by Jack McLean
Dichotomous thinking has it that “faith” is confined exclusively to the religious and spirituals. Non-believers, according to theists, have no faith. This easy assumption is what I am questioning here. You may be a diehard atheist, a non-committal or “questing agnostic,” but following a line of thought of the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), one of the leading Protestant theologians of the 20th century, faith is a fundamental category or dynamic of the human condition, whether you formally acknowledge God or not.
In his widely read little book, Dynamics of Faith (1956), Tillich held that faith is inherent to all human existence. His philosophical, existentialist definition of faith was “the state of being ultimately concerned.” And…even if you are not so concerned, Tillich argued, you will not be able to escape faith, even if it is bad faith, for faith is an inescapable, universal feature of the human condition.
What does he mean by this? For most theists who follow one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), faith means belief in God, following a holy figure, and a sacred book, adopting a belief system, whether it be a creed, articles of faith, personal worldview, or moral code. For atheists and agnostics, the business of life must be transacted through the efforts of the individual alone, without the intervention or guidance of any transcendent force. In non-theistic Buddhism, the Buddha-mind resides within oneself rather than in some personal, transcendent Deity. “Look to yourselves,” “Look within,” the Buddha is reported to have taught. “Be a refuge unto yourselves.”
Tillich argues that faith is whatever “can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group.” His definition connects faith to practical psychology and the lived experience, something that all humans universally possess. Being ultimately concerned fits the French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) definition of religion as la vie sérieuse, the “serious life.” But the serious life may be lived by religious and non-religious alike, when one engages life with one’s whole being and with deep commitment.
Put more simply, faith as ultimate concern becomes our driving spiritual force, impelling to fulfillment whatever becomes the goal of our desire. There is no one, he argues, who does not possess faith of a kind; no one without a god, no soul without something or someone to worship, no person without ultimate values to guide one’s actions, even if these ultimate values remain unconscious.
Tillich explicitly does not exclude atheists in his definition of faith. Since everyone has an ultimate concern, this concern is an act of faith, “even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God,” he wrote. Whatever we live for is elevated to the status of a god.
The siren-songs of the gods we seek promise complete fulfillment. But when we commit heart and soul to transitory goods or material values, we risk the deception that follows from idolatry. Idolatrous faith will eventually bring scepticism, meaninglessness and disillusionment. Informed trust in the True Ultimate, an act which is the precise inverse of “blind faith,” and although the individual will experience periods of discouragement and doubt on the spiritual path, trust means believing that what has not yet come to pass will assuredly do so.
Faith as trust (New Testament Gk. pistis) is what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews called “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV, 11:1). The author’s cogent definition of faith fits the category of a universal. For who of us will undertake a vital project without first believing that it will happen? Who does not trust or hope for a favourable outcome to a cherished ideal or dream? When the faith state is coupled with the ability to think imaginatively, we are empowered to risk, and to venture into creative enterprises. Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” must boldly dare. As Tennyson exhorted: “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’” Faith is a quest that seeks unknown lands.
Tillich’s novel definition of faith was not without its critics, both in academia and in the larger Christian community. Some conservative theologians have qualified Tillich’s philosophical definition of faith as being too bloodless, abstract or impersonal. The belief in a personal God, they have argued, is severely compromised by Tillich’s existential definition of faith. How, for example, do you pray to or connect with an Ultimate Concern? According to their reasoning, our ultimate concern should derive from the communicating Will of a Creator-God. The existence of a Creator-God, however, does not invalidate Tillich’s point. It may be seen to work in conjunction with it.
Now the content of faith does admittedly differ widely, and one cannot minimize or deny the fact that the precise content and object of faith matter greatly. For some, their ultimate concern may be the quest for knowledge or scientific truth, service to the community, the practice of the arts or music, patriotism, political or social engagement, dedication to a worthy cause. Tillich’s key-word “ultimate” points to whatever takes on an absolute character.
The proper object of faith, he teaches, is the Holy, the Sacred, what he calls “the God beyond God.” This strange-sounding phrase means that whatever God is, He remains beyond the ken of all human understanding, as “the ground of all being.” Whatever we affirm of God in no way describes God. Tillich’s definition of faith is not based on an intellectual argument; it is not something that can proved or disproved. Its “proof” is found with the total engagement of one’s whole being.
Finally, I ask myself, who among us really wants to be counted as an unbeliever? I mean how empowering can it be to “affirm” — paradoxically — the negative of unbelief? Tillich would say that whatever we affirm as being the ultimate, whatever is the ne plus ultra in life, there is our faith. There is our God.