Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Faith, Belief, and Faithfulness

I had wanted to respond to Bearing's post of faith, which was in turn a response to my post a couple weeks ago, and it's emblematic of how things have been the last couple weeks that I'm not getting around to it until now.

I find myself in agreement with much of what Bearing says (and if you haven't read her post, I encourage you to do so) but the nature of faith is a topic sufficiently broad and deep that it seems one does not lose by drawing out its meaning in different directions, making distinctions as one goes along.

Bearing says:
He classifies "faith" as being an act, and this is correct; but it seems that he identifies it too much with "belief," or with being convinced "enough" of something. Here is the statement of Darwin's that I disagree with:

This usage still informs the way that we use the term in reference to interpersonal relationships. I have faith that my wife loves me. She has faith that I am faithful to her. Etc.

Obviously, in this sense one can have faith in any number of things or people, and as it notes, faith in this sense necessarily presupposes belief. I can hardly have faith in my wife's love (as in, trust in its existence and steadfastness) if I don't really believe that I have a wife or don't really believe that she loves me. When Christians talk about "having faith" however, they're pretty specifically talking about "having faith in God" -- that combination of believing in God's existence and of trusting in God to remain steadfast and trustworthy in His love for us.

Darwin is failing -- at least clearly -- to make a distinction between "I am faithful to my wife" and "I have faith in my wife."

The first is concrete. The second is the metaphor.

The faith that Christians are supposed to have is not the same thing as trust that God's love exists and is steadfast to us. The faith that we are supposed to have, I am certain, is faithfulness *to* God -- fidelity to the laws and precepts that He sets out for us insofar as we are aware of them. When we are told to have faith, this is not at all a command to believe something. (How can you be commanded to be convinced of a truth?) It is a command to do something: to live your life, in your body, in your mind, in accord with the will of a God.
I don't think it's so much that I am failing to make a distinction as that I am primarily talking about the latter, of which I think that the former is something of a subset.

We're in agreement that in human relations, the relationship between spouses is probably one of the best analogies for faith in God, but when talking specifically about the kind of faith which an agnostic or atheist is talking about when he or she says, "How can you believe in something you can't prove?" I think that perhaps the best analogy is "I have faith that my wife loves me."


I think that in this analogy it is important to keep in mind that we are, as believers, responding to someone despite doubt or incomplete knowledge. I have all sorts of reasons to believe that MrsDarwin loves me, and none that I can think of to believe otherwise, so it's not like this is a difficult leap of faith. But at the most basic level, we never know what is going on in some other person's head. And just about all of us have had the experience in life of some situation in which we find out that for some other person was not thinking or acting in at all the way that we believed. So, even in the closest marriage, if one thinks about it, one must admit the possibility (however unlikely) that one's spouse does not actually love one but is acting in the manner he or she is for some other reason.

The reason I think this is a useful analogy in talking about faith in God is because we all know that the correct response to this doubt is not to decide, "I'll just hold back a bit and make sure that I don't act too loving in return, because it would be bad if I responded to love that wasn't really there." That's a sure recipe for making your spouse's love wither.

So, despite not knowing with certainty that MrsDarwin loves me, the correct response for me if I want a happy marriage is to perform an act of faith: I choose to believe that she loves me, and following on this I should choose to in faith by responding to the love which I have chosen to believe in.

Obviously, I could believe that she loves me and refuse to love her in return. There are those who do this in response to God's love. Bearing quotes the relevant passage here:
The Greek word for "faith" in James 2 (the faith and works discourse) is the same Greek word (pistis) translated as "belief" in the passage from Mark that I quoted above. Does pistis mean "steadfastness" in any way? Or does it only mean an intellectual assent? It goes on to use pisteuis in the next verse to mean "believe" as in "You believe that God is one" and then "pisteuousin" in "Even the demons believe, and shudder." The "faith" mentioned in James is then the same as the "belief" which even demons can have.

I don't really think of demons as "steadfast."
Certainly, I agree with James' point: faith without works is dead. Indeed, I'd go the same direction as Bearing and say that if we draw a distinction between "faith" and "belief", it would be accurate to say that faith without works isn't even faith. Faith is an act, not just a mental act, but an act of the whole person.

Where does this leave us with the marriage analogy?

Well, it's not a perfect analogy, as tends to be the case with analogies. Personally, I think that biggest utility of the analogy is in pointing out that in a situation where we are not sure of something (and while I can't say that I've experienced this, I gather many people at some time in their marriages experience a point at which their spouse's love seems in question), if we want to have a lasting relationship the correct response to that doubt is not to hold back or hedge one's bets, but rather to make a decision and act accordingly. When we talk about salvation, the marriage analogy is also a bit useful. Damnation is, after all, the decision to be eternally separated from God. Salvation is the decision to be eternally united in loving union with God. Just as deciding how to response to our doubts about our spouse's lose determines whether we will have a lasting relationship, so does our decision how to respond to one's doubts about God.

About those doubts, Bearing says:
One may be "faithful" while having severely impaired belief, even no belief at all. (Which raises the question: Why would someone who did not believe in God ever strive to live according to God's laws? I will not answer the question here, and maybe will bat that question back to Darwin, but I will simply note that it is not logically impossible to be faithful in this way without belief; whereas if faith == belief, it does become logically impossible to have faith without belief.)
I guess this is where it's my turn to wonder if she's using too intellectual a definition of "belief" here. To me, if you say "Why would someone who did not believe in God ever strive to live according to God's laws?" I find myself thinking: I really don't know, unless that person thinks those laws happen to be good laws to live by regardless of whether a deity exists who made them. But I would say, someone who doesn't feel belief might very well live in accordance with God's laws because he chooses to believe that God exists. I'd tend to say that if you want to follow God's laws because they are God's laws, if you want to "act faithfully" towards God, even though you feel unconvinced that God really exists, you do believe in God. You may not "feel" it, you may be assailed with doubts and discouragement, but you do believe.


