Many nonbelievers equate faith with certainty, or with a desire for explanations: how the world came to be, why the good suffer, etc. And it must be said that many unreflective believers make superstitious use of religion. But few of the serious believers I know think of faith in this way. For most it is a kind of perception, a form of gratitude, and very far from anything like explanation or certainty.
There is so great a divide between these ideas of what faith means that they really need exploring. We need to ask why people who say they have no need for faith insist they know the experience of those of us who do believe, when they themselves admittedly have no aptitude for belief; it’s like a tone-deaf man who insists on explaining the nonmeaning of music.
There is plainly a version of faith, one with an ancient pedigree, that rules out doubt of any sort. It was probably not all that difficult to sustain in a period during which most of your contemporaries claimed to share your belief, at least paying it lip service—a time when belief was seen as a desirable thing, or when peer pressure made it seem so.
While I can say the creed and mean it, I cannot say it the way I would (for example) recite multiplication tables. My belief that this is true is asserted not as a recitation of simple facts, but in the face of the possibility that it may not be, in the deep hope that it is, and in the belief that I have good reasons for that hope.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews weds faith and hope, which moves us beyond any sense of certainty. Real certainty does not require hope. I don’t need to hope that two and two make four, but I do need to hope that my belief—well founded, I think—that my wife loves me is grounded in reality and is not an illusion. One could argue that my belief in my wife’s love is in fact an illusion, based on a need to believe what I want to believe, to console myself in a lonely universe. I could not conclusively disprove this, but I believe I have quite solid grounds to believe my wife loves me. I do not cling to this belief because of a need to be right, a clinging that could lead to a kind of fundamentalism about my wife’s love, but rather because I believe that the reality of my wife’s love is more important than my feelings about it, which may vary from day to day.
But faith is the hope that God’s love is different, that whatever our limited love may be, God’s love is both its ground and radically other, in the sense that it does not have requirements, does not need reasons, simply is. This shows itself in the covenant with Israel, in the Incarnation, in Jesus’ teaching and death for us, in the hope of resurrection, in what we are asked to become. Again, our relationship with all of this has to do with hope, not with certainty.
Is the assurance mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews the same thing as certainty? I don’t think so. It has more to do with confidence and trust...and these take us outside ourselves, whereas certainty encysts us. We are—in places where we must have confidence, hope, or trust—in open places, where we are at some risk.
And this has to do with another claim by some nonbelievers: that belief in a particular religion means that one must regard all other religions as false. While some fundamentalists think this way, most serious believers are not so either/or-ish. One can believe that the fullness of truth is found in Christianity and, at the same time, acknowledge that wisdom and truth can be found elsewhere. Early in Christian history, St. Justin spoke of “the seeds of the word” found not only in the Judaism that gave birth to Christianity but also in Greek philosophy. Paul spoke of the same thing when he referred to a shrine dedicated to an “unknown god.” When I first began to look seriously at Buddhism, I found quite a lot of overlap in Christian and Buddhist monastic literature. In the same way, anyone who reads the Bhagavad-Gita will find something holy there. What is impressive in a survey of world religions is not the disagreements so much as the agreements. Simone Weil (in Letter to a Priest) said that there are truths implicit in some religions that are explicit in Christianity and truths implicit in Christianity that are explicit in other religions.
One can believe that all are saved because of what Jesus did in dying and rising, that in him we see what the Father is like, and at the same time approach (for example) Buddhism humbly, knowing that we can learn from it even as we believe that it is in Jesus that Buddhists are saved.
I mention these two examples of misunderstanding because the dialogue between believers and unbelievers is important. So far the new atheists have made it a one-sided loathe-fest, with scorn heaped on all forms of belief. It is essential that each side see the complexity of the other, and understand what is persuasive, even wise, in both belief and unbelief.
Related: John Garvey, The New Atheists