That’s out of Jerome’s Latin translation of the New Testament. The translation is called the ‘Vulgate.’ It means, as near as I can tell, “We walk by faith, not by sight,” and comes out of 2 Corinthians 5:7 of the Christian Scriptures.
What is it about ‘faith’ that sets people’s teeth on edge? Some people will fight to the bitter end to insist that they do not operate on faith at all. (For a discussion between atheists, skeptics, and Christians, see HERE) Others cling to it in all of the worst ways. Like everything in life, there is danger at the extremes, and the healthy point of view and mindset is right down the middle.
Like most important words, even the very word ‘faith’ has become stretched to refer to just about anything, making the problem even worse. There is Billy Joel’s ‘keeping the faith.’ We sometimes talk about various religions as ‘faith’ traditions. What ‘faith’ are you? As if faith were a body of propositions. Also typical to important words, the most substantive meaning is the one that gets set aside on the periphery. The fundamental element under ‘faith’ is the concept of ‘trust.’ And not an unfounded trust, mind you. A trust founded on solid reasoning and evidence for that faith being maintained.
For example, I have faith in the chair that I am sitting in. It is logically possible that the chair could cease to exist. It is logically possible that part of it fails. At anyrate, it could fall, in theory, at any second. I could injure myself! Yet, here I sit. In what sense is this trusting dependance something that is ‘measurable’ or ‘tangible?’ In what sense is faith real? You can’t touch it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t hear it, you can’t see it. And yet here I sit. I sit in this chair because it hasn’t let me down yet.
And that raises an interesting observation about faith: If you had supreme certainty, you could not have faith. For example, I do not have faith that 2+2=4. I understand that this is a logical truism and that the very framework of the mind would fail if these symbols betrayed me in real life. I can only have faith in my chair if in fact it is possible that it could, at the very last, fail me. Thus faith is a contingent reality. It’s existence depends wholly on other circumstances. This does not mean that you can’t have a long pattern of trustworthy behavior to justify your faith. It only means that it must be possible, in the last analysis, for the thing to fail you.
I have been talking about chairs. I have been talking about my relationship to a particular chair. As you can see, from this point of view, faith is really a relational term. It is a real thing, even if it is not an empirically verifiable thing. Nonetheless, it is relational- it describes my attitude in connection to this item… or this person… or that Higher Power. In all of these cases, you are perfectly justified in seeking a pattern of trustworthy behavior to justify your faith, but unless there is some sort of uncertainty, some possibility of risk, you cannot actually have faith.
This raises the question as to whether or not it is really a desirable trait to have faith. If you can have an absolute certainty instead of a measure of trust, shouldn’t you prefer the absolute certainty? Laying aside the pragmatic matter that one could never have absolute certainty about just about anything (even the logical truisms can be challenged in some contexts), does ‘having faith’ have a real value?
I submit that it does. For one thing, to understand that trust is an important component to our very existence is to take the brave view that you will have to rely on others to survive and thrive. Trust wisely, yes, but you will have to trust. I suppose we have all met people who are so skeptical as to be simply cynical. Believe no one, trust no one, have faith… in no one. These sorts of people have one supreme fear, and that is to ‘be taken in.’ To ‘have one put over them.’ They are too smart for that, aren’t they? But what is actually happening in this circumstance is the person is choosing one thing to trust and setting aside another, while simultaneously mocking those trusting suckers who chose the other thing to trust.
The human soul that cannot trust is a human soul wrapped into itself. All good things come through relationships- and that is to say, built upon trust.
But what if the situation is even more dramatic than this? I began this essay with a bit of Latin for “we walk by faith and not by sight.” The passage is not glorifying the fact that we cannot see. Nor does it exclude the possibility of having other senses. What if the passage is not endorsing ‘blind faith’ but rather pointing out that we are blind? Our sight is broken. Our predicament is dire. We can only be rescued by listening very carefully… and putting your foot down right there… No! Not there, THERE!
If you were trapped in a fiery inferno and could not see your way out, you would be a wise skeptic indeed that refused to believe that the voice you were hearing was that of a firefighter that could see through the smoke, and see the danger around you, and how to get out. In such a situation, I submit that having faith and even the ability to have faith is indeed a virtue.
I submit that we find ourselves in a situation where we are blind and we are in danger and we are forced by circumstance to rely on the guidance of others. We walk by faith, but at least we are walking. That is more than can be said about some. True, there is the foolish sucker that will harken to any voice. There are dangers at each extreme. But before we malign the virtue of the healthy middle, let us remember a famous passage about faith…
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Why is love greater?