Faith and Humility

06 May 2018

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?


Comments (14)

arregnier's picture


Sunday, May 6, 2018 -- 7:05 PM

This is a sermon, not a

This is a sermon, not a philisophical argument.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Sunday, May 6, 2018 -- 7:56 PM

It is very much a

It is very much a philosophical argument that says that unless faith is simultaneously both a form of humility before God AND humility before humankind it will not be able to coexist with non-belief in an atmosphere of share humility and mutual respect. Moreover, it is an argument that some religious traditions actually aim to pull off that balancing act and to some extent they succeed. So it recommends that MORE religious traditions should try that trick. The key is to see the potential for revelation lurking not just in the sacred scriptures but in every corner of creation. Do you have some actual objection to the actual argument? I loved to hear it.

chally's picture


Tuesday, May 8, 2018 -- 3:13 PM

I believe that this blind

I believe that this blind faith would require some form of reasoning in order for people to feel justified in their beliefs. For those people like Abraham, the justification for his actions was he was doing what God said. When you talk of humility before humankind, some sort of figure would have to steer people's beliefs in a direction towards social good. This figure does not have to be a person, but instead a fad as you had said, reflecting the majority of people's views at a current point in time. While certain faith may steer people in the 'right direction' if a socially good deed is in line with their religion, for those instances where religion causes harm, wouldn't there have to be some figure which people can use to justify their beliefs and find reason? Where can this figure come from? While I agree with your argument, this humility before humankind seems too broad to result in actual action. I would like to hear what you have to say about this.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 -- 11:44 AM

Abraham's faith is not really

Abraham's faith is not really a "blind faith," at least not according to Kierkegaard. You cannot become the knight of faith, he argues, unless you first become what he calls the knight of resignation. The knight of resignation sees through the inadequacy of the world in the sense that he/she comes to recognizes that the world does not answer to his/her deepest aspirations. The knight of resignation is, in a sense, estranged from the world and not at home in it, but still confident of, as it were, "the infinitude within." He sees resignation as the highest possible achievement of human reason. But it leaves us estranged from the world and throws us back only on ourselves. What taking the leap of faith is supposed to do is give the world back to us again, through a kind of miraculous union with God. It is true that to make this leap you have to, in a sense, "humiliate reason," But that is not the same as a "blind faith." Faith is anything but blind, on Kierkegaard's view.

Tuan Chu's picture

Tuan Chu

Sunday, May 6, 2018 -- 9:43 PM

Abraham followed the supposed

Abraham followed the supposed God's command with the belief that his son will be given back by God. Though, this belief has no evidence of being true, Abraham still believes so cause God had granted him a son as God promised. But Abraham didn't ask why God commanded him to kill his own son. Why did God command him to do so and is it really the command of God? I think these questions remain unsolved.

C Clements's picture

C Clements

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 -- 9:46 PM

Perhaps Kierkegaard's point

Perhaps Kierkegaard's point is that having an answer to these questions would change the nature of Abraham's action. Without a reason, the act is an act of faith. With a reason, it is an act of reason. The knight of faith (Fear and Trembling) is praised because he acts against better judgment: he knows that he doesn't know, and so his act is an act of faith. "...because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off."

(Continuing a little unrelated)
It seems on this point, that the knight of faith does have a sort of humility before humanity, for he recognizes that his actions in the view of both others and himself, are absurd. By recognizing the absurd in the act of faith, faith maintains its quality of trust, but is unable to be blind.

Happy for a response.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 -- 11:49 AM

If Abraham had asked God "why

If Abraham had asked God "why?" he would have been like Job. You know what God told Job when Job asked a similar question.... "Where were you when I designed this massive, incomprehensible universe." Or words to that effect. Which I take to be God saying "You are in no position to demand answers from me." Rather like a very young child not being in a position to demand answers to his/her parents. That's why believers think of faith asa form of humility. There is something of this in Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham. But it is important that for him humbling oneself before the awesome mind of God, is a way of regaining one's footing in the world. Until you do this you will be either what he calls a frog in the swamp, fully defined by and imprisoned within the world, or estranged from the world like his Knight of Resignation.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 -- 12:19 PM

