Some have argued that there aren't any good arguments for believing in God. Is belief in God just an act of faith without reason? Plenty of philosophers would disagree.
For better or for worse, believers and non-believers are unlikely to fully agree about the relationship between faith and humility. Indeed, some non-believers may insist that there is an inherent conflict between the two. Faith can make the believer appear stubbornly dogmatic, impervious to reasoned argument and willfully blind to the truth. People of faith sometimes seem to claim to have a direct pipeline to God. And having a pipeline to God too often frees them to ignore the protestations of the rest of us mortals. And that doesn’t look like humility, at least not to outsiders. To them, it reeks of the kind of arrogance that leads to Crusades, Inquisitions, and Jihad!
No doubt, the faithful see things differently. They might protest that it’s those who reject faith and put themselves above God who are full of sinful pride and arrogance! Indeed, in their eyes, faith is actually a form of humility—humility before God.
There is something right about this last thought, at least as an analysis of faith’s self-understanding. But here it’s important to distinguish what might be called genuine faith from the sort of easy-breezy, habitual, and often unexamined belief that challenges people to do little more than go to church regularly, nod in agreement at the preacher’s sermon, or mouth a few ritual prayers.
In talking about genuine faith, I’m thinking of the faith of an Abraham. Genuine faith requires to make a journey like his. That was a journey of self-surrender. God promises Abraham and his wife Sarah a son, when they’re like a hundred years old. Miraculously, he gives them a son. Yay for God, right? I mean God keeps his promises! But then, in the midst of Abraham and Sarah’s joy at the miracle that God has delivered, God turns around and commands Abraham to take his son—the very son that he himself had promised Abraham, the very son who was supposed to be the father of nations—up the mountain and sacrifice, that is, kill, him.
"What a douche! How can you promise and deliver me a son, one moment, and then take him away the next? Are you just toying with me? Are you really God or are you the devil in disguise, trying to trick me?" At least that’s what I would be tempted to think.
But that’s not how Abraham responds. He obeys. He obeys out of a deep, abding, and unshakeable faith. Now in holding Abraham up as a model of faith I do not mean to be suggesting that you have to be willing to kill your child in order to have genuine faith. Neither is the Bible, I don't think. After all, Abraham doesn’t end up killing Isaac—thanks to the intervention of an angel. And on some interpretations of the content of Abraham faith, it was his confidence that God would somehow "return" Isaac to him, even if he, Abraham, went through with the sacriifice, as God commanded. Kierkegaard talks, for example, about Abraham expecting to get Isaac back "on the strength of the absurd, " as he puts it. This is meant to be a sign of Abraham's invincible, but rationally ungrounded trust in God. But that's just one reading of the story among other possible readings. However exactly you see the exact content of Abraham's faith, many agree that you don't have genuine faith unless you are willing and able to make a journey like Abraham’s.
So ask yourself, could you yourself make Abraham's journey? Would you not be filled with pain and anguish, with hesitation and doubt, with “fear and trembling,” as Kierkegaard puts it? I know that I could not, that I would not make the journey. Nor can I fully comprehend how Abraham could bring himself to obey rather than run and flee or be paralyzed by hesitation and doubt.
But that is precisely the point. Faith is in a way incomprehensible to those who lack faith. Unless you have already made the leap of faith with him, then you will be astounded and perplexed at Abraham's ready obedience. It is the presence of that inner readiness to obey, where others would experience anguish, doubt, and hesitation, that is the mark of genuine faith. Such a faith goes way beyond the sort of synthetic processed faith substitute that most believers profess. That sort of synthetic substitute faith asks far too little of us to deserve the title of genuine faith. And this is crucial to faith's self-understanding—that it involves surrender and submission. Such surrender and submission would clearly not be arrogant or prideful. It is potentially torturous to achieve, but it willfully and confidently submits to the unfathomable will of God.
The story of Abraham and his journey of faith is powerfully moving, even poetic. And again, it presents faith as a deep form of humility and a willful self-overcoming. But as powerfully moving as this picture of faith is, it not only doesn’t help with our original worry about the conflict between the faithful and the faithless, it actually makes things worse! And that is precisely because of the incomprehensible nature of faith so understood to those who lack faith.
Suppose you came across someone today dragging his poor son up that mountain, and he told you his plan to follow Abraham. Wouldn't you try to stop him? Wouldn’t you try to at least talk him out of his plan, to convince him that perhaps the voice he heard commanding him to drag his son up the mountain wasn’t, after all, the voice of the all-wise, all-knowing God? The problem is that if he really is as full of faith as an Abraham, your efforts will be entirely unavailing. He may listen politely to your arguments. But eventually he will faithfully heed God's call. He will say to you, “Move aside! I must do as God commands!” Would you just stand there and accept that, or would you treat him as a murderous lunatic?
That’s the problem with an invincible faith like Abraham’s. It cannot justify itself to a world of non-believers not already clued into the unfathomable will of an inscrutable God. Indeed, it doesn’t even try to. In its most extreme versions, this approach to faith sees bowing to mere reason as beneath the dignity of faith. Kierkegaard held an extreme version of this view, but you can also find a trace of such thinking even in such a revered person of faith as Martin Luther King Jr., whose resistance to the evils of Jim Crow segregation were largely fueled by faith. He said that when the mind is "devoid of the purifying power of faith" and "darkened by sin" then human reason serves merely to distort and rationalize and, thus, should not be heeded. Though we we may greatly admire King's own faith fueled resistance, in the wrong hands, such thinking can also lead to the Crusades, Inquisitions, and Jihad!
Contrary to King, I suspect that in the conflict between reason and faith, the problem lies with faith rather than with reason, though. If faith is to coexist with the absence of faith, it needs to find a way not simply to be humble before an inscrutable God but also humble before humankind at large. Faith must learn to heed not just the divine voice, but the many voices welling up from all corners of the human world. It needs to heed the plea of gay lovers yearning to openly celebrate their love, the lonely cry of the expectant single mother struggling to find a way out of problematic pregnancy that would radically complicate an already overwhelmed life.
Only if faith can find a way to be humble—not just before the unfathomable will of an inscrutable God, but before humankind—and thus to be less dogmatic and less confident that it has an exclusive and direct pipeline to God, will the non-believer be able to find it within him or herself to listen more respectfully and receptively to the voice of the faithful in return.
Perhaps, then, in the end, we ought not to take the invincible faith of Abraham as the true exemplar of a genuine faith. Perhaps we should think instead of the more embracing faith of the Unitarian Universalists or the Buddhist. Both of these traditions see the power of revelation lurking everywhere, in all corners of creation, in science as much as scripture, in the questioning of the atheist as much as in the convictions of the believer.
Now I do not delude myself that this approach will satisfy a certain sort of committed true believer. The true believer will reject my prescription for faith as just the sort of wishy-washy faith substitute that I earlier described and decried. Down this road, they will say, lies such abominations as, say, cafeteria-style Catholicism, where you pick and choose which doctrines of the Church to accept based, not on revelation and scripture, but on the moral fads of this or that age. This, they will insist, is once again nothing but faith in name only.
I understand the complaint. But I fear that that this sort of hard-edge and divisive approach to faith makes it all but impossible for the faithful and the faithless to coexist, let alone to adopt attitudes of mutual humility, tolerance, and respect toward each other. If that is right, and if we care about living together in a pluralistic society, which equally embraces both the secular and the sacred with open and welcoming arms, then there may be no choice but to “water down” faith for the sake of the greater human good. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Godhead him/her/itself would approve. But who can really say?