Defining Faith between Theism and Atheism
Eying a discussion hosted by atheist blogger Leah Libresco on whether both theists and atheists can have faith of the same sort, my friend Darwin throws his papist hat into ring, rightly noting that faith, in the context of the discussion, should be understood as an act of the will:
To have faith, or to believe, is not simply to make an passive assessment as to the probability that something is true, it is to decide to believe something to be the case or not be the case (and one presumes to act accordingly.)
I would call belief an aspect of faith, but otherwise I’m in agreement with what Darwin says. Faith is neither certain knowledge nor a sure feeling, but the choice to walk in darkness (with or without having seen a great light). Understood in this way, faith can be had by both the theist and atheist:
[F]aith being an act, just about everyone ends up acting in some way on a given point in which they must make a decision as to what to believe. In many situations, even refusing to act ends up being some kind of an act. As in, for instance, if I had refused to act in any way as if I believed that my future wife loved me, you can probably bet that she wouldn’t have married me. Virtually any act (including refusing to act) that I chose to take would have represented a “bet”, either slight or strong, that she either did or did not love me. Refusal to take a position on the question was not really an option.
Darwin’s example of the faith held and lived by lovers works especially well here because love demands total and unconditional self-giving; there’s no middle ground, no wishy-washiness in love. Lovers must have faith in one another and each other’s love because their love cannot be made known inductively or deductively. Rather, the signs of love must be interpreted under the guidance of faith. Without this faith, one might as well pick flower petals. I do not confirm my wife’s love for me through any scientific method or logical progression. Sure, I can tell she loves me when she surprises me with a six-pack of high-quality beer or wastes one of her limited number of texts to inform me that Gillian Anderson is bi-sexual (she knows of my infatuations and humors me). But here’s the key: I interpret the expressions of her love as such because I believe her when she tells me of her love and when she shows it to me. I respond to her love with faith and in faith, and I return her love in and with the faith that I truly love her.
Faith, I’ve learned, is a type of response, not only of the mind, but also of the will. To have faith is to say “Yes” in both word and deed. Those of us whose faith is religious would describe our faith as a response to a God who reveals or, more broadly, as a response to an event interpreted as sacred–a response that results in both belief and action in accordance with belief. Because having faith means walking in darkness, i.e., without epistemological certainty, faith cannot be defined as a response to conclusive evidence or the conclusions of sound reasoning; nevertheless, life presents situations such as love in which faith is precisely what is called for. Faith is needed where something has happened that calls for the choice to believe or not believe and to act accordingly. Whether we’re talking about Mary’s fiat or a groom’s “I do” or a host’s hospitality to the visitation of a stranger, we refer to an act of the will, a response, a choice to say “Yes” without certainty and its comforts. We speak of faith.
(Image: The First Mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)