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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