The last few weeks I’ve been questioning some Christians about the nature of faith, and a couple of things stand out. First, faith is trusting that God will fulfill his promises. In this sense, it is not that different from the faith we have in our loved ones, government, or anyone else who has made promises to us.
Second, faith has a lot to do with unanswered questions. This, it seems, is where the heart of religious faith lies. It’s what makes religious faith different from other types of faith.
There is a fundamental problem with religion that kick-starts the whole process of faith. The problem is that religious mythologies, being mostly very old, and therefore born in a pre-scientific, highly superstitious culture, simply do not explain the state of the world very well. In the last two or three centuries, humans have essentially come of age. We have discovered the basics about the world and universe we live in. We’ve discovered the process by which we ourselves came into existence. And, crucially, we’ve discovered how complex, volatile, and unreliable the human mind can be.
All of this is pretty humbling. We’re not the center of the universe, and we’re not really all that smart.
The problem with most religious mythologies, then, is that they are relics from our infant past. They belong in a world that no longer exists. A world that has been surpassed and supplanted in so many ways. What this means is that religion raises far more questions than it answers. It creates problems that it cannot solve.
Faith is what rescues religious mythology from oblivion. Faith tells believers that they don’t need to answer the difficult questions that their beliefs pose. All they have to do is trust that God has good answers, and that perhaps these answers will become clear in the afterlife (which is, itself, one of the problematic issues in religious doctrine).
So why do people even bother? If religion raises so many questions, why don’t they just abandon it for a naturalist worldview? The answer, I think, is that religion makes very appealing promises. It promises to provide the lonely with an ever-present, loving companion whom they can carry around in their minds. It promises an escape from death. It promises to provide justice, which seems all too lacking in the world around us. And it promises social comfort and support. For these reasons, and others, religion remains appealing to many people.
And so, if these wishes and dreams are to be kept alive, faith must be employed to stave off the troublesome questions that swirl like sharks around the inflatable hull of religious doctrine. In a sense then, to have faith is to downplay the importance of questions – to deny the existential threat they pose.
This might explain the rather blasé attitude I’ve encountered with some Christians when it comes to questions: they just don’t seem at all concerned that very deep problems with their theologies have no apparent solutions. You just have to have faith, apparently.