Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thoughts about Faith, Pt. 2

[Last week, I shared a little bit of my thoughts about faith. I specifically outlined the differences between phenomenological faith—faith in physicals laws, etc—and relational faith—faith in a friend or other “person.” This week, I’d like to expand a little on that theme.]

One of my favorite candies is jelly beans. But I don’t just like any old jelly beans: my favorite are Jelly Bellies. When I eat one, I can taste it as a distinct flavor, every “green apple” or “licorice” or “Dr. Pepper” flavor tasting as it should, with the right amount of candy-goodness mixed with its advertised flavor. But wait! Why would I be talking about jelly beans at an Inklings meeting? Aren’t we supposed to be helping each other to search for a deeper meaning to life, or at least to be presenting unique perspectives thereof?

I didn’t come here just to make a product endorsement (and no, they aren’t funding us), but I do mention the specific brand for a reason. It is fair to say that I have a certain amount of faith in my Jelly Bellies, that I believe that they are good (to taste) and that they advertise correctly (“green apple” tastes like green apples, after all). But when I say that I have faith in Jelly Bellies, I am not necessarily making an endorsement of all jelly beans, everywhere. When I say that I like jelly beans, I am not necessarily saying that I like the abstract concept of “jelly beans” but rather a specific type of jelly bean.

Similarly, when I say that I have faith in my friends, I can either be referring to the abstract concept of friends or a particular friend or friend. To borrow a generalized for of an analogy used last week, suppose that every time I needed help with a project, James and Andrew came to my aide. I could then say that I have faith that my friends will come to help me when I need it, but I would be referring ultimately to James and Andrew, two specific friends, and not just to the concept of “friends” or to every friend I’ve ever had.

Similarly, when talking about faith in God, we are talking about having faith in a specific Being. God is not merely “the supernatural;” He is not an abstract or impersonal force or a mere term for “the will of the universe.” God is a Being, a trinity of Persons, and a specific One at that. He has specific characteristics or traits: He’s just, merciful, compassionate, holy, graceful, faithful, and so on. He is, in fact, the standard by which these traits ought to be judged.

Thus, our faith in Him should resemble a more perfect and complete version of our faith in other people, for He is “personal,” but in a more perfect and complete manner. Our faith must be based on Whom He is—or at least, based on what we know about Him, what He has revealed to us. Among other things, this means trusting in His infiniteness and His perfection—two things which we, as flawed and finite beings cannot fully comprehend. A God of infinite wisdom and knowledge may answer our requests for help—our prayerful petitions—not with the help that we want, but with the help that we need. In other words, His interaction with us—his presence in our lives, his answers or (perceived) non-answers to our prayers, etc—will reflect what’s truly best for us, and not that which is most pleasurable.

We truly should have absolute faith in Him, for He is the absolutely faithful. However, we must be sure that it really is God in Whom we are placing our faith, and not merely an abstraction of our own making. Just as not every jelly bean is a Jelly Belly, not every idea about God is a true idea. Thus, while we can have absolute faith in God, we cannot have such absolute faith in our own conceptions of Him, lest they be false conceptions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thoughts about Faith, Pt. 1

Riding the bus home the other night, I overheard a group of men talking about faith. Normally, I just tune out the passengers around me, unless they’re trying to talk to me, but this time, I heard something which gave me reason to think. One of the topics of their conversation was the nature of faith. Though I could only hear tidbits of this conversation, I did hear one statement which piqued my interest: that those things for which there is less evidence are the things which required the most faith.

This is actually a seemingly straightforward statement, if we require that “faith” be a belief of and trust in a thing for which there is inconclusive evidence. What we never dare ask is, “what is evidence?”

When speaking of, for example, the laws of physics, we don’t say that we have “faith” that they are always true, but rather that we “know” they are true. We “know” that if we drop a ball, it will fall to the ground, just as everything we’ve ever dropped has done in the past. Our experiences tell us that there is nothing to be believed in all of this, only known. Indeed, we might also say that all of the history of human experience would confirm it, that every man who has ever dropped a ball to the ground has always observed that it falls, never rising or floating in place.

But are we not putting a form of faith in our experiential, phenomenological knowledge when we state that the ball will fall? We justify this by saying that we are using knowledge, or “reasoning” to make a prediction: the ball will fall. Yet we’ve only pushed the question back one layer, which is to ask, “Why do we have faith in our reasoning?”

Moving away from physics, we can look at another kind of faith, which is faith in people. Whereas with animate objects, we can generally expect a predictable result, with people, behavior may be more closely bound with the temperament and will of the person. We call some people predictable, and others less so; we sometimes place some amount of faith in our fellow human beings, and are sometimes rewarded and other times “let down.” But it is less predictable as to how much we are rewarded, or how big of a “let-down” we receive. For example, I can ask a friend for help with moving, and he may agree. It would be a let-down if he didn’t show on the day that I am ready to move; on the other hand, if he comes and brings his friend and his friend’s pick-up to help me move, then I will be pleasantly surprised.

If I were to repeatedly have experience that my friend come to help me move, or redecorate, or what have you, I might say that I can have faith in my friend. I come to believe that he will show up when if I ask, to trust that he’ll be there if I need help. But no matter how consistently or frequently this happens, will I have the same amount of faith in the action-reaction relationship of “need help/friend is here” as I have in “drop ball/it falls?” Is my friend at my beck-and-call?

This last pair of questions is a framework from within which I think we ought to approach faith in God. He is much closer to the friend in Whom we can have relational faith than gravity in which we have a purely rational/phenomenological faith. He is personal, that is, a Person (three, in fact), and thus has His own will, and can exercise judgment. Though He is more faithful than any friend, He also is able to exercise His own judgment in answering our calls. We can have more faith that He will reply to our calls than in the ball’s downward trajectory—but at the same time, we have less ability to predict what His response will be than the response of the dropped ball.