Ask five people for a definition of faith and you’ll get seven answers. If only everyone could agree on one definition! Consequently, when someone says “faith is irrational,” discussing the claim is tricky because we may be taking about two different things. It’s a little like me saying “apples are wonderful,” and I’m talking about the fruit, but you hear me talking about computers. So you retort, “apples are crap.” This confuses me because I’ve frequently seen you eat apples for lunch. We aren’t really disagreeing, because we’re talking about two different things.
So we struggle to get everyone on the same page. Christian thinkers may want to define faith as rational, while skeptical thinkers want to define it as irrational. What if we define it in such a way that it could be either rational or irrational? Well, philosopher Liz Jackson does a great job breaking down this crucial concept in an interview with Cameron Bertuzzi over at Capturing Christianity. Jackson doesn’t define faith as automatically rational–a person can be irrational or rational in their faith. And I think she captures many of the intuitions from both sides.
Faith According to Jackson
The video lasts about 45 min, and they discuss more than faith. They cover how it relates to desire, trust, certainty, and action. Jackson also draws an important distinction between personal and propositional faith. In the second half, Jackson looks at several definitions of faith used by well-known skeptics and talks about the problems with each.
For my skeptical friends out there, I’ll be interested to know what you think of her definition of faith and her critiques of the competing definitions. I sometimes worry that when skeptics talk about faith, they put up straw men. If you portray it as inherently irrational, help me understand why that isn’t a straw man.
Some people will object by saying, “Well, what Jackson says sounds nice, but when I talk to an average Christian on the street, that isn’t the definition they’re using.” That’s true. However, I could say the same thing about socialism, capitalism, and lots of other isms. Most people on the street hold a flawed or even incoherent notion of these things. If I wanted to know what socialism is, I would go to an expert or a reputable source. I wouldn’t ask the man on the street.
Another objection: “There are other experts with different definitions.” That is also true. I’m not suggesting that Jackson has provided the definitive account of faith. The question to ask is, “Is this account coherent and does it help make sense of what people of faith experience?” I think it is and it does.
Also notice that Jackson never refers to faith as a “way of knowing” or a method of coming to know things. This is a common misconception, held by many Christians and skeptics. For most philosophers who specialize in these matters, faith is either a mental state or simply an attitude toward a person or proposition.
Worth A Watch
So carve out some time this week to sit down with your favorite snack and beverage, and tune in to this thought-provoking interview. Whether you’re a skeptic or a theist, I think you’ll benefit.