One 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
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
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
mathematics is included) 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
Your reason is unquestionably subordinate to that authority. You
regard something as true, not because you have thought it through for
yourself, 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
That either the modern or pre-modern 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 understood 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's reach. Faith 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 believed, 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. It is of such a nature that no evidence can be
gathered about it. The only experts who can reach authoritative
consensus about it are dead.
Nine out of ten Christians would probably counsel others to "have
faith" about the possibility of living after death. That is, faith
swings into operation precisely because the issue is something
which cannot be thought through, about which no evidence can be
gathered, and about which no experts can be consulted.
To illustrate further: It's probable 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
author of an excellent three-volume series entitled A Marginal Jew.
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
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."
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.
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
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".
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.
as trust both preserves reason and 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. Very few 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 many would
claim to have no faith.
belief in life after death mat be sustainable. But we can trust in a God
who loves us to the end, however bitter and painful (to use a metaphor
derived from human suffering). We 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 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.
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
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
But can we observe the behaviour of God in the same way? 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?
Not having ever experienced the supernatural (as some others claim they
have) I must suppose that my life experience is my only evidence of God's
trustworthiness. I can talk glibly 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
trust alone is, to say the least, somewhat more testing!
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 we 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 it
seems to come down to individual choice, a personal interpretation of
one's experience, 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
Faith is by its very nature provisional. Faith's opposite in this
context is not doubt, but certainty.