In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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6 thoughts on “Faith

  1. Andrew Fitzandrew

    So Faith, in the Thomist sense, has been defined as, more or less, belief in absence of sufficient evidence. You are enough of post modern to notice that, in fact, all our beliefs are in some sense held in the absence of sufficient evidence, and thus faith is required to know anything. The problem is that, for Thomas, faith was virtuous because it was a theological virtue, that is it allowed access to God. Secularized and robbed of it’s object, you are left with Faith as an epistimological curiosity. If courage is the virtue of acting well despite fear, faith, in this account, becomes the virtue of acting well despite uncertainty. It is a probabilistic, Bayesian virtue.

    1. In a way what you say is literally true, but I feel that there is something missing. But I’m very bad at at articulating that “something”, always have been since my own little personal non-religious epiphany (touched on here

      In my understanding of the world, we are connected to one another through history, through our cumulative efforts, through our interwoven stories. It is this connection, our part in this series of ongoing stories, that makes life meaningful and informs our sense of the good. Without faith, we lose that connection.

      Again, I’m no metaphysician, so I cannot flesh this out very robustly. But to me, the loss of that connection is much more significant than mere epistemology. Moreover, epistemology is more the realm of prudence, which, properly attained, includes a sense of the limits of knowledge and so forth.

      1. Andrew Fitzandrew

        There might be a sentence missing in there. Belief in the face of uncertainty, without God, is not virtue, it’s just a necessary fact of life. Instead, what becomes virtuous is to act, and act correctly, despite uncertainty. So courage is the not being paralysed in the face of knightian risk, faith to not to be paralysed in the face of knightian uncertainty.

        You’re looking for something that encompasses both that, and acting in the face of existential angst in the Kierkegaardian sense.

      2. Continuing to type up my notebook, I come upon a page that has just this paragraph: “Faith is our sense of who we are and where we’ve come from. Hope is our sense of who we can become and what we can accomplish. Yet no one is dogmatically faithful or hopeful, nor should they be. Uncertainty remains, about who we are, and about our future. Courage is facing that uncertainty rather than running from it. Courage, faith, and hope are the engine that drives us, the ground under our feet which we tread on without knowing if it is firm, the future we run towards without being entirely sure it will be there.”

  2. “Becky Thatcher: Well, Tom and Huck and l, well, see, we’re not so sure…

    “Mark Twain: That l know what l’m doing up here? Angelfish, it’s just like piloting a river. You get to know the shape of it. Like following a hall at home in the dark. And even if you feel some fear, you know no harm can come to you because you’ve traveled that hallway a hundred times in nothing but bare feet – and faith.”

    (From the utterly wonderful “Adventures of Mark Twain”

  3. Pingback: Book Update: Two Stabs at “So What?” | Adam Gurri

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