What does the word “faith” mean? According to my dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition), the word “faith” has several different meanings:
Definition 1: A confident belief in the truth, value, trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
Definition 2: Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
Definition 3: Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance…
Definition 4: Belief and trust in God.
Definition 5: Religious conviction.
Definition 6: A system of religious beliefs.
Definition 7: A set of principles or beliefs.
There is nothing wrong with having “confident belief in the truth, value, trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing”, at least not if one has good reason for such confidence.
There is nothing wrong with loyalty to a person or thing, at least not if one has good reason for such loyalty.
There is nothing wrong with belief and trust in God, at least not if one has good reason for belief and trust in God.
Belief that “does not rest on logical proof or material evidence” initially appears to be a bad thing, because such belief appears to be unreasonable, a mere prejudice. However, in foundationalist epistemology, some beliefs are rationally adopted without being based on evidence. Beliefs that are rationally accepted without being based on evidence are in the foundations of knowledge; these beliefs provide the basic premises and assumptions for the rest of what we know, which is inferred from those foundational beliefs. The foundational beliefs which are rationally accepted without being based on other beliefs are known as properly basic beliefs. If there are some properly basic beliefs, then it is SOMETIMES rational to accept a belief “that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”.
So, at least in terms of the first four definitions of ‘faith’ above, faith is NOT always and unavoidably bad or irrational; it depends on the particular circumstances. Sometimes it is reasonable to have “a confident belief”; sometimes it is reasonable to have a “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”; sometimes it is reasonable to have “loyalty to a person”; sometimes it is reasonable to have “belief and trust in God” (or we can at least IMAGINE circumstances in which this would be reasonable, even if there is lots of evidence in the real world against the existence of God).
I’m now going to take a look at what my favorite Christian philosopher, Richard Swinburne, has to say about faith. I’m going to walk slowly through the first paragraph of Chapter Four of Faith and Reason (2nd edition, hereafter: FAR). In future posts I will not be walking slowly through each paragraph, and will try to summarize key points of this Chapter.
Swinburne will focus on the ideas of “belief that” and “trust in a person” in his discussion of faith. I agree that these are key ideas that need to be considered in trying to clarify the concept of faith. Let’s take a look at the opening sentences of Chapter 4:
So far in this book I have been concerned with propositional belief…I claimed that it matters greatly that we should have a true belief about whether there is a God, what He is like and what He has done;…However, the virtue which the Christian religion commends is not propositional belief but the virtue called in English ‘faith’. (FAR, p.137)
This opening remark suggests that Swinburne favors the idea of “trust in a person” over the idea of “belief that” as the main ingredient in an analysis of the concept of faith, because he states that “the virtue [of faith] which the Christian religion commends is not propositional belief…” Swinburne will go on to state that the Thomist view of faith understands faith to be “a matter of having certain beliefs…” (FAR, p.140). So, this initial comment by Swinburne seems to be in opposition to the Thomist view of faith.
This initial impression is reinforced by Swinburne’s characterization of faith at the beginning of Chapter 4:
What is faith, and what is its relation to belief? The faith which the Christian religion commends is basically faith in a person or persons, God (or Christ)…
Having “faith in a person” implies the idea of trust. In terms of ordinary use of the phrase “faith in a person” when we have human persons in mind, we mean something like trusting a person; we don’t mean believing that the person exists. So, it seems like Swinburne is leaning towards the idea of trust as the key idea for analysis of the concept of faith. But the rest of the above sentence (plus the next sentence) does not fit well with this interpretation:
What is faith, and what is its relation to belief? The faith which the Christian religion commends is basically faith in a person or persons, God (or Christ) characterized as possessing certain properties and having done certain actions; and secondarily in some of the deeds which He has done, and the good things which He has provided and promised. (FAR, p.138)
The rest of the sentence seems to go back to the idea of “belief that” which Swinburne will later say is central to the Thomist view of faith. Who is doing the characterizing of God (or Christ) here? Presumably it is the person of faith, and characterizing God does not merely mean saying certain things about God’s properties and actions; it means believing that God has certain properties and has done certain actions. So, now it is not so clear that Swinburne is favoring the idea of “trust in a person” over the idea of “belief that” about God’s properties and actions. He seems to be trying to use both ideas in this initial analysis of faith.
Although I think it is helpful to focus in on a particular religious tradition, such as Christianity, to help reduce some of the ambiguity of the word ‘faith’, when Swinburne speaks of the “faith which the Christian religion commends” I can’t help but wonder about non-commended faith. In other words, his comment suggests that there is a set of examples or instances of “faith” and that only a subset of these instances should be considered faith of the kind that is commended by the Christian religion. So, although it may be helpful to focus attention on the kind of faith commended by the Christian religion, the meaning of the word “faith” appears to have a broader scope and includes other examples or instances in addition to examples that would be commended by the Christian religion.
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