Faith, truth, and discovery

Very often, the Internet demonstrates to us that Christians/believers and those who do not ‘believe’ are speaking at cross-purposes, especially when it comes to the word Faith. Many on the side of ‘unbelief’ imagine that faith is a blind following of what we have always been told, of believing the things you accepted on authority as a child and never maturing in your intellectual capacity as far as the content of religious/spiritual/metaphysical belief is concerned.

Christians/believers, on the other hand, try very hard to explain what faith is to us in different terms. I, personally, take a philological root for the discussion. Faith comes from Latin fides, which is used to translate the Greek pistis. Pistis has to do with trust, and can be used not only regarding belief, the Divine, philosophy, etc., but also of your neighbour, a business transaction, the sturdiness of a boat — I pisteuo that which is trustworthy.

This leads to the English word trust and its cognates — trustworthy, true, tree, tryst. Things that are (or are meant to be!) sturdy, reliable. The element here is not blindness but trusting that which you believe to be reliable. The Christian argument, then, is that faith, fides, pistis, trust is about relying upon things that you have considered and tested and found to be worthy of your faith, fides, pistis, trust. You have faith in a chair that it won’t collapse; you have faith in gravity that as you sleep you won’t float off into the heavens; you have faith in your bank that they will give your money when asked; you have faith in your spouse not to commit adultery.

Obviously faith in humans and human institutions — banks and spouses in the above — can prove false.

I am reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh (1914-2003), God and Man (2nd ed, 1974).* In chapter 2, ‘Doubt and Disclosure’, he re-examines the way we approach faith and doubt. And truth. He writes:

Truth is something which is an expression of reality, and an expression means two things: first, that the reality which surrounds us is perceived (obviously incompletely); secondly, that it is expressed (also incompletely, because of our inability to express reality in exact words and expressions). (44)

Due to the limitations of perception and expression, truth as we set it out will always need to be checked and revised. This is part of a large analogy with the activity of the scientist. Before becoming a monk, Met. Anthony had a science background and was, I believe, a medical doctor. He explains that for the scientist, truth is not a static thing; truth is expressed better, in this case, by the term model. A scientist gathers knowledge, information, data from observation, reason, experimentation; this is assessed, evaluated, and the pieces are put together to form hypotheses, theories, and a working model.

But the scientist does not stop there. The scientist eagerly seeks to push the model to its boundaries. Reality itself does not change, but the model can. Therefore, the scientist first looks for any flaws in the model. Then the scientist looks for new information to incorporate or falsify the model. This is how progress is made, how we move from the scientific models of Newton to those of Einstein.

Faith should be dynamic as well. Our expressions of it are, by the nature of language, static. They are like a snapshot of someone giving a lecture, with his or her mouth open ‘like a hippopotamus’. However, we know that the reality of the lecture was a moving, dynamic event, and that open mouth, frozen in time for eternity, was but a moment.

When we come up against realities and knowledge and arguments and ideas that cause us to question our model of reality, the truth of metaphysical/spiritual things as we have expressed it, the first step is not to say, ‘Alas, Christianity is false! There must be no God!’ Instead, it is to provoke inquiry into our expression of reality, truth, as we have expressed it; where are its weaknesses? What other arguments, data, knowledge can be used to shift it, change it, modify it?

Moving back to the analogy I began with, the more relational analogy, this would mean asking, ‘What sort of Person(s) is God? What is wrong with my arguments for God’s character/existence/behaviour? What are the reliable sources for such knowledge? What would be the reliable sources? How do I approach these sources? How do I incorporate such knowledge into my understanding of the reality of God?’

These are the questions of a dynamic faith that has moved beyond mere acceptance of authority, as we do as children, to living in a complex world that will inevitably bring with it questions and doubts.

*Eastern Orthodox books from the ’70s are awesome.