Post-Enlightenment Faith

It’s not that hard to figure it out
Where there’s no question, there’s no doubt

Glen Phillips – There Comes a Time

Musehead has an interesting post today on poetic faith (not that I want you to stop reading mine and run over there…), in which he proposes that faith is in reality a struggle against unbelief, or a “suspension of disbelief,” a phrase coined by Coleridge. I can’t be quite as literary as Musehead, but hopefully I can contribute something to the conversation that is likewise profound.

What faith is, is a topic which has come up many times over the years, often in discussions with my children, who have all struggled with this issue. The real issue is never actually with faith itself, but rather, with our definitions of faith. This, by the way, is sure to frustrate many in the “faith community” who are routinely encouraged to completely suspend all mental activity in order to truly “believe,” and to consequently send in their $1,000 contribution. Suspension of reason, however, is not faith, it’s just voluntary insanity.

One of the lessons of the Tower of Babel is that language is all about definitions. Without having a common understanding of the strange sounds and symbols we refer to as words, communication is non-existent. This is what makes the job of translating not only the words, but the concepts, of the Bible such a perilous endeavor. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. What many of us fail to realize is that the English language is not static; it evolves at a fairly rapid rate, more so today with universal access to electronic forms of communication. As a result, the words used a few years ago may not convey the proper meaning today. (Just try reading Shakespeare.)

Concepts also undergo this process of evolution as philosophers continue to philosophize, scientists continue to scientificate, and writers continue to write. One of the big changes, philosophically, has been with the concept of belief, especially since the period known as the Enlightenment (which is at the very least, a presumptuous name). What does it mean to really believe? Do we have to have a valid Boolean syllogism? A “proven” scientific theory? Historical proof? DNA testing?

Our Modern concepts of truth, belief, and faith have not done us any spiritual or intellectual favors. We tend to understand that true faith or belief means “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” That’s ridiculous, and probably impossible.

This isn’t to say that faith is unreasonable. The concept of “reason” has likewise suffered over time. Faith is entirely reasonable. I think the most profound statement of faith in the Bible is Peter’s response to Jesus, “Where else would I go?” This, to me, evidences not a rock-solid, without-any-doubt belief, but a carefully reasoned weighing of the available options. I may not understand, but I don’t think I have any other options.

Faith does not exist in the absence of doubt; faith is always a choice between belief and unbelief. To sit on a chair, we choose to believe (not unreasonably, based on our knowledge and experience) that the chair will support our weight. Some choices are more “iffy” – Noah, for example, probably had to suspend a much more attractive disbelief.

To suspend disbelief – not to ignore it – is the act of faith.

Sweet surrender, oh my lord
I never thought I’d see
Not surprising, still I find some shaking
And cry more, then laughing, softly
There comes a time in your life
Pull on your coat, go outside.

3 thoughts on “Post-Enlightenment Faith”

  1. Sometimes. But, sometimes it just comes down to risk analysis, and/or just choosing to suspend disbelief. In responding to the call of God – especially the initial call – it’s a choice. I think that’s what Kierkegaard meant by his “leap of faith.” Not unreasonable, but definitely risky.

    Of course, we know (if we accept the Bible’s testimony) that the call of God preceeds any act on our part; faith comes by hearing …

    To leap or not to leap … that is the question.

  2. The real question once someone gives their definition of “faith” is “How would you have more faith?”

    Hebrews 11:1 says faith is two things. It is the belief in: 1) something that hasn’t happened yet and 2) something you can’t see. Hebrews 11:6 agrees because you can’t see God and you have to believe in something (reward) that hasn’t happened yet.

    Do you believe the sun will come up tomorrow? Has it come up tomorrow?

    Do you believe in gravity? Have you ever seen gravity? Electricity? Magnetism?

    The reason you have faith is experience (has happened before) and knowledge (you know why it happens). In order to build your faith you just need to get more knowledge of and/or experience with the object of your faith.

  3. When we stop asking questions, we stop taking God seriously. Philosopher Paul Tillich writes, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Jesus himself, dying on the cross, asked “Why?” This was not unbelief but faith in crisis.

    Maybe the best definition comes from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “Faith is the refusal to panic.”

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