In the Introductory Remarks of his book The Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich admits:
There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men. Today the term “faith” is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternatively skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that the word “faith” should be dropped completely; but desirable as that may be it is hardly possible. A powerful tradition protects it. And there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term “faith” points. So, for the time being, the only way of dealing with the problem is to try to reinterpret the word and remove the confusing and distorting connotations, some of which are the heritage of centuries.
The faithful will often point to the famous “faith chapter” in Hebrews (ch. 11), which gives the following formulation of what faith means:
11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV)
The notion of “evidence of things not seen” is not much of an improvement, especially considering that the very root of the concept ‘evidence’ is ‘vid’, a variant of ‘vis’ which means see, look, and is where we get words like vision, visible, video, and so on. What could possibly constitute “evidence of things not seen”? The obvious answer would be perceptible qualities available to our awareness by means other than sight and vision, such as scents, sounds, tactile feeling and taste. If I detect an odor, for example, when I enter my boss’s office, this might be evidence that he just let one fly. The odor in this case would be the evidence, and his having passed wind would be the thing not seen.
The NASB replaces the KJV’s ‘evidence’ with ‘conviction’ to read “the conviction of things not seen.” This too does not seem to be much of an improvement. For example, does body odor – something that is “not seen” (thank goodness!) – have “conviction”? Perhaps only some “things not seen” have conviction. But what? This raises yet another question: what does seeing or not seeing something have to do with whether or not it has conviction? Does something that has conviction when it is “not seen” suddenly lose conviction once someone sees it? And what about imaginary things? Things that a person imagines will always remain “not seen,” but can one really suppose that they have any conviction? Nothing I’ve read in the New Testament seems to guard believers against treating imaginary things as the substance of their convictions. Philosophically speaking, that’s quite a liability, especially when “things not seen” hold such prominence – even primacy – in the Christian worldview.
Either way, it appears that the word ‘faith’ is supposed to signify some mental faculty or psychological state, but even this does not enjoy the univocality some might attribute to faith. Often it is used to denote some type of action, though it’s never clear what causal role faith plays in actions faith is credited for bringing to pass.
Consider the many types of actions attributed to faith in the examples Hebrews 11 cites as illustrative of its supposed power:
“By faith Abel offered…” (v. 4); “By faith Enoch was translated…” (v. 5); “By faith Noah… prepared an ark…” (v. 7); “By faith Abraham… obeyed…” (v. 8); “By faith [Abraham] sojourned…” (v. 9); “Through faith… Sara… received strength…” (v. 11); “By faith Abraham… offered up Isaac…” (v. 17); “By faith Isaac blessed…” (v. 20); “By faith Jacob… blessed…” (v. 21); “By faith Joseph… made mention…” (v. 22); “By faith Moses… was hid three months…” (v. 23); “By faith Moses… refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter…” (v. 24); “By faith [Moses] forsook Egypt…” (v. 27); “Through faith [Moses] kept the Passover…” (v. 28); “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down…” (v. 30), etc.
Heb. 11:3 provides as strong a clue as any as to why faith is sometimes supposed to denote some kind of mental faculty or epistemological method, for there we read in the KJV:
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
For Tillich, faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned” (The Dynamics of Faith, p. 1), a definition I have not found in either Esther, Romans, or the Psalms. The first example that comes to my mind when reading this is my cat: he is always and forever “ultimately concerned” about filling his stomach. But I don’t think this is what Tillich had in mind. The Heidelberg Catechism provides the following rendering of what “true faith” is:
True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.
In an article titled What is true faith? Ligonier Ministries, Inc., takes the Heidelberg Catechism as its starting point and seeks to provide some additional explanation on the meaning of faith, in case the Catechism itself is not sufficiently clear, stating that:
faith is an assurance of the future [Heb. 11:1]. It gives an objective reality to what we know is coming, enabling us to live now as if we already possess the fullness of our inheritance in Christ.
