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Faith ≠ Certainty, Doubt or Belief

November 11, 2011

The word “faith” is a much misunderstood term. In contemporary discourse it often means the act of believing in something that lacks empirical evidence, something that one affirms through intuition, the interpretation of a particular personal experience or the interpretation of a publicly observable phenomenon.  However the term, in its more theological sense, has much more in common with a particular way of living.

It could be said to be an act of protest against the type of philosophy that Paul condemned in the Bible. The philosophical wisdom tradition has always been deeply marked by the idea that life simply is and that we should not impose meaning on it. While we tend to experience certain people as special and invest particular activities with significance (e.g. eating with someone we love) such a view claims that people are just people, that the meaning we see in the world is something we impose upon it and that the universe is simply made up of uniform particles (or vibrations etc.) occupying locations in space and time.

To speak of faith is to refer to a protest against such wisdom. What is important to bear in mind however is that this protest does not necessarily disagree with such a position any more than it agrees with it. To live in faith is to live as though the world has meaning, as if matter is special, as if what we do is significant. It has then nothing to do with belief, doubt or certainty but rather with a particular mode of living as-if.

Some theologians thus use the word “faithing” rather than “believing” to get to the heart of what Paul meant when he spoke of how we approach the divine. In this reading we are not believers but rather faithers.  The notion of believers or unbelievers thus falls away in light of the question as to whether we are faithers or unfaithers. In other words, whether we engage with the world as infused with meaning, wonder, enchantment, mystery, divinity and beauty, or whether we don’t. It refers to a way of participating with reality in a different way, not believing an alternative mythology.

Faith thus exists in a different register to the categories of belief, doubt and certainty. It exposes the implicit impotence of these categories when applied to the event of Christ. To have faith is to see differently. Indeed the word “mystic” might be appropriate here as the term suggests closing ones eyes in order to see. The person of faith metaphorically closes their eyes to the wisdom that sees the world as without significance in order to see it as saturated with significance.

This is not however something we can muster up; we can’t simply tell ourselves to see the world in this way, it requires being taken up in love. To grasp this take a moment to think about how those who love the world cant help but experience it as meaningful even if they believe that it is not. Just as those who do not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if they believe that it is in fact meaningful.

Faith then is the experience of being taken up in the experience of meaning, of feeling the world to be wonderful, the other as sublime and our neighbour as worth dying for. We cannot will such a way of engaging with the world into being, at best we can invite it, hope for it, wait for it, pray and weep for it.

18 Responses to Faith ≠ Certainty, Doubt or Belief

  1. Obscuritus says:

    You have helped me to compare the miracle of faith to a filtering system by and through which we see life transcendently.

  2. Rusty says:

    This is the closest someone has come to articulating what I feel about faith… Much better than I could say it. Awesome, thank you!

  3. Lori says:

    Interestingly enough, the roots of the word which we translate as “believe” are much closer to what you describe here as faith. They reference a sort of clinging, of committing oneself to, of orienting one’s life around.
    Regardless of terminology, though, this is what I want faith to look like in my life.

  4. Tim says:

    Thank you for your blog, for your books, and especially for this insight. I am a pastor and often am asked to read from John 14.1-7 for funerals. I find it an appropriate text for such a setting, but think of so many other times in our lives when we need to hear God say to us, “Let not your hearts be troubled…” Faith as you have explained it makes so much more sense to someone who desires to follow God in a much deeper, less superficial manner.
    Thank you for being you,

  5. Sean says:

    Rubbish. 😉

    I found these two sentences awkward, though faith as protest is compelling:
    “It could be said to be an act of protest against the type of philosophy that Paul condemned in the Bible. The philosophical wisdom tradition has always been deeply marked by the idea that life simply is and that we should not impose meaning on it”

  6. Muriel Sowden (@fragranceofgod) says:

    “We cannot will such a way of engaging with the world into being, at best we can invite it, hope for it, wait for it, pray and weep for it”

    So do you think faith is something that God gives to us (or not)as a gift, rather than something we can ciltivate ourselves?

  7. Tris says:

    “To live in faith is to live as though the world has meaning, as if matter is special, as if what we do is significant.” You don’t need faith to see this sort of significance in the world. Unbelievers are often no strangers to a sense of the transcendent, and won’t appreciate such condescension. Faith was always a license for belief without evidence, and in this form is fast becoming a maligned word, and with good reason. If permission is granted to redefine it as a stance which ascribes meaning before evaluating it, this it starts to look like manic and arbirary symbolism.

