Faith and Free Will (Part I)

Author: Ed Vaca

Hello philosophers,

This week I wanted to unpack faith. Do you have faith in a higher power, an eternal, an afterlife, God, gods, karma, miracles, zodiac signs, tarot cards? Although I am sure we are all at different levels of faith, types, or do not hold any faith in a specific belief, this is secondary to the focus of the conversation. The question I propose you all to ponder is:

“What exactly is faith to me?”

With that, I’d like to welcome you to take part in a thought experiment. Meditate on one idea and/or belief you feel you have faith in (I find that faith based beliefs that influence you frequently or in a major way in your life tend to be the most exciting to explore). Now, trying to be as specific and as detailed as you can, ask yourself: What exactly is it that I have faith in? If you feel you can’t describe it or do not believe it can be described or understood through language, ask yourself: How did I come to believe this or how was it described to me first? Is there another way to describe this? Thoughts on holy text? Check out link below maybe?

Next, I invite you to bring yourself to you earliest memory of when you first felt as though you consciously decided to hold or embrace your faith. Where were you? How did you feel? How did you get to where you were and where you are today?

Finally, I bolded the word decide because considering last week’s topic on free will, I am looking forward to some objections to the use of this word and delving into whether people truly choose their faith. This can transition us well into the pertinence of this topic because in my opinion, things that you believe directly influence your actions and as a result your life and legacy. All this to say, that if humans have any say in the beliefs they hold, why not meditate deeply on them, unpack them and examine how they affect our lives. Although I would never propose to tell anyone what to believe, I do agree with Hannibal Lokumbe in that, “Information can be liberating, but misinformation can be equally destructive.” Believing when there is no compelling evidence or information, even with good intentions, can be at the least a mistake.

In sum:

How do you define faith?

Is there a possibility for us to reach a consensus on the definition of faith?

Are you free to choose your faith?

Here is some reading material to add a perspective on the topic:

Faith: Gale Reference Library

4 thoughts on “Faith and Free Will (Part I)

  1. Great set of questions. I’ll take a stab for a few minutes.
    1. Faith is an intentional attitude of openness to receive something as a gift, that is only understandable as a gift. It is akin to gratitude. We encounter many things throughout a day from objects, to people, to emotions, to perceptions – but we rarely encounter (without intention) as a gift. This is the paradox – for something to show up as a gift for me requires me to see it as “for me” but not “because of me.” Faith is not doctrine. A religious claim like “God created all there is” can be understood rather straightforwardly philosophically. A more difficulty claim, such as “God suffers with God’s people” can probably still be understood theologically or even philosophically and not be accessed by faith. When interpreted through the intentionality of faith, however, both “God created all there is” and “God suffers with God’s people” are received as gifts to me, as addressed to me, and as truths that call me to be not simply as a “knower” but as “graced.” In this sense, the content of faith is not simply religious claims about things necessarily beyond reason, proof, intellect. The content of faith can also be a claim like “The universe is ordered.” Certainly there is plenty of scientific evidence for this, and thus you might think it does not require “faith.” But that is not the right way to think about the difference. I do have faith in the claim “the universe is ordered” when I, in gratitude and not presumption, receive this as a gift which calls for a response in how I intend to live with this knowledge.

    2. Of course it is possible to achieve consensus on a definition of faith – definitions are precisely the kind of thing that people can achieve consensus on. Practically speaking, I don’t know if consensus is possible – but that is the case for just about anything we try to define. More fundamentally, I mean, that consensus is really only possible for definitions. Definitions use language, and language is public and shared. Kierkegaard, in this respect, would say that the definition or doctrines or confessions of faith are not what matters most to the faithful (as individuals or communities). Being faithful is what matters – and articulating one’s faith (not beliefs, but orientation to the holy) as a definition is rather an impossible thing to do. This does not mean that the content of faith does not matter – it rather says that one doesn’t have faith in the content, one has faith before the holy.

    3. Freedom with regard to one’s faith is kind of like freedom with regard to love. Am I free to chose who I love? On one level, no – to assume all my loves are chosen by me is egotistical and thus antithetical to love. But love is not merely a passive reaction either. I may be free to respond to what I love, to make myself more open to who I love, to cultivate a deeper love. But to love is to say something like “Before you, I cannot but love (even if I run-away from that love).” The phenomenology of many kinds of love shows that we are not so much free to initiate love. Love comes first, and what does it give? Love gives purpose to freedom. Which is what freedom really is after anyway right? How ridiculous it would be to be so radically free that no attachment was any more necessary than any other. Faith, as a posture of gratitude for the gift, has parallels here. In this sense, the freedom at the core of faith is perhaps the most radical kind of freedom there is. Faith is so dang terrifying, Kierkegaard would say, because I know, even if I can’t admit it to myself, that faith is calling me as a solitary individual to respond. My response cannot be reduced to claiming a list of theological doctrines that I have memorized – but rather to a way of living vulnerably to the holy and lovingly to the image of God in everyone. Freedom here means response-ability; the freedom of faith is to take responsibility for one’s own gratitude. It is to take seriously that the gift that is given, is given to me, and maybe even what it gives me is myself (as a child of God).

    (Sorry I don’t have time this morning to edit these comments more – thanks for the question Ed!)

    • Karl,
      I think your definition of faith is really interesting, especially in the way that it describes the act of faith as something that is both active in itself and necessitating a response. The description of faith that I’ve heard most often in church and in modern discussion is a sort of passive acceptance of ideas, in the way that the individual who has faith should accept at face value a certain description of a phenomenon, and to look further for more evidence undermines that faith. However, your definition describes faith as the act of receiving that calls the individual not only to be open to accept the gift, but to do something as a result of that gift. It reminds me of the verse in James 2 which saids “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” According to your definition, faith itself is characterized by our acceptance and response to it, so that faith without a subsequent response is not really faith at all. If we accept this definition, it has really interesting implications for all of us who identify as people of faith.

      Also, I’m curious how this definition would fit with the idea that I’ve heard before (and probably would agree with) that science requires faith – but I haven’t gotten much further than that.

  2. This looks like it will be a very engaging conversation, thank you for bringing this to the table Ed. Something interesting that you wrote is “Believing when there is no compelling evidence or information”. I find this to be a compelling statement, because it brings to light a question in my mind, what is considered “compelling evidence or information”? Does this mean facts, statistics, historical accuracy, first hand experience, etc.? How much can or should we rely on those things? What is considered enough evidence for belief (something I’m sure that varies from person to person)? What kind of evidence is valid/invalid regarding faith? Just some questions that came to mind.

  3. Aw man, I’m getting sucked back into this question. Related philosophical questions include, Can we will to believe anything? Can we will not to believe something? Or put another way, “Can we will to believe what we choose?” The answer is not obvious, even with regard to everyday beliefs (non-religious ones). Can I choose right now to believe that I am not typing on my computer? If I were successful, would my “choice” be properly attributed to my free will or to some psychological delusion or denial. It may be the case that most beliefs are not chosen at all, at least by our will. We often “find ourselves in a state of belief”, and the proper way to change one’s state of belief is not directly by our choice, but choosing to engage a new set of information or context from within which we will again “find ourselves in a state of belief.” Then again, maybe this is what faith really is – we cannot “find ourselves in a state of faith” we can only choose it. Maybe it is the only kind of belief chosen by our will. I’ll post two journal articles for those interested.

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