Why not just go with John Frame’s telling admission that “we know without knowing how we know”? Or perhaps a more honest approach, such as: “I don’t actually know what’s going to happen in the future, but I like to believe that the promises I read in the Bible will come to pass”? What does one gain by misrepresenting the nature and ability of his own cognitive faculties? Ligonier Ministries, Inc., continues:
We do not yet fully experience all the blessings of the gospel; for example, we do not yet enjoy freedom from sin’s presence and the possession of our glorified bodies. Our faith, however, gives a present, objective weight to this future reality, enabling us to stand firm and obey God in the face of trial because we know all His promises will be accomplished.
The article quotes A.W. Pink, who somewhere writes
”Faith gives the object hoped for at a future period, a present reality and power in the soul, as if already possessed; for the believer is satisfied with the security afforded, and acts under the full persuasion that God will not fail of His engagement.”
The article goes on:
Because faith is tied to future realities, it is tied to things not directly accessible to the five senses (Heb. 11:1, 3). It is “the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not exercised in what we can see, hear, feel, touch, or taste but in what our senses do not presently experience.
But more to the point, how is this not a formula for inviting the imagination to take over one’s cognition and investing it with the pretense that what one imagines is actually reflective of real happenings? After all, if I imagine something, say a four-hundred foot-tall squirrel towering over my house, I neither see, hear, feel, touch, or taste the massive rodent; what I have imagined is not something that my senses experience. Of course – it’s imaginary, not real! So what guards the believer from giving primacy to his imagination in all this, especially when his worldview gives license to treat as real things that are not accessible to the senses and encourages him to gorge himself on narratives in a storybook which he is to worship as an idol? Given the Christian worldview’s urgent emphasis on taking the stories in the Old and New Testaments seriously as historical records of actual events ordained by supernatural forces and preserved for believers’ edification and guidance, faith is in fact, to paraphrase Tillich, a state of being ultimately preoccupied with an alternative reality developed in one’s imagination and invested with the hyper-emotional imperative that it’s all so dreadfully important.
The effect is that the believer, so focused and preoccupied with this alternative, imaginary reality, that he has lost the self-awareness necessary to realize he really is just imagining these things.
Of course, we’re cautioned that faith isn’t all about make-believe, as the article insists:
But let us be clear that this does not make faith a blind leap into the dark or something we exercise without any consideration of evidences. After all, Hebrews 11 moves on in verses 4–40 to refer to God’s work in history to illustrate true faith. Faith is not believing in things for which there is no evidence, such as pink unicorns, leprechauns, mythological gods and heroes, and so forth. Believing in such things is not faith but wishful thinking at best. Christian faith, on the other hand, is believing in things for which there is evidence. The testimony of history (Luke 1:1–4), the evidence of God and His handiwork in nature (Rom. 1:18–32), and more give us reason to believe the Lord’s promises.
In a recent blog entry titled Faith and sight, apologist Steve Hays presents us with an opportunity to make some instructive insights on the nature of faith. In that post, Hays predictably starts out by excoriating non-believers on the topic:
Atheists allege that (Christian) faith is belief without evidence. Faith is blind.
Moreover, to the degree that what Hays says here is true, it’s not any atheist’s fault; it’s not as though an atheist is doing something wrong by getting the impression that belief claims are affirmed on faith because they lack evidence, especially when any “evidence” given to support them is the kind we’ve seen here. After all, if Jones affirms a claim and in response to inquiries he continually points to variations of the very claim itself as “evidence” supporting it, and yet he continues to insist that his claim is true, we need a concept to identify what’s going on here. Repeating a claim, no matter how much it’s dressed up from the original, does not provide evidential support for the original claim.
For example, if Jones claims that the stock market’s activity is influenced by Venus’ proximity to the constellation Orion given its (the planet’s) position in the horizon, and the only evidence he can provide for this is Smith’s echoing of this very same claim, has Jones made any progress in substantiating his original claim? When cases such as this occur, some distinguishing abstraction would be helpful for me to categorize and integrate them into the sum of my knowledge. I have elected to use the concept ‘faith’ to do just this. Am I wrong? Please, present your case. I’m happy to consider it.
