Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Faith defined (?)

A response to a comment on a previous post. A new installment in my ongoing discussion with a Christian friend.

I will try to keep this short. Jonathan writes:

First, neither faith nor belief is defined by an irrational acceptance. I
know a lot of people tend to think that faith is belief without reason, but
that’s not true. It may be belief without reason to someone else, but the person
with the belief has reason even if they can’t articulate it or even understand
If a person truly believes that there is no reason for his faith, then his
faith is actually just wishful thinking. (Italics mine)

This is a very important point. If you have experienced a personal revelation from god, then huzzah for you. If you have been shown the hand of god with complete and utter certainty, then he has revealed himself to you in a way that he has not to millions of other people. Those of us who have not been shown god's presence have at least two options. We can take your experience at your word and use that as evidence for ourselves. Or we can try to find a rational, scientific explanation. Maybe you are lying. Maybe you were mistaken. Maybe your brain fed you endorphins at just the right time. Maybe you were wishing and hoping and, in the process, ended up believing.

In any case, if you are right about your personal experience with god, you know that if it was strong enough evidence to convince you then it must be strong enough to convince anyone. Therefore, god must not have revealed himself to me. If he had, I would certainly believe as adamantly as you. But if you say that I am turning a blind eye to god or am hardening my heart, then you are mistaken. I have not seen and ignored anything that I could not explain without god as the answer.

But if we imagine that: a) god has revealed himself to you, and b) god has not revealed himself to me, then even you have to admit that your conviction should not be enough to convince me. Your own personal experience is not proof, it is not evidence of anything. It is a one-off, a single event and not a phenomena that can be shared.

And I have to agree with you when you write, If a person truly believes that there is no reason for his faith, then his faith is actually just wishful thinking. Faith must accompany conviction. However, I have to point out that conviction is not proof. Faith is not belief without reason, but it is belief without proof. Of course, you will counter that you have proof, but you can't demonstrate it to anyone else. And no one can disprove that. We can go round and round about personal experiences, and, in the end, your personal experience is your own. We should both hope that you are honest enough to know if it was real or not.

Jonathan defines faith: I know I defined faith already, but I will attempt to re-express it with more common language. Faith is truly believing that something will help you ultimately enjoy life. And when faith is defined as such, love is the outworking of faith.

The more you define faith, the mistier the meaning becomes. Now it seems that faith is simply believing in happiness. Maybe by your definition I do have faith. But I don't think so. And I think that your definition of faith is bound to your definition of god. I don't subscribe to your definition of faith, I think. By my definition of faith, then I do not need faith to enjoy life. But if I understand your definition, then I do not have faith in anything, except maybe life. I have faith that the world will be much the same tomorrow as it is today. But that is based on experience and understanding - very different from faith.

But you suppose that I put faith in myself because I define for (myself) what is the most enjoyable way to live. Yes. If that faith is the word you want to use, then I have faith in myself. But that gets confusing when you line it up with how most Christians - most people, I think - define the word. You can keep changing the definition of faith until it becomes practically meaningless. You can change the definition of god too, I suppose, until I become a believer.

I do wish to enjoy life. That is the ultimate meaning for everyone. I enjoy life and you enjoy life. There is no doubt that your religion brings joy to your life. If it brought nothing but pain, you would not believe it. Even if you were tortured constantly for your faith - as I know many people have been - then you would have your hope of heaven, the satisfaction of doing god's work to keep you happy. I don't have to worry about what god wants me to do. I don't believe there is a god at all. I care about my own happiness. It makes me happy to care about other people. It makes me happy to give blood. It makes me happy to recycle, to be a vegetarian, to hold the door open for people. This does not require faith. It is just a reaction to a feeling of satisfaction, worth, and a little bit of smug moral superiority.

I failed in my attempt to keep this post short. And I am sorry if I did not fully answer your description of faith. I am really not trying to be a jerk about this, but understanding your definition of faith is like grabbing at smoke. It seems as though your definition of faith only applies to your description of god. There is no real universal use of the term. I cannot use it to describe you, for example, without assuming a great many things about god.

So here is my definition of faith. I would say that faith is the tool used to believe in god. I would say that faith is the only tool you can use, because there is nothing else available. God is not apparent, he is not physical (not in any practical sense, anyway), and he does not alter the flow of the world in any obvious way. There is no way to see, observe, measure or communicate with god in the usual way (five senses, for example). Therefore, faith must be used. Faith bridges the gap between imagination and knowledge. If god were apparent, then faith would not be necessary. If god revealed himself to me, then I would have no need for faith, because I would know that he existed.

We do seem to be going round and round about this. Maybe it is time to change the subject. But I am not trying to shut you up if you have something further to add here. I just see the definition of faith becoming even more vague and me being even more confused.


jljarvis said...

Nathaniel writes:
You can keep changing the definition of faith until it becomes practically meaningless.

I'm not attempting to change the definition. Yes I know that it is widely used to mean belief in something without proof (as you also seem to believe). I was attempting to show that the Christian definition is different and that at it’s basic definition, it is a universal human trait that is not necessarily applied to God. You have probably heard growing up that to have faith in God is to believe that God is and that He is good. I was merely trying to show that to believe He is good is to believe He is good to us (i.e. beneficial to us – which leads to our ultimate happiness). If you believe He is but He is not beneficial to our happiness, then you can’t call that faith. That’s dread. Therefore faith in it’s basic form is believing that something is beneficial to our happiness. This is a paraphrase of the earlier definition from Piper (i.e. it’s not something new I’m making up). Also, to believe that something is good (such as giving blood and holding doors for people), is to believe that it is beneficial to your ultimate happiness. And I’m not using happiness in the mere pleasure form, since many people (Christian or not) endure very unpleasing circumstances to enjoy being good. When I started this side path, I wanted to know what it was you trusted in for your happiness (i.e. what I would call faith). And I believe you’ve answered that the best you can.

Nathaniel writes:
We do seem to be going round and round about this. Maybe it is time to change the subject.

Perhaps. But I’m glad we have shown that there will most likely be many common misconceptions involving “Christian” terminology. I will be more specific in the future when I say what I mean by faith and other such terms.

a said...

Nathaniel writes: "But if you say that I am turning a blind eye to god or am hardening my heart, then you are mistaken. I have not seen and ignored anything that I could not explain without god as the answer."

You are turning a blind eye to God, and you are hardening your heart. You have seen and ignored His command to repent and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.

The definition of faith that Jonathan/Piper used sounds a lot like Heb 11:6 - "But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him."

You want "proof" from God or some message from Him, then consider His word and how it is being fulfilled in your life right now. Every word will come to pass:

Luke 13
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish ...
And He began telling this parable: "A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any.
"And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?'
"And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'"

You are that tree that has not produced any fruit. God has been merciful for holding off your judgement, for giving another chance. You are recieving posts from Christians who love you and don't want you to be cut down. This may be your last season that God will fertilize His truth around you. Please repent and believe before it is too late for you.

Maybe in your life you have become too entrenched in your atheism in the eyes of your friends or loved ones to ever change your mind. Maybe you fear their scorn at this point more than the possibility of Hell. Don't be so foolish. Cling to life and not death.