What is Faith? – Part 3
I said that I was not going to walk slowly through the rest of Chapter 4 of Faith and Reason (FAR), by Richard Swinburne. But there is a lot going on in the next few paragraphs of Chapter 4, and I find myself wanting to make several comments on them. So, contrary to my previous plans, I’m going to continue to walk slowly through at least the next few paragraphs.
Before we get to Swinburne’s characterization of the Thomist view of faith, I have a couple more comments. Swinburne focuses on the ideas of “belief that” and “trust in a person” as key aspects of different views of faith. The Thomist view focuses on “belief that”, while the Lutheran view focuses on “trust in a person”. I would like to point out two fairly obvious logical connections between these ideas, before we see what Swinburne has to say about how they are related to the concept of faith:
1. One kind of “trust in a person” leads quite naturally to the formation of beliefs.
If I trust a person for advice or information, then when that person gives me advice, or gives me information, I will be inclined to form beliefs in accordance with that advice or information. If my doctor tells me “The best way to ensure a full recovery from your illness is to do X”, and if I trust my doctor for medical advice, then I will be inclined to form the belief that “The best way to ensure a full recovery from my illness is to do X.” If my chemistry professor tells me that “Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1.00794 u, and hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table.”, and if I trust my professor to know about such things in the field of chemistry, then I will be inclined to form the belief that “Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1.00794 u, and hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table.” (Thanks to Wikipedia for this example).
2. Trust in a person normally (always?) involves beliefs about that person.
If I trust a person to take good care of my daughter while I am on a trip out of town, I do so on the basis of beliefs about the trustworthiness of that person. I believe that this person cares about the well-being of my daughter. I believe that this person is capable of taking good care of my daughter. I believe that this person has a strong commitment to take good care of my daughter while I’m away, and I believe that this person is a responsible person who will do their best to fulfill this commitment. My trusting this person is grounded in various beliefs that I have about the character and abilities of this person.
According to Swinburne, the Thomist view of faith is closely related to what…
…is by far the most widespread and natural view of the nature of religious faith. This is the view that, with one addition and two qualifications, to have faith in God is simply to have a belief-that God exists. (FAR, p.138)
So we now have a proposed simple definition of faith:
Person P has faith in God IF AND ONLY IF P believes that God exists.
One interesting and problematic implication of this definition is that the devil has ‘faith in God’. According to the Christian scriptures, the devil believes that God exists. But clearly, the devil does NOT trust in God, and the devil does NOT love God, and the devil has no desire to obey God. The devil is at war with God, but to be at war with God requires that the devil believe that God exists. If the devil has ‘faith in God’, then it would seem that ‘faith in God’ is NOT the kind of faith that the Christian religion commends. Or, at least, the particular sort of ‘faith in God’ that the devil has falls short of the kind of ‘faith in God’ that is commended by Christianity.
Here is the “one addition” that Aquinas makes to the simple definition of ‘faith in God’ above:
…to have faith in God, you have to believe not merely that there is a God, but certain other propositions as well…. More central to faith are the other propositions about what God is like and what acts He has done, and you have to believe these latter propositions on the ground that God has revealed them. (FAR, p.138)
In case you didn’t notice, there are at least TWO additional elements that have been added to the initial simple definition. First, there is the additional element that there are beliefs beyond just the existence of God that are central to faith, beliefs about “what God is like and what acts He has done”. Second, these beliefs must be accepted “on the ground that God has revealed them.”:
Person P has faith in God
IF AND ONLY IF
(a) P believes that God exists, AND
(b) P believes that God has various properties (divine attributes), AND
(c) P believes that God has performed various actions, AND
(d) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted on the ground that God has revealed those beliefs.
This is clearly a bit more complicated than the initial simple definition of ‘faith in God’. However, even with the additional requirements, it still looks to me like the devil would have ‘faith in God’ on this definition.
The only potential reason for denying that the devil meets these conditions would be doubt about whether the devil’s beliefs about the properties and actions of God are “accepted on the ground that God has revealed those beliefs.”
Aquinas might argue that the devil knows about God’s properties and actions in a way that is more direct than the way that humans know, or become aware of, God’s properties and actions. The devil, Aquinas might say, doesn’t need God’s help to learn about God’s properties and actions; the devil can directly perceive God in a way that humans cannot. Humans need God to reveal his properties and actions to them; they cannot simply or directly perceive God, God’s properties, or God’s actions, at least not without God’s assistance.
There might be an ambiguity in condition (d). It is not immediately clear to me whether (d) could be satisfied if God did NOT exist. In other words, it is not clear to me whether (d) states a subjective or an objective requirement. Let me try to formulate (d) in a way that is more clearly objective in nature:
(d#) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted as a result of God revealing those beliefs.
If we understand (d) in this way, as requiring that P’s beliefs about God have a certain kind of CAUSE, namely an act of divine revelation, then (d) could be satisfied ONLY IF God in fact exists and can perform actions that cause events or changes to occur. But this would have the counter-intuitive implication that no Christian or Jew or Muslim has ever had ‘faith in God’ if it turns out that there is no God. It seems to me that we skeptics and atheists are inclined to say that many religious believers have ‘faith in God’ even if we are completely convinced that there is no such being as God. So, I don’t think the definition works on this objective interpretation of condition (d).
Here is a formulation of (d) that is more clearly a subjective one:
(d*) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions are accepted by P because P believes that God has revealed those beliefs.
On this subjective interpretation of (d), it does not matter whether God exists or not. So long as P believes that God exists and believes that God sometimes reveals truths to humans, then (d) could be satisfied even if it turns out that there is no such being as God (or even if there were a God who chose not to reveal theological truths to humans).