Faith then is a rational assent to the reality of something that is hoped for. What is hoped for? According to the Christian tradition, faith rests in a God who is good, just, and loving. If this is the definition of faith we are working with, we can also state what the virtue of faith is not. The virtue of faith is not belief in something untrue or bad, nor is it a strongly-held feeling or emotional state.
In fact, the ancient pagan philosophers realized that superstitious belief in the traditional Pantheon of gods could not possibly lead to virtue. If the divine were really a wrangling set of deities like the philandering Zeus, violent Ares, and deceptive Hermes, how could one expect to learn how to live rightly? Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics arrived at the idea that the divine must be singular, transcendent, and good.
The average American does not sacrifice to the Greek gods. But the objects of our worship (whether a divinity, abstract principles, or materialism) may still look as haphazard and problematic as the Pantheon of old! Strong faith in the wrong god, person, or idea negatively impacts the way we treat others. The stronger our faith in the wrong thing, the worse we are likely to become.
Past and present skeptics of faith have been quick to point out the disastrous effects of mis-applied faith. In his essay Will Religious Faith Cure Our Troubles, the noted atheist essayist Bertrand Russell argues,
"I wish to maintain that all faiths do harm. We may define 'faith' as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence...We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife... Neither [Christianity nor communism] can be defended rationally, and each therefore is defended by propaganda and, if necessary, by war."
Much of Russell's critique in the rest of the essay is valid, but what he criticizes is not faith, but delusion--faith in something false, or used in a self-serving way.
In fact, the result of faith in something false is anxiety--the opposite of a well-ordered life. Something hinted at, but not directly stated so far, is that faith can be mis-applied to good things such as family, health, and wealth. Faith in what nature or providence has happened to give us also constitutes false faith.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’"
Luke 12:16-20 NIV
Now the interpretation of this parable, or some of Jesus' other sayings such as "take no thought for the morrow," is not advising imprudence. Rather, it is warning that prudence in worldly affairs should not become faith in them. The parable shows the mistake of having faith in something that will not preserve our happiness, our lives, or our souls.
Faith then, properly held, believes in something true, reasonable, and good that is beyond the material sphere. There is another aspect to faith. It is consistent. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis presents faith as, "The art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes." In other words, if we believe that stealing is wrong, we must take it on faith that stealing is wrong, otherwise we will steal when the opportunity presents itself. The virtue of faith is not believing in something that justifies ourselves but holding on to beliefs when they no longer become advantageous to us.
We have discussed faith as a virtue of reason and the intellect. However, while the virtue of faith begins at reason, it goes beyond it. Faith acknowledges that truth is beyond human comprehension and admits that human reason can only go so far--that there are mysteries that transcend our ability to understand them.
Without faith, pursuing the other virtues becomes unbearable. Virtue without faith can lead to despair because no one is actually able to be courageous, prudent, or temperate all the time, in every situation. Faith keeps us right in the face of our own failings. While the other virtues flow from faith, faith does not take stock in our own performance of virtue. If we have faith in our own ability to be virtuous, our faith is on shaky ground indeed. Faith in God keeps the pursuit of virtue from becoming a prison of strenuous effort.
In fact, the heroes of the Judeo-Christian faith are often deeply flawed individuals. However, they consistently acted not on what they could see, but on a future reality. And so, Noah built a boat in the desert, Abraham left his homeland for an unknown place, and David began a dynasty. It was their faith in something higher, something future, that made them great.
There are examples of people, past and present, who have lived a life of faith. One that stands out especially is Corrie Ten Boom. She, her sister, and elderly father hid Jews in their home during World War II. They were caught and the family was deported to a concentration camp. Corrie lost both her father and sister, but her deep faith miraculously kept her joy and hope alive. Her faith even enabled her to forgive one of the prison guards whom she met later in life. The 7th grade reads her story A Hiding Place. Corrie's life, and the lives of many other faith heroes, is a more vivid depiction of faith than any written description one could give.
The lofty goal then is a faith that kills the deadly monotony of following virtues as rules--a faith that is joyful and alive. C.S. Lewis beautifully concludes his discussion of faith in Mere Christianity by stating, "Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke."