Reflections on the Nature of Faith
Christians and nonbelievers alike recognize that faith has been central to the Christian experience from the religion’s very beginnings. However, the term faith has lost much of its depth and meaning in recent years. The word has acquired connotations among many that signify the idea of faith as something imprecise and vague, bordering on the mystic. Many of its detractors paint it as a delusion kept alive by either idiocy or fear, adamantly opposed to rationality and reality. Even some of those who defend it limit it to something merely emotionally true. Amidst this diverse set of meanings and interpretations, the term has lost a great deal of its power in the public discourse; people claim that it may be comforting, helpful, admirable, or beneficial, but relatively few claim that it is actually a way of knowing absolute, universal Truth. Yet, the Christian claims this and much more. The Bible paints faith as something very definite and, moreover, very powerful. Biblical faith, far from adhering to any of these misconceptions, guides all aspects of the Christian believer’s life, setting Christianity apart from all other religions and philosophies. In order to fully examine its intricacies and possible merits, we must rescue faith from its current place in the public discourse. When we do so, we see that many modern notions of faith are misguided, some are partially correct, but few capture the full meaning of what faith is to Christians.
In recent times, faith has become a sort of euphemism for religion that avoids the formal and legalistic connotations of the latter term. Though society seems to recognize that religions are mutually exclusive—they all have different practices and different truth claims—many argue that different faiths can be compatible, since faith, being a personal decision, is ostensibly limited to the believer’s psyche or individual experience. Because this position holds that faith is merely an individual reality, it follows that separate notions of faith cannot contradict each other. This notion of the equivalence of faith and religion has grown in popularity because it fits into today’s postmodern age well. However, substituting faith for religion obscures what Christians see as faith’s true nature, presenting it as a matter of doctrine rather than a matter of the heart. Because this usage implies that faith is defined by creed, it suggests that faith merely consists of assenting to a Muslim set of beliefs or a Christian set of beliefs. This de-emphasizes the differences between different religions’ approaches to belief. Furthermore, it hides the fact that in Christianity, the believer places his faith in a divine being rather than a set of statements.
To argue that faith is exclusively a religious preference conceals the role that faith of all types plays in the lives of all men. The misuse of this term obscures the fact that faith is not always a religious exercise as traditionally thought, for we often place blind trust in—indeed, exalt—the nondivine. All people place faith in certain things, trusting them to provide sustenance, comfort, or happiness. Diehard secularists such as today’s “New Atheists,” at the same time as they mock faith in general, often place faith in the scientific enterprise as the ultimate source of all possible knowledge. Consider this quote from psychologist Steven Pinker: “Science, in the broadest sense, is making belief in God obsolete, and we are the better for it.”1 Secular philosophy invokes faith as well; what is Camus’ existentialism if not faith in the individual to create meaning for himself? Today, the religious and the secular alike look for fulfillment not in teachings or rituals but in their own self-righteousness, wealth, beauty, or intelligence. A Christian from suburban America (or for that matter, his atheist neighbor) will more likely believe that a new car can bring him happiness than believe that Hindu gods are his answer. Pastor Timothy Keller writes of modern society, “We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image.”ii Few would argue that having faith in the ability of a better body image to provide self-worth is a direct assault on reason. Faith in its most general form is not alien to the secular man; in many of its manifestations, it is complementary to reason, not opposed to it. Those who vehemently denounce faith ignore its presence across the entire spectrum of human existence.
Perhaps the most pervasive misconception of faith is that it is, as secular polemicist Sam Harris claims, “nothing more than the license religious people give themselves when reasons fail.”iii Harris assumes that Christianity is a distorted form of science, trading in rational thought for blind acceptance. Faith, in his view, is a crutch used to support something the believer knows to be untrue. Such a Christianity would be self-contradictory; Jesus, after all, famously said that “the truth will set you free.”iv But to the Christian, faith differs strongly from the “absence of reason” definition invoked by Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many of their cohorts. First, Harris makes an assumption that the available evidence fully disproves Christianity, and that accepting the religion’s claims about the world requires the repudiation of what the believer rationally knows. Exploring the archaeological, historical, and scientific evidence concerning the Christian religion and the Bible is beyond the scope of this article; however, a strong case can and has been made for a scientifically accurate and historically reliable Christianity. A short list of scientists who saw no conflict between Christian teachings and science includes Francis Collins (director of the National Institutes for Health and the Human Genome Project), Michael Faraday, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Isaac Newton.v Though faith and scientific empiricism certainly differ from each other, by making a claim based on faith, Christians do not claim that their religion is counterfactual.
