Tackling faith questions at Christmas

Tackling faith questions at Christmas
Everyday philosophy

As we celebrate the feast of Christmas, it’s time for this column to tackle the question of faith.

This is a philosophy column, and so I’m not going to get into the precise nature of supernatural faith, or anything else that specifically depends on God’s revelation to us. But there’s a widespread idea out there that there’s something unreasonable or counter to reason about faith: and it’s not just an idea that you hear from atheists. I’ve heard believers say – almost proudly – things like ‘you can’t be rational about everything.’ There’s this idea that faith is incomprehensible and beyond argument, and that whether or not to accept it is almost arbitrary.

Supernatural faith goes beyond reason, in that through it we learn things that we could never have figured out through reason alone.”

Now, as is usually the case with mistakes, there’s a version of this idea that has truth in it. Supernatural faith goes beyond reason, in that through it we learn things that we could never have figured out through reason alone. But that doesn’t mean that an act of faith can’t also be a reasonable, rational act.

As I’ve said, I’m not going to demonstrate this with a deep dive into the precise nature of faith. I’m going to keep my ambitions modest, and talk a bit about something that faith is like, one way in which it can be useful to think about it. I’m going to make a comparison between faith and trust.

The Anglican philosopher of religion Basil Mitchell once made a beautiful case for this comparison. He argued that professing Christian faith was like being a soldier involved in a resistance against an oppressive regime, who one day meets a mysterious stranger. That stranger claims to be the undercover leader of the resistance, and makes a deep, lasting impression on the soldier. The stranger says that he has a plan to ensure the ultimate victory of the resistance, but that the workings of this plan won’t always be obvious: sometimes he will appear to be working for the evil regime, and undermining the goals of the resistance. But he promises that however things appear, he will always be on the soldier’s side. The soldier decides to trust the stranger.

Sure enough, the stranger’s actions are ambiguous. Sometimes he appears and leads the resistance to decisive victories, but at other times he seems to be handing over conspirators to the police.

What is the soldier to make of this? What would prove the soldier’s trust rationally untenable? Mitchell says that there are no hard and fast rules. No one action of the stranger’s can decisively count against continuing to trust him: after all, he has told us that his ways are mysterious. The soldier cannot put him to the test. But this isn’t a case of irrational unfalsifiability either. Perhaps eventually the soldier’s trust in the stranger will fail and he will lose his faith. But if he does so it will be because he has rejected the whole story that the stranger tells in favour of some other narrative that explains his actions (that the stranger is actually an agent of the enemy or just a liar).

There is no automatic test of falsification, no set of rules that he can draw up in advance which will determine whether the stranger is trustworthy. Mitchell says that whether the soldier keeps or breaks trust will depend on a lot of factors, including the nature of the impression created by the stranger in the first place.

How does the analogy apply to faith? At some moments, the universe appears to us as though it was obviously created by a benevolent creator. But when we consider great tragedies or terrible atrocities – the Indian Ocean tsunami or the gulags of Stalinist Russia, or even personal disasters or bereavements – it’s hard to see God’s purposes. Sometimes it might seem as though he isn’t present, and that the more plausible story is the atheist one. But the Christian story includes promises like the ones made by the stranger to the soldier: that God will always be at our side, even if, as the book of Job demonstrates, His ways are not ours. That Christ will in the end redeem suffering and conquer evil.

Is it rational to accept those promises? To accept the Christian story? It is, if we trust the storyteller.

That is one of the many reasons the incarnation is the central event in Christian faith, and it’s part of what people mean when they say that our faith is not primarily in statements or propositions, but in a person. The person we trust is the incarnate Christ, whom we encounter through the scriptures, the sacraments, and through sacred tradition. It is in Him that we place our faith. Merry Christmas.