It has become a strange and unfortunate commonplace that one must have faith in faith—faith, that is, in the ability to commit oneself to truths that transcend rational justification—not only out of respect for faith’s intrinsic (if futile) beauty, but also as a means to the truth. Confronted with inadequate evidence for the deeper truths of life, one must conjure up a commitment to ideas for which the subjective act of faith can be the only ground, and one must believe not only in the content of faith but in the faith-act itself.
This, at least, is the picture of faith one finds in the writings of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, and it has an embarrassing currency among Christian believers. (For example, a Christian woman once told me earnestly that even if biologists were able to demonstrate common descent to a certainty, she would still reject it for a simplistic interpretation of the Genesis creation account as a matter of faith.)
But Christians can dispense with faith in faith, for this strange recursion stems from a basic misunderstanding of Christian faith. The projection of an opposition between reason and faith—wherein the former claims objectivity and the latter demands assent to a set of propositions that cannot be proven—into the biblical context anachronistically imposes Enlightenment categories where they would not have been intelligible.
Faith, in the Christian life, has nothing to do with a subjective belief that does not admit rational justification (not even Kierkegaard quite said that), because faith begins not with the subject of faith but its object—the Trinitarian life of God. It consists not of assent to some proposition but the entrustment of one’s being to God’s providence. Faith does not originate in the individual believer’s own efforts, but is rather a gift of grace to the believer, usually received in baptism, as one means among many of participating in God’s own life.
Far from posing a threat to one’s faith, knowledge reinforces it: the more reason one has to believe in God’s providence, the more readily the believer entrusts himself to God. Faith likewise facilitates a more intimate knowledge of the plans God has set in store for the believer. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, “faith” in the Bible is often better rendered “faithfulness”; one has faith, therefore, less by belief than by piety. Faith is—at least in the order of time—primarily performative and only secondarily reflective. Recall St. Irenaeus’ dictum: “to believe in God is to do his will.”
The naive concept of faith as blind assent arose from an equally naive and philosophically disreputable theory of knowledge, according to which one knows a thing best by detaching oneself from its use and setting aside personal biases in order to form an idea that corresponds to the thing. The correspondence theory of truth necessarily regards particular “interested” modes of engagement—for example, desire—as inimical to knowledge. Though this theory of knowledge as detached reflection appeals to our cultural prejudices, formed as they are by an unreflective scientism, it is a relatively modern notion that has been thoroughly dismantled by the phenomenological tradition. Knowledge depends on and is conditioned by both our historical-cultural situation and in the context of certain practices. (Of course, this is only novel for the secular philosophical tradition: the historical contingency of knowledge has been recognized in the theological tradition since at least St. Irenaeus, and St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized the importance of bodily practice in his virtue theory.)
The knowledge of faith, rather than relying on the outmoded theories of knowledge where the mind merely represents external objects, is participatory; the act of contemplating the things of God partakes in God’s own Trinitarian activity. The knowledge of faith is not therefore “subjective” in the sense that it happens primarily in the believer, but is “objective” because the believer participates in the eternal activity of the object of faith; the believer’s subjective faith is therefore secondary and derivative.
If the subject cannot escape engagement with the thing to be known, the question remains: what sort of engagement leads to Truth? For the Christian tradition, the answer is faith, hope, and charity, as embodied especially in the Church’s liturgical practices and articulated by her theological tradition.
The tacit participatory metaphysics in which Christian faith becomes intelligible emphasizes that Christianity is not an abstract system or an existential human possibility, but the ontological union of God and man in time and history through the recapitulative activity of the incarnate Word of God. Rebirth, not intellectual assent, takes one up into the life of God, which has descended to us in the flesh. There is more to becoming a Christian than becoming a Marxist (for example): one does not merely become convicted by the truth of a text and then try to convert the world; one must be born into a new life, bodily and spiritually, in baptism. (Hence the common refrain of the Church Fathers: philosophy is always in labor but never able to give birth.)
Faith presupposes a context of certain practices and even bodily transformation—for our flesh is redeemed by Christ’s own flesh—and cannot be considered a general feature of human nature that finds diverse expression in all the great religious traditions. But again, despite faith’s dependency on (renewed) flesh, faith is ordered toward the knowledge of God. Whether in St. Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the beatific vision or St. Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of eternal progress in the knowledge of God, the Christian life finds its highest expression in the contemplation of God.
I don’t intend to limn the structure of faith systematically; the point I wish to make is a modest one. The assault on “faith” as a human constant realized in the different religions in various forms does not threaten anything worth defending. Faith is not a universal feature of human nature. It can appear only within a certain complex network of rites, linguistic habits, rules of conduct, beliefs, and institutions—that is, the historical and embodied existence of the Church. One must attack (or defend) Christian faith where it may actually be found, not in the mind as an idea but as a form of life realized in the historical community established by Jesus Christ.
Thomas Cothran is an attorney who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
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