C.S. Lewis: Faith with a Capital “F”

Faith with a Capital “F”

C.S. Lewis, a favorite of many intellectually inclined Christians, has a few choice words for the term “faith”, that we often hear and use casually. But depending on the use and context, the term can be just as casually dismissed or seriously undertaken. Understanding Lewis’ terminology lets us dive deeper into understanding the term and what it means to have ‘Faith’.

“‘Faith’ is a broad term, appearing in locutions that express a range of different concepts. At its most general ‘faith’ means much the same as ‘trust’,”[1] according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Concerning C.S. Lewis as an apologetic of the term in accordance with his defense of Christianity, “Faith”, denotes an experience of rational thought that persists against waves of emotion, holding that one has to first separate what Christians consider to be belief in Christianity from Faith as a virtue to understand Faith (or Christianity). Lewis maintains a useful definition of Faith by including that reason is not at odds with Faith but that Faith is the practice of maintaining reason.

It is this separation that Lewis points to the characteristics of Faith in a way that can be understood singularly outside of Christian tradition and in other circumstances that Faith applies to as well. “There is no single ‘established’ terminology for different models of faith”[2] For there are many different iterations of the word and it relation to things like truth, religion, belief or in the case of Bertrand Russell scholar, A.C. Grayling:

“Faith is a negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of proportioning judgment to evidence, after first weighing the evidence. Soren Kierkegaard defined faith as the leap taken despite everything, despite the very absurdity of what one is asked to believe… On this view, believing something ‘on faith’ is an irrational activity. Russel saw faith as irrational in this way: ‘I think faith is a vice, because faith means believing a proposition when there is no good reason for believing it.'”[3]

In other words, the definition of Faith is closer to the rejection of fact than it is the persisting adherence to truth, making Faith a sort of stubborn insistence to continue beyond where fact or rationality can justify thinking or behavior.

Russel goes on to point out, “Thus a free thinker is not someone who simply believes whatever he happens to feel like believing, free to change his beliefs on a whim. He is free in that he is free from all influences save one: the evidence.” [4] Russel saw Faith as a detriment to reason, much like an emotion that was deemed more trustworthy than fact and therefore sustained. C.S. Lewis’s definition of Faith takes a different path to reason:

“Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; ‘my religion’. When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself.” [5]

As Lewis contends, there is an opening here in the presentation of Christianity that he uses to point to the very serious differences between not only the definition of Faith but its relation to reason and he rightfully points out that a line be drawn between what Russell referred to as “vice” and the possible evidence of Faith itself.

Lewis finds Faith being used by Christianity, “on two levels… In the first sense it means simply Belief – accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity… But what does puzzle people – at least it used to puzzle me – is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue.” [6] Faith as virtue thus becomes the center of Lewis’ definition. This definition applies in a philosophical sense to other things, such as sports teams, but