You can find much discussion of the concept of faith in the talks and books in the resources section of this blog. Here I will say some more about the roles of faith and reason.
Reason is about being receptive to persuasion, and honest enough to follow a sequence of steps where the connections can be shown and seen.
Faith is essentially a kind of willingness combined with a sense of value.
Faith is what we exercise every day when we assume that life is worth living, that the people we meet are not to be feared but engaged with and responded to positively, and that other adults will mostly try to be dependable, that teachers will teach and nurses care, and the drivers of public transport will turn up for work tomorrow, and so on and so on. In every case, there is a reasonable case, based in evidence, for the appropriateness of our attitude. But, and this is the point here, that does not change the fact that these are examples of what the word “faith” is about.
These examples are about trust. So why don’t we just say “trust”? Why talk about “faith”? It is because of a subtlety that arises whenever anyone tries to interpret what is going on around them. What is going on includes brute facts about the displacement of people’s physical bodies, and the connections made between neurons in their brains, but those physical facts do not show us the meaning; we have to interpret. Is the meaning simply the proliferation of assertiveness? The strong/quick/confident “win”? But what is it to “win”? Is it to have more money, or to have more courage? “Life is short. Have an affair,” says the Ashley Madison web site. “Life is short. Keep your integrity,” we might reply. This is where faith comes in. I don’t mean necessarily faith in a trustworthy absolute reality who relates directly to persons. It could be faith in atheist philosophy as a worthy way of “reading” the world and consequently living in it. It is faith because one is trusting some set of notions to be worthy, to be worth something, valuable. One feels it is so, and one’s reason consents.
One of the ways in which this is subtle is that, in the end, you cannot sit in judgement on your own ultimate values. You can only throw yourself into them.
Consider for example something that most of us value, such as the principle of equal opportunity. Do I affirm the goodness of this principle simply because it is, in itself, something that ought to be supported, which I can recognize, or do I affirm it because I myself derived, by a process of reasoning, that it is good?
Let’s consider the second possibility: that one could somehow deduce the goodness of equal opportunity, by some sort of reasoned argument. How could anyone deduce that? Only by connecting it to other things whose goodness they affirmed, such as the promotion of human happiness. So ultimately this process has to finish in something that we do not stand in judgement over, but which we simply recognize as worthy of our commitment. You see, it turns out that you cannot be the type of human being promoted in some rationalist circles, one who stands like a little god at the centre of his/her world, assessing everything and deciding what is good or bad. You can only commit yourself to values and duties that you did not announce, but which announced themselves to you, and called upon your allegiance. Human life consists largely in submitting ourselves to a welcome duty that we feel ourselves to be under.
What Jewish and Christian theism is all about, ultimately, is that in such a commitment we are committing ourselves not to an impersonal abstraction but to that which calls upon us in love and compassion and solidarity. We have a lot of reasons to think that, but I am here expounding why it is that faith is nevertheless a central part of the package.
You may have heard of long theological debates over the roles of reason and faith, especially in the medieval period in Europe. These were about whether faith or reason ultimately carry the weight, or do the primary work of what opens us up to acknowledging Godness, not just obeying goodness. It is the echo of those debates which modern-day atheists sometimes detect. You can find quotations from people such as Martin Luther which, taken out of the context of the issue they were addressed to, appear to disparage reason in general. So now people “read” the history as if religious people undervalue reason and assert faith as an alternative. But in fact those debates were more subtle than this.
What philosophers and theologians have realised is that the area of ultimate values is one which simply cannot be navigated by reason alone. It is just not that kind of area. The process of reasoned argument cannot get anyone all the way to a statement of what is real and good, because that is the very nature of the case. A rational demonstration of what is good, or of the nature of goodness, cannot be based on anything other than some sort of standard of good as a starting point. So, in the end, what opens us to God, or brings us reliably to God, can only be God Godself, not our own efforts at deduction (nor anything good we may do, for that matter). We can only trust ourselves to the process. What reason shows us is that this is the nature of the case.
The reasoning I just described does not show us that this absolute goodness will be capable of loving purpose, of being One Who has opinions, rather than an impersonal “It”. But what reason can and does do for us is the following. By a process of reason we deduce that we can only discover the nature of true goodness by allowing such goodness to declare that nature to us. All we can bring is the willingness to somehow position ourselves where we can see or be shown the nature of good.
Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.
—- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It is not that there is no evidence to consider. We are not expected just to launch ourselves off into we know not what. (Although that can be a rather humane, truth-seeking and open-hearted thing to do, as long as the “we know not what” is composed of all the very highest virtues you can think of.) Rather, we can listen to each other, and to the rest of the natural world, and to the wonders of science, and to the exquisite yearning that beauty creates, and we can assert the horrible objectionableness of meaningless suffering, and we can listen to what Jesus of Nazareth said about something he called the “kingdom of God”. To understand that phrase, we should not guess, but follow the stories and pointers he gave, and the actions that showed what he meant. The pointers are sometimes enigmatic, because he was trying to get people to change not just their opinions, but the very way they think.
If you pay attention to these pointers then I think you will find that the “kingdom of God” is something like what Taoism calls “the way”, and something like what Judaism calls “shalom” or “torah”, but there is an added note of lively affirmation and total free gift. It involves a sense of welcome coming from the ultimate source of everything. In modern English it might be loosely translated by the phrase “the commonwealth of bringing-into-life-in-all-its-fullness.” Jesus was bringing about the cessation of the desire for revenge. He was bringing about the overturning of unjust political power by the unstoppable operation of a tiny seed. This is the seed that says we don’t need to worry about power, we just need to pay attention to what is really going on in the world, right under the noses of and unnoticed by the rich and assertive, when one humble person responds generously to another. Science is a part of this.
The above, and a lot more besides, is the type of evidence we have. The combination of reason and faith creates in us a willingness to journey in the direction that such evidence indicates. We walk a certain way as faith and reason both play their appropriate roles.