Of course, Christians and other religionists must always be in ready damage-control mode when it comes to the notion of faith and what it means, for their religious sources explicitly affirm faith. As Tillich states, “a powerful tradition protects it.” In fact, however, one gets the impression that faith is like a millstone around the apologist’s neck when it comes to defending Christianity whenever the topic comes up, for it puts the apologist on the defensive and sucks all the wind out of any offensive tactics he’s been primed to deploy.
We see above the various contortions that commentators are willing to go through to provide just a basic definition of faith, squirming into any and all shapes necessary to make it seem compatible with rationality all the while maintaining as far a distance as possible from any discussion of the role of imagination. But if one is willing to go by imagination, what need is there for evidence? Indeed, the whole point of the Doubting Thomas story in the gospel of John is to teach the faithful that belief without evidence is more virtuous than resting one’s verdicts on the evidence of the senses. What else is meant when Jesus is made to say in John 20:29 ““Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed”? What’s ironic is that believers today, by their own actions, demonstrate that physical evidence for a risen Jesus is unnecessary for their faith, for they’ll tell you point blank that the risen Jesus is standing there right beside them in the midst of their trials and tribulations, giving them strength to endure their struggles and persecutions with patience and longsuffering. And yet, when you look, there’s no Jesus standing there. Jesus is a psychological device, in effect a magic word, essentially a mood, not a real being interacting with the world, and believers by their actions tacitly admit as much.
Given that faith is, time and time again, treated as though it were some epistemological faculty distinct from reason but yet on a par with reason, if not superior to reason itself, it wears like a heavy iron ball chained to apologists’ ankles: it follows them everywhere they go, no matter how much they try to ignore it. We typically don’t find them drawing attention to faith as a topic of discussion!
I have written on faith before and have concluded that it involves belief without rational understanding and consists essentially of hope in something that is imaginary (respectively, see here and here). The Christian imagines, as the gospel storybooks prompt him, that Jesus died and was resurrected and now sits at the right hand of the creator of the universe, and he hopes that what he imagines here is real.
Hays provides his own assessment:
That's simplistic. To play along with the metaphor, humans are generally blind about the future but sighted about the past. In that sense, we can't see what lies ahead but we can see what lies behind. It's as if humans are backing into the future. Walking backwards.
1. I grant that it’s possible to dismiss any true statement by calling it “simplistic.” Characterization is not argument, nor is it a rational substitute for argument. But characterization is very effective for those who seek to protect something for which they have little confidence. Otherwise, why try to protect it with characterization?
2. Human beings are not entirely blind about the future. Some certainty is available to us by way of hypothesis. For example, if two friends of mine gather at the local teahouse at 5 pm today, and they are joined later by two others, then they will be four in number. This I can be certain of, even though it has not yet happened, and may not happen at all. But something’s gotta happen! Causation takes no holidays.
3. Human beings are not entirely sighted about the past. George Washington probably had his share of acne in his adolescence, but I have no idea how bad he might have suffered from it or what, if anything, he might have done about it. Maybe he was lucky and had very little acne in his teens. Good for him! Maybe he had it really bad and it affected his formative self-esteem negatively. If so, then good for us, for if that were the case he sure did overcome that challenge like few human beings before or since. But either way, I cannot see any of this either way, either literally or figuratively.
4. If faith really does involve replacing factual evidence with what is merely imaginary, then faith is not objectively analogous to sight, either of the future or of the past. But we saw above that “faith is tied to future realities” and that it “gives an objective reality to what we know is coming.” So, contrary to what Hays states here, some faithful commentators seem to think that we are not “generally blind about the future.” Moreover, it’s not surprising that Hays would think that we are “sighted about the past” given his propensity as a believer to accept ancient writings as gospel.
Hays summarizes his view:
So it's blind in one direction but sighted in another.