Faith does not act as a competitor to science; rather, it operates on an entirely different epistemological level. Harris assumes that the only valid method of obtaining knowledge is scientific inquiry and that people invoke faith only when the former does not conform to their preconceptions. Faith, then, is limited to answering questions such as, “Does God exist?” or, “Is evolution real?” and Christianity becomes merely a collection of facts and sayings. Sadly, many Christians take the same view of faith, treating Christianity merely as doctrine. However, Biblical Christianity counters that truth is found not only in matters of science and philosophy but also in the personal knowledge of God. It is one thing to understand the intricate biological processes of a person or the sequence of their DNA, but it is quite another to know them as a friend and share in the intricacies of their personality and love. The latter is far more illuminating and far more fulfilling. Christian faith accesses the knowledge found in the person of God, a source whose magnitude, the Christian believes, far eclipses that of scientific discovery. This personal knowledge is not at all the irrational assertion that Harris suggests it is, for it is more a collection of verifiable facts. The Christian believes in God in all His faithfulness and goodness, not just that God exists or that he will go to heaven when he dies. Faith is unscientific (not anti-scientific) in the sense that much of the knowledge claimed by faith is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Christian faith seeks to obtain knowledge in the context of love and trust, not to function as a substitute for reason.
Truth claims such as God’s existence or the Biblical historical narrative are not the object of Christian faith either, but rather are a starting point. Believing that God exists does not guarantee salvation; it is important insofar as believing in His existence is necessary to enter into a relationship with Him. Believing that God created the earth is necessary not for its own sake but as grounds for worshipping God as Creator and Lord of the universe who exercises complete dominion over it. In fact, examination of God’s creation has incited many scientists to praise God; Copernicus called astronomy “a science more divine than human.”vi To the Christian, what we recognize as scientific or historical facts are all part of the fabric that provide us clues to who God is, along with His presence in our lives and the lives of others, the words of the Bible, the existence of morality, and much more. The First Commandment, in fact, paints historical knowledge as the foundation of faith, stating, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”viiviii Knowing who God is—through history, nature, the Bible, personal relationship, and much more—enables us to love Him for who He is. The Bible integrates empirical evidence into a much broader picture of knowledge centered on God.
Many critics have dismissed Christianity because they consider faith to be merely an excuse for believing something that is overtly counterfactual. Understanding belief in Jesus as merely an intellectual decision, and a seemingly pointless one at that, these critics do not see how believing in Jesus can lead to salvation, and consider faith to be nothing more than a cosmic “get out of jail free” card. It is easy to see why this view would cause concern; one person can say they believe in Jesus while being a murderer and yet find their way into heaven, while someone who is kind and unselfish without believing in Jesus would be condemned to hell. Salvation through faith is then a form of cheap grace. Faith, they reason, fails to solve the problems it claims to solve. But if faith is not merely intellectual assent but is instead, as Christian doctrine teaches, an assurance of the unseen based on previously revealed knowledge, such as God’s creation or historical deeds, then this complaint no longer has merit. If faith is love and trust directed toward God, then it cannot be intended as an easy path to heaven, for to love someone for your own benefit is undoubtedly not actual love. Love means sharing in each other’s sorrow and joy; Paul writes that we become “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”ix Being faithful to Christ requires rejecting the advances of sin and idolatry, which is by no means easy. Though faith differs sharply from achieving life through merit, it requires effort and investment. To label it a cop-out would be erroneous.
Faith is a transitive concept, requiring an object; furthermore, it is only as good as its object. Faith without an object does not achieve anything, for in exercising faith, we invest trust and effort in something that is believed to have the ability to secure what is sought. Therefore, we must examine Jesus Christ, the object of Christian faith, to understand the unique nuances of Christianity. Christians hold by faith that the only cure for the world’s maladies is the person of Jesus Christ, who is the bridge between God and man. Paul writes that in Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”x The Bible abounds with similar statements; He is the “bread of life,”xi “the good shepherd,”xii and “the author and perfecter of our faith.”xiii The overarching picture of Jesus in the Bible is that He is the Lord God himself and the agent of human salvation. The Christian believes not just that Jesus exists, but also in His full identity as Lord and Savior. But what does faith in Jesus look like? Since Jesus is a person, faith in Him is a personal faith; it is a relationship, actualized when the individual turns to Jesus. Much like a child trusts his parents to protect, shelter, and feed him, Christians have faith in Jesus to fulfill His promises, to be the bread of life or the Good Shepherd as He claimed to be. Faith is love that requires obedience; if one believes that Jesus is Lord, he must act as servant. True faith serves as a basis for the Christian’s actions. If the individual says he believes in Jesus but does not seek Him as he walks through life, it is hard to argue that he actually believes that Jesus is the solution to his present predicament. Here Christianity proves itself infinitely more complex than merely consenting to a set of dogmatic claims. Such claims require nothing from those who hold them; the Christian life, however, is a life of deep devotion.
