Non-Christians constantly tell me what “faith” means, but it never has any relationship to the way Christians use the word, at least Christians who understand the term. Now it could be that I use the word eccentrically, some claim this is so, but I don’t think so.
Rather the debate is an example of a common confusion about word usage. Most of us use “faith” informally as “beliefs about religion.” Evidently Hollywood or pop culture has convinced a fair numbers of Americans that “beliefs about religion” are beliefs in which evidence is absent.
Believing something without evidence isn’t evil or even irrational . . . such beliefs are hopes or dreams. If I dream a thing, it might motivate me to make it happen in deed or to discover if it is so. There is nothing wrong with hope, but Christians have a perfectly good word for hope: hope.
Faith is a good bit more substantial than hope, as the Good Book says.
“Faith” as used in the Bible and in Christian theology and philosophy is a very important term . . . so important it is much debated, but mainstream Christian theology makes faith a belief that is a form of knowledge.
It is knowledge based on evidence, but not so much evidence that a man can be certain. In that sense, it is more like my knowledge that Hope (my wife not the virtue!) loves me and not like my knowledge that “2+2=4.”
I base my life on both ideas, but I find it impossible to deny the second and all to easy to worry about the first (however irrationally!).
Faith is a belief justified by evidence drawn from experience, pure reason, and revelation. I can have faith about religious things and faith about non-religious topics. Some items of “faith” have enough evidence that it becomes pretty hard to rationally doubt them (like the existence of God), but others are more tentative.
Put this way some things I believe about Christianity are certain, at least if the ontological argument for God’s existence works, some are probably true but not indubitable (like the fact that Jesus rose from the dead), and others are religious hopes (such as dead pets being in Paradise).
In common discourse, we might call all those beliefs part of “our Faith,” but there is a distinction in our intellectual commitment to each.
Sadly, the immediate result of hearing that there is a more technical or traditional meaning to “faith” is to blame the speaker for using the word this way. Why am I confusing the discussion by using my own “private language?”
This is only “private” to people who have never read Christian theology. Christians from Augustine to Aquinas to Swinburne reject the idea that “faith” has no relationship to reason. Mainstream Christianity claims to be reasonable. Christians are not commanded to believe things regardless of evidence or with no attention paid to the intellect.
The Christian critic often is proud of ignoring theology. He need not study nonsense in order to refute it, but sadly he must at least learn enough to know what he is refuting. If the goal is refute a confused grandmother or a badly trained pastor, then any verbal confusion is enough, but a man wishes to learn, he will have to understand what his best opponents say and not his worst.
You cannot reject “faith” as irrational if you don’t have a good working definition of faith. To reject an idea without understanding it is . . . irrational.
And there is a lesson here for Christians as well. We often use terms like “theory” in their poplar meaning and then apply those meanings to fields like science that use the same word in a more technical sense. “Evolution” is “just a theory” doesn’t mean what the critic of Darwinism thinks!
Words can have more than one meaning and meanings can change over time. Most language is imprecise, because it doesn’t need unnecessary clarity. We don’t need to call “water” H2O at dinner . . . at least in most cases, but in the lab such precision might matter a great deal! In the same way, average Christians may use “faith” loosely in chatting with friends, but the term has a more subtle and refined meaning.
Atheists might be right, but even so they don’t get to define religious vocabulary for their opponents, though it would save time. If God is by definition “an imaginary sky daddy,” then the atheist can cease worrying about Him. This should not comfort the atheist much, however, since defining a thing away has never yet harmed a being. If God exists, then He isn’t an “imaginary sky daddy!”
Faith is rational, even if the Christian faith turns out to be false!