Friday, May 05, 2006

Faith on Earth?

A few words from H. Richard Niebuhr:

Questions about faith arise in every area of human existence. Though me word seems to be primarily religious, so that it is associated with such other terms as God, church and creed, we also use it, with its synonyms and antonyms, in many other connections. We adjure each other to have faith in democracy or in the people or in the scientific method or that right makes might. We speak of "keeping faith" with .hose who have died in our nation's wars; we honor men of "good faith"; we contrast the faith of democracy with the creeds of totalirarianism. Questions about faith arise in an urgent and tragic form as we view massive and petty breaches of faith-treasons, lying propaganda, the cultivation of mutual distrust as measures of party and national policy, the use of pretended loyalty in conspiracies against State and civilization, the enlistment of men as faithful followers of causes that depend for success on practices of deception. [In this situation a dark prospect opens before us as we reflect on the meaning of Jesus' question: "When the Son of man comes will he find faith on eanh?" (Luke 18:8). He may have meant, "Will he find belief or trust ill God?" But he may also have meant, "Will he find any faithfulness among men?"] The experiences of the twentieth century have brought into view the abyss of "faithlessness" into which men can fall. [We see this possibility-that human history will come to its end neither in a brotherhood of man nor in universal death under the blows of natural or man-made catastrophe, but in the gangrenous corruption of a social life in which every promise, contract, treaty and "word of honor" is given and accepted in deception and distrust. If men no longer have faith in each other, can they exist as men?]
These many questions about faith seem to be highly heterogeneous. We are not dealing, it may appear, with one complex of interrelated problems concerning an integral element in human experience, but are rather simply following the meandering route of a stream of con-sciousness as we proceed by means of a process of association from one set of difficulties or debates to another. Is not the word faith so highly equivocal or even indeterminate in meaning that it cannot be significantly used in such various connections in the course of one conversation? Now it means belief in a doctrine; now the acceptance of intuited or self-evident truths; now confidence or trust; now piety in general or a historic religion. In some cases the word applies to man's relation to the supernatural but again it refers to human interpersonal relations. Do not these meanings vary so greatly that it is an illusion to think of all these faiths as having anything in common that can be a fit subject for inquiry? It may be so. It may be that the visual or auditory sign faith represents not one word but several, pointing to various unrelated things or concepts, as the sign "organ" means in one context musical instrument, in another, a part of a body, and still another, a newspaper. But it may also be that faith points to a complex structure of which now this, now that, element is focused in the attention while the remainder of the structure is implied. It may be a word like reason, which, equally various in its uses, yet seems to indicate a single complex process of perception and conception, distinction and comparison, experience and abstraction, intuition and inference, action and contemplation. Whether or not this is so only an inquiry, not into the uses of the word, but into some of the experiences to which the word points, can bring to light. Should it appear that believing a proposition is intimately connected with trusting a person, that trust and fidelity are inseparable, that trust in God and interpersonal faithfulness are closely associated, then it might also be indicated that there is a structure of faith, while the stresses and strains in that structure might also be brought into view. On such an inquiry we embark, not in the hope of being able to map the world of faith but with the desire to understand, albeit roughly and in outline, the relations of some of its continents and seas.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, ed. Richard R. Niebuhr (New Haven: Yale University Press 1989), pp. 1, 4-5.

Just as I wonder (here, here, and here) how deeply Daniel Dennett considered the question "what is 'religion'," I wonder how deeply Sam Harris considered the question "What is 'faith'"? Niebuhr tries to answer some of these questions, and here I can do no more than leave them as discussion points, or the beginning of a discussion.

What, then, do we mean by "faith on earth"?

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