What is faith?By: Andrew S
Around a year ago, chanson from Main Street Plaza asked this question: what is faith? Her discussion seemed to approach the question from a matter of: what kind of belief is faith. Is it a rational belief? An irrational one? Is it backed with proof? Or is in absence of proof? Must faith include or preclude doubt?
I feel like this discussion begs a more fundamental question about the nature of faith — so many of the definitions chanson mentioned in her post started from the presumption that faith is belief. Like so:
From About.com Christianity: “Faith is belief with strong conviction; firm belief in something for which there may be no tangible proof; complete trust; opposite of doubt.”
Or like so:
But is faith primarily about belief at all? Why couldn’t it be about action?
Last week, I was thinking a lot about action and activism. As I had quoted then from our very own Bonnie:
And the gospel cannot be understood without living it. That’s what I mean by reductionist. You can’t debate yourself to God or to faith or to understanding. You are talking apples and oranges with someone who is doing the Alma 32 experiment. And there is reason that Alma did not waste any time with the rameumptomites; they were not humble.
Think about that. You can’t debate yourself to God or to faith or to understanding. You are talking apples and oranges with someone who is doing the Alma 32 experiment.
When I posted last week’s article around on various Facebook groups, I found that it was very different to discuss actions…people kept wanting to bring it down to beliefs. Because I don’t believe in LDS truth claims, now my Mormon friends and family members do not see me in the same way. But the curious thing that popped up again and again was that with a loss of belief (or a realization that they never had belief) did come a change in behavior…even if that change was merely not attending church, not tithing, etc.,
(I’m not saying that anyone should attend or tithe or whatever, and I’m also not saying that disbelieving members or former members will go down a slippery slope to immorality. Just that it was difficult to tease out the source of social backlash — was it the lack of belief, or was it related changes in actions?)
Think about it like this. Take someone who struggles to believe in God. He struggles to believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet. Perhaps it’s not a struggle at all — perhaps this person flat out does not believe in these things. But what if the person is striving to follow LDS commandments? What if he strives to follow the Alma 32 experiment? What if he engages in his ward, attends his meetings, magnifies whatever callings he may have, and live the various commandments, and so on…even though he has doubts or disbeliefs?
Would we say that person is faithful? Would we say that person has faith?
Let’s take another person. Take a person who believes in God fully. He accepts Joseph Smith as a prophet. But this person does not follow LDS commandments. He doesn’t read scriptures, pray, experiment upon the word.
Would we say that this person is faithful? Does this person have faith?
Can we choose to believe? To have faith?
The question of whether belief can be chosen is one that I address over and over again. I’ve probably written far more posts than ever needed to be written on the subject, but I guess the reason why is because the Mormon perspective, with its emphasis on agency, asserts that beliefs are a choice.
Unfortunately, my lived experience doesn’t seem to agree with that.
And when I read others’ stories — stories that they may even frame as their choosing to believe — I keep finding instances where it wasn’t necessarily belief they choose at all, but a pattern of actions. To illustrate this point, I’ll link to John Lynch’s FAIR Blog post Why I Still Choose to Believe.
…my belief is a choice. It is a deliberate action borne of faith. While I am aware of those things that might challenge faith, I have decided to believe! I don’t do it by ignoring some questions that for me may remain unanswered, but I believe despite the fact that I do not, as yet, have all the answers!
What does this look like? Well, later on, Lynch describes what this looks like in certain instances:
When the Church initiated its support for Proposition 8, my personal experience with my older brother (who was among the first 500 individuals in the Unites States to die of AIDS) caused me to want to shrink. I did not want to step into the controversy, and would that the Lord would take such a cup from me. But He did not. I was therefore forced to confront my loyalties, and to work through my thoughts and feelings. My answer did not come from reason. It did not come from an angelic visit, or some religious conviction that allowed me to lay aside my fears. In the end, I simply chose to follow the counsel of the 15 prophets, seers and revelators who asked me for my efforts. Through that submission of faith, I received personal revelation that assured me that my actions were correct. My heart filled with compassion for all individuals involved, and despite my support for Proposition 8, my compassion for those who sought to legalize same sex marriage was actually heightened greatly! No, it wasn’t that I got some great answer that convinced me to change my views.Rather, I chose to believe! And the answer came after my choice.
The funny thing here is that the phenomenon that is described as having “chosen to believe” is really choosing…to follow the counsel of the general authorities. (As an aside, without getting too clinical, I would just note that in this passage, there are undertones of “escalation of commitment,” but that’s probably just a coincidence how similar it reads.)
Later on, John continues:
But it does not stop there. No, I have continuously tried the Lord through my obedience, and experienced affirmation after affirmation that my choices to believe are good. I have had rich experiences that transcend emotion, that reach beyond coincidence and defy nature, which testify to me that it is good for me to believe. So, I choose to believe!
Yes, I know all the reasons to not believe. I have even been put off by the actions of leaders, had my feelings hurt by a member or two, and had the world try to drag me into practices that seem enticing. I have read all the secular teachings that challenge belief in God, and all the criticisms that challenge belief in the restoration. I am aware of probably every reason that exists to abandon my faith, and yet none of that has the power to dissuade me. No, I have seen too much, I have persisted too long, I have experienced too much change, too much affirmation, and too much personal development from the simple act of submission by choosing to believe.
He speaks of trying the Lord through…obedience…he speaks about persisting too long to change. These statements would seem to indicate to me that things get rolling from action, yet he describes his simple act of submission as choosing to believe.
Conflating belief with chosen actions
It seems to me that what’s happening is that “belief” and “faith” aren’t always spelled out, and there’s a lot of conflation between various things. I’m wondering if that leads to a lot of miscommunication — that many people are so primed to understand thing in terms of mentally assenting to certain propositions, when for other people, it was about action and choosing to act certain ways.
But distinguishing beliefs from actions doesn’t solve the underlying issue. As I mentioned this in discussions, some folks pointed out that our actions are impacted by our beliefs. From a Facebook comment:
…to continue with your line of thought, once a set of Mormons “choose” to believe, meaning to act on a commitment to various commandments, and another set of Mormons “choose” to NOT believe, meaning to act by DISregarding those commandments, the two sides come in direct conflict (in a weird, Mormon passive/aggressive way). That conflict will not harmonize. If I “choose” to sit in the pews on Sunday and refuse the sacrament because of my non-belief, I am directly contradicting the most important ACT of the Sabbath day. So essentially, because I “no longer believe,” you are saying I am actually choosing to no longer act on beliefs I don’t have any more. Back to logos. The actions are a direct result of our belief (or non-belief) and to contradict them would actually be discreditable and immoral and unworthy of credit (cred). The cred I have lost is based on their beliefs, not my unbelief. This burden and fault is not mine, but the believer who takes my credibility because I don’t believe (act the way they want me to).
What I find interesting is the idea that this person believes that the contradiction of belief and action is discreditable…whereas I would imagine that many other folks would see it as admirable — that is the idea of “not casting out the seed with one’s disbelief,” is it not?
Anyway, I hope that have expressed this point to some acceptable standard…really, I just wanted to ask as many as people as possible: what is faith? (Baby, don’t hurt me. Review our comment policy if you haven’t yet.) Is faith about action or belief? Is faith, action, or belief chosen? Are some actions that would be faithful inconsistent without having certain beliefs first?