Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (ESV)
It seems as though one of the first criticisms the secular world levels at religion, Christianity in particular, is that belief is born entirely from blind faith, not evidence. To have faith in the supernatural, atheism asserts, is to reject any semblance of logic and embrace a belief system entirely disconnected from the “real world”. Under this framework it becomes impossible for someone to simultaneously approach the world rationally and profess a faith in something beyond it, at least not while maintaining an internally consistent worldview. Postmodernism adds some nuance to this, but the tension remains so long as the Christian claims that their faith is not true only for them but for all.
Sadly, such a division has all too often found a home within the church. The dichotomy between faith and reason, so loudly proclaimed by the world, is embraced wholeheartedly. In its most extreme form, to reject reason is to display faith; ignorance then becomes virtue, highlighting that the believer is on the “faith” side of the dichotomy. The problem is, of course, that at any level this dichotomy is a false one.
As with many debates, particularly within theology, definitions are important here. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides several definitions for “faith”, but two are particularly pertinent here: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” and “strong belief or trust in someone or something”. Generally, those who support the faith/reason dichotomy implicitly assume the former definition; their understanding of the word “faith” requires that it is incompatible with reason, otherwise it is not faith by the very definition of the word. When the latter definition is accepted, however, there is no conflict between faith and reason; as long as there is a reason for the “strong belief or trust”, then faith can be entirely reasonable. This then poses two questions: 1) which of the two definitions is most true to the Biblical usage of “faith”, and 2) if it is the latter definition, is the “strong belief or trust” held by the Christian reasonable?
To start with, let’s look at the Biblical words translated as “faith” in the various English Bibles. In the Old Testament, the most common appearance of the word “faith” falls under a third definition that is not as closely related to the dichotomy being considered; returning to the Merriam-Webster definitions, “faith” is here used in the sense of “allegiance to duty or a person” or “fidelity to one’s promises”. Faith, to old covenant Israel, meant fulfilling their covenant obligations and trusting that God would fulfill his. To a nation who had seen God’s miraculous work throughout their recorded history, this was anything but a blind faith. God had demonstrated his power, and their faith was their response.
What about the new covenant, however? By far the most common word translated as “faith” in the New Testament is the Greek “pistis” (e.g. Hebrews 11:1). It is derived from the word “peitho”, a verb which translates variously to “persuade”, “trust”, “obey”, “have confidence” and “believe”; the meaning “obey” carrying the connotation of “obedience due to being persuaded or won over”. “Pistis” is a conviction that something is true or placing one’s trust in someone (particularly God or Christ). The underlying root of “peitho” implies that this is anything but a blind faith; to have “pistis”, one has been persuaded. Returning to the English definitions of the word “faith”, this is far closer to the second definition given previously than the first, suggesting which usage we should lean towards.
Building upon this, the various books of the New Testament invest a considerable amount of energy in building a defence of the Christian faith within the cultures encountered by the Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Hebrews begin with the cultural assumptions of their Jewish audience and rationally construct an argument as to why Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, Matthew through the story of Christ’s life and Hebrews through a structure more akin to the other New Testament letters. In 1 Peter 3:15, we see a call to be able to offer a “defence” (the Greek word here is “apologia”, referring to the type of argument made as a legal defence) of our “hope” (the Greek word here is “elpis”, which elsewhere in the Bible is sometimes translated as “faith”). The Apostle Paul, when speaking with the Athenians in the Book of Acts, builds a case for the Christian Gospel from the religious practices and writers of the people to whom he was speaking (Acts 17:16-31).
It seems clear then that Biblical faith is not intended to be blind. The English definition “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” is rejected clearly in favour of “strong belief or trust in someone or something”. Christianity holds that there is a reason for our belief in God; there is a reason for the hope that we have.
Addressing the second question has given birth to a field of study of its own – the field of Christian apologetics. To fully cover whether or not our strong belief in God is rationally supported would take far longer than a single blog post, and is best covered another time. To the Christian seeking assurance of the rational basis for the Christian faith, the evidence is certainly there to be found.
The question that needs to be asked in conclusion is, as always, what does this mean for the way I live my life? Firstly, we must reject the false faith/reason dichotomy. This is to be held in balance with Isaiah 55:8. There will always be things about God that are beyond us because God himself is beyond us; the moment we lose this perspective, we become tempted to try fitting God into a human sized box. However, God has revealed to us a great deal of information through his word in the form of the scriptures, as well as the very world in which we live. To shrug our shoulders and embrace ignorance is to reject the essence of Biblical faith; we have this evidence, and we should embrace and be persuaded by it.
As we see in Hebrews 11:1, faith is the “assurance of things hoped for” and the “conviction of things not seen”. This is not a denial that there are aspects of Christianity that we believe on faith, but we do not believe them in blind faith. Our faith is the faith you have that a friend will come to your aid in the time of need because they have demonstrated their care for you in the past; we know what God has already done for us, and thus have faith that he will care for us in the future. In other words… being a Christian doesn’t mean leaving your brain at the church door. To be rational and to have faith are not contradictory; they are forever complementary.