For as long as I’ve been trying to understand truth, at least since high school sophomore philosophy, I’ve struggled with three terms: trust, belief, and faith. The more I’ve asked and read about them, the muddier the waters have gotten.
I’d like to propose some very simple and clear definitions for these important terms. The definitions aren’t original, nor can I cite my sources. They were distilled from my personal wrestling with the angel of clarity. I feel I’ve won the match. You can let me know if you think a return bout is called for.
Trust: a sense of safety that determines the range of possibilities we are willing to consider believing
Belief: a conviction that a particular possibility is in fact the case
Faith: a personal commitment to a belief or set of beliefs
Here’s my thinking…
Trust is a non-rational mental state. I don’t mean that it’s not rational to trust, but that the mental processes that create trust are not cerebral. Reason is involved, but reason alone is not enough to form trust. Trust doesn’t necessarily contradict reason, although it can. Building trust is a very different kind of process than explaining, discussing, analyzing, or any other reasoning process. Reason sufficiently enables us to come to conclusions. Whether we trust the conclusions or the people who concluded them is a different matter. Trust lies at a deeper level.
Trust enables us to take each other at face value. It’s built over time by repeated, consistent evidence that a being or a thing can be relied on. This indicates that it’s largely a function of our limbic brains. That’s how limbic processes work: incrementally, slowly, reinforced by regular, reliable repetition. Limbic connections grow over time. Limbic circuitry is conditioned, not reasoned, into being. This is one reason that loving gestures must be done again and again. One kiss might mean many things, but many kisses can only mean one thing, as far as our limbic brains are concerned. This is also why offering reasons to not feel distressed often does little to alleviate distress, but a simple hug or expression of committed support, given without reason or explanation, can do wonders.
I think of trust like a meadow in the midst of a forest. The meadow is covered with lovely grass sprinkled with flowers, the sun always shines there, and a breeze always plays across the grass and our skin, comforting us with gentle, cool touches, so that the sunshine’s warmth will break on us yet again. In the forest around us, it’s darker, cooler, with many unfamiliar things moving around. We venture in sometimes, but not too far, always soon returning to the safety and openness of our meadow. Sometimes creatures follow us out of the forest and visit us in the meadow. Some return, but others stay with us. Most things that we’re wary of are also wary of us and of clearings and strong sunshine, so they don’t venture out from the shelter of the forest.
Trust is our safe zone. Within our safe zone, we can relax, enjoy, pay attention, explore, play, and occupy ourselves without care or worry. We take what we see there just as we see it without second-guessing, and as we get familiar with it, we become sure about it. We make decisions based on our confidence and familiarity, and we act on our decisions. Even though we misstep or miscalculate and fail, it doesn’t necessarily diminish our trust. Our safe zone doesn’t shrink–now we just know it a little better. We end up with a good idea how everything works and how our safe zone relates to the largely unexplored world that surrounds it. As we explore the world and gain more confidence, the world recedes and our safe zone expands.
Belief is a rational mental state that we can only experience on the basis of trust. If you don’t trust me, you can’t believe me, even if you’d like to. If for some reason you find that you must believe me, you have to resort to other trust that you have elsewhere, because you don’t have any in me. You might decide to believe that I will pick you up because I said I would, even though I’m notoriously absent-minded, but only if something else you trust enables you to believe that this time will be different: the tone in my voice; I swore an oath to change; you promised to take me out to eat and I never pass up free food. Some factor rooted in consistent evidence over time enables you to believe that I’ll pick you up this time, just not my reliability. With no trustworthy factors available, you simply won’t believe me.
If we lose trust in everything, we have no way to believe anything. The last things we lose trust in are our own senses. If we experience events that destroy even our trust in our own senses, so that we truly can’t be sure of what our eyes see and our ears hear, we lose our minds, unless we find something else to trust. At that point, all that’s left to trust is what we don’t see or hear: unknown trustworthy things that might change our predicament, if indeed they exist and come to help in time. This is different than trusting in goodness or God, because at this point, we don’t have enough trust to support belief in either. This is trust in the potential for goodness or God; trust that they might exist and help. The only way to grasp that kind of trust is to stubbornly, unreasonably refuse to let go of hope–an extreme case, but one that many people have been in and come back from. I’m one. Whether you call clinging to “blind hope” a “rational” or “irrational” decision probably depends on your priorities. Those who do it live to tell about it.
Within my circle of trust, belief is a matter of judgment. I decide that I am sure that a ball will drop down, not fly up. I could be wrong, but that’s OK because I’m safe. I can try it and see what happens. If I’m wrong, I’ll learn and my beliefs will adjust. If I’m right, I can incorporate the ball into my plans, because I know how it will behave. I might not make use of that knowledge; that depends on my plans, which depend on what I want. I might not want to use the ball right now. In five minutes I might want to use it. My beliefs about the ball are the same either way.
