The Mysterious Nature of Faith
In our daily life, we can hear people say that they have faith in something. But what on earth is faith? Generally, people may consider faith as religious beliefs. However, does having faith just mean believing in god? Or perhaps it has deeper implication? Do people voluntarily have faith or not? Throughout the history, many scholars and philosophers have tried to define the exact meaning of faith. Based on their solid foundation, I argue that faith is a kind of volitional belief, emotion of admiration and feeling of trust. Having faith means people use their volition to believe in and admire evidence that they think is true. On the other hand, it is about trusting our senses, emotions and perceptions so that we can continue to believe in other things in the world.
Before getting straight to my point, let's start with the very beginning. Does having faith merely mean believing in God? In 1200s, a philosopher named Aquinas explained the existence of God in a rational way. He raised five ways, arguments from change, causation, contingency, degrees of excellence, and harmony, to demonstrate his statement. Let's go deeper into some of the ways he claimed. At first, in the argument from causation, Aquinas said that nothing can cause itself. There is no infinite causal chain in the universe. In this condition, there must have a first cause because there will be no intermediate causes or ultimate effect without the first cause. And there is necessarily a first cause that is called God. On the other hand, the argument from harmony, or design, is more controversial.
According to Aquinas, nature is not intelligent but seems to behave in regular and goal-oriented ways. Everything is governed harmoniously. Why? He explained that it is because nature must be guided by something with lots of intelligence and that intelligent leader is God. Opponents drastically refuted that the universe or nature forms randomly. There is also a multi-universe theory that there thousands of universe and our universe is only one of them. Anyway, we can't really judge the authenticity of Aquinas's arguments, but they can really make us ponder what faith is exactly. For a long time, people equated faith with religious beliefs. From his point of view, there are rational proofs of existence of God. It's really odd that by the time we believe some sound arguments and conclusions we have faith. Thus, it looks like faith is something other than belief in God.
If faith doesn't mean belief in God, what can it be? Maybe faith is simply the same as belief? But what is belief? Universally, philosophers consider that belief has some special traits. First, belief is dispositional. It is similar to our unconscious behavior. For instance, we have the belief that water can quench people's thirst. As we feel thirsty, we are disposed to look for water. Second, belief is involuntary. We spontaneously form the beliefs that we viewed as right and trustworthy in our minds. We cannot choose to believe things that are ridiculous to us. For example, in a rainy day, I cannot brainwash myself to form the belief that today is a sunny day. I can say those words but my behavior reveals that I do not really believe this. My behavior that I bring my umbrella is the evidence that I actually believe it is raining. Last but not least, belief is truth-tracking. It is easy to understand because people are all truth-tracking mechanisms. We always want to seek for the truth and get things right. We use our perception and see from others to form our own beliefs.
Our beliefs are likely to be wrong but we subjectively consider them as true. So how is faith related to belief? In the 4th century, Augustine came up with an argument that belief is a volitional content. Volitional means in your power. You may question that isn't belief involuntary? Maybe belief in his words is similar to so-called faith. Then, it seems that belief and faith are not exactly the same. In other words, faith may be a special kind of belief. Think it that way: having faith is more similar to believing in rather than believing. Believing in something means people choose to believe according to their will, while believing is involuntary. For example, when people believe in God, they not only believe the existence of God, they also pray and have special rituals to show their piety. Therefore, faith is more appropriate to be defined as believing in.
Nevertheless, does believing in sound like trust? Trust may be relevant to faith as well. In 2006, Linda Zagzebski from University of Oklahoma put forward that self-trust is necessary for forming our conscientious beliefs. She stated that we need to trust our emotions. The importance of emotion is that it evaluates the situation. For example, fear tells us that something is dangerous and harmful to us. She explained faith by emphasizing on the emotion of admiration. When we admire someone, we actually consider that something about them is worthy of imitation and is a better version of ourselves. Then, we begin to compare which version of ourselves is better, the current one or the admirable one.
