What is religious faith?

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What is religious faith?  And how does it differ from faith in a more general sense?  In my years of discussing faith with people from a variety of religious backgrounds, as well as in my readings of theology, I’ve come to understand that people mean at least one of the following four concepts when they use the term “faith.”

  • Belief
    • Example: “I have faith that God exists.”
  • Trust
    • Example: “I have faith that that my child is being honest with me.”
  • Hope
    • Example: “I have faith that everything will turn out ok.”
  • Loyalty
    • Example: “I have always been faithful to my spouse.”

 

Whenever I talk with someone about what they mean by the word “faith,” I always try to ensure that I understand which one (or which combination) of these concepts they’re expressing.  And what I’ve found is that many faith statements, when broken down into their composite pieces, start to sound quite odd.  Consider the following common statement of faith:

“I believe that God exists through faith.”

Could this use of faith include the concepts of “loyalty” or “trust”?  That seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse, as someone would have to believe that God actually exists before swearing fealty to or trusting in God.  And I suspect that folks willing to make the above statement aren’t using faith to mean “hope” here either.  “I believe that God exists through hope” doesn’t seem a particularly compelling foundation for one’s religion.  Which means that we’re left with “belief” as the only remaining option.  That leaves the restructured statement as follows:

“I believe that God exists through belief.”

Restated with greater clarity, the statement becomes a meaningless tautology.  In my experience, this is a very common consequence of asking for more precision when it comes to statements of faith.  And it need not be arrived at through argument or debate.  Politely asking people to break down what they mean by these statements into less ambiguous terms, and periodically summarizing what you’re hearing them say, is often one of our most powerful tools for revealing underlying confusion.  You can even try it on yourself!

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