The Mistaken Equation of Faith and Belief

Having faith is central to being a Christian. 

The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus’ ministry with this summary of his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and have faith in the good news” (1:15).  Among the prominent gospel themes foreshadowed here is that of faith.  The ensuing story involves characters who model a faith in Jesus that heals them and their loved ones, and, moreover, comes to a climax with Jesus’ own modeling of faith in the garden of Gesthemane and, then, on the cross.

It is entirely fitting, then, that talk of Christianity in the public domain is often also talk about faith.

Yet, what if this discourse was way off?  If philosopher Dan Howard-Snyder is right, it is.  Today, it is almost always assumed that faith is a way of believing something.   Most notoriously, it is assumed that having faith is believing without adequate evidence.  Closer to the mark is Mark Boone’s suggestion on TTC that faith is believing on trust.  

The problem, however, is that any view that simply sees faith as a way of believing is not nuanced enough.

Howard-Snyder has put in some good work, considering everyday examples of nonreligious faith as well as faith as it is displayed in the Gospel of Mark, which suggests that faith is much more than simply a way of believing something, and may not necessarily involve belief at all.  According to Howard-Snyder, faith is a resilient, positive attitude toward a person, proposition or orientation to life.  What this attitude consists in differs according to whether one has faith in a person (called “relational faith”), faith that a certain idea is the case (“propositional faith”), or whether one is a person of faith (“global faith”), in which case the object of faith is something like an overall orientation to life.  However, in every case, this attitude involves:

1) a cognitive aspect: believing, hoping, acting on an assumption, or accepting,

2) a “conative” aspect: seeing the success or truth of the object of faith as good and desirable,

3) a behavioral aspect: tending to act in line with one’s faith, and

4) resilience in the face of challenges to one’s faith.

When we have faith in a person, trust or reliance on this person is also part of our attitude.

Importantly, faith always includes a kind of cognitive assent to the object of faith, but this assent does not have to be belief.  For example, Howard-Snyder argues that, in Mark 9:14-29, the father of the demon-possessed boy had the faith necessary for Jesus to heal his son, but probably only hoped – rather than believed – that Jesus would heal his son.   He asks Jesus to heal his son “if he can” (v. 22), and seems to be unsure in his faith: “I have faith; help my lack of faith” (v. 24).  He also witnesses the disciples’ failure (v. 18), and the apparent death of his son (v. 26).  In these circumstances, Howard-Snyder thinks it is uncharitable and improbable to say that he believed that Jesus would heal his son.  And yet, even if we see mere hope behind this father’s dogged attitude toward Jesus, it still makes sense to call what the father had “faith.”

In this post, I can only give a taste of Howard-Snyder’s argument from the Gospel of Mark.  His argument for resilience’s place as an essential feature of faith runs roughly like this.

Firstly, Mark emphasizes the resilience of many minor characters whose faith Jesus commends: the blind beggar Bartimaeus, who persistently cries out to Jesus for mercy; the friends of the paralytic who lower him through a roof; the woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years.  Moreover, Howard-Snyder can find no stories where faith is commended and resilience is not present. 

Secondly, faith is closely associated with resilience in many other stories, such as when Jesus stills the storm and then reprimands the disciples for not having faith in this trying circumstance. 

Thirdly, Matthew and Luke appear to interpret stories about resilient characters (the Gentile woman who seeks healing for her daughter and the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, respectively), where faith is not explicitly mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, by explicitly highlighting the faith of these characters. 

Fourthly, Jesus’ faith demonstrates resilience in the garden of Gesthemane and on the cross. 

Lastly, Howard-Snyder cites a study of the Greek (pistis), Hebrew (emunah) and Latin (fides) lexica, which correspond to English “faith” language.  He concludes that, in the culture surrounding the New Testament, these words were not often related to belief at all, but are most often associated with ideas of trust or resilience.

Some of his interpretations seem forced to me, but, along with his arguments from everyday examples of faith, I find this view of faith compelling. 

If it’s true, it’s rather important, isn’t it?

  1. Avatar
    • Robert Jacob Thiesen
      • Avatar