One factor which flusters our efforts to “predict” the future is the degree to which the volition of those individuals involved contributes to what eventually happens. Predicting the trajectory of a comet is a mathematical exercise, with some physics thrown in. The prediction, though, is bankable. But a person’s future choices are not something we can directly observe or calculate mechanistically; there are indicators, of course, but many require a high-degree of refined interpretation to estimate their implications for the choices an individual will make given the conditions he finds himself in. That is beyond complex, as there are so many variables involved, and many of those variables can defy discovery, and the choice that’s eventually made hinges not only on the conditions one faces, but also his hierarchy of values, whatever those might happen to be.
But this is also a factor in looking back at events and happenings in the past as much as it is looking forward to events that have yet to happen (and might not!). What motivated the Vegas shooter, for example? If Stephen Paddock in fact gave no written or verbal testimony as to why he chose to open fire on a crowd of concert-goers, we’re left to combing over anything and everything in his life to piece together what might have motivated his destructive actions. Investigators are still unprepared to tell us what motivated Paddock’s shooting spree (see for example here). So we’re not fully sighted in one direction and completely blind in the other. We’re neither omniscient nor infallible, which is why we need reason in the first place. Prayers, visions, dreams and belief in invisible magic beings will not make up for this fact.
And the two are related. We extrapolate from past to future. We extrapolate from the known to the unknown.
There may be many keys here, but surely one is identifying constants that obtain independently of time and place. This is where the axioms lay down the ground rules: existence exists regardless of where and when; A is A regardless of where or when; consciousness is consciousness of something regardless of where or when. The primacy of existence – i.e., the fundamental recognition that existence exists independent of conscious activity (cf. wishing doesn’t make it so, just believing something doesn’t make it true, etc.) weld this tripartite foundation into an unassailable principle of thought which one must assume to be true even to deny or dispute it. Conceptualization builds on this foundation, guided by the primacy of existence and nourished by input from the senses, allowing us to unite those data we perceive by means of measurement-omission into open-ended abstractions, such that the concept ‘man’ includes every man who exists now just as it includes every man who has existed in the past as well as every man who will exist in the future, regardless of where that man might happen to exist. This is what is meant by recognizing that time and place are omitted measurements. In this way the Objectivist theory of concepts solves the age-old “problem of the one and the many,” or problem of universals. We couldn’t distinguish the future or the past from the present without the ability to form concepts.
Hays provides an example:
If, for instance, someone has a track record for honesty, then that's evidence that they are trustworthy. Although we don't have direct evidence for how they will behave in the future, we have indirect evidence based on their character up until now.
If, however, we allow for supernatural beings which can alter the course of reality by sheer conscious intervention on matters and confounding the laws of identity and causality by acts of will, all bets are off! We have no precedent for what something that is ultimately subject to our imagination, as is the case with “the supernatural,” will do, other than the values, choices and preferences of the one imagining it. And even then, a creative mind can very easily outmaneuver a person’s expectations. Hollywood script-writers do this for a living! Who believing in such things can tell whether or not in the next few moments a devil, angel or deity will wipe out your village with a hurricane or turn you into a pillar of salt? Maybe it has already turned you into a pillar of salt but has kept you in a delusion that you’re still a human being. How would you know any better? If human beings are difficult to predict (going by their track record gets you only so far), how much more of a wild card would we be dealing with when it comes to spirits, ghosts and other invisible magic beings?
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
Direct evidence for the reliability of the source constitutes indirect evidence for what the source says. So faith and sight are interrelated.
That’s just it: we can’t go by superficial features and take sources at their face value. Sometimes there are many layers hiding right beneath the surface, and they need to be explored and understood before a final evaluation can be possible. Otherwise, we’re being lead down a path that can only be considered (to use Hays’ own word) simplistic!
Faith isn't blind or sighted. Rather, faith begins with sight, then relies on that as precedent for what it cannot see. That's why the Bible places so much stock in remembering God's redemptive deeds.
So here’s my prediction, not affirmed on the basis of faith, but on the basis that the past is prologue, and that is: net confusion over the meaning of faith will continue to persist in virtually all circles, both believing and non-believing.
by Dawson Bethrick