high level of agreement between manuscripts and archeology – (see Tim Keller’s chapter on biblical accuracy in The Reason for God for an overview of this issue) but also on a worldview that presumes the possibility of a God. This is a circular argument, they may say, but there is no way to argue for a world with God or a world without God without beginning with some given axiom that cannot be proven. Hence this discussion on faith. My point here is merely that the Scriptures are comparatively speaking the most reliable ancient book out there, and that they are considered historically definitive in many respects. As such, what they say about God and his people ought to be considered as worth study.
In addition, reason allows for and supports the existence of God from within the finite realm of human thought. Many have tried and failed to argue for or against the existence of God using merely “pure” reason. However, in approaching the possibility of God in existence, reason is more than compatible with such a possibility and can provide very compelling support. Rather than attempting to set a new argument out here, I will refer my readers to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; these two books demonstrate the philosophical reasonableness of God. Finally, the historic tenacity of Christian faith and the individual and corporate record of experiences of God provide further evidence in support of the existence of God and his redemptive plan.
With the solidity of Scripture as our main evidence and reason, tradition, and experience as our epistemological supports, we are then faced with a decision to whether we have enough epistemological justification to actually believe – assent to the truth of – the information presented. It is at this point at which the dividing line is most distinct between those who profess Christianity and those who do not. Many people who explore the information within Scripture and the supports along side it find it intellectually compelling enough that they cannot but accept it as truth (c.f. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis). Many others are unwilling to accept that the evidence is certain enough to be true. Members of both groups are easily found in both academic and non-academic circles.
But in any case, faith requires the belief that the good information is true. For example, consider Romans 4:18-25 (emphasis added):
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sinsand was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)
Skeptics will immediately notice the phrase “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Aha! See the illogical belief here! But notice verse 20-21. In essence, Abraham faced the physical evidence and compared it to what he knew about God – the Creator of the universe, the God who had called him out of his hometown, the One who had provided for and led him every step of the way – and he recognized the faithfulness of God before and reasonably drew the conclusion that God, as the Creator, had the power to work with his failing physical body to fulfill his promise.
Surely justified belief is enough to constitute faith, right? To return to Rev. Leary’s sermon, the crucial point that transforms belief into faith is the trust that the information is so true that my life can be built on it. This is the toughest part. I may believe for good reason that if I put my money in the a Savings account it will stay there and gain a small amount of interest unless I withdraw it. However, I have to really trust that the bank is legitimate in order to put my money in an account to begin with.
Consider Romans 8:18-30, especially the following verses:
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (NIV)
To borrow almost directly from Rev. Leary, the basis of trust lies with and in God and Christ, in what he did before we knew him rather than on what we are doing. Romans 5:6-8 says, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Trust begins with the recognition that I am weak and that he has done for me what I could not do for myself. He pursues us in love, with grace, in his own timing; in fact, he is often willing to take time when we are not willing to do so. In order to “do” trust, then it behooves us to spend time reflecting on our life in the context of the Scriptures, to look at the way we spend our time on other things (what matters if God is real and his gospel is true?), to gather together and listen to each other as God’s people. We know he is there although we cannot see him. We believe he will act as he has in the past – faithfully, righteously. We therefore trust in him.
To close, let me refer to Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)
In this brief definition, faith is defined as assurance and conviction rather than mere hope or wishful thinking. While assurance and conviction may be merely asserted by the unthinking person, this verse connotes a confidence that is supported. The NKJV uses the word “substance,” the idea being: faith is well-supported, substantial, evidence-based belief in, yes, the intangible and the not-yet; it is not irrational – or at least no more so than any sensible view of this complex world ought to be.
(See for reference some further thoughts on rationality and its place in human thought in this earlier post.)