The conclusion I have reached and that serves me best is that the basic default setting of life is faith. The snail proceeding across the garden lives in faith that she will reach the cabbage. It may be that all manner of misfortune may prevent her doing so. She might be spotted by a hungry bird or a watchful gardener and might soon be eaten, poisoned or crushed, but she does not live her life assuming this is what is going to happen. She carries on in faith toward the cabbage. The basic default position is an optimistic assumption. Tragedy is adventitious. It breaks in and traumatises. It undermines faith. We should not forget, however, that the faith was there in the first place. Without this fundamental default faith one could not get through the day.
Similarly, a child has basic faith in life, in the parents, in the air it breathes. This faith is something one is born with and continues to reinforce unless it is shaken by tragedy – and anything that undermines faith is a tragedy. Of course, all lives are marked by such tragedy in varying degrees, but the art of life is to overcome such setbacks. People ask, “How does one find faith?” but the real question is “How, where and when did you lose it – and how will you defeat the forces that have shaken it in you?” But whatever the answers to these questions may be, the faith was there originally and that original faith is actually indelible. It may get covered up or distorted, but it cannot be eliminated.
Faith & Rationality
These days there is a good deal of discussion about faith and rationality as though they were alternatives, but this is a mistake. Rationality can never be a substitute for faith in anything but occasional instances. For one thing, we simply don't have time. To think everything out afresh every time would be quite impractical enough without the necessity to do the research to gather the data to make a decision. Must I research whether or not the person who was my friend yesterday still is so sufficiently to make it worthwhile my asking him if he would like me to make him a cup of tea? All day long we are making thousands of little decisions and the vast majority of them are based substantially on faith – faith that things are in continuity with how they have been – faith that the cabbage plant is still where it was yesterday and that if I keep creeping in that direction I shall get to it. Faith that there is some order in the universe and some reason to proceed with life. Reason itself is little more than faith in such consistency.
In all these little decisions, faith and rationality are not separate opposing principles, they are conspiring elements in a single process. Mostly, a bit of evidence and a bit of rationality is quite enough to support and maintain faith, and no rationality is possible without some axiomatic assumptions in which one has already implicitly placed one's faith. This last point is vital. There can actually be no rationality without some taken-for-granted foundational assumptions. If nothing is given, nothing can be concluded. Facts alone are not enough.
Faith & Relationship
Our relationships with one another all rest on this kind of faith. Because Mary has generally been nice to me in the past, I assume that she will be so today and my attitude toward her is accordingly sunny. My faith may be misplaced. She might have had a bad morning and by the time I see her she is in no mood to be pleasant to anybody. My faith in Mary may carry me through. I might dismiss the immediate evidence of her surliness and say to myself, “She is probably having a bad day.” Or, it may be that her unexpected response to me shatters the goodwill I have built up, bad goes to worse, and in no time we are no longer speaking to each other and a feud has started. In this latter case, a new faith has replaced the old one. I shall now expect to find evidence of what an unpleasant person she is and will, to an extent, be on the look-out to collect such evidence that previously I would have over-looked. In fact, I might now even resift my knowledge of our history and all those little instances of her meanness that I had previously over-looked may now take on a new significance and I may start to tell myself that, actually, I knew all along that she was no good. The actual truth about the real Mary, of course, is not revealed by this story. She is what she is, like her or not.
Faith & Science
Even at a more formal level faith and rationality work together and always in an imperfect manner. The great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, points out that induction, which is the whole basis of science, is an act of faith. The fact that we have now seen thousands of instances of black, white, yellow and red human beings and that every one of the millions of human beings we have encountered has been one of these colours does not prove that there are no green ones. Every swan that had ever been encountered was white until people discovered Australia and suddenly encountered black ones. It only takes a single instance to disprove something. Popper asserts, correctly, that true science can never positively prove any universal principle because we never know that a disconfirmatory instance has simply not yet been found. Science can disprove supposedly universal principles by finding such instances and such disproof is useful. The best we can do in the advancement of human knowledge of scientific things is to advance propositions in the form of hypotheses that are so formulated that they could, in principle, be disconfirmed, and then look to see if there is evidence that they are, in fact, untrue. What we call scientific knowledge is what is left as not yet disproven. This really does mean that nothing at all is certain. In a world where absolutely nothing is certain, one has no option but to proceed in faith.
Faith & History
We take all sorts of things for granted, but we do so within the ambit of our limited perception of our situation. A review of cultural history or of anthropological data about other cultures soon shows us that what seems to be common sense to us has not always and everywhere been so. It follows that it is highly probable that many things that we contemporary people take for granted will be laughed at by those who occupy this planet in a thousand years time. Don't ask me which. I am as blind as you are. What is important is not so much to strive for an unreachable omniscience as to have the humility to recognise that our vantage point is a limited one and our values are certainly not the last word. We pray that what we are doing by our best efforts will turn out to have been wise, good and noble, but we never know for sure.
Faith As a Friend
In fact, it is probable that a major part of what we take for granted is false and it is certainly a very useful rule of thumb to bear in mind that even if the great majority of people think something, then the truth may well still be otherwise. Accuracy of an idea is not to be ascertained by voting. Faith is an essential friend, but it is also a great misleader. Herein lie many of the problems of life. Yet even though faith sometimes leads us astray, we cannot do without it. In this sense, faith is a rather human friend - mostly there for us when we need it, but sometimes a bit unreliable. If we take the unreliable moments too much to heart, though, we will lose our most precious friend and that would be a great shame.