Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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[3] A third consequence of equating faith with belief is to deny that some important religious truths are accessible to the human intellect. This has profound consequences.

If a person with otherwise strong and steady belief in traditional doctrines is beset by uncertainty, it's usual to speak of the person's faith being tested. That is, the opposite of faith is thought to be doubt. The less the doubt, the stronger the faith; the stronger the faith then (obviously) the less the doubt - because belief and faith are equated.

To grasp how reason tends to be ultimately devalued by this position requires some understanding of reason's place in pre-modern Christianity.

To state the matter with extreme brevity, the ordinary person's way of thinking about truth today differs radically from all of previous Christian history. Never before have humans thought about truth as we now do.

We look to consensus about evidence when we seek truth. Do you want to know "the truth" about how humans think? Ask what most experts have concluded about how the brain works. Do you want to know "the truth" about good poetry? Ask what the criteria are and what most critics say about a poem in the light of those criteria. Do you want to know "the truth" about the solar system? Find out what the consensus is amongst astronomers. Do you want to know if Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead? Ask what reputable Bible scholars have to say.

These are our authorities for truth. But there is an important caveat. All of these authorities must, if called upon, demonstrate that their conclusions have been derived through reason from the available data.

That is, their conclusions and therefore any authority they have are always, without exception, over-ridden by anyone who can show that the data upon which their conclusions are based is incorrect in some way. It is also invalidated by anyone who can show that their logic (in which I include mathematics) is incorrect. Their authority is substantially destroyed if others in their discipline can show that the chain of reasoning by which they reached their conclusions is faulty.

Thus we have faith in the authority of others with a tacit understanding that their conclusions have been subjected to the most rigorous tests by their peers, preferably those who are acknowledged as expert in a particular field. 

This summary may seem banal. But now compare it with how most people thought about the truth before our times - that is before the advent of analytical and scientific thought.

They also looked to authority for the truth. Do you want to know "the truth" about how we think? Search the great masters of philosophy in the past for answers. Do you want to know the rules of good poetry? Consult Aristotle's Poetics and other past masters for the right answers. Do you want to know about the heavens? Consult what the ancients have written down. They know the place of this earth in the created universe better than anyone else.

Thus you are to be commended if you search the New Testament for right teachings. Exercise your reason on its material by all means. But you know deep inside, without even thinking about it, as an unquestioned given, that the Pope or your bishop has the greater truth because they are in authority. 

Your reason is therefore unquestionably subordinate to that authority. You regard something as true, not because you have thought it through for yourself (though that counts for something), but because it comes from a greater and higher authority. Not only don't you have the right to question such authority, but it probably wouldn't occur to you to do so. It goes without saying, therefore, that to doubt something is to doubt authority itself. And, as all know - because the authorities say so - to doubt authority is to sin.

The above three origins of the error of equating faith with belief do not require us to choose between the modern or pre-modern perceptions of faith. That either is right or wrong isn't the point. They are simply different from each other. To say that we are right and pre-moderns are wrong is rather like saying giraffes are right because they don't eat meat, and lions are wrong because they do.

The upshot is that reason has in our age supplanted authority as the primary means to truth.

It is now widely taught in the Church that certain doctrines of Christianity are beyond reason. Where that is acknowledged, large numbers of "believers" proclaim that faith grasps those truths which are clearly beyond reason. Faith is defined as that which comes into play when a proposition is not, or cannot be, supported by reason.

To illustrate: a teaching common to almost all parties of Christianity is that there is life after death. The human personality, it is commonly taught, is such that it can survive the complete dissolution of the physical body. This belief appears incontestable by the usual means we today arrive at truth - because it is of such a nature that no evidence can be gathered about it. The only experts who might be able to test the teaching and go on to reach authoritative consensus about it are dead. 

I am nearly certain that nine out of ten Christians would counsel me to "have faith" about the possibility of living after I die. That is, my faith swings into operation precisely because the issue is something I cannot think through, cannot gather evidence about, and about which no experts can be consulted.

To illustrate further: I'm almost certain that very few of the best critical scholars of the New Testament would today claim unequivocally that the resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth is good history. The four Gospels contain some evidence. But it all comes from sources which [a] have a vested interest in the matter; [b] who did not think in modern historical terms at all, and [c] which are not confirmed by evidence external to the Bible.

So although the Resurrection may have happened, there isn't enough good evidence to create even a tiny minority consensus about its historicity amongst those acknowledged even by Christians as historians of repute. Those who nevertheless "believe" in the Resurrection as an historical event are thought to have greater faith than those who don't.

A final brief illustration may suffice. Father J P Meier is the Roman Catholic author of a three-volume series entitled A Marginal Jew. As such, it should be noted, he is subject to the discipline of the Church, particularly regarding what he publishes. He has conducted over many years an exhaustive survey of all the important output about the historicity of the Gospels since work on the subject began some 250 years ago. 

