Faith may be one of the most misunderstood and abused concepts in western Christianity. In general, Christians have reduced faith to a prescribed, academic understanding of theology. They lay out a set of concepts as “doctrine,” and seekers are told they must subscribe to the doctrine in order to join the club. The things the seeker doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree with must be “accepted on faith.” And amazingly, many people fall in line. They claim to have faith in a set of tenets that are simply built on a set of assumptions that have become popular opinion.
A good dictionary definition of faith is “trust or confidence in someone or something.” That seems like a pretty fair definition. But faith can be based on truth, or it can be based on a delusion. Happens all the time, right?
Lots of people trust the time share salesman. Or the whole life insurance saleswoman. Or the doctor who says you need a battery of tests that turn out to be unnecessary. But we have to believe something or we would become paralyzed. We all have gaps in our knowledge, and we fill in those gaps with beliefs so we can function in this world. So I would like to propose an additional, more precise definition of faith—one that is more practical and less academic. I would define faith as “acting on incomplete knowledge.” Ideally, your level of faith should be based on the strength of the evidence that you’ve observed.
When you know something, it’s easy to act on that knowledge. If you’re traveling and you know how to get to your destination, you take the route that you know. If you don’t know how to get to your destination, you have a gap in your knowledge. To get there, you will likely trust a map that has been proven to be accurate—at least in the part of the world that you know. Or maybe you will trust a credible person that you know and follow their directions. Or maybe you roll the dice on the guy at the gas station.
In each of the above cases, your level of faith will be based on many factors. You may believe someone, or you may find them to be unbelievable. But in general, we all act according to a set of beliefs that fills in the gaps in our knowledge.
With that said, there are four immensely significant ideas that we need to wrestle with.
- We should endeavor to base our faith on evidence and not on popular opinion or passionate speakers—especially if those speakers clearly have a self-serving agenda.
- Our faith may be based on truth (reality), or it may be based on a delusion (a misperception of reality). Not one of us has a complete grasp on reality. We ought to be willing to change our beliefs when they are shown to be incorrect.
- Different people have different knowledge bases and different perceptions of the world. Their faith is naturally going to look different than yours or mine. We should all be searching for the truth, and yet make allowances for those whose faith looks different than ours. And we should deliberately not coerce others into accepting our faith. If you have some insight to offer, then make a case for it. Don’t demand blind adherence to your tenets.
- Many people state that they believe something, then act in a manner that is inconsistent with their beliefs. We all do this to some extent. I believe that I should drink less coffee, but I just had my second cup of the morning. Maybe that’s not a huge deal, and I don’t know anyone who would “unfriend” me because of that. But if we hold a set of beliefs that we tell people is absolutely correct, and then generally act in a manner that is inconsistent, it really is not fair to expect people to believe us.
This discussion may lead us back to the age-old question: “Can anything be truly known?” Perhaps, in this life, we can not honestly arrive at 100% certainty. But we do have a sense of judgment and discernment, and we have the ability to reason. We can observe evidence and draw sound conclusions. I for one, am content to struggle through the uncertainty, to form beliefs based on evidence, be willing to change my beliefs when they can be shown to be incorrect, and attempt to behave in a manner that is consistent with those beliefs.
I’m reminded of the “Faith” section of the book of Hebrews—particularly the statement that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Ultimately, faith is the way we act, despite the gaps in our knowledge. Let’s base our faith on evidence, behave in a manner that is consistent with our faith, be willing to strengthen our faith by seeking to grow closer to the Truth, and be gentle toward those whose faith has not developed identically to ours.