Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What Kind of Faith


Dear Professor Theophilus:

I've been struggling with faith versus reason — and whether I ought to say versus! In How to Stay Christian in College, you criticize the common idea that faith hinders the search for truth because it gets in the way of reasoning. According to you, reasoning itself depends on a kind of faith, because the only way to prove that reasoning isn't hogwash would be to reason about it, and any such argument would be circular. It would take on trust the reliability of the very thing it was trying to prove reliable. For this and other reasons you conclude that it makes no sense to ask whether to have faith. "The only real question is which kind of faith to have. The wrong kind will hinder the search for truth — but the right kind will help."

My question is how do you choose which kind of faith to have? If reason itself requires a kind of faith, then are we choosing our faith based on the faith that we have yet to choose? Is there more than one type of faith, possibly? What can I do with these seeming circularities?


The circles do stop spinning. All reasoning must assume "first principles," self-evident principles which we accept not because we can prove them but because they are "known in themselves." Would you like examples? A first principle of arithmetic is that equals added to equals are equal. A first principle of what to do is that good is to be done and evil avoided. A first principle of logic is that no proposition can be both true and false in the same sense at the same time.

You can't prove such things, but you can't meaningfully deny them either, because you have to make use of them even to argue that they aren't true. Confronted with this fact, there are two ways to respond. You can deny them anyway, but in that way lies madness. Or you can believe them. That's an act of faith, in the special sense that it isn't based on proof. But in a sane view of reasoning, it is a reasonable act of faith — an act of faith that is necessary for reasoning itself. If knowledge is what it is sane to believe, then it is also knowledge.

Faith decisions are involved in everyday experience too — not only in our relationship with God, but even in human relationships. How does a young man decide about a young woman, "This is the one?" If he is wise, he will carefully consider everything he knows about her — her character, her conduct, her commitments — before committing his faith to her. If he does all that, then his faith in her is reasonable. Yet isn't there something in that faith that goes beyond what proofs can tell him? Of course there is. Reason says "So far as I can tell, this woman is true," but it can't prove that she is. Really trusting her — staking his life and future on her trustworthiness — is more than proving a theorem. Nevertheless the young man is justified in trusting her, and even in saying "I know her."

If that analogy doesn't help, try this one. You're standing at the window of a burning house. The fireman calls out, "Jump! I'm holding the net, and I'll catch you!" But alas! Your eyes are stinging with smoke and dazzled by the glare of the flames. You cry out, "I can't see you! I'm afraid! I can't jump!" He calls back, "It doesn't matter whether you can see me! I see you! Trust me, and jump!" Would jumping be reasonable? Of course. But does knowing this make jumping easy? Does it spare you the necessity of trust? Of course not. Reason can point you in the right direction, but faith is still a leap — in this case, literally.

So it is with our faith in God. Nothing in Christian faith is contrary to reason; in fact, faith is eminently reasonable, because the world makes more sense if the Christian faith is true than if it isn't. Rationally, Christianity beats atheism hands down. Yet we still don't know everything, do we? We can't see God any more than you can see that fireman with the smoke in your eyes. So there is something more even to reasonable faith than reason alone.

I've given examples of rational faith. Unfortunately, you're right: There is such a thing as irrational faith — and there is such a thing as irrational refusal of faith. In the first example, the young man might place his faith in a young woman of bad character, against his better judgment. People do that sort of thing all the time. In the second example, you might not make the leap of faith into the fireman's net, even though it is the reasonable thing to do. Refusing faith, you burn with the house, and you perish.

Your letter sat in the Ask Theophilus mailbox for quite a while before I finally got around to answering it. To make up for making you wait so long, let me give you a bonus — an answer to a question you didn't ask. Think about the young man and young woman in the first example again. This time, suppose the young man said "I refuse faith. I refuse to say that I know anything at all unless I have proof. I won't give myself to my beloved unless I can actually see her heart."

That attitude is crazy for a lot of reasons, but the craziest thing about it is this: By refusing faith he is cutting himself off from the very knowledge he demands. True, there are some things that he has to know before his trust in the young woman can be reasonable. But it's also true that until he trusts her, there are some things about her that he can never know. Trust transforms the relationship, making possible certain forms of personal knowledge that would have been impossible without it.

In this sense, too, faith is reasonable — and this too is true of our relationship with God. That's why the great Christian writer Anselm wrote "Credo ut intelligam," which doesn't mean "I come to know, in order that I may believe," but instead means "I believe, in order that I may come to know."

One day we will see God face to face, and then there will be no need for faith. Then we will know, even as we are known. In the meantime, faith is an utter necessity.

Grace and peace,

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