What is his response to the Resurrection as good history? He asserts [9] that the resurrection is a type of truth which can be understood only by "faith." He says it "... stands outside of the sort of questing by way of historical, critical research that is done for the life of the historical Jesus, because of the nature of the Resurrection ... The resurrection of Jesus is certainly supremely real. However, not everything that is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable by historical means ... [it] is not essential for simple, authentic Christian faith."

Meier essentially follows the guidance of Thomas Aquinas who wrote that, "... the object of knowledge is something seen, whereas the object of faith is the unseen." In other words, knowledge excludes faith. Faith, says Aquinas, is belief in revealed truths, authoritatively presented by the creeds. To have faith, then, is to believe the propositions summarised in the Church's creeds. The Christian faith is for him consistent with human reason, but also beyond it.

A tragic consequence when faith is split off from reason in this way, is a loss of integration. To follow Meier's route is to become, as it were, two people. The one discards reason in order to believe what reason cannot uphold. The second continues to arbitrate truth by reason in the way described above. The two parts living in one person cannot meet, cannot dialogue one with the other. They live together in a sort of psychological Apartheid. The one half trumpets truths based on authority, as though it lived in Medieval times. The other adopts the integrated knowledge-system of our age. It talks science with scientists, philosophy with philosophers and history with historians. But it cannot ultimately talk theology with theologians unless it abandons reason. The outcome is a personality tragically split in order to have "faith".

In summary, belief is that which seeks to extinguish doubt when revealed doctrine is not supported by reason. We are, according to current opinion, at our best as religious people when we "believe" what is beyond reason. This position is invulnerable to debate. It is impossible to either attack or even to investigate faith claims which are placed beyond reason as a matter of principle.

I venture to suggest that faith as trust both preserves reason and also cultivates hope. 

To use an example already mentioned - life after death. Many people find it hard to envisage that they and their loved ones will come to a full-stop when they die. This is only natural. I doubt if any experts, religious or not, would deny that hope in something after death is as old as civilisation and probably older.

It's hardly surprising that we are urged to believe in life after death. Even though we have no evidence to support that belief, there may be some comfort in supposing that it's possible. This sort of belief is natural in the face of a void - but if that's "faith" then I for one have none.

I may not be able to sustain an unreasoned belief in life after death. But I can trust in a God who loves us to the end, however bitter and painful that end might be (to use a metaphor derived from human suffering). I can hope in some eventual outcome which will (to use a metaphor from warfare) defeat death.

To trust in this way may be foolish. But I think it is much more foolish to accept truth only on the say-so of an authority which claims direct access to God - be the authority the Bible or the Pope or some other so-called protector of "The Faith.". To abandon reason is to abandon our humanity.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but distrust.

To summarise the argument so far:

  • A translation error has helped the growth of faith as belief. More accurate is to regard faith as trust, not as belief in this or that proposition. Trust is an identifiable set of behaviours.

  • To have faith in Christian tradition is not to "believe six impossible things before breakfast" but to respect pioneers of Christian tradition while recognising that we have moved away from their worldview.

  • Faith as belief discards reason to preserve doctrine. Faith as trust is nurtured by reason and issues in hope.

Faith as trust may include belief that certain propositions are true. But it seems to me that there is a great difference between abstractions ("God is three-in-one") and statements of experience ("God loves me").

Abstractions may or may not stand the test of reason. I may end up thinking that Trinitarian theology means little to me. It may seem just a clever form of words. That God can't be defined but only described may, on the other hand, be easier to sustain rationally. Right belief is assessed by reason.

In contrast, we trust or don't trust each other on the basis of behaviours. We observe others and judge whether what they do indicates that we can trust them. Are they open and straight about the facts which matter? Are they accepting of human difference and frailty? Are they consistent and reliable? We automatically ask such questions before we trust anyone.

To put trust (faith) in a larger context: The very substance of modern knowledge depends upon trust. Van Austin Harvey, reviewing the Protestant revolution, writes that

The point is that ... the virtues of autonomy and intellectual responsibility are related in an intimate fashion to faith, where faith is understood not as belief in doctrine but as trust in being itself ... Radical faith and enlightenment [can be viewed] as correlates, and the two elements of the morality of knowledge, autonomy and assessment, are but secularized versions of the ethic of faith [11]

In previous eras, the world was thought of as essentially eternal. That is, it was underpinned and sustained by static characteristics. In that world, humans beings conformed to God's will insofar as they also conformed to the unchangeable and eternal structures of the Creation. To have faith, therefore, was to trust in authorities who could elucidate these eternal structures, who could open out the foundational truths masked by human evil and error. The opposite of faith in the eternal order is to doubt its integrity.

