"That's Not Faith"
There is an episode of the TV series Bones, in which the main character is buried alive with a friend and they are running out of air. She is not panicking because she is sure her partner Booth will rescue them. Her friend says, "You sure have a lot of faith in him." Her reply betrays a common assumption about the nature of faith: "Faith is an irrational belief in something that's logically impossible," she says. "Over time, I have seen what Booth can do. That's not faith."(1)
These comments reflect how many people view faith: it is an irrational leap in the dark. It is about accepting propositions without evidence or even against the available evidence. However, in the Christian sense, faith is not opposed to reason or evidence. It is simply not reducible to either one. In the book of 1 John, we read: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:1-3, emphasis mine).
John is clearly appealing to evidence and reason to try to persuade people that the story he tells is true. If it is true, then it would make sense for one to have faith in the Jesus of whom he speaks, just as it made sense for Bones to have faith in her partner since she had seen the evidence of his abilities. But only if it is true. John is obviously not asking people to believe against the evidence or even in the absence of evidence, but on the basis of a certain type of evidence—in this case, the trustworthiness of the witnesses.
Evidence can serve to instill belief or confirm belief, but it has its limits. We all interpret evidence in the light of our experience and the beliefs we already hold. Just as John offered one type of evidence, others would offer their own evidences that Jesus was not who the apostles claimed he was. Thus, it is not strictly the evidence that determines who puts their faith in Jesus and who does not because faith is about more than believing an idea. It is about commitment, a willingness to stake your life on the truth of something or the reliability of someone.
Furthermore, those who accuse faith of lacking in evidence often fail to notice that every belief system, whether it includes the supernatural or not, has foundational elements which are not proven. Even a naturalist worldview that relies on science must accept many things without direct evidence. All people have faith in their own worldviews, even naturalist scientists. They have to believe that their way of determining what is true is the best way. They have to believe others and trust the results of other scientists. If you are a complete skeptic, you will never get anywhere in science. You would have to do all the experiments yourself and even then, you cannot prove 100 percent that you are not mistaken. You have to trust that your findings will hold true in the future, that the laws that operate now will not change tomorrow. You have to trust that your mind and thoughts in some way correspond to the way the world actually is.
So, faith has evidence. But all evidence has faith too.
Whether our faith is rational or irrational depends on a number of factors: how much and what types of evidence supports it, whether it has stood up to honest scrutiny and criticism, and how much explanatory power it has to make sense of our experience. Christian faith passes each of these tests, but it will always go beyond any of these factors. Like the faith of Bones in her partner, it is also about trusting a person. Our faith determines the direction of our lives; it is where our loyalties lie; it believes that the one who made us also loves us and has spoken to us. Over time, we have seen what God can do. And that is faith.
Rachel Tulloch is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada.
(1) Bones, series 2, episode 9, "Aliens in a Spaceship."