What Do We Mean by Faith?

by Al Serrato

For most modern secularists, as well as many nominal believers, “faith” is something one “has” or “uses” when there is no “evidence” upon which to support a belief. It’s a form of wishful thinking, at best, but may in many cases amount to a dangerous delusion. As a skeptic friend once put it, faith is the opposite of reason.

With this working definition in mind, it’s little wonder that so many people are moving away from the church. Science has transformed this world, bringing a higher standard of living to every society it touches. It has shown us, in many cases, that what we thought was the cause of a problem is actually not the case at all. Doctors, for instance, no longer bleed patients to alleviate what ails them, since they now know the actual causes of disease. For many today, those who cling to their “superstitious” faith traditions stand in the way of progress.

But what do Christians mean when they speak about “faith?” Is it a short hand term for believing “without evidence?” Of engaging in delusional thinking for the purpose of making sense of things we simply don’t understand?

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To answer that question, we must first attempt to flesh out a definition of faith. The dictionary includes definitions such as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof” and “allegiance or loyalty to somebody or something.” Before looking closer at a Christian definition, a couple of things bear noting: when considering “faith,” we need to clarify the person or thing in which the faith is attached; what exactly is it that we are holding to? Second, there must be an assessment of the degree to which “logical proof” is present or absent. Speaking of faith generically, then, is not particularly helpful. Faith, like any other thought process we engage in, may be sound or flawed, well-placed or foolish. There’s no way to know which without further analysis and reflection. For instance, the faith I place that my car will successfully take me to the mountains depends in part on my knowledge of the car – its current condition, its history of maintenance, the conditions on the roadway. It would be nonsensical to say as a blanket rule, “you should never have faith in your car” because you have “no evidence” or you’re engaging in wishful thinking. It would be fair, by contrast, to point out that a rust bucket that’s been sitting out back unused for the past decade is unlikely to get you there, even if you are somehow able to get it to start…

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