Faith is a rational mental state that we experience once we commit to a belief or set of beliefs. I might believe that I’ve met the woman of my dreams, but faith isn’t involved until I commit to that belief. Commitment in this example might mean merely making a decision that I’ll never consider any other woman “the woman of my dreams,” or it might mean deciding to woo her and following through, or it might mean deciding to avoid her at all costs, because she’s far too good for me and I don’t want to inflict myself on her. Regardless of what the commitments turn out to be, faith always involves two things that constitute commitment:
- I attach something valuable to my belief
- I maintain the integrity of that attachment
If I don’t commit anything valuable–something I care about–to my belief, “faith” and “belief” become interchangeable and their meanings indistinguishable. Most people use “faith” to mean something deeper, more profound and more encompassing than mere conviction about the way things are. At least I do.
By concluding that this particular woman is the woman of my dreams, I form a belief. If I do nothing about that belief, what is my faith? Probably, it’s something self-deprecating that leads me to conclude that nothing can be done, or that it can be but shouldn’t be.
A faith that prevents me from acting on my belief that she is the woman of my dreams doesn’t negate my belief, because it involves other beliefs that probably have nothing to do with her. It’s a faith, because I attached valuable things to beliefs which are probably about myself or other factors, since I hardly know anything about her. Let’s say I believe that I would put her in danger by having a relationship with her. I might then form a new belief (that she is better off without me) and attach something valuable (the woman of my dreams and any future I might otherwise have with her) to that belief. Now my faith has changed. I met the woman of my dreams and a relationship with her would put her in danger, but since I’ll avoid her, she’ll be safe.
As long as I maintain the integrity of those attachments, my faith remains intact. If my beliefs change, or the value of the things I attached to them changes, or I decide to change or sever the attachments I made, my faith is affected. The danger might pass. I might find out that she is willing to risk it. I might realize that she really isn’t the woman of my dreams. I might become overwhelmed and hop on a boat to Australia so that I don’t have to face my fear of rejection. Faith begins when I attach things I care about to a belief or set of beliefs. Faith continues as long as the attachments continue, and whether they do or not is up to me.
We know we are “in” the experience of faith when we feel like matters have been settled. As long as important factors are up in the air, we can’t be confident about what we do. Whether our beliefs aren’t adequate to support faith or we haven’t committed what we care about to those beliefs, until we conclude and commit, we vacillate. We don’t know which possibility to choose and what to risk on the choice. When we settle those questions, we feel closure, resolution, and confidence enough to at least take the next step.
Let’s say my bus is running late and I get off at a transfer point. The bus I want to catch there might be on its way, or it might already have come and gone. I have no faith about the bus, because I don’t know what to believe yet. Once I ask other riders there at the stop and find out if it came or not, I decide at some point to believe either that the bus is coming, that it already came, or that it won’t come at all.
My faith depends on what I do next. I might believe, from the information I got from others at the stop, that the bus already came. The question is what I do about that belief. If for some reason I doubt the information they gave me, I might not yet know what to believe, but I still must do something. I might decide that I can’t know if the bus came or not. That is now my belief, and the question what to do remains.
Answering that question involves a commitment. I could stay and wait for the next bus, but then I’d be really late. I could walk a mile over to another route and hope that it will get me home sooner. I could call for a cab. Whatever I choose to do, once I choose, I enter into an experience of faith. As far as I’m concerned, the matter is settled. Now I know enough about what is going on to be free to act with confidence. Getting us into a frame of mind that enables confident action is one of faith’s primary functions. It’s not something mysterious or spooky. We do it all the time. It’s no different with buses or people or God.
Let’s say I choose to wait for the next bus. So, my faith is that I’ll get home very late and I’ll have to adjust my schedule. That’s settled. So, while I wait for the bus, I might start rearranging my commitments for the rest of the day, because that makes sense given my faith about how things are now, formed by committing to the belief that the bus I wanted already came. My faith tells me what the world is like, and I act accordingly. My faith doesn’t guarantee what the world is like. The bus might not have come already, and I might not get home when I think I will. If the bus arrives anyway, in spite of believing that it already came and left, I’ll be surprised and have to undo the changes I made to my schedule. A friend might drive by and give me a lift, so then I’d have to put my schedule back the way it was and slip in a decompression nap during the half hour I just gained. Or the next bus I’m waiting for might break down, making me so late that I’ll scrap my schedule, stay home with a bottle of wine, and fritter the rest of the afternoon and evening away.
As information changes, it affects our faith, because what we believe, what we are willing to commit, and what we’ll commit it to change as we go along. Faith isn’t just an effect; it changes things, too. Faith doesn’t change everything that will happen, but it changes many important things. Jesus claimed that it can change much more than we think it can.
The Problem With Faith
Many people think that faith has to involve God or divine beings or power. It can, but it’s no different when it does. Faith in God depends on my beliefs about God. Faith in other people depends on my beliefs about them. Likewise with faith in myself. The object of faith doesn’t change the nature of faith. In fact, let’s check the supposed authority on the subject. There are 50 verses in the Gospels that refer to faith. Only 8 mention an object of faith. Only one in the Gospel of Mark mentions faith in God. Seven in the Gospel of John mention faith in Jesus. That leaves 42 references, most of them made by Jesus, to faith in…?
Your guess is as good as anyone’s, because the answer isn’t written. So why do we insist that there be an answer? We seem stuck on the idea that faith requires an object, something or someone to have faith in. As I’ve defined faith, that’s not necessary. It’s not necessarily how we experience faith, either. Sometimes, yes; but more often, not. In fact, the more soundly a person’s faith lies in someone or something, the more dependent–and so, the less powerful–that person becomes. Yet, everything that Jesus said and demonstrated about faith implied power, independence, and dignity.
Jesus told people who were healed, “Your faith has made you well.” Neither he nor they claimed that this was faith in God. Many through the centuries have inferred that they meant “faith in God,” but that’s not what they said. It isn’t written that way. If you actually read what’s written without reading into it, Jesus taught that faith itself is the power that heals and makes nothing impossible to us. No one reported that he prayed to God for help before he walked on water. When he calmed the storm, he simply said, “Hush, be still.” Did the disciples mention God in their amazement? No. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus claimed that faith can move a mountain, not that it moves God to do things for us. Churchians got it wrong.
The faith that the Bible tells us about is not something that violates trust or belief, nor is it something that can be disconnected from trust and belief, not if it’s real faith. My thoughts on faith come from experience with it in real life. This is how it works “out in the field,” regardless of what Churchian theorists claim. Faith is not like they told us, and our problems with faith are not how they gave us to believe.
The standard Churchian answer to problems with faith–e.g., lack of faith, weak faith, doubt, “double-mindedness,” etc.–is some variation of “try harder.” Of course, this implies that the problem and its causes lie in the person experiencing the problem; a standard wrap-it-round-their-ears deflection gimmick used everywhere that hypocrites have the upper hand. Either the problematic person isn’t trying hard enough, doesn’t want it badly enough, or isn’t sincere enough. And when will “enough” ever be enough? That’s an easy answer for Churchians: when it stops being a problem, you know it was enough! Is it any wonder that believers make skeptics and atheists go cross-eyed trying to follow that kind of logic?
It’s tough, trying hard to have faith beyond the limits of your trust or in things you don’t truly believe. Been there, done that, too. In fact, it’s not just tough, it’s impossible. Those who claim to do it have only succeeded in warping their own minds. The sad thing is that this perverted notion of “faith” misleads the innocent–even atheists are beguiled by it. They reject it, of course, because it’s ludicrously irrational; but in doing so, they think that they rejected all that could be called “faith,” because those who should have known never mentioned alternatives. Atheists correctly believe that irrationality is precisely what many religious people mean by “faith.” To them, faith is something otherworldly, involving supernatural forces that fly in the face of reason, the more so, the better. (sic) Atheists think that believers are nuts and, given the notion of faith prevailing on both sides of the God-is fence, they’d be right.
The solution to “little” faith, a “lack” of faith, or “unbelief” is to check out what’s causing the problem. If our car runs out of gas, should we just “try harder?” Or, should we “have faith” that God will start the engine with a dry tank? Well, what do we believe and what do we want to do? That will determine how and what we commit to our beliefs. That’s our faith, and it will make us confident to take our next steps. This is where many, many “believers” misunderstand. They think that committing something to their beliefs demonstrates their faith. It can’t. Faith is the result of committing to our beliefs. There is no faith before commitment. So what are these “believers” trying to demonstrate when they deny their children medical treatment or walk on coals or handle rattlesnakes? It must be something, but it’s not faith.
Like anything else–if we have a problem, the first thing we should do is look for its causes. Faith occurs naturally as soon as we commit something we care about to our beliefs. It’s a good kind of confirmation bias. If that doesn’t happen on its own, maybe it shouldn’t happen at all; but if it should happen, some problem or problems prevent it, so we need to find them and figure out what their causes are.
Does the “faith” we want exceed our circle of trust? Then our circle needs to expand. Trying harder to believe won’t change it; but exploring and getting familiar with areas beyond our current limitations might. Do our beliefs contradict the “faith” we want? Often, people are told that they are supposed to believe things they truly don’t believe. One or the other has to give; both can’t be held in the same mind and get sanity to come of it. “Trying harder” to “believe” or trying to “have faith” while we ignore the problems that limit or interfere with faith creates hypocrisy, not “more” or “stronger” faith. Why would we want to overlook the problems, anyway? What would prompt (or compel) us to believe things that we truly don’t believe? Why would we want a “faith” that required us to do that? It just doesn’t make sense, nor should it.
Thanks to the strange and twisted teachings of Churchianity, many people think that faith is something irrational which we resort to when reason fails us, especially when we really need something to be true in spite of the fact that everything we believe tells us it isn’t true. That understanding of faith might result from our best efforts under duress, but thinking born of necessity under pressure is usually a far cry from healthy, competent, effective thinking. We’d do well to take a step back, breathe, and ask if we could do better.
Faith is the natural, rational result of committing to beliefs we formed from conclusions drawn out of experience we trust.
There, that’s better.