Thursday, 11 January 2007

On Faith

I hesitate to use this word, faith. It has been mangled and strangled and left, weak and whimpering, decidedly beyond the pale of respectable rationality. It is the last, desperate appeal for those who are too tired or too lazy to look any further. It is a smug euphemism for the self-satisfied who feel no need to substantiate the validity of their own thinking.
Let me tell you what faith as the Bible uses it most assuredly is not. It is not an excuse not to think, nor is it an exemption from the responsibility of drawing clear links between beliefs, knowledge, rationality, and experience, at least within our own minds. It is not the obstinate clinging to what I wish to be true despite all evidence to the contrary.
I will begin from the Bible, for the simple reason that I have found in it above all a consistent presentation of the reality I know, and of the person and claims of God, in relation to whom "faith" is traditionally understood. The "faith" I am interested in is the Biblical idea. I believe this idea of faith has been historically, routinely, and universally misused and misrepresented. The concept of faith as the Bible presents it is quite simply, "reason to expect" a certain thing.
Nowhere does the Bible encourage ignorance or disregard for rational evidence, either sensory or logical, in favour of fuzzy feelings or a certainty which is based on the strength and value of "my belief". Readers of the New Testament will note that the apostle Paul, when he was questioned about the veracity of Jesus rising again, never said, "Relax, guys. Just have faith." He told those asking the question to go talk to some of the hundreds of people who had seen Jesus after he rose from the dead. Sound like the popular version of faith? It sounds a lot more to me like he was suggesting they use their brains and their eyes.
The Bible clearly and reasonably defines the term, which is so central to its thesis, as "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." Nothing airy-fairy about that. It is substance; cold hard evidence. Let's think about this. What is the usual evidence for knowedge which is unseen? Umm, like the existence of DNA or electricity, for instance. I personally have never seen either one of them, but they make sense to me. The very same concepts may well have seemed like pie in the sky to someone in my situation about 500 years ago. What makes the difference? They didn't have certain other important pieces of information with which to form a rational body of knowledge. However, there is another evidence for "things not seen" - experience. Had it been possible for them to observe the working of a flashlight or a CD player, there are many things they might have been able to understand and perhaps infer about "electricity" even if they didn't know its name. For example, turn on the flashlight. Light! Turn of the flashlight. No light. Take out the batteries and turn on the flashlight. No light. Put the batteries in and turn on the flashlight. Light! A few repetitions of this demonstration would likely satisfy even a skeptic of the rationality of a concept like electricity. The results of DNA might also be readily evident to them were its viewable results linked with a unified explanation.
Rational, consistent explanation and experience are, in our world, the generally-accepted forms of evidence for things that are known but not seen. I expect that the flashlight will light up when I turn it on because I have a general understanding of the working of electricity AND because it has done it before, repeatedly. When it has failed to turn on, there have been reasonable explanations that have also been consistent with my experience of flashlights and batteries. I know a little how electricity operates, and it is reasonable. My knowledge, combined with my experience of flashlights, has given me "reason to expect." I have faith in electricity, although I don't understand it fully and I have never seen it.
By the Bible's definition, faith is no leap in the dark. It is something substantial - something that appeals to and requires the participation of the whole person, body and mind and spirit. It requires experience and it requires reasoned understanding. You cannot have faith of any quality in a God you do not know, whether that God exists or not. My faith in God depends on my understanding and experience of a God whose person is rational and consistent.
Believing that God exists is radically different from having faith in him. I have faith in my sister because I know her to be trustworthy, not because I believe that she exists. I believe that Tom Cruise and George Bush exist, but my faith in either one has definite limits! In the same way, whether he exists or not, I have no basis for faith that God will cure me of cancer, unless he has said that he will. Believing that he will is not faith. It is a lovely but unsubstantiated hope.
The Bible says "all things work together for good to them that love God". Since the Biblical concept of God includes truth, and my understanding and experience of that God affirms that he is, and that he is truthful, this allows me to expect that whatever God does do with me is ultimately good, by his definition of good. That is faith - matching up my reasoned understanding and my experience, and acting on my "reason to expect". Job, in the Old Testament, knew the God that I know. Sick and poor and in pain and alone, he was able to say about God, "Even if he kills me, I will trust in him". It wasn't because Job stupidly persisted in trusting a God who failed to bless him in the ways he hoped, it was because his understanding and experience had brought him into knowledge of a God who sees pain as a price to be paid; a God who gives pain when it is necessary - and when it is necessary, accepts pain himself.
What about people who don't believe in God? How then can we ever know a God who is not reachable through raw belief?
We must seek a reasonable and unified concept of "God". By this I mean a concept that is non-contradictory rather than one that is "natural". If the "God" is also creator he doesn't need to be wholly subject to the laws of nature, but his reflection in the creation must be either consistent with his person or another rational explanation must tell why it is not. The concept of God may be incomplete and imperfectly comprehended by us, but it is necessary that it be reasonable and consistent. When seeking scientific knowledge, we first offer a rational hypothesis, then we test it. If it fails, we adjust the hypothesis. However, if your hypothesis fails, that doesn't mean God himself doesn't exist - it just means the God you have imagined doesn't exist.
We can come to believe in God by beginning with reason and following with experience. This allows us to know God. It is only then that we will be reasonably able to put faith in God. Putting faith in someone you don't know is - excuse me - stupid. Religious people may expect it, but the God of the Bible doesn't expect it. He says, "You will know me when you search for me with all your heart." Notice it's not a reward for searching diligently. No, it's the searching, the reasoned thought, that is the way to know God - which necessarily comes before having faith in God. The "with all your heart" has tripped up many people. Their search has not been genuine. Neither was mine for a long time. I searched for "God", but I had already prepared a box that I expected him to fit into. This kind of narrow-mindedness is no different in the search for truth about God than it is in the search for scientific truth. Many discoveries have been delayed because people were unwilling to accept certain possibilities.
Some people do arrive at the right answer without understanding, but without understanding, we can't be sure it is the right answer. Just experience is powerful - lab rats depend on it all the time - but again, without understanding, we can't be sure the answer it gives us will continue to be the right answer. Then again, just understanding can be fatal if your understanding is even occasionally flawed. That's why student pilots have to log hundreds of hours of flight experience before they are certified - even if the theories are perfect, sometimes we aren't.
Lest I be misunderstood, I will assert that I am not trying to suggest that a knowledge of God is purely academic. What I want to say is that any real knowledge of truth must begin in the intellect. It is how we respond to our understanding of God that involves a moral choice, that deepest part of a person. Turning off the mind and trying to move straight to the moral decision has resulted in a gross ignorance, darkened understanding, and a terrible corruption of our world's concept of who God is.
For those of you who still cherish a small hope of finding truth, God, whatever it is that you call the thing that sometimes still fills you with longing from your deep heart's core; that greatness and dearness in oceans and mountains and trees and tigers and baby deer before which something inside you bows - let me offer the Bible, and the God of the Bible, as a beginning hypothesis. Read about him for yourself - you just may be surprised.

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