The modern era recognises that the universe is in constant change. Not only that, but so are human perceptions. We can never be certain that what we perceive is what is "really there". The best we can do is explore shifting truths. Not even so-called scientific "facts" are either absolute or eternal. Rather, they are always open to revision and replacement by new perceptions and observations. This requires not belief but scepticism, not obedience but autonomous reason. We trust not in God's immutable law, but in life itself. 

Indeed, in the modern world, trust (faith) in reason is a precondition of knowledge. In the ancient world, acceptance of knowledge was a precondition of trust (faith).

But can we observe the behaviour of God in the same way as we can observe the world and trust in what reason reveals, especially when it is by nature always provisional? In what sense can I say that I observe God's behaviour and therefore conclude that God can be trusted, that God is a worthy object of my "faith as trust"?

Never having experienced the supernatural (as some others claim they have) I must suppose that my life experience is the only evidence I have of God's trustworthiness. I can talk relatively easily about "believing in God". It's much harder to point out events which demonstrate God's trustworthiness. Belief is relatively easy. A faith prepared to take risks on the basis of reasoned trust alone is, to say the least, somewhat more testing. It's not surprising that so many prefer to trust the certainties of revelation rather than the uncertainties of reason.

Because a "God" divorced from my experience is an abstraction, it seems to me to be reasonable to claim that "life" (as in "life experience") can be trusted. But can I tell a starving person, for example, that life is good? (Maybe that's why some Christians fall back on proclaiming that "God" is good.) How does anyone know what are the indications of God's trustworthiness? What exactly should I have faith in?

Anyone who's tried to talk to a person in deep depression will know how hard it is to convey a sense of life's goodness. For every positive, the depressive will find a counterbalancing negative. How hard it is to convince a disillusioned person who has suffered many reverses in life that what has happened is good.

Such examples could be multiplied over and over again. In the end faith as trust seems to come down to individual choice, to a personal interpretation of one's experience, to a way of perceiving the world.

Is God (life) good? That is, what do I think is the balance between the positive and negative experiences I undergo? If the balance comes down on the positive side, perhaps the choice is easy. If it comes down on the negative side, is God to be trusted? Is my faith then of no account? Have I trusted in vain? Should I cease to trust? Or should I re-evaluate what's positive and what's negative?

The questions pile up, one upon the other. I suspect that when there are more questions than immediate answers, the idea of faith as something founded on rationality begins to break down. There are, apparently, no final answers. All responses tend to be not only personal, but also temporary.

Faith as trust is by its very nature provisional. Faith's opposite in this context is not doubt, but certainty.

A Christian may be thought of as one who trusts in Jesus of Nazareth. Just as interpersonal trust is based on behaviours rather than abstract theory, so also is trust in Jesus based on a real person who once lived just as we do. This person is commonly known as the Jesus of history. He is nevertheless always a construct, the product of how each of us interprets historical details. That is, all you or I can ever have is "a" Jesus of history. There is no "the" Jesus of history.

Faith in Jesus inevitably extends beyond the interpreted facts of history into living out what Jesus means to me. All history is limited. It is never a final statement of truth. 

So, for example, I may know much in theory about how organisations work - how they start, grow, mature and die. And I may have many strong convictions about the highly complex processes governing organisations at large. But until I express those convictions in actually running, or participating in, an organisation, I should not talk about having "faith" in the truth of my convictions.

Similarly, the Western theologian Paul Tillich thought that faith does not ultimately depend upon what we know of historical events (that is, upon a Jesus of history). Rather, living a life of faith as trust based on history requires great risk-taking and therefore considerable courage. In this sense, faith is not faith until it is lived. We can't truly be said to trust Jesus until we live out lives trustfully based upon him.

Faith in God is, in a sense, also trust expanded to relate to the ultimates of life while being all the while solidly anchored to the daily events of our lives. Those daily concerns are faith in action, yet there is also faith which looks broader and higher to the larger issues which we can all either face up to or avoid. Perhaps everyone is called to ask questions and try to answer them in his or her own way. Is the world we live governed by chance or by choice - or both? Are we to seek for the right and avoid the wrong - and how do we define either? Is life a quick and meaningless shuffle along the mortal coil, or is each one of us uniquely involved in a venture which is profoundly rooted in a meaning bigger than ourselves?

To sum up finally: Faith is an attitude towards life which issues in trusting acts of both will and intellect. It goes far beyond belief into active commitment. If belief seeks security, then faith accepts risk. Faith issues from hope for fullness of life while being rooted in acceptance of the creation as it is. As reason limits, so faith transcends. Faith is never final or certain, but always asking and seeking. 
[9] See It appears that this argument has been fully elaborated by Heinz Zahrnt in The Historical Jesus, Harper & Row, 1963
[10] Essay Concerning Human Understanding
[11] Op. Cit.

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