The religious life requires faith, but what is ‘faith’? One of the greatest misunderstandings among believers and non-believers alike is the concept of ‘faith’. Let’s rattle through the misconceptions before we try to say what ‘faith’ really is.
First is the idea that faith is ‘blind’. The non believers often blame believers for believing something which we know isn’t true. We are accused of not only having blind faith, but demanding it of others. We are accused of not allowing questions, that the ‘faithful’ must simply go along with what they are told and should they question or challenge they will be shunned, blackballed, exterminated or excommunicated in some way.
No doubt there are some religious groups that do operate in this fashion. No doubt there are some Catholic families and sub groups that operate in this way. This, however, is not faith. It is domination, spiritual and psychological abuse. The result is nothing like faith. It is mind control and personality control. This is not faith.
The second misconception is that ‘faith’ simply involves trying very hard to believe something that is hard to believe. So the person of faith grunts and squints their eyes and tries ever so ever so hard to believe something and if they just believe enough it will come true. This is like clapping your hands when Tinkerbell dies. If you believe enough and clap hard enough and so does everyone else, then it will come true. The result is, at worst, like magic and at best like a form of individual or corporate positive thinking. This is faith as ‘the little engine that could.’
Again, I have no doubt that there are many believers and non believers who think this is what faith is, but this is not faith. This is wishful thinking and positive thinking and when non believers scorn this sort of ‘faith’ I am on their side.
The third misconception is that faith is simple, unquestioning adherence to a set of religious and moral principles and precepts that have been handed down by an authority figure. A person says, “I have kept the faith” and by this they mean they have obeyed the rules of their religion and signed on the dotted line–a bit like one of these ‘agreement to the terms of service’ boxes you have to check before they let you download an app to your phone.
Once more, no doubt there are many who think this is what faith is. However, this is not faith. This is simply an agreement of terms. It is a signing of a contract in order to do a deal.
The fourth misconception is that faith is living a certain way–trusting in God’s providence and being carefree and footloose–a bit like St Francis. In this idea ‘faith’ is the ultimate ‘chillaxin’. No worries man. God will provide. Just trust in him and everything will take care of itself. This usually means somebody else pays the bills, somebody else picks up the pieces, somebody else picks up the trash.
There are more misconceptions: Faith is helping people. Faith is being God’s little success story. Faith is living the beautiful struggle. Faith is having all the knowledge. Faith is being edgy and subversive. Faith is overcoming the devil. You name it, we have about as many different versions of what faith actually is as we have people who want faith.
So what is faith? Faith is a process that is similar to the scientific process. The person of faith observes the world around him. He observes certain inexplicable factors. He observes human behaviors. He observes human tradition–the human story. He concludes that there is an unknown quality–something ‘other’. He looks into the traditions of religion which seem to answer or at least deal with this unknown quality. He examines the traditions. He tests the proposed answers. Then the faith comes in. At some point he begins to trust the reliability of the tradition. He knows enough to trust the veracity of the answers given. He does not know everything, but he knows enough.
Based on that knowledge, experience and trust he begins to take certain decisions and live life in a particular way. He accepts the precepts of the religion and the principles of moral behavior as the best structure for his world view and the best map for his life journey. He uses the doctrines and the rules of religion to chart his life an live in a certain way. This life lived–based on beliefs accepted is what we call faith.
It should be noted that this process encourages–yea demands questioning. It demands that the traditions be intellectually and experientially challenged. There are two other responses that individuals have to the demands of this process of faith. When confronted with the challenges that this process demands one can respond with what we call ‘polite conformity’ or with what we see as ‘rebellion.
Both of these are adolescent responses. On the one hand the adolescent (of any chronological age) smiles and realizes that the easiest way is to conform politely to what the authorities suggest. This person goes through the motions of religion, but never really questions it and therefore never really ‘gets’ it. The second type of adolescent rebels against the religion, and in a biased way rejects everything the religion offers and goes his own way.
The third way is the way of faith–in which the person considers the claims of religion and questions them intelligently and sympathetically and then decides to move forward despite the difficulties in order to understand more fully–having come to realize that one believes in order to fully understand–one does not understand fully in order to believe.