On Faith

You cannot live without believing any more than you can live without breathing.  To be human is to believe.  It is inherent to our condition.  Believing is what gets you up in the morning.  It is what inspires you to live as if your life has purpose, to think that there are yet new and better things to experience on the horizons of your existence.  Believing is what motives you to move, to act, to do anything, for you only pursue what you believe is in someway worthwhile.  No one wastes precious energy doing something he does not believe is worth doing.  What we most profoundly believe about life orients and calibrates every other function of our being: our thoughts, feelings, motives, memories, imaginings, relations, actions, aims, and concerns.

A person without the smallest shred faith would become painfully inert and unmotivated.  This is a basic quality of severe depression: the agonizing inability to believe there is anything worth living for.  Deep depression is frequently described as a kind of psychological darkness or fog, because those who find themselves in it struggle see a reason to go on.  An individual suffering from depression can become stuck in a dreadful abyss of hopeless despair.  Performing simple, ordinary tasks—like getting out of bed, getting dressed, having a shower, or going to work—can be immensely draining, since a depressed individual cannot see any real purpose in doing them.  Life seems pointless.  And life is painful.  So living becomes an intolerable burden.  But believing your life has purpose can make suffering its pain worthwhile.  Nietzsche insisted “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  We believe, as we breathe, to live with vitality.  To live without faith or hope is to live in hell.  It is to live in an overwhelmingly dark and painful place, void of motive and purpose.

James Fowler writes “faith is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is a dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide a person’s life.”  Wilfred Cantwell Smith likewise describes faith as “an orientation of the personality to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.”  So for Smith, “faith is a quality of human living.”


Faith is not simply assenting to some conscious, abstract idea, and believing is not simply an intellectual or cognitive act—though belief and faith have often been reduced to this over modern history.  Nor is faith merely some optional religious commitment to metaphysical conjectures.  Faith originates in our core.  It is an intuitive, gut-level trust formed out of unspeakable knowledge of the soul.  Though faith may be expressed in abstract beliefs and ideas, faith reflects the deepest dispositions of the psyche. It ascends into the mind from unconscious depths.  Believing therefore involves our entire self.  But Smith acknowledges that this differs from typical modern understandings of faith:

There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

Hypocrisy complicates understanding the dynamics of faith.  You won’t understand the full nature of faith if you expect to restrict it to consciously assenting to propositional beliefs.  To be human is to be capable of saying one thing and doing another.  As a human I can also say I believe one thing, and perhaps even convince myself that I do, while unconsciously believing something quite different.  For example, David Benner points out an individual’s assumed spirituality may not be the same as her actual spirituality, which is to say what she professes and practices can be different things.  The same rift can develop between what I assume I believe and what I actually believe.  Though the pathway to wholeness involves healing my inner rifts.  Only by facing where I am fragmented can I become a mature, integrated person.

Without absolute omniscience, faith is necessary.  Faith steps out from the ground of what is known into what is unknown.  Faith leans over the edge of life.  Though reasonable faith is not blind, it demands taking trust-worthy risks.  Relationships require such trust, and without it they die.  But faith, forged through past experiences, gives us courage for the present and hope for the future.  Faith is always pressing forward, leaning into an unknown future, an unknown world, an unknown face.



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