What is the relationship of faith and belief? Initially, one might consider these two terms synonymous. Further consideration reveals, however, that there is an important distinction between the two. By “belief,” I mean cognitive assent to a proposition. For example, I assent to the claim made medical experts that too much exposure to sunlight leads to a significant increase of risk of skin cancer. I agree with their pronouncements on this matter. By “faith,” I mean an activity in which I come to apply or rely on anyone of my particular beliefs. So, let’s say that even though I assent to the pronouncements of the vast majority of medical experts about the need for sun block, nevertheless I sunbathe unprotected in death valley, though sun block is in my travel bag. In this example, I don’t trust, apply, or rely upon that which I claim to believe.
How would this distinction play out in a religious context? In terms of belief, there are certainly particular doctrines found within various traditions that are to be assented to by the followers of each tradition respectively. The history of Christianity has been one in which creeds have been paramount for the introduction and growth of its adherents. Interestingly enough, the word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo,” which means “I believe.” As a young congregant in the Catholic church, it was (and still is) a part of each service to recite the Apostles’ creed, which delineates the distinctives of the Christian religion. This recital is the exhibition (for the devout) of a propositional attitude of assent to the truthfulness of each main tenet of Christianity. So, for example, the creed says, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.” To say I “believe” this proposition is tantamount to saying that I’m not an atheist. In addition to belief, what are we to make of faith in a religious context? Well, let’s say that I assent to the part of the creed that says that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead in accordance to some criteria. Having faith in this statement, I actively seek to make sure that I have met the criteria necessary for a favorable judgment. That is, to have faith, is to apply and rely upon what one has assented to cognitively.
At this point, one may see a vast chasm between belief and faith. Its one thing to assent to some proposition as being true, but it’s quite another to apply or rely on that truth. In some cases, relying upon what we believe is quite easy. For instance, it’s relatively easy to apply sun block to my skin. It’s not a matter met with an attritious struggle in my soul between competing desires. In other cases, however, faith is a war of attrition. The impetus behind Soren Kierkegaard’s work called Fear and Trembling is to demonstrate that religious faith is not like heeding the doctor’s advice about sun block. Apparently, the mood at that time (and I fear that it’s a mood dominate in all times) was that at conversion, a person automatically has faith. The idea is that faith is merely the starting point. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further” (42). For Kierkegaard, this notion is quite strange. As he cynically puts it, “It would perhaps be rash to inquire where to.” (42). The idea he seems to be communicating is that faith isn’t the beginning, but the destination. Perhaps an illustration would help.
Faith isn’t something that is completely blossomed at conversion. Rather, conversion is the point at which a seed is dropped into a soil. But a seed by itself makes no rose. Moreover, the seed of faith isn’t an easy one to cultivate. The reason being is that the environment in which we seek to nurture this seed to its end or aim is the most unfavorable. Imagine trying to nurse a seed to a rose in death valley. One would have to provide shade from the sun and continually saturate the ground with water fetched miles away. Also, it is necessary to blanket the area with manure. As it grows, perhaps a person would have to continually spray the fragile plant with ice water to insure it from shriveling up in the hellish atmosphere. Needless to say, the project is nothing less but painstaking. So it is for faith, according to Kierkegaard. At conversion, there isn’t an instantaneous blossom of faith. Rather, this seed must be continually tended to by the believer in the most non conducive environment. Whether it’s the aridity of life, the angst of existence, or the manure-like stench of circumstances, one must incessantly labor to develop this most fragile seed into the rose it was intended to be.
Is there a secular analog to Kierkegaard’s idea that faith is a task for a lifetime? I think there is. Professor Howard Wettestien alluded to this sort of analogue in the movie Dead Man Walking. Perhaps the idea that could be gleaned from this movie is that not only did the nun profess a belief in the basic goodness of humanity, but she had faith that it was the case with a particular hardened criminal. The criminal was recalcitrant to the pleas of the nun to repent of his evil doings. He gave every indication that mankind is evil at the very core. However, she toiled and struggled with the conviction that her belief was correct. Finally, at the time of the convict’s execution, the goodness of humanity burgeons in repentance and remorse on the part the convict. Notice that her faith in the faith of humanity wasn’t a one shot deal, but a long task of labor.
Now that we have discussed the nature of faith, let’s discuss tests of faith. Not only did Abraham live a life of faith, but also a life of testing. In particular, God had tested Abraham’s trust on several different occasions. In Genesis chapter 12, God commands Abraham to leave everything that he knows and loves, in order to venture to an unknown place. In Genesis 18, God tests Abraham in announcing his intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to kill the son that God had promised. We may view these three tests as successive. So, Genesis 12 may be regarded as the beginning of faith; a sort of conversion. Abraham has lived life one way, and now God tells him to go down a wholly different path that is completely unfamiliar. This is the stage at which faith is much like a seed. Genesis 18 may be regarded as a sort of mid-point in which he develops a sense of direction. Abraham is learning how he should regard his relationship to God and others. He is coming to grips with questions like the following: What’s the relationship between justice, mercy, petition, and God?
Genesis 22 reveals a sort of apex in which the very core of Abraham’s belief is placed in the crucible of examination. I want to suggest that this test reverberates back to Genesis 12 in which Abraham made a decision to step out in faith in obeying the voice of what may have seemed to him at that point, a foreign god. This God had promised at that time that if he stepped out, he would be met with particular blessings. However, in Genesis 22 this God now asks Abraham to sacrifice those particular blessings. Of course, this would suggest to any one else in Abraham’s shoes that they had made a wrong decision in Genesis 12. “I shouldn’t have listened to this voice.” “I should have stayed with everything I loved and knew.” So at this malevolent command, we would probably declare, “I will turn back to Ur of the Chaldeans.” But Abraham had faith.
What was the purpose of these tests? To give knowledge to God about Abraham’s spiritual state that he didn’t have previously? Or, to give this knowledge to Abraham, who didn’t grasp it? I say neither. If Kierkegaard’s assessment of faith is right (i.e., if it a task of a lifetime), then we may view tests of faith as circumstances without which faith would not develop. Perhaps another analogy would helpful here: faith is like a muscle, which only develops given its activity (i.e. exercise). Moreover, exercise is the sort of activity that includes constant tears and subsequent repairs of muscle tissue. But, to have these tears of muscle tissue, one must have resistance. In sum, physical development involves, in part, succession, resistance, and pain. Likewise, we may regard spiritual development as the same. The purpose of the tests given to Abraham was not to reveal something that someone didn’t know, but to provide a circumstance for Abraham to exercise this spiritual muscle. Put crudely, these tests were exercise sessions in which resistance was provided for the sake of spiritual growth and maturity.