Who can really say?---A good

Who can really say?---A good summation, I think. Upon reading this post, I had no sense of having read a sermon. An exposition on humanism, perhaps, but a pretty good one, at that. I do not think that belief and unbelief are likely to reach an agreement any time soon, although I would agree that it is not a bad idea. The Bible, as well as other texts, contains many parables (stories, for the unfamiliar or disinterested novice). These are 'how-tos', intended for the readership-at-large, whether they are avowed Christians or otherwise. Many such parables, the story of Abraham included, admonish the reader as to proper behaviors and demonstrations of faith. Whether the stories in the Bible are literally true should not be the issue for those who are comfortable in their own skin and secure in their faith (or lack thereof). If we remember that the Bible was written by men, AS IF it were the word of God, we can either conclude it contains true accounts of real people, places and events, OR, it was embellished, in a view to substantiate/emphasize the overall benevolence of an all-powerful creator. (There are, of course, those who would argue that last point into the tentative future---or beyond.)

OR, we might otherwise conclude that a little of each is what was truly intended. If we think about it, we might find it astounding that the Bible continues to generate all sorts of interest, given the historical discrepancies which have been discovered over the many years of its storied (no pun) existence. But, on the other hand, we might find it equally astounding that faith enables, even supports, so many states on human experience, from sublime peace to the savagery of war. These are human conditions, and, try as we may, no amount of faith or religious instruction has changed that, humility notwithstanding.

draconicentitlement's picture


Tuesday, May 8, 2018 -- 2:17 PM

"cafeteria-style Catholicism,

"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. "

As someone with no faith, this sentence or some like it are the ones that make me react with despair and rage.
It makes me sad that people are so willing to surrender their freedom to think critically and to decide for themselves only to belong to a group, however good that group is.

I think a faith like the one you describe would absolutely make dialogue easier, and it might well be the salvation of religious thinking. Absolute moral certainty is a dangerous thing.

Benjamin Peterson's picture

Benjamin Peterson

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 -- 10:32 PM

I’m not going to lie, I’m

I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty green in terms of philosophy but I’ve taught myself the best I can and it’s time I toss myself in the shark tank, as I’ve heard we learn best by mistakes. So please, school me for the sake of the future. If the only genuine faith is Abrahamic faith, and the rest is easy peazy faith, than isn’t asking people to abandon Abrahamic faith is the same as asking them to abandon God? (Only here to learn, not proclaiming my beliefs)

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 -- 11:53 AM

Not at all. As I say in the

Not at all. As I say in the OP, it's asking them to "see revelation lurking everywhere," not just in Sacred Scriptures or the words of the so-called holy men -- the priest, preachers, monks, etc -- but in every bit of creation. The trick is that you have to read this or that bit of revelation in light of every other bit of revelation. It's a big reconciliation project. Reconcile the scriptures with science, with ordinary moral experience. This is not abandoning God, this is paying closer and closer attention to the manifold ways in which God reveals himself to us.

MJP's picture


Wednesday, May 9, 2018 -- 12:48 AM

The commitment of this father

The commitment of this father to sacrifice his son: why would this be a description of faith rather than a release from a condition? How can he go forward without his child and not be tormented by his wife or relatives? The father can't go forward without his child before there is a special condition of the moral realm. Tumult. A fortunate event, a loving angel saves the child. We have faith that his stories don't mislead us and give us his lessons/faith of experience, . Loss ... no doubt about it. So in the void of loss the story to help those suffering are given the hope of redemption.

Jmkelly's picture


Wednesday, May 9, 2018 -- 9:13 AM

I was waiting for someone to

I was waiting for someone to bring up authoritarianism--the defining characteristic of conservative religion, I think. One is expected to show humility not only to God but to an endless chain of anointed representatives: king, pastor, husband, policeman.... By contrast, liberal religious denominations, while they may retain deference to the divine, are devoutly skeptical of other authority, and so expect humility to be mutual.
To what degree does either approach undermine compassion? It seems natural for authoritarians to deny marriage rights to gays, reproductive rights to women, mercy to undocumented immigrants--for them, those who break commandments or laws can't expect mercy.
I'm not letting the liberal religious off the hook, though. I think they're adept at finding humble compassionate rationales for shutting people out.