In practice, faith in a person shows itself to be far different than faith in an idea or law. Placing faith in someone entails basing your actions on their adequacy to fulfill your needs. Personal faith is significantly deeper than faith in an object or an idea, for the most significant desires and insecurities are embedded in the fabric of interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are built on faith. This holds true for a husband and a wife; a faithful husband knows that he cannot find satisfaction in any other woman. In fact, the Bible frequently uses marital fidelity as a metaphor for God’s actions toward his people and the faith they are supposed to have in them.xiv This differs sharply from the perception in today’s popular dialogue that religious faith is a matter of the mind rather than the heart. With its emphasis on faith, Christianity uniquely recognizes the centrality of personal relationships. While other major world religions claim that life is found in meditation, self-renunciation, or following the law, Christianity claims that life comes through a faithful and loving relationship. In the case of a child’s faith in his parents, faith is an admission of helplessness. He trusts them to provide because he knows he cannot provide for himself. The Christian’s faith is the same; he expects God to secure for him life and truth and whatever else he may need. Jonathan Edwards writes, “There is an absolute and universal dependence of the redeemed on God.”xv In its humility, Christianity separates itself from faith in scientific progress, where humanity thinks that its own ingenuity will solve its problems, and faith in self-righteousness, which asserts that men can achieve life with their own good deeds. Both of these common idols are man’s projection of himself, whereas faith in the God of the Bible denies this notion of man’s adequacy. Nevertheless, it calls man more dignified than these other philosophies do; it claims that man possesses infinite worth as God’s creation and the object of God’s sovereign love. In the creation story, God calls man “very good” after creating him.xvi Unlike many other philosophies, Christian faith coheres with an understanding of man’s sinfulness and inability to save himself. Christianity’s emphasis on relational faith distinguishes it from all other religions, worldviews, and ways of life.
In Christian belief, by exercising faith in God the individual accepts His offer of abundant and eternal life. Life is obtained through faith not because faith makes one a better person, but because life comes from God alone. How can one receive life if he looks for it somewhere else? Paul writes that God “will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith;”xvii that is, God declares all people righteous who have faith, and faith is the difference between life with God and life without Him. Therefore the merit of Christianity is directly tied to the merit of faith. If faith does not work, then the gospel is proved false. And the most common caricatures of faith do not, in fact, work in the reality of a fallen, sinful world under a just God. Doctrinal assent achieves nothing; it provides no pathway to the cancellation of sin or renewed life. If Christianity is true, then only God manifesting His identity and fulfilling His promises can cancel sin. Saving faith is trust that God will bring this reality to fruition through the work of Jesus; in other words, it is a conviction that God is all-powerful, loving, and faithful to His people. Saving faith requires a life conducted in a completely different manner. It requires pursuit after Jesus at the expense of all other salvation projects, such as sex, wealth, or self-righteousness. It requires adherence to God’s commands, not as a path to righteousness but rather as a sign of love and loyalty to the One who has loved you and been loyal to you so much that He is the definition of love and faithfulness.
When Jesus, in perhaps His most famous pronouncement ever, said that “whoever believes in [Me] shall not perish but have eternal life,”xviii it is impossible against that backdrop of the whole fabric of His teaching to conclude that His directive was merely to change your mind about His divinity. He also commanded, “I am the true vine […] abide in me”xix and stated, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”xx The disciples Peter and Andrew were called to leave their professions and hometowns to follow an itinerant preacher.xxi In certain examples, Jesus required of prospective followers that they give up all their riches to the poorxxii or that they bypass burying their father.xxiii Biblical faith is a firm belief in the adequacy of the person of Christ and the resulting complete devotion at the expense of all else. To have faith is to obey. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and anti-Nazi conspirator, lived out this view, dying at the hands of the Gestapo in pursuit of obeying God in his situation, a task that he felt meant actively opposing the Nazi regime. He wrote on the topic, “For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”xxiv Obedience occurs upon trusting who God is; it is a response to His faithfulness. Theologian J.I. Packer points out that faith is, in addition, sacrificial, writing that in faith “you give yourself to God on the basis of his promise to give himself to you.”xxv The difficulty of the Christian faith supports its epistemological validity.
Faith, therefore, entails a complicated set of definitions for the Christian. Since faith is the principle guiding all Christian conduct, it is necessary to adopt it not on a whim but rather out of a core conviction that it is the only way to properly live life. Many people, misunderstanding the nature of faith, reject this conviction, aghast at centering their lives on something that is at best trivial and at worst anti-intellectual. Faith for them equates to belief in a set of seemingly random and irrelevant propositions. Biblical faith, however, requires great effort; it changes actions as well as thoughts. Rather than being a blind acceptance of dogma, faith invokes the interesting concept of personal relationship, setting Christianity apart from other religions and philosophies. Its prevalence in everyday life supports its epistemological validity. Furthermore, the notion of relational knowledge is intuitively appealing as an epistemological standard given the fascinating and incomprehensible nature of interpersonal interaction. Not only is it acceptable; those who examine the present human condition conclude that faith is the only possible course of action. With the seriousness of sin and the adequacy of God, faith in Jesus Christ is not just a palatable option but rather the only path to life.
iSteven Pinker, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?” John Templeton Foundation, 13 Feb. 2012, .
iiTimothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xii.
iiiSam Harris, “Selling Out Science,” Free Inquiry, 26:1, 2005: 15.
vDinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity (Washington: Regnery, 2007) 97.
xivcf. Hosea 3:1, Revelation 19:7-8.
xvJonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990) 35.
xxivDietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1959) 64.
xxvJ.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973) 277.
Henry Waller ’15 is from Birmingham, AL. He is a history major.Tags: apologetics, atheism, Bonhoeffer, Christian, Christianity, Dartmouth College, depression, epistomology, Existentialism, faith, Galileo, God, historicity, Jesus, JI Packer, love, philosophy, religion, science, secular, Steven Pinker, theology, timothy keller, truth