I sometimes read that faith is irrational. And sometimes I even hear that said by committed Latter-day Saints.
I strongly disagree.
I readily concede that faith goes beyond the evidence and that, sometimes, it will even seem to go, or will really go, against at least some of the evidence. I’ve long appreciated this quotation from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
In the long term, though, I believe that a solidly-grounded faith will accord with the relevant evidence. It will be consistent with that evidence. And I’m not talking merely about eschatological confirmation, in the life to come.
Permit me to illustrate what I mean by talking about “trust,” or even perhaps about “confidence,” which I regard as essentially the same thing as “faith.” When we trust somebody, we typically do so for reasons. Not simply whimsically or irrationally. But we don’t do it because we have rock-solid knowledge. We can’t usually peer into the future to see for certain what will happen, but we feel confident that we know.
When, sending her out on her first solo errand to pick up groceries, you toss the keys to your car to your sixteen-year-old daughter who has just received her license to drive, you can’t be absolutely certain that she won’t wreck it. However, based on your years of experience with her (and perhaps on your initially white-knuckled times in the passenger seat when she had her first learner’s permit), you trust her to be responsible and to drive carefully.
When you invest a substantial chunk of your life’s savings in the Acme Megahuge Digital Widget Corporation, you can’t be certain that the price of its shares won’t take a tumble. But, if you’re a responsible and even minimally prudent investor, you’ve looked into the company a bit. You’ve read about its past performance, and you’ve researched its new Model 666 Laser-Enhanced Digital Widget and Toothbrush. You’re not just gambling, at random. You have reasons for your confidence that the stock of AMDWC will perform well.
When you accept Prince Charming’s offer of marriage, you don’t do so blindly. He might, it’s true, eventually turn out to be a philanderer or a poor provider. He might someday become abusive. You can’t know for certain that that will never happen. But you’ve spent time together. You’ve watched him and come to know him. You have a really good sense (though admittedly not an infallible one) about who he really is, how he acts in various situations, what kind of character he possesses, how he responds to stress and interacts with children and with your family. You have grounds for trusting him.
Parenthetically: My wife sometimes points out in conversation with others that it suddenly hit her, just a few weeks after our marriage, that she didn’t actually know me all that well. And, now, here she was living with me in Cairo, Egypt, thousands of miles from family and friends. We hadn’t dated all that many times before we became engaged, and for six months of our engagement I had been off in Jerusalem as a student before I swooped back through the United States to marry her and take her back with me to the Middle East, to a huge and very foreign northeast African city where we knew virtually nobody. It was a (mercifully very) brief crisis of faith. What on earth had she done? Fortunately, thus far I haven’t turned into a serial adulterer or a wife beater, and I think that, under the right circumstances — perhaps involving the judicious use of sedatives — she might acknowledge that our decades together have gone reasonably well. But she was absolutely correct, for those few moments of concern in Cairo, to realize that, well, she didn’t know for absolutely certain that her faith in me, which took her to the temple with me on that fateful day, was well-placed.
Now, here’s another observation about faith considered as trust or confidence. The longer our experience with the person in whom we’ve placed our faith, the more opportunities we have to test it. And if our confidence or trust is repaid, we come to have ever more solid grounds for it. The more times sixteen-year-old Petunia Jane takes out your car, returning safely from ever longer drives, the more confident you are when you hand her the keys. The longer that your investment in the Acme Megahuge Digital Widget Corporation continues to grow in value, the more reason you have to be satisfied with your purchase of AMDWC stock. The more Prince Charming proves himself kind, self-sacrificing, honorable, sober, and a good husband and father, the more confident you are that you made the right decision in rejecting the advances of his rival, the handsome hunter Gaston LeGume.
What I’m suggesting here is that religious faith isn’t merely assent to a list of propositions — though such assent is definitely a part of most professions of faith. It is also, and I think at least as importantly, a committed confidence in a Person and in a relationship to that Person, which will likely entail something that might be termed a “lifestyle.” Sometimes, that relationship will run into problems. (Sometimes, share prices in AMDWC will fall, and sometimes they will decline for more than a day or two. Petunia Jane may well have a fender-bender. Prince Charming may sometimes be grumpy, or forget your anniversary, or leave dirty socks in the living room, or spend a little more time than he should out drinking root beer and playing tic tac toe with the boys from his macramé factory.) Perhaps your prayers haven’t been answered how and when you wanted them to be. Perhaps you’ve run into historical or ecclesiastical problems. If your confidence was well placed, though, such things will resolve themselves.
How long, though, to hold out for such resolution? That is the question. And there is no neat answer to be had. Perhaps, though, the testimonies of others, people who have been through your trials, or analogous trials, and nevertheless found resolution, can sustain and strengthen you. And never fail to go back and recall the basis for your faith in the first place. You know Petunia Jane. You have grounds for trusting her. You had reasons for your decision to invest in Acme Megahuge. You have solid experiences with Prince Charming, of his basic decency and of his love for you. There may come a time for withholding the keys from your daughter, selling your shares of AMDWC, or even divorcing Prince Charming. But don’t do it lightly, on a whim. Those relationships weren’t built on a whim, lightly.
For some additional quotations from Dr. King, see this, from the Deseret News a little bit more than two weeks ago: “20 quotes about faith from Martin Luther King Jr.: Long before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a distinguished civil rights leader, he was a clergyman, like his father and grandfather. His sermons show the importance of God in his life and his life’s work.”
Posted from Kaanapali, Maui, Hawaii