  8. Peter Rollins says:

    Hey Tris.

    I am guessing you are American, though I might be wrong. In the US words like faith are so caught up in a bizarre type of popular religious discourse that the work of serious philosophers and theologians on the subject are virtually unknown. My own work does not operate within this constellation but rather is more connected to the tradition of continental philosophy via people like Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marcel, Sartre etc. etc. (as well as a theological tradition from the scholastics through to Tillich, Bultmann and Altizer among others). This tradition does not really take the popular and rather modern (in the philosophical sense) religious debates between theist and atheist, believer and unbeliever seriously (such debates are of more sociological or anthropological interest). I am working primarily in the Existential tradition (I know, it seems very early 20th century, but I can’t help loving Nietzsche and I read it through the lens of people like Lacan)

    Hope that helps

  9. Margaret says:

    I love this. I particularly love the movement between “faith” and “mystic” and also “love” and “meaningfulness.” Lots to consider!

  10. Mark says:

    I think that the problem comes with the contemporary view of faith. Faith isn’t believing something because of a lack of evidence but in light of what God has revealed about himself, however much or little that may be.
    The problem with divorcing faith from belief is that the end of the day we still are affirming some kind of truth about how we view god, love, the world, etc. instead we should try to better define what we mean by belief, certainty, faith, and doubt.
    I agree with the sad reality that has befallen the church and especially the American church. Just as faith and reason shouldn’t be divorced from one another neither should faith and practice. Walking with god cannot and should not happen in a vacuum with blinders on ignoring the chaos of the world while we live comfortably and are content with our mediocre Christian lives just waiting for heaven to come to us.
    I really appreciate the questions and problems you are raising, which aren’t new but also aren’t being addressed. While we may disagree philosophically in some areas I know we agree that there is a problem and that something needs to be done. It is dialouges like this that will help raise awareness and hopefully lead us to seek God and his grace for a solution and an awakening.

  11. Tris says:

    English actually, but your point stands. Not to be anti-intellectual or anything, but I think the common understanding of the word’s meaning ultimately matters more than those chewed over in ivory towers, from which I’ve heard a lot of white noise attempting to downplay or blur the antagonism between faith and reason. For example, Alister McGrath said that Christ is “not a light which I can see, but rather a light BY which all else is illuminated”. Nicely put yes, but from an epistemological point of view, total sophistry.

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  13. Peter says:

    “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. Faith is more than “behaving as if”. I agree that faith is manifested in behaviour. That’s the reason faith without works is dead. So according to Paul faith = certainty. Just as I respond to your blog because I know you exist, I walk with Jesus because I know he exists. I suppose it’s fair to say that in responding to your blog I am living as if you exist, but isn’t it a rather artificial way of looking at it?

  14. Alan says:

    You have aptly described what I have been experiencing and wanting to give voice to! Letting go of the cliche’d certainty that I was told I had to subscribe to, to be a serious Christian, commenced with fear and angst. However, finding serious scholars like you has made the letting go process exhilirating, safe and full of hope!
    Thanks for the deft articulation of what many of us are in process of discovering on the hopeful, joyful journey as we “participate with reality in a different way”.

  15. Lyle Taffs says:

    I remember hearing a gay catholic priest (who I guess was excommunicated, I don’t know his name etc) from somewhere in South America give the best description I have heard of ‘faith’. To paraphrase as best I can remember he said something like – it is like being with someone with whom you have such a relationship of acceptance that you can be totally yourself. In other words you can be ‘real’ and you know you woan’t be rejected. It is a relationship not an intellectual ascent.

  16. Dean says:

    I’m going through Practice in Christianity by Kierkegaard right now and came across a very interesting and lengthy footnote in relation to doubt and despair. Kierkegaard suggests all this talk of “doubt” (in his contemporary age, of course) is basically a misunderstanding of despair. I was wondering what you might say in relation to this idea. Is he speaking of a doubt similar to your idea of doubt, or are you differentiating the two? And, if it is the same doubt, how are you not confusing doubt and despair?

    I’m reading the Hong Princeton edition, and it’s on page 81 in that particular book. It comes after his discussion of “the Halt” and under the heading “A Brief Summary of the Contents of this Exposition.”

  17. Peter, thanks for refreshing, inspiring, and challenging thoughts, as always. My first read of this felt freeing. My second read it of, along with the comments below, gave me pause. If faith is simply living “as if,” then in what sense is faith not simply an abandonment to pure fantasy, which of course non-believers have maintained all along?

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