• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, Part Two

Much of the confusion in this discussion surrounds the question of faith. Faith is typically seen as non-rational or even irrational by its opponents, who congratulate themselves on adhering strictly to evidence, inference, and the like. Worse, faith is sometimes championed precisely as absurd or “supra-rational” by some of its defenders. (Um, thanks a lot, guys.)

At least two mistakes about the concept of faith need to be dealt with here. The first is to think that faith is a peculiarly religious word and has nothing to do with everyday life. The second is to presume that faith has no relationship to knowledge, that the two stand as utterly separate categories of assent.

Some of us might think we can do entirely without any sort of faith and conduct our lives strictly according to what we (think we) know. Everyday life, however, constantly presses us beyond what we know (or think we know) and requires us to exercise faith. We frequently find ourselves compelled to trust beyond what we’re sure of, to make commitments that go outside our sense of safety. And yet these moments of trust and commitment—these acts of faith—are intrinsically and importantly related to knowledge.

Faith is what we do when we cantilever our lives out over what we do not and cannot know, while anchoring our lives upon what we think we do know. Faith relies on knowledge even as it moves out from knowledge into the unknown.

Darrell cannot know for certain that this canoe bobbing by the dock will still float once he gets in it, but he cannot be “mostly convinced” and stay with most of his weight committed to the canoe while reserving some of his weight for the dock. To enjoy the canoe, he has to get all the way in. He has to make a commitment. He has to exercise rationally-based faith.

No one, that is, exercises “blind faith” in anything—or anyone. Everyone has a reason to believe what he or she believes—even if someone else thinks it to be an insufficient reason, and even if it turns out in fact to be a poorly grounded belief. That’s why we trust something or someone: because we think we have good reason to do so.

This relationship of knowledge and faith holds in matters large and small, impersonal and personal. And it has immediate and important practical implications.

I would be a fool to refuse to sit in a chair until its adequacy had been conclusively demonstrated. Parents of small children can never have an evening out if they refuse to trust any babysitter. A woman would be a fool to refuse to marry her beloved until the marriage had been somehow guaranteed.

Life for us humans means risk, and the wise person is the one who does not seek certainty, but seeks instead adequate reason to believe the best alternative available. Then he or she ventures forward in faith, trusting something or someone because of what she thinks she knows about that thing or person.

So the question isn’t whether to have faith or not. The question is, In what or whom will I place faith, and on what grounds?

Thus you’d better use your brains when you’re choosing your beliefs–in the sense of deciding what or whom to trust. But you can’t confine yourself only to what your brains tell you: Life demands that we go beyond our comfort zones–even, and especially, our epistemic comfort zones–to risk…

…not stupidly, to be sure, but not in perfect safety, either. Welcome to the real world.

(Some readers might want to pursue the Christian understanding of faith in the article by that name I wrote in the following: Alister McGrath, ed., The Zondervan Handbook to Christian Belief [HarperZondervan, 2006].)