The Two Types of Faith

I'm thinking of two types of faith. The first is one I heard about last week. An energetic student from my college class reported to me she had abandoned the faith of her family. Why? Because in 6th grade she was expelled from her Catholic High School with a letter that stated she asked too many questions, unsettled too many other students, and generally undermined the Word of God.

Lest this appear as solely the province of Catholicism, I remember counseling a young woman who had been abused as a child and who was seeking to find her emotional and spiritual footing. She was also taking a class I was teaching in which I emphasized that faith leads to a quest, and part of that questing was questioning. She didn't like it and needed a faith that gave her firm ground on which to make her way out the crisis.

She wanted faith seeking certainty; I was offering faith seeking understanding.

This second type is what energized me when I discovered it as a freshman at U.C. Berkeley. (Finding faith at Cal should sound like an oxymoron.) The Christianity of C. S. Lewis, Augustine, and Blaise Pascal--the one I found more persuasive and better reasoned than Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault (as formidable and brilliant at they are).

This second type I heard in a podcast from "On Being" the other day. In it, Krista Tippett interviewed two Jesuit astronomers, connected by stints as head of the Vatican Observatory, George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno. They discussed the uncertainty and discovery that their Christian faith set them on.

"To have faith," astronomer George Coyne offered, "is to run an extreme risk. It's not, you know -- 'Rock of Ages' is a nice hymn and I'm not contesting it, but my faith is not a rock upon which I stand and, you know, fight against the arrows of outrageous fortune, et cetera. And God ran a risk, and still does."

It's this kind of faith that Anne Lamott summed up -- and they quoted: "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty."

Can these two types of faith exist side by side? In the churches I've known, they seem to. But here's the problem: pastors often wanted to teach about faith seeking understanding, but congregation members more often demand faith seeking certainty.

This scenario could play into the hands of the atheists. And I do hear Richard Dawkins beautiful Oxbridge accent in my ear,

"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." Richard Dawkins

This is worthy of another post--whether atheism can legitimately be tied to scientific knowledge. But for now let me remind (at least myself) that there indeed exist all kinds of viewpoints that seek certainty with worrying overmuch about thinking. At some point, I had idea that atheist rationalists were the custodians of rationality and thus extraordinarily careful thinking. And then I started getting comments on my blogs and tweets, which were replete with spelling errors and blatant sins against sound reasoning. (I decided it was kinder not to post examples. So you'll have to trust me.)

What I take away is this: Human beings like answers because the path of questioning, or seeking understanding, is taxing. But we can't mistake certainty for the sole form of faith.