The Secular Virtue of Faith

Christians talk about faith a great deal. It is, after all, through faith that we are saved. When we speak about this kind of faith, we’re referring to a kind of trust in God and His promises to us. It saves us because it is by this trust that we receive those very promises of God. Though it is not primarily an activity of the intellect, faith manifests itself in the intellect inasmuch as we possess one. This is why we speak of the faith and how it normally requires certain knowledge such as who God is and what his promises are. This is why the Christian kind of faith excludes those who follow a different God (who reject the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit) or reject what God has promised to us (e.g. forgiveness through the vicarious atonement accomplished through the death of Christ). In short, faith in anything other than Christ is useless to save.

This, however, is not the only way the word ‘faith’ can be used. There is another kind of faith–one whose nature is ethical. Though useless to save, is not entirely useless; for this faith helps us to serve one another on Earth. It is a virtue possessed by people of different religions and consists merely of trust in the far fuzzier concept of a benevolent higher power–a disposition towards acting as though the world will ultimately unfold as it should and that the buck does not stop with me.

Like Aristotle’s virtues, the virtue of faith is the mean between an excess and a deficiency. The excess receives a great deal of attention in our society and is captured well in a popular joke: A man has climbed up onto his rooftop during a terrible flood, but the water is still rising and he has no way off. A group of neighbors come by in a boat and invite him on-board, but he refuses, saying that God will save him. Later on, another boat floats by with the same invitation which he again refuses, certain that God will save him. As the water still rises and begins to consume the rooftop, a helicopter flies by and drops a ladder down to the man. This too, he refuses, saying that God will save him. Less than an hour later, the roof is completely submerged and soon the man drowns. When he arrives in heaven, he approaches God and asks why He did not save him. God replies, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” As we can see from this example, an excess of faith is characterized by a kind of complacency about what is going on in the world. We fail to help the suffering because we think it won’t matter in the end. We tolerate injustices that we should not tolerate because we think someone else will take care of it somehow. Whether on a local or a global scale, complacency generates irresponsibility, and our neighbors are deprived of our help.

There is, however, an other side that we don’t generally talk about—a deficiency of faith. Though we don’t talk about it, it is perhaps a bigger problem in American society than complacency. Faithlessness manifests itself in the mindset that because there is no higher benevolent power that we can trust, it is up to us and us alone to solve all of the problems of the world, and we must therefore do whatever it takes. Accordingly, we can refer to the deficiency of faith as “desperation.”  Earlier this year I wrote about how the American response to tragedy is typically desperation. We must find some way—any way—to make sure such things never happen again. Our president, for example, in response to recent shootings has famously indicated that if even one child’s life can be saved through our action, then it is our responsibility to take that action. This is desperation. While it sounds noble in that it expresses the incalculable value of a single human life, it is actually horrible because it removes all boundary from how we might go about protecting that life. To save that child’s life, many people seek to disregard the Constitution, remove an important protection against tyranny, and deprive millions of innocent people of their means of defending themselves against violent criminals leading to the death of many more children. We see the same thing when it comes to abortion. We faithlessly believe that there can be no adequate help, aid, comfort, or benefit for a pregnant woman who doesn’t want a child. And so we do whatever it takes to make sure she can completely take away her problem, and we tolerate and support an abortion-industrial-complex responsible for tens of millions of murdered children. So much for our vaunted nobility in doing whatever it takes to save even one child’s life. Just as visiting a hot dog factory might change your perspective on your Memorial Day barbeque, doing whatever it takes to save someone takes on a different character once you see the mountain of bodies involuntarily sacrificed on the altar.

In many ways, the bloody history of the 20th century is the history of this deficiency of faith. Governments across the world sought to manage their people in such a way that poverty and suffering could be relieved for everyone, without exception. They knew there was no power higher than humanity to save the poor & the oppressed and could leave no child behind. They therefore gathered power unto themselves in order to accomplish their noble work, and they starved, imprisoned, and murdered their way to utopia. As J. Budziszewski described it in The Revenge of Conscience, “All for the sake of paradise, the tyrants of our generation stacked bodies higher than Nimrod stacked bricks; yet they came no nearer heaven than he did.” When we suffer from desperation, inasmuch as other virtues exist, they exist without boundary. For the desperate, denying themselves any means of helping their neighbors is indistinguishable from abandoning them, for there is nothing else to help them and no one to bring good out of misfortune.

The golden mean of faith is when we are freed from this dangerous and unbearable responsibility to save the world—not for the sake of slothfulness, but in order to practice the other virtues well. While we do as best we can, we are not driven to do whatever it takes because there is no need to. Though the heavens fall, we are still free to do what is right. We are, for example, freed to help the poor in sensible and responsible ways even if those ways do not end poverty. We are not forced to infantalize the needy by creating broad, overreaching, and harmful programs simply because only a broad and overreaching program could possibly be big enough to help every last person. Parents are freed to raise their children as best they can—we don’t have to take children away to be raised by professionals to make sure they’re all raised properly. We don’t need to force massive bureaucracies on people in an attempt to live their lives for them because they might make a mistake and hurt themselves if left to their own devices. We can let a child go out and get bruised, get an ‘F,’ and learn to explore & live in a world that’s dangerous—we don’t have to hover over them or sequester them at home. Those with faith see no need to step beyond the bounds of virtue because though all the good we can do is not enough to save the world, we still have faith that the world is in good hands despite our own inadequacy.  There is other help to be found, and if not, then the suffering and pain we see may yet be redeemed and turned into good.

This is why there is so much talk of a creator and inalienable rights in our founding documents. It’s not because America is a Christian nation. It is simply the practical reality that without the virtue of faith, freedom is impossible.

But beyond the social applications, knowing that there is a second type of faith and understanding its nature helps Christians to keep the two distinct. We confuse the two when we think of saving faith as a kind of ethical virtue that makes us better people. This blends faith and works together in salvation and leads to unhelpful worries like whether one has enough faith to be saved or is trusting in God hard enough. We confuse the two when we respond to doubts about the truth of Christianity by telling the doubters that they just need to have faith. This too turns the Gospel into a work—a work that is at odds with intellectual integrity. Far better to explain why and how God and His promises are trustworthy. We confuse the two when we think that only Christians can be good citizens—or that distrusting atheistic materialists with power is the same as thinking only Christians can be good citizens. We also confuse the two when we hear a Christian talking about faith as though it were a virtue and then immediately accuse the person of teaching works-righteousness. This sort of confusion inadvertently teaches people that saving faith is actually opposed to good works and breeds antinomianism.

There is no question which kind of faith is more important. Nevertheless, this does not authorize Christians to neglect the virtue altogether. For the sake of our neighbors, Christians should be able to understand and talk about faith as a virtue even as we continue to teach sola fide when we speak of salvation.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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