Lesson 8: Faith

EnlightenmentOne way to read the Enlightenment Project is to see it placing decision making in the hands of individual persons rather than established authorities. Integral to this is investing power in knowledge tested against reality and experience instead of laws imposed by aristocracy and clergy.

The scientific method, technological innovation, and democratic government now associated with the project have delivered tremendous benefits enabling humanity to tackle real problems rather than sustaining the power of the privileged. However, like all social movements, it has also brought some unsettling changes.

One of these involves the role of trust. In the past, it was assumed the health of society depended on being able to trust that others would speak the truth, treat me fairly, not desire to harm me, and generally have my well-being at heart. As the technological society replaced the familiarity associated with knowing your neighbor and working together in volunteer organizations, trust became a risk management tool necessary to make reasonable assessments about unknown people in specialized systems or over long distances. Although some suggest we should speak of this as confidence in systems rather than trust in people, it is important to remember systems do involve people working with others as well as machines. And systems have brought marvelous benefits, such as the anonymous surgical team working together with sophisticated tools to restore my health.

The difficulty has developed in coping with the great power that has resulted. Until recently we thought we could trust those in the various systems to discipline one another using professional ethics and peer review. Now we worry that the ever-present exceptions can wreak havoc causing nuclear catastrophe, drastic climate change, permanent genetic changes, and other unforeseen consequences. Many feel reducing trust to gambling that certain possibilities are safe renders it useless. They argue we need a common story to express what is good for our shared society and provide a basis for decent regulations.

Christians believe faith provides that common story for their community. In a sense, the way faith functions in religion reflects the changing role of trust in secular society. The Enlightenment challenges religious as well as secular authority. Whether they are aware or not, most Christians now test faith claims against reality and experience. They no longer base their everyday lives on absolute doctrines or artificial parochial pictures of reality. Although their churchgoing might serve as a risk management tool like Pascal’s Wager, they no longer really use faith as a form of knowing that fills the gaps left by science. Kant’s problem, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” bothers few any more.

Although most Christians have difficulty describing exactly what faith is, I think it still makes sense to define it still as a theological virtue that serves as a basis for judgment. Unlike knowledge that makes quantitative use of information, faith judges the quality of the data. It claims a wisdom able to provide meaning and purpose for using knowledge properly. In “Lumen Fidei,” Pope Francis defines this as throwing “a light for our way.”

From this perspective, faith is a response to the story of God proclaimed in the Church. It trusts God’s promise to be active in history, rescuing the creation from self- destruction and especially humanity from the suffering it inflicts on itself. Trusting God’s word to care for even the least significant and fragile, the believer finds courage to cope with the anxiety of life’s constant uncertainties and the fear that technology’s power might be used for destruction. Faith provides the courage needed to address honestly and creatively the tremendous perils our powerful technology has created. At the same time, it calls for a repentance understood as rethinking our priorities, so we can find our way in this dangerous world.

Using Wittgenstein’s insight, faith is like falling in love rather than reasoning. It returns God’s love and embarks on life together with him and his beloved.

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