On the one hand, we may feel that the admirable version is indeed a better version, which leads to convert. One the other hand, we think that there is something in our current version that is admirable. Then, we don't convert. So the main point of Zagzebski is that faith is not just about forming right beliefs, but it relates to our emotional lives. It is about trusting ourselves and about how we think and feel. We always say that we should have faith in love. Now, we have the understanding that we are not only faithful to the person we love but also faithful to a certain version of ourselves. The purpose of having a relationship with others is not just to find a person you can accompany, but to become a better version of ourselves.
It seems that we have reached an agreement that faith have something in common with belief and trust. However, the discussion about nature of faith doesn't come to an end. In early to mid-20th Century, Sartre, a philosopher who advocated for existentialism, came up with a notion called bad faith. According to Sartre, we always have faith in something. We need faith to sustain our identity. What matters is that faith can be good faith or bad faith. What is bad faith? First, he stated that there are two aspects of human condition, facticity and transcendence. Facticity is a set of facts that cannot be altered. It is fixed. Transcendence is something that goes beyond the given. It is a function of consciousness. Consciousness always exceeds the facticity of current situation. In Sartre's words, consciousness negates the present and brings negation or nothingness.
Take a bottle for example; we can only see one side of the bottle at any position. However, we recognize it is a bottle of water because we use our consciousness to look things as if they had more sides. Our consciousness is always negating the given circumstances. For bad faith, it is the denial of some aspects of one human condition. When people deny their transcendence, they always deny their freedom and potentiality. They are constrained by their current situation.
For example, some students always say that they do something because their parents let them do. This is a kind of bad faith because they deny the transcendence. They have the freedom to do something else but they don't. When people deny their facticity, they overestimate their freedom. It is a delusional thinking. In his book Being and Nothingness, he says that Bad faith does not hold the norms and criteria of truth as they are accepted by the critical thought of good faith. Bad faith and good faith are both certain ways of interpreting evidence. People with bad faith are aware of the evidence but refuse to pay attention to it. They only stick to their own evidence and ignore any counter-arguments. In contrast, good faith is a kind of critical thinking. People who believe something in good faith continuously open to new evidence in the basis of their evidence. They do not have certainties in their current beliefs and leave room for doubt.
Based on predecessor's theory, it is not difficult to understand my argument of the nature of faith. Faith is a kind of voluntary belief and admiration in something. To have faith, a person needs to trust his perception, memory and emotion; otherwise, he can doubt his faith. Now we can see faith in a deeper level. Having faith not only means being faithful to someone or something, but also means being faithful to certain version of ourselves. In order to become a better version of ourselves, we should always embrace new evidence and leave room from doubt. We shouldn't constrain ourselves in the current situation and believe our existing beliefs with certainties but go beyond what is. That is the purpose of having faith.
As for Coates' memoir, many people may think he had a bad faith. In the book, Coates considered black people as victims forced by U.S history. According to him, the social status of the black is fixed. It seems that it is a kind of bad faith because he understood his self-identity strictly in terms of his race, which denied his transcendence. But that is not true. He did write the book to encourage his son and people who read his book to struggle against the injustice in the country. He experienced the death of his colleague Prince Jones who was killed by a rampant policeman. Prince Jones was such a good Christian, scion of a striving class, in his words, but still died from shooting. For his death, Coates felt extremely irritated and hopeless.
In his age, he was impossible to do radical revolts to overturn the discrimination in American culture. Thus, his book is a commitment to the future and a reminder to later generations. Furthermore, in the book, he shows strong sense of hatred towards the Dreamers. Dreamers fully believed the American Dream. However, they pursue their dream by freely plundering the bodies of human and earth. The policy of Dreamers created the tragedies in Chicago, Baltimore, and so on. It is these Dreamers who lack authentic self-understandings, trampled over black people and endangered the planet. Perhaps, this is a kind of bad faith. Coates did not blindly believe this kind of American Dream. For him, the real American Dream is that we all sober up, project our real self-identity and realize who we are exactly. His good faith is perfectly embodied in his dream.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Bad Faith, Being and Nothingness, Philosophical Library, in English, 1956. Print
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. print