An opinion hath spread it selfe verie farre in the world, as if the waye to be ripe in faith, were to be rawe in wit and judgement; as if reason were an enimie unto religion … [But] ‘Judge you of that which I speak,’ saith the Apostle [1 Cor.10:15]. In vaine it were to speake any thing of God, but that by reason men are able some what to judge of that they heare, and by discourse to discerne how consonant it is to truth.”—16th Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 3.8.11-12

Could it be that our world could use a few more Hookers? (Yes, that’s a shameless double entendre.) There’s a tendency in our modern culture to equate faith with unquestioning belief: you believe something without having looked at any reasons for or against believing it, and then you treat it as if it should be off-limits to questions like that. This is what upsets vocal critics of faith like the new atheists. I think they are right to be upset about this. It may be harmless in most cases, but it’s also a breeding ground for fanaticism, terrorism, super-patriotism and other ills that beset our world.

But I and countless others like me over the centuries never speak of faith as a matter of believing without questioning, because we view faith as awakening trustfully to the uniquely ever-present, all-inclusive reality constantly eluding any final descriptions, even those of our favorite creeds. Words like “God” or “YHWH” or “Elohim” point to this unique reality open-endedly. So for us faith is not believing in something absent but trusting in this seemingly ever-present reality beyond our grasp or control. It does not have to wonder about the existence of this reality, only about its ultimate character. It is an inkling that this reality in which we already find ourselves immersed is also our ultimate good. It is a kind of “knowledge,” or awareness, but not the everyday kind: the more we know of this reality “in which we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), the more we realize that it is too vast, too intimate and too engaging ever to be adequately described. The very scriptures and traditions we inhabit, and which inhabit us, speak to us most faithfully, not when we look to them for final “answers,” but when they awaken, transform and deepen this inkling of the ultimate goodness of the reality in which we live and move and have our being.

Now whenever I say something like this, somebody almost always responds that I’m offering a “liberal” or “academic” redefinition of faith. That simply is not true. It may be a minority voice in a world where most people, religious or not, would rather not think, but it’s still a voice that’s been around for quite some time. Christian thinkers understood faith in this way well before the rise of modern science—not all of them, but many of them, like Hooker.

John Calvin, another 16th Century theologian (not known for being liberal), concurred in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He claimed: 1) Faith is a form of knowledge, not blind belief: “Is this what believing means—to understand nothing, provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance but on knowledge … It is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate”(3.2.2). 2) Faith’s “knowledge” is not comprehension but an assured recognition of something incomprehensible: “When we call faith ‘knowledge’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond itself and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. … For very good reason … faith is called ‘recognition’, but by John, ‘knowledge’. … [But] the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”(3.2.14).

Over the past fifty years many people of faith have been influenced by Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957). Faith, Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned,” “an act of the personality as a whole,” concern, above all, “about what is experienced as ultimate” (1, 5, 11). Faith can of course be idolatrous when misplaced: “In true faith the ultimate concern is a concern about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy” (13). For example, it is idolatry to be ultimately concerned about my own faith tradition, my tradition’s scriptures, or even my own beliefs. None of these are the truly ultimate—at best, they can help us to participate in the truly ultimate, but only when we let them point beyond themselves. Only the truly ultimate deserves the name of “God,” and if we hear stories about God in our scriptures, they are true stories only insofar as they point us to the truly ultimate beyond all our limited concepts of God (53-55).

Now, let’s admit, Tillich is most definitely an “ivory tower” figure, and he is perceived by many as “liberal” (though he always rejected the term as too bourgeois). But is this really an illicit attempt, as Sam Harris charges, to change the meaning of the term from what pre-modern religious leaders meant? (See Harris, The End of Faith [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), p. 65.) As it turns out, “ultimate concern with the truly ultimate” seems to be a theme that Tillich (a Lutheran) borrowed from Martin Luther himself: “What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”—From The Larger CatechismHarris can reject this as a definition of faith, but he needs to recognize that this is no modern reinvention of the term. It’s hundreds of years old. It was once required reading for young Lutherans.

Harris may of course be right that the majority of religious people have always preferred to think of faith as unquestioning belief, but doesn’t that simply confirm Tillich’s point that we have a tendency to settle for idolatry? And isn’t it a central point of theological education to teach people to stop making idols of their own cherished ideas? Isn’t that also a central point of preaching, at least in Churches like mine that always required an educated clergy? (Alas, many do not require this any more.) Furthermore, if we’re going to discuss an idea, shouldn’t we start with what the most informed people say it means? If we want to discuss reason and science, do we look to childhood impressions for our definitions, or do we look to mature reflections of people well-versed in both? So why is it OK to stick with childish impressions of faith and God? Again, let’s admit, those of us who want to move beyond childish impressions may be a minority voice, but we are, and always have been, much more numerous than “Tillich’s blameless parish of one” (Harris, 65), and we are not giving up or going away.