BettyDuffy said...

"Why would someone who did not believe in God ever strive to live according to God's laws?"

Desire for belief.

bearing said...

Bingo, Betty.

bearing said...

Let me throw something else out there. The Church has a certain prayer that goes like this:

"O my God, I firmly believe that Thou art one God in three Divine Person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; I believe that Thy Divine Son became man, and died for our sins, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches, because Thou hast revealed them, who canst neither deceive nor be deceived. Amen."

Note especially the words "I firmly believe..." at the beginning.

This prayer is entitled, "An Act of Faith." I am not aware of any conditions placed upon the recitation of this prayer, such as "An Act of Faith, That Is, If You Are Sure You Really Mean It When You Say You Believe."

I have always taken the simple name of this prayer to mean that, as it is always the Holy Spirit who moves us to pray, the Act of Faith is indeed an act of true *faithfulness* even if the person reciting it is, so to speak, only groping blindly in the darkness. The prayer is supposed to strengthen our faith, and I think it not implausible that the choice to recite it, inspired by the Spirit and consummated in the Act itself, has the power of germinating faith where before there may have been none.

BettyDuffy said...

I also think of that prayer, "I believe. Help my unbelief."

Brandon said...

Very interesting. I think I'm pretty much in agreement with this post,MrD, although I worry that everyone's arguments are starting to lose sight of the fact that Christian faith is distinguished from many other kinds of faith by the fact that it is a gift of God as well as something we do. (I think the marriage analogy still works on this point, by the way, although of course it's messier than the case with divine faith, since in marriages there's a sense in which having faith in one's spouse is, or can be, partly an act of that spouse. A spouse can be more than an object of the other spouse who has faith in them; they can by their own acts of love move the other spouse to have faith in them.)

The Act of Faith is an interesting case; I suspect the title originated to indicate an act of faith in the sense that a scholastic would mean it, and then I think the title is trivially true, since the scholastics generally followed Augustine in holding that belief as an act of faith was nothing other than thought with actual assent: and if you say it in order to be saying an Act of Faith, you are in fact thinking it with actual assent in the very process of doing it. So I'd agree with bearing's last sentence in her comment, but for completely different reasons.

(I should say, though, that I don't think that the original meaning of the title necessarily proves that that's how you have to interpret it; there may well be better ways to understand it as an Act of Faith than the people who originally gave it that title understood it. But I think the (probable) origin makes a lot of sense of it.)

The theological virtues were traditionally seen as having two components: unlike moral virtues, they require direct divine action (inspiration of the Spirit, to use bearing's phrase; they are infused virtues, to use the older phrase); but like all virtues they require habituation on our part -- we have to keep doing things appropriate to a virtue or it doesn't become a entrenched in our character, and faith is no exception. The twofold action is very important. It's why all major Catholic theologians deny that faith is generally a virtue -- while faith is an inevitable part of human life, there is no distinctive moral virtue of faith, although acts associated with faith in ordinary life can be in particular cases an act of another virtue (like justice or loyalty). It's the divine action that gives Christian faith the features of a virtue in itself. But virtues of any kind still require that we do things, even simple and small things, to entrench them in our character and preserve them. So that's how I'd take the rationale for the Act of Faith.

Darwin said...

Betty & Bearing,

I guess this is where my seeing faith/belief in the sense that I'm using the term as being more an act of the will (one we are, per Brandon, given the ability to perform by God, as a gift). I would say that if someone wants to follow God's law out of a desire for belief, that person actually does have belief. Following God's law because it is God's law (rather than, because it seems like a good set of rules to live by regardless of God's existence) is faith.

When we pray, "I believe, help my unbelief," we're in a sense playing with two meanings of the words. "God, I put my faith in you. I choose belief. Help cleanse from me the doubts and fears that assail that belief."

Turning to one of my favorite novels, in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Rider finds himself praying at the foot of Lord Marchmain's bed: Then I knelt, too, and prayed: "O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins,if there is such a thing as sin."
Charles has, a lifelong agnostic, has never acted as if God exists before, and this newborn faith is so young and frail as to be in danger of dying in its cradle, but this indeed faith -- that faith that as we see him later has grown into one of the few remaining pillars of his life.

Wanting to believe, and acting on that wish, is belief.

Or at least, it's all I've ever experienced as such.

bearing said...

"Wanting to believe, and acting on that wish, *is* belief. "

I agree, of course, but remember that we Christians aren't talking in a vacuum when we discuss the nature of belief. We also have to interact with a number of unfortunate people who have a very skewed idea of what "belief" and "faith" are. Remember the post that brought this whole discussion on? Percentages of certainty? And you're also familiar with definitions of faith that amount to "ignoring all the evidence before your eyes in favor of a fairy tale you like better," or definitions of faith that place it in opposition to reason, or definitions of faith that assume "faith" and "doubt" are opposites when, rather, they almost always co-exist.

I particularly like the "fidelity" way of presenting faith because it provides a point of contact with Protestants, and also because it emphasizes that faith need not depend on feelings or even on confidence. But, then, it's always important to be clear that whatever power we have comes from the Holy Spirit.

I agree that the quote from Brideshead is very apt, and that his prayer is indeed an act of faith. Perhaps to people who are used to prayer it seems too wishy-washy, to pray "O God -- if you exist --- ..." but I suspect for many people it is an enormous step even to allow for the possibility of the "if" to pass their lips.

Carole said...

Very nice blog. You might like this Wordsworth quote about little acts of love and kindness. Acts of Kindness Wordsworth