I love the field of study known as epistemology or the study of knowledge. Basically answering the question, “How do you know what you think you know?” Especially in a culture that tends to deny objective reality, particularly as it pertains to non-material objects/ideas, I find it helpful to be able to answer the skeptic’s critique of faith in metaphysical realities as being intellectually vacuous or as many like to claim, a “leap of faith”.
What is faith?
In Bruce Little’s lecture What is faith? Does belief require Warrant?, he asserts that faith is, in a nutshell, a conclusion one makes based on reason and evidence. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Notice this verse tells us that faith is the certainty of things we do not see, not the things not known. The difference between the two is a rather large leap. Consequently we are told in Romans 10:14-15:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Faith, then, requires knowledge. Or, to put it the way Paul did in the preceding verse: “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”
How are beliefs formed?
One of the most common misconceptions today is the notion that we can directly and causally will ourselves to believe something. A favorite thought experiment I like to use is this: Imagine I offered you a suitcase with a million dollars if you would believe that the moon were made of cheese. You would certainly have the incentive and desire to believe that the moon is made of cheese but until you were able to amass enough evidence you would not be able to form the belief that the moon were made of cheese.
The point is this: We can’t directly control our beliefs.
So then, how are beliefs actually formed?
In another lecture by Bruce Little titled The Formation of Belief, he argues that beliefs, while not formed directly as we’ve seen above, are formed indirectly by what we choose to accept as credible evidence. This lends itself to the wisdom found in Proverbs where we read that wisdom is gained through a plurality of counselors. While we cannot directly control our beliefs, we can choose what we will and won’t allow ourselves to be persuaded by. What we allow ourselves to be persuaded by indirectly determines what we place our faith in and shows what we value the most.
This also lends itself to the repeated assertion in Scripture that what one feeds on (that is, information and influences) is what one will eventually start resembling. This is also why Proverbs again warns us that those around us have a profound influence on us either for good or for ill.
Conclusion: The nature of faith
Faith is built on evidence, real or imagined.
Faith is not an object, it is a conclusion drawn given evidence.
Faith is only as strong as the evidence it is built on.
Faith is only valid insofar as the conclusion is true.
In short, everyone has faith. And while we cannot directly will ourselves to believe anything, we can choose what we will and won’t accept as evidence which indirectly determines what we will and won’t have a foundation to place future beliefs on.
Consequently, most people are afraid of questioning certain central beliefs they hold out of fear that if their prior beliefs are shown to be invalid their subsequent beliefs will change. Regardless of this danger, if we are honest in our pursuit of truth we ought to be willing to objectively examine all forms of evidence, both physical as well as metaphysical. We also ought to fight to maintain consistency among the beliefs we hold as we grow which means we must constantly be willing to re-examine our beliefs from time to time.
For more resources regarding the epistomoligical warrant for belief in God in general and the God of the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s lecture on Religious epistemology and Alvin Plantinga‘s 3-volume “Warrant” set which includes: Warrant: the Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief.