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Samuel Thorpe

The Nature of Faith

Faith is an essential aspect of religious experience. Events can often be understood by some people as aesthetic or pleasant [1] rather than religious because their frame of reference rejects the spiritual connection for a more temporal one. However, of course, there are experiences that people have that by-pass any effort on their part to explain them naturally and clearly demonstrate a spiritual situation. One British scholar described his experience, like those of many others, that convinced him of the reality of God. He had "no religion," no "real sense of personal relationship to God." He went for a walk alone one day, without particular thoughts or intentions, when he "became conscious of the presence of someone else" and realized a feeling that the "being of God" surrounded him. "It was no longer a matter of inference, it was an immediate act of spiritual... apprehension." The experience changed his whole perspective of the world and himself. "I had not found God because I had never looked for him. But he had found me; he had, I could not but believe, made himself personal to me" [2]. The man could interpret this experience because faith had been "awakened" or become functionally directed in him.

Some people, and many psychologists, deem faith to be something akin to wishful thinking. The great philosopher-psychologist William James defined faith as a "belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible," that the believer acts in faith by taking steps which are not guaranteed to turn out as he thinks they should [3]. If faith is not wishful thinking, or acting in hope that the right thing will happen, then it is non-rational self-affirmation. "Religious assertions... resist every objectively compelling form of rational justification, forcing believers to hold their convictions 'by faith' " [4].

These feeble attempts to define faith fail to understand the true nature of faith, religious of otherwise. Christian, as well as most religious, faith is first built on historical fact and event, certainly comprehended rationally. These events form the logical foundation for the theological truths proclaimed which explain the meaning of the events. Therefore, doctrines are delineated and articulated based on the historical "revelation" of the nature of God and how believers of all ages have comprehended Him. These are certainly not non-rational bases. The "objectively compelling form of rational justification" is no more than the scientific, naturalistic explanations of being, which depend on materialistic rather than spiritual or other justifications. There are many more truths and realities in the universe than those which science can expose.

Faith is also not merely wishful thinking. Faith is the clear, undeniable knowledge that something unseen is true [Hebrews 11:1]. Religious faith is assurance, evidence of the unseen, certainty that the spiritual world and God are what we have experienced them to be. It is certainty that what God has promised, He will do. It is rational acceptance of historical fact and prophetic promise. Any emotion connected with the exercise of faith is merely consequential or contiguous. That many Christians and other religious practitioners misunderstand the nature of faith and act as if faith is uncertain has evidently led others to define faith incorrectly. Faith is knowing, not guessing or wishing. Why do we talk about "faith" in the context of religion and "reason" in the context of knowledge? William James' definition of faith as a species of belief "concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible" is inadequate. Faith is considered a positive knowledge, the very opposite of doubt [James 1:5-7]. But faith is not simply religious knowledge either, though faith has an adequate rational foundation. Faith must "make sense;" it must satisfy the rational aspect of the human experience or it will be dismissed or distrusted. Faith is rational knowledge of the unseen, based on the trustworthiness of the source of that knowledge. We have faith in human relationships because the person who is the object of our faith is trustworthy, dependable in our experience of their behavior or sentiments. We have faith that the invisible elements of the physical world exist because we observe results of their use. We have faith in historic evidence that certain persons existed and did certain things, though we have no photographs, videotapes, audio recordings or other modern acceptable evidence to show us their lives. Faith, then, is a trust based on a reliable source or our own experience, that something which we cannot see nor detect physically is nevertheless true and exists.

Whittaker represents the quintessential psychological scientist as he asserts that believers only "feel certain" and that their testimonies are unreasonable.

The most natural explanation is that we are confined to belief in matters of faith because we are not in a position to know... religious assertions are hypotheses — i.e. uncertain propositions whose truth or falsity might, in principle, if not in practice, be established by some kind of factual inquiry. Until we have all the facts we need, we cannot determine the truth of such beliefs... [5].

Whittaker demonstrates the weaknesses of the scientific method. He will only accept "natural" explanations of all phenomena; he will only accept "facts" which can be verified by human experimental control; he assumes all non-scientific inquiry to be irrelevant; he believes that the only valid epistemological method is scientific; and he expects that if he personally does not have material verification then an assertion of any kind cannot be true. Such attitudes are closed, narrow, blatantly unscientific, and ignore the great mass of phenomena for which experimental explanations cannot be obtained. We can applaud his desire for empirical assurance but such will not be provided if he will not accept historical evidence or patterns of current experiential data in the sphere of the spiritual.

Some critics have relegated faith as certainty to "mental adolescence" in the process of human development. The very desire for spiritual knowledge, absolutes, and moral living is considered the marks of immature minds [6]. This attitude assumes that uncertainty, ambivalence, ambiguity, and relativity are characteristics of maturity. The incongruity of this argument is evident. It has been said that childlikeness is essential to faith, but not childishness or irrational adolescence [Matt. 18:3]. There are abundant arguments that refute the notion that relativism and ambivalence are values of mature societies. If behavioral standards are merely human inventions and choices, then who is to say that one is better than another? How do we know if one human group chooses a particular set of values, that that set is the best or right one? Is it simply by the choice of one human being, or even a majority in a given society? Which human should choose, and who will decide? Obviously the logical extension of relativism is simply "might makes right", only those who have the power will exercise the choices.

Starbuck's assertion that religious experience is simply an "attempt to break away from the dominance of the cognitive processes, and are indications that the affective have been given full sway" [7] fails to recognize as well the holistic character of religious experience. Rationality combines with affective processes to involve the entire human person in the experience. Otherwise all emotive experiences would be ecstatic and rhapsodic, and the person would be intellectually unreachable until the episode is completed. From our normal human experiences of all kinds, not just religious, we know such not to be the case. Also that cognition "dominates" human life is questionable. People do things for many other reasons, many of them affective, than logical.

Granted, religious experience does emphasize the awareness and importance of the affective processes of human existence but intellectual comprehension of the experience is always ultimately essential. Without comprehension, experiences of any kind have no meaning. Bregman confirms that rational processes affirm the reality of experiences.

Although it might be possible to mislabel an experience,... it is not possible to overlook the occurrence of something without resorting to repression or self-deception. In the literature on inner experience, the beyond-all-doubt nature of having experienced something combines with the moral imperative to trust one's own experiences rather than be guided by tradition [8].

Indeed, the experience tends to lead to moral decisions which are defended and trusted as valid and obviously require logical reasoning and interpretation. Pascal's declaration that religion has both outward and inward foundations repeats the recognition of the need for intellectual involvement in religious experience [9]. To define this profound necessity for cognitive understanding, Rudolf Otto, whose most famous work seeks to delineate and describe the ineffable Numinous, writes that the experience of the Holy is Irreducible to any other [state of mind]; and therefore, like every absolute primary and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined. There is only one way to help another to an understanding of it. He must be guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reach the point at which [this profound awareness] in him perforce begins to stir, to start into life and into consciousness. We can cooperate in this process by bringing before his notice all that can be found in other regions of the mind, already known and familiar to resemble, or again to afford some special contrast to, the particular experience we wish to elucidate [10]. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the strongest advocate in Western philosophical history for the importance of particular emotion in religion, realized that "he only who has studied and truly known man in these emotions can rediscover religion in all its outward manifestations" [11]. St. Thomas Aquinas asserted also that "it is fitting that [both the truth of reason and the truth of faith] be proposed to man divinely for belief" [12]. The inner experience of religious relationship with God cannot be scientifically measured but the pattern of experience exists in multiplicity since many millions of people in history claim to have religious conversions. Bouquet confirms the validity of the pattern-based analysis:

Moreover, the intuitional experiences of the prophet, the seer, and the mystic need to be coordinated by comparison with the other types of evidence, and are accordingly guaranteed or invalidated by their discordance or harmony with the remainder of the date available. They must pass the test of coherence [13].

Religious people, who may appear to be controlled or emotional, have their own perspectives on the priorities they give to their experience, belief, and faith, to their own practice or to the formal sanctions of others. While individuals may be lost in, or set against, a religious system, they have seldom just "thought up" for themselves what it is they believe; it must be "found" or received [14].

So again it appears necessary that a reasoned faith, one which considers personal and institutional perspectives, is the best approach to religion. The essence of religion is the experience; one must share the experience to clearly understand or identify the nature of the incident. And we insist that understanding is a necessary part of a faith that remains vital. Cognitive rational explanations only go so far, but we expect them, at least to some degree, to give us security, assurance, and emotional stability. To use again the old example, those who have never fallen in love can talk about the phenomenon rationally but cannot "explain" or account for the emotion itself, the non-rational aspect of the experience and the sometimes strange behavior that accompanies it, until they experience the phenomenon for themselves. Bambi's lack of understanding and even rejection of the phenomenon in the Disney classic movie provides a good example. Once he, too, becomes "twitterpated," the confusion is removed. Afterwards, he can join others in the understanding, the rational discussion of the ineffable experience. Faith then, whether religious or scientific, must include the rational perspective about the truth of experience or the human interaction with reality becomes meaningless. But it is "faith" because we rely on some other source than our own senses to trust that the unseen reality exists.


1. Brown, 90.

2. Bouquet, 19-20.

3. Strunk, 196.

4. Whittaker, ix.

5. Whittaker, 3-4.

6. Strunk, 158-159.

7. Strunk 116.

8. Bregman 3.

9. Brown, 115.

10. Otto, 7.

11. Schleiermacher, 16.

12. Miller, 31.

13. Bouquet, 6.

14. Brown, 17.


Bouquet, A.C. Religious Experience: Its Nature, Types, and Validity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publ., 1968.

Bregman, Lucy. The Rediscovery of the Inner Experience. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1982.

Brown, L.B. The Psychology of Religion. London: SPCK, 1988.

Miller, Ed. L. Believing in God: Readings on Faith and Reason. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non- Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. John W. Harvey (transl). London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. John Oman (transl). New York: Harper and Brothers, Publ., 1958.

Strunk, Orlo (ed). Readings in the Psychology of Religion. New York: Abingdon Press, 1959.

Whittaker, John H. Matters of Faith and Matters of Principle: Religious Truth Claims and Their Logic. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1981.