If I were to ask you to think of some quintessential examples of people of faith, who would they be?
Within scripture, Abraham receives a lot of attention, with great faith shown in his journey into foreign lands and his belief in God’s promises. Jesus himself is described as the great pioneer and perfecter of faith, as he pursued the unparalleled call on his life in the face of temptation, opposition from authorities, inner anguish, betrayal and death. In recent history, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kim Dae Jung come to my mind: both people who passionately held onto what they knew to be good over long periods of time in the face of great opposition.
How about people you know personally?
For me, two people in particular come to mind. Both are older members of my church. One of them has lived a life devoted to prayer. She regularly brings prayer requests before the congregation, or encourages us with stories of answered prayer. The authenticity of her speech has been won by a life formed by deep belief in prayer and consistent practice. The other person is very hands-on, always helping members of our community when they need it. His acts of mercy are also so deeply a part of his life that there is no vanity or travail about them. They are simply a part of who he is.
Do you think of people who display similar qualities?
The shocking conclusion I want to draw from this exercise is that faith is admirable. The people I think of are all people I admire.
This conclusion is not necessarily obvious. For example, this is not the case on the commonplace understanding of faith put forward by atheist polemicist Sam Harris. Harris alleges that, on the Christian view, “most … people will be going to hell because they believe in the wrong god. Through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture where they got the wrong theology, and they missed the revelation.” Faith, so understood is merely a culturally conditioned set of beliefs. As such it is, at best, morally neutral and at worst, stupid and unreasonable. Harris’ point is that it would be capricious of God to make damnation depend on such a faith.
There are many parts of Harris’ account of damnation that I wouldn’t want to accept. In this post, I’m interested in his misunderstanding of faith. Harris is right in thinking that believing something simply as a result of cultural conditioning is not admirable. Moreover, like Harris, I think honesty requires taking objections to one’s faith seriously, and adjusting one’s beliefs when there is good reason. Given this agreement, polemics like that of Harris make it is easy to lose one’s sense of why faith is a good thing–to lose faith in faith, as it were.
It’s important to know, then, that Harris is simply wrong about what faith is. There is a reason that those we think of as people of faith are not just examples of people who believed something according to their cultural inheritance. They are people who were able to courageously hold onto something of great value over the course of their lives. What these people all seem to demonstrate is a wholehearted attitude to resiliently and actively hold onto the good they know in Christ over time and in the face of great opposition (to summarize a definition of faith I argued for in a previous post).
Recalling real people of faith is an edifying antidote to our ability to lose sight of what is admirable about faith. These people show us that faith is a passion strong enough to keep us wholehearted over the course of our lives. It gives us an intimate connection to what is good, a resilience in life’s trials, and a natural integrity to our behavior. As such, it is indeed admirable, and we should not lose sight of that.