A basic, but tough religion question: What is faith?

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MICHELLE ASKS:

What is faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is the simplest yet perhaps most difficult question in the brief history of “Religion Q and A.” Not the sort of thing journalists usually write about, but The Guy can at least report on what some thinkers have said about this.

Start with Merriam-Webster definitions:

(1) “strong belief or trust in someone or something.”

(2) “belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs.”

(3) “a system of religious beliefs.”

Number 3 is clear-cut but not what Michelle is asking (e.g. “the Catholic faith claims more than a million adherents”). Number 1 is often secular (“they have faith in the governor” or the New Yorker cartoon quip about stock market investments being “faith-based”). Number 2 is what this question is all about.

In Islam, the prominent scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri told a 2011 dialogue with Catholics, ”the technical meaning of faith is firm belief in something real, based on evidence. Experts in this subject have defined faith as being ‘to believe with the heart and proclaim with the tongue.’ ” He added that some like Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Salam have added “to act on it with the body.”

The Jewish Bible (or Old Testament) puts deeds at the center, says the comprehensive Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Faith is described rather than defined.” The word usually translated as “faith” doesn’t link with “believe” so much as “sustain” or “support,” and the same Hebrew root gives rise to the word for firmness, as with a peg attached in a “sure” place in Isaiah 22:23. Modern Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s Two Types of Faith said Judaism emphasizes faith as firm fidelity toward God, while Christianity sees it more as belief or knowing about God. The latter emphasis is seen in a classic definition from Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Summa Theologica: “Faith is the act of the intellect when it assents to divine truth under the influence of the will, moved by God through grace.”

But Christianity involves non-intellectual aspects, too.

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Pass the popcorn! This movie preview gets faith theme right

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Movie junkets, and the stories that result from them, share a certain predictability — and it doesn’t usually involve any depth of discussion about faith issues.

During my stint as assistant features editor at The Oklahoman in the late 1990s, I went on a few of them. In those days, the studio flew reporters to Los Angeles, put them up in nice hotels near the Santa Monica Pier and herded them through group, round-robin interviews with the movie’s stars.

The individuals on both sides of the table were pretty blasé about the whole ordeal. Questions trended toward the obvious, and answers were usually predictable and clipped, sound bite style. I’m pretty sure Martin Short showed up to one I did on Disney’s dime with a happy hour vibe going on at 9 a.m.

You get the point: The studios and stars are selling, and the moviegoing public generally doesn’t buy into faith, generally speaking.

So I was surprised to read a thoughtful, well-written preview from The Associated Press on “Philomena” that made it clear from the beginning that this film, its screenwriter and stars were embracing the religious tenor from opening scene to closing credits. Further, actor Steve Coogan shared his own faith background, and he, co-star Judi Dench and subject Philomena Lee expounded on some of the more disquieting church doctrine of the era that led to a mother separated from her son:

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench were drawn to “Philomena” by faith.

The British comic and Oscar-winning actress co-star in the film opening Friday, which explores the benefits and costs of faith through the true story of Philomena Lee.

Lee was an unwed, pregnant teenager in 1952 when her Irish Catholic family sent her to a convent in shame. She worked seven days a week for her keep but allowed only an hour a day with her son, Anthony. After three years, the boy was sold for adoption in the United States, and Lee spent the next five decades looking for him.

Despite repeated, insistent visits to the convent, the nuns would tell her nothing. She’d signed away her rights to her son, they said, due punishment for her sinful behavior.

“We were indoctrinated and you believed everything the church told you. If they said black was white, you believed it,” Lee, now 80, said in a recent interview. “I firmly believed, once they’d discovered I was having Anthony, that I had committed a mortal sin, the most awful thing ever done.”

The film focuses on Lee’s quest, with the help of BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, to find Anthony. Sixsmith chronicled her story in the 2009 investigative book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”

Coogan came across about the story in the British press and said he began crying halfway through reading it to his girlfriend. He co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Sixsmith. Dench plays Philomena Lee:

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