Taking Things On Faith

In student papers, I regularly read that things are supposed to be ‘taken on faith’. In terms of what they mean by this, there is simply no such teaching in the Bible. Neither is what they are proposing a good idea.

The closest one might get to it is the story of Thomas in the Gospel of John. There, however, he gets to see, and his skepticism is not particularly surprising given what he was being asked to believe.

Those who believe without seeing are said to be blessed, but they are not expected to simply believe a story someone tells them. They are expected to experience Christ’s life-changing power and perhaps also miraculous healings and exorcisms. There is no expectation that people will simply believe things in the absence of evidence.

The failure of Jesus’ contemporaries to believe he was the Messiah is not about belief in the absence of evidence. It is about what they believe based on the evidence they had available.

There is no reason to think that the author of Genesis expected his readers to believe his creation story ‘on faith’. He does not dispute the basic facts of the natural world as understood in his time: that the world is mostly land with a large gathering of connected basins filled with water called seas; that there is a dome over the earth; that above the dome are waters; that there are lamps placed in the dome (the moon, like the sun, being viewed as a source of light). He says all of this because it is what people thought in his time. None of it is anticipated to require faith to believe it. What the author offered was an alternative story of creation, not alternative facts about that which was created.

The author of Genesis doesn’t even seem to have intended to “prove” that monotheism is better than polytheism. There are no logical arguments. There is simply a story, one that he seems to be confident will be found more appealing than others available in that time.

When people today read the Bible in a non-literal fashion, this is not a retreat from the advances of scientific knowledge. It is rather a return to the classic way of approaching these texts. The only people who are allowing the concerns of modern science to determine the way they read the text are, ironically, the fundamentalists, who seek absolute certain scientific explanations in a text that does not offer them.

If you are looking for inerrancy in Scriptures and won’t take no for an answer, I suspect that most Christians would be grateful if you would try Islam or some tradition that at least claims to offer such a text. But please, please stop trying to make Christianity live up to your strange modernistic expectations. Not only will it never do so, leaving you feeling the need to ‘take things on faith’, but the fabric of Christianity gets warped and distorted even through the futile attempt.

Taking things on faith is extremely dangerous. But what the Bible calls for isn’t that. The word ‘faith’, like the word ‘truth’, had primarily to do with trust and trustworthiness. The object of this trust was not, in most instances, a text or words, but a person.

The question that we then have to ask next is this: when, if ever, is it appropriate to make leaps of trust? My own answer is that this leap is one that we might make in relation to that all-encompassing reality that we refer to as God. This is not an expectation that supernatural interventions will sort out all our problems, but a confidence that the reality of which we are a part is neither simply hostile nor ultimately meaningless. Even in this respect, however, we make a leap not in darkness and ignorance, but based on intuition and the evidence we have available. As I have said before, to feel that we can go beyond the evidence and the explicable is not necessarily inappropriate, whereas to ignore or deny the available evidence clearly is. To paraphrase Hebrews once again, “Faith is the evidence of things unseen – not evidence that the things that are seen don’t exist.

Hebrews lists heroes of the faith, but nowhere on the list are people who by faith ‘believed X, Y and Z happened in the past even though they couldn’t prove it’. These are heroes of trust, not heroes of belief. Christians today have much to learn about the difference.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15978997781556741350 Mike L.

    Great post. I often find it strange that some people measure “faith” by the bizzare claims they are willing to believe in. The more outrageous their claims the more “faith” they feel they have.When people in the 1st century “denied” Jesus they were not renouncing his cliams of divinity they were declining the opportunity to follow his way of life. For us, having faith in Jesus means living his way of life centered around peace and justice.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11734019573868663947 Steve Martin

    Hi James, Great post! Polkinghorne’s comment on comparing scientific and religious acquition of knowledge (in some ways very similar!) echos the same idea: “The ability of understanding to outrun explanation is intimately connected with the concept of religious faith. This is not a polite expression for unsubstantiated assertion, but it points to an ability to grasp things in totality, the occurrence of an insight which is satisfying to the point of being self-authenticating, without dependence on detailed analysis. Involved is a leap of the mind – not into the dark, but into the light”from “Science and the Christian Belief”, page 37

  • Anonymous

    So happy to have found you! Grateful post.Being open to fundamental change and the transformative process is challenging our existing patterns that we have out grown. We each have nature, time, and patience to discover. And why faith has so much power within us. I believe back in the bibical days, people were similar to our own pychology energy. Their minds were going a mile a minute on different levels of experiences of all the awes. And to trust and have faith in one man “Jesus,” divine promises were doubtful. I wonder if any of these divinity subjects had visions or supernatural powers like Jesus? Besides Jesus prophets. Any hoot…. “One who knows everything else, but do not know himself. No’s nothing.” Jesus

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    Your dogma that you shouldn’t take things on faith is interesting, particularly since you take that very dogma on faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    “The question that we then have to ask next is this: when, if ever, is it appropriate to make leaps of trust? My own answer is that this leap is one that we might make in relation to that all-encompassing reality that we refer to as God. “I more or less agree, pointing out the irony that the translation of the word “Islam” adequately fits this trust you describe as well.”This is not an expectation that supernatural interventions will sort out all our problems, but a confidence that the reality of which we are a part is neither simply hostile nor ultimately meaningless.”I would add to this, “neither simply benevolent nor ultimately bearing any one specific prescribed meaning for all time”. Which is to say that I think the despondent fatalist is just as bad as the gullible pious partisan.Just two sides of the same coin.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    My point, Eric, was that the Bible most often uses the word faith in the primary sense that the word had in ancient Hebrew and in ancient Greek, i.e. in the sense of trust. Can you give me an instance where people are praised for believing something in spite of evidence to the contrary, or even in spite of lack of evidence. I don’t mean an example of them trusting God that something will happen in the future, but believing ‘by faith’ (in the modern American English sense) that something or other happened in the past?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Quixie, thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I don’t get the irony in reference to Islam (which, at any rate, I would have thought better translated as submission/surrender).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Mike L., your comment reminded me of the famous saying in certain circles, “Not only do I believe the whale swallowed Jonah, but I’d believe it even if it said that Jonah swallowed the whale”.The irony is that focusing on who swallowed whom and how plausible it is for them to have done so usually is accompanied by distraction from the story’s point, which was to challenge a nationalistic, ethnocentric view of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17131154882107531113 Qalmlea

    You might like Alan Watts’ definition of faith: “But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” It’s still getting at the idea of “trust.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    “Can you give me an instance where people are praised for believing something in spite of evidence to the contrary, or even in spite of lack of evidence. I don’t mean an example of them trusting God that something will happen in the future, but believing ‘by faith’ (in the modern American English sense) that something or other happened in the past?”Off the top of my head? — Ummm . . creationism? fundamentalism? (in the literalist-innerant sense)“I don’t get the irony in reference to Islam (which, at any rate, I would have thought better translated as submission/surrender).”I meant that “trust” is inextricably related to “submission”, especially in this kind of theological context. i.e.Why would we submit to a rule without trusting in its validity or its soundness?Alternately, it is because we “trust” that we make a conscious decision to submit— in faith.I think the distinction that you make between “trust in things to come” and “faith in things that have gone before” is a very important one. Like you, I think that faith is more-often-than-not incorrectly used in that way these days. It’s part of why communication is so friggin hard.I was moving some piles of books today and came across this bit on the reason-against-faith theme.“Where does this leave the term ‘faith’? [...][Faith] has a number of different, if somewhat vague, applications. There is nothing objectionable in speaking of “faith” in one’s friends, and so on. What is objectionable, however, is to elevate this nebulous concept to an epistemological status. [...]We must exclude any diversion to faith as an alleged substitute for reason and consider Christian theism solely on its rational merits. This is not arbitrary or subjective; it is simply a matter of necessity. If we wish to acquire knowledge, we must respect the method by which man acquires knowledge. If we are to know anything, we must establish cognitive guidelines. The Christian may experience this strict adherence to reason as restrictive, but it is not the atheist who decrees these restrictions— it is reality.” GH SmithWhile I wouldn’t go as far as dismissing all manner of Christian faith out of hand like this author does (the fatal mistake that militant atheists are guilty of – I don’t think there’s any such thing as a normative Christian), it does highlight a good point, though.offtopic . . . check out a series of lectures that Paula Friedrieksen gave over at Princeton recently (very cool):)Ó

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks Quixie! I actually meant whether there was any such usage in the Bible. That it is used that way today I do not dispute! My point was simply to show that many of the Christians who most adamantly claim to be ‘Biblical’ don’t realize that they are using the word faith, for the most part, in a manner different than the Biblical authors tended to (again, for the most part).One of the biggest questions I had to wrestle with was whether the personal religious experience that I had could prove anything about whether this, that or the other event happened in the past. In the end, I concluded that the answer was no, although it does persuade me that various people who has religious experiences in the past probably are talking about something not entirely unlike my own experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    I don’t know if I can find an instance of God praising people for believing things without evidence. But I don’t think I should need to. It is something no person can avoid. While some may pride themselves in the healthy skepticism they show when they will not accept the veracity of God’s special revelation on faith, they display fideism of equally high degree in their trust in the veracity of God’s general revelation, usually in their assumption that the laws of logic and mathematics and empirically ascertained data are valid pathways to truth, an assumption which cannot first be established by evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comment, Eric. It seems to me that the leap of faith involved in trusting our rational capacities (which we have direct experience of) and our sense perceptions is different than trusting a text in which there are apparent discrepancies. How does one, on the basis of that text, justify a leap of faith in relation to that text?At any rate, it still strikes me as odd that those who claim to be ‘Biblical Christians’ are talking about what they mean by ‘faith’ as though it were Biblical faith, when their meaning seems to be, at the very least, nuanced differently. Doesn’t it seem odd to you that you place such emphasis on ‘accepting the veracity of God’s special revelation “on faith”‘ when that special revelation you refer to doesn’t appear to emphasize that?

  • http://rdtwot.wordpress.com Nick Norelli

    James, Good post. I like your point about faith not being believing in spite of evidence to the contrary. You might want to check out my thoughts on faith from a few months ago.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10326403777027937887 Doug Chaplin

    I’ve offered a longer comment on this, which I think is generally in agreement with you. I found myself wanting, however, to say something more about the heuristic role of “Taking on faith” though not in the sense you criticise

  • http://www.cityside.org.nz/blog/83 Deane

    You point out that it is neither biblical nor particularly sensible to believe that, despite evidence to the contrary, some things ‘must be taken on faith’. I largely agree.But I wasn’t sure what you meant here:When people today read the Bible in a non-literal fashion, this is not a retreat from the advances of scientific knowledge. It is rather a return to the classic way of approaching these texts.A “literal” reading, like “faith”, is a term subject to much ambiguity. I wonder if you could ‘flesh this out’ a little. By a ‘literal’ meaning do you refer to the hist-crit meaning (or range of possible such meanings), in opposition to the traditional ‘spiritual’ or ‘deeper’ interpretations? Or merely to a ‘wooden’ interpretation in opposition to a more ‘flexible’ interpretation? Or is ‘literal’ a euphemism for fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis in opposition to concentration on the ‘theological point’. Or … ?And I wasn’t sure what you meant by the “classic way of approaching these texts”. Who did you have in mind, for example?Thanks.

  • gr8hands

    Matthew 8 and Luke 7 tells of the Centurion who showed greater faith than all in Israel — because he did not demand proof and had no evidence, accepting only the word of Jesus that the healing would be done.Just to mention one such place.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, gr8hands, for the comment. I don’t think that is an example of someone believing something about the past on the basis of a story told about it later – which was the main use of ‘taking it on faith’ that troubles me. This individual was aware of Jesus’ healing activities and came to him trusting his ability to do the same. He left when Jesus told him to because of that trust, in the present. I just don’t see how this can be treated as an instance of believing in the absence of evidence, and if anything it involves trusting Jesus’ statement about what would happen in the future, not an unsubstantiated claim about something that happened in the past.Deane, you asked a great question. All I meant was that the church had a long tradition of reading Biblical stories in many different sorts of ways. The ‘plain sense’ was one of them, but it wasn’t the only one. The exclusive focus on history and factuality is a modern phenomenon, a response to the Enlightenment. And so, when Christians suggest taking some passages as poetic, symbolic or metaphorical, they are not necessarily retreating against advancing knowledge offered by modernity. Some of us are asking for a return to an appreciation of different kinds of Biblical literature, and a recognition that stories that aren’t factual aren’t necessarily ‘untrue’. The church, historically, seems to have consistently recognized this principle, even if it didn’t always apply it.

  • gr8hands

    There’s no indication the Centurion had ever seen Jesus before, let alone personally witnessed any healings. He was taking it ‘on faith’ that the reports from others about Jesus doing healings were true.Clearly this was him believing something about the past (Jesus having a reputation for healing) based solely on stories told after the fact. Then this was identified as having great faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I still don’t see that talking about the reputation of a currently-living healer (even though one may have the same disadvantage as a historian, namely hearing information at several removes from the source or eyewitnesses) is exactly the same thing as believing the Exodus happened in the past precisely as narrated in a story written much later, simply because one chooses to believe that story. In the case of a healer who is alive, one can ask questions, learn more, and make up one’s mind.Maybe I’m splitting hairs here. What do others think?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Although the point of that parable indeed is the value of having a faith that’s kinda “blind” (in that sense, I see why gr8hands has latched on to it), I still don’t think this qualifies as “beliving is some prior event.” Some interesting things about this parable:1 – Only GLuke has this story, a story by the way which closely follows the author’s tendency to highlight the gentiles as candidates for inclusion into the Kingdom of God. This might or might not be part of the oral tradition, but, if it’s not part of the Q material, its odds go down a bit. Fact is that the author (or redactor?) of GLuke is the first to mention it (again, as far as textual certainty can take us). Bauckham tells us that Luke is a “historian”; I turn the volume down a bit and prefer to think of that author more as an anthologist (and I think that the centurion story was a recent variation on Mk 5:21–24, one in which the gentiles have even stronger faith than the “faithful”.2 – In GMatt, the woman who touches Jesus’ hem steals a kiss (figuratively—even lets him have it when he complains). This GLk story depicts the gentile as a figure of authority (therefore even more humbled—prostrate).2 – The centurion in this story values the servant, not necessarily Jesus. His servant is dying, ‘What if I try that healer guy that one of my other servants is asking me to bring?’Put another way: if the centurion’s faith had been in Jesus, Would he not have followed Jesus whether he had a sick servant or not? This story could also serve as an illustration of how our appeals to divinity sometimes stem from desperation (the centurion had never heard of Jesus, but healers were not uncommon then), and not necessarily from a sense of “submission to future wisdom.”I’m glad that gr8hands found a point of contention. He implied there are more, though.¿ ?

  • http://www.cityside.org.nz/node/246 Deane

    Thanks for your explanation, James.I share your unease with modern, fact-centred approaches to the Hebrew scriptures, which treat them less as texts to be read for their own sake than as instruments to support their own modern historical-factual agendas.But on the other hand, I have some unease with some people’s attempts to remedy this by treating the Hebrew narratives merely as stories making theological points rather than also as presenting scientific-historical facts (as the ancient writers understood them).Sometimes, such approaches can be just as much a result of the modernist dichotomy between fact and tradition. But rather than reading the ancient science or historiography in light of modern science or historiography (as the fundamentalists do), the ancient science or historiography is simply ignored or denied. Such an approach is as much entrenched within the confines of modernist thought, and as unlikely to provide an exegesis (if I may use such a dirty word today) of the text as is the fundamentalist hermeneutic. That is, they manage to respect modern scientific findings by removing the issue from the text – while refusing to entertain the possibility that the authors of Genesis 1-11 could have been just as interested in doing their own (early) “science” or “history”, as they were interested in theological significances of their world. I strongly suspect that the (one-sided) interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as dealing with theological meaning, and not history/science, has to do with a very modern dichotomy, not an ancient one.To my mind, the true sublation of these opposite (yet equally modernist) misreadings must expunge the modernist dichotomy altogether.

  • gr8hands

    quixie, (Acts 14) the crippled man of Lystra was healed as a reward for his belief (faith in Paul’s having healed in the past) that he would be healed, not for a belief in Paul or his message. Quite the contrary: “And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.”james f. mcgrath, every time anyone who came after the death of Jesus mentions their faith in Jesus — they are talking about faith in past events without any evidence.Every passage of new testament scripture written after the death of Jesus that talks about the life of Jesus in any way, is using faith in past events without evidence.I could even say that every passage of scripture that discusses the exodus of the Jews from Egypt is using faith in past events without evidence (as there is no historical/archeological evidence Moses existed, nor that any massive amount of Jewish slaves left Egypt). But that might appear snarky.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    I looked at the story in question (Acts 14:8–10). Thanks for bringing it up.Basically it says . . . there was a man sitting there with no use of his legs. Pauls somehow sensed that this crippled man had “faith” to be healed. Paul then spoke to him, telling him to walk. So the man walks.The problem that I find with your interpretation is that you put things into the text which are simply not there.Pauls somehow (telepathically?) senses that a crippled man has “faith” in being healed. A brief ancillary question: How many healers had this poor character previously sat before, probably with the same “faith” in being healed, before Paul finally healed him? We don’t know. What did this “faith” which flies by in the texts so quickly consist of? We can surmise, certainly; we can conjecture, but we don’t know. The story says that he was born blind. How did the author of Acts know this? Did this old man follow Paul after this event? Was he a planted ringer, maybe, like in the Benny Hinn/Peter Popoff halleluja shows (I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I’m just running down some possibilities).Personally, I think that the phrasing of the man’s “faith to be made well” actually supports the view that his faith was in expectation of some future thing. It reads fairly clearly in that direction to me.And the fact that the town then fixates on them as gods is a good indication that these people were no followers of Paul. They thus obviously had no past memory of Paul’s gospel teaching and faith-healings (as far as the meager story can tell us, anyway), just some word-of-mouth rumors which anticipated their arrival. Folks heard there was a faith-healer coming and they wanted some healing, so they showed up to listen (and be healed, they hoped). As for “everything said, after Jesus had died, about his life” being an expression of a faith based on past events . . .I disagree. I think one can only posit this if one is reading the texts from a chronocentric (is that a word?) viewpoint. Christianity as we know it today holds to certain crucial dogmatic tenets: Jesus’ divinity, his relation to the godhead, his coming back to life, etcetera.However, we must remember that at the time that these texts were being compiled, such fourth and fifth-century creedal developments had not yet germinated.We can sit here and argue forever about whether Paul meant a physical or a “spiritual” resurrection forever if you want, I suppose. (I vote “spiritual”)I think that how one answers that one little thing question will certainly influence his or her opinion on whether that kind of literal interpretation of “resurrection” that we’re used to now was around back then. (I say it wasn’t—not until folks like Clement wrote).In my view, the earliest Christian faith was a faith in a future salvation through Jesus, whom they now saw as the Christ. Their professions had nothing to do with believing that Jesus had come back to life. That didn’t start to happen until the gospels were compiled (at least as far as the extant texts can take us—and I say “compiled” instead of “written” purposefully). Sure, the writers/compilers/editors of the NT all seem to confess a “faith” in Jesus, but I think you are equivocating that faith with “faith” in our modern way of “believing something happened” (aka the resurrection)That was precisely the point of the original post which dominoed down to this one.Regarding Exodus . . . I don’t know about “snarky”. Just mixing apples and oranges again, I think.Hebraic faith does not depend on whether one “believes” events happened in the past (the only exception I can readily recall is the story of the covenant with Abram—I mean . . . no covenant, no Hebrew, right).Hebrew faith was about believing that God would one day vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. In our modern religious thinking, we act as though myths are to be “believed”. Myths are to be read and sung and celebrated. The faith of the Hebrews did not depend on their believing that the Exodus had indeed happened; it depended on their celebration of Torah (and its prescribed rituals) as a model for achieving righteousness. I am reminded once more that one of the reasons we keep misinterpreting these texts is that we seem to have lost all understanding of what myths are for (not to mention that most people have little to no understanding of Judaic writing styles). o_Ó