Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Faith as Affirmation: Sorry, Author of Hebrews, I Don't Agree with You

Art by Samantha Muljat of Blood Bank Design
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1; NRSV) 
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT) 
Faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists. (ISV)
It is the contention of Enlightenment rationalists that faith is by nature blind. Faith claims something is true when it's not (or, at least, when we have no reason to say it is). Such thinkers would read Hebrews 11:1 to mean that faith fills the gap between what can be known and what can't be known. It is evidence of something that cannot be proved, certainty in the face of the unknown. If this is faith, I would agree that it is negative.

Progressive Christians would read the verse and emphasize the words "conviction," "confidence," and/or "assurance." Faith is a conviction that the object of our belief is true, and faith gives us confidence that it is true, assuring us that we do not believe in vain. This is weaker than certainty (and might actually claim less than the author of Hebrews meant to), but it still claims quite a bit. It still boldly fills the gap between the known and the unknown.

This still seems negative to me. It's not certainty, as it leaves room for self-awareness and is based on conviction and not proof, but I think it still claims too much. Fundamentalists view faith as proof that their beliefs are true; progressives view faith as a personal conviction that Christianity is true. There is an important difference, but I still think the latter is insufficient because it claims more than I think we can.

Is there a weaker form of faith? Is there a faith for heretical skeptics like me? Or should we just abandon faith altogether?

My suggestion is to view faith as affirmation, not as assurance or certainty. I believe, but I could be wrong. I believe, but I recognize that I cannot know. Faith is the affirmation of things hoped for, the supposition of things not seen. Of course, this is not what the verse says, but I think it is necessary to disagree with the author of Hebrews.

To affirm something is to say yes to it. Faith says yes to the object of belief, but leaves room for doubt. And a supposition is stronger than a suggestion. A supposition is not just a "maybe." It is a claim, even if a weak one. It is an affirmation of truth-value, but one that is not certain or confident.

So I think faith should be embraced as the affirmation of a supposition, not as the certainty or assurance that something is definitely true.

Despite uncertainty, a claim is made. That claim is one of faith. But it need not ignore the uncertainty, or ignore the possibility of being false. There is room for doubt, even if the doubt remains less compelling than the claim.

This leads me to what I think is another important facet of faith: being compelled. We make faith-claims not because we are certain that they are true, but because we are compelled to make them, either by our experience, or by the appealing nature of the belief, or something else. We see truth-value, and that compels us to believe.

Truth-value. That is what faith affirms. It does not boldly claim, "This is true." It, inspired by the object of belief, claims, "This has truth-value." Truth-value means we have reason to be sure that there's something true about it, but how true it is is not clear.

This, I think, is noble faith, faith worth having. It is virtuous faith, desirable faith, and I even think it makes faith ideal, preferable to its alternative.

It leaves room not only for doubt, but for pluralism, for a universal respect for all faith-claims, and for recognizing truth value in all systems of belief. We can all have a pleasant conversation if we are all epistemologically humble.

We are finite. We are limited. We are small. We claim too much if we claim certainty. Certainty in the face of the unknown is arrogance and ignorance; it isn't faith. Faith is a risk. Faith believes. In believing, we recognize that there is a gap between what is known and unknown, because that gap occasions the belief.

If you KNOW that Christianity is true, you don't have faith; you have fabricated certainty.

Heschel says, "God was concealed even when He revealed."* Revelation does not provide us with unmediated, certain knowledge of what is beyond us. Revelation only gives us an object of belief, something that requires faith. It does not give us something of which we can be certain.

The book of Job provides a perfect illustration of this. God reveals himself to Job. He speaks directly to him, addresses him, and comes before him. What is Job's response? Instead of having an Aha! moment, he bows before the abyss and humbly claims "I know nothing."

Truth is concealed even when it is revealed. Faith affirms the revelation, while respecting the hiddenness that accompanies it. All our faith-claims should be tempered by a respect for mystery and the unknown.

Sure, it's not a strong faith. It's not a conviction, or a confident or sure faith. But I think it's the best faith we can reasonably embrace. In all our believing, we must leave room for doubt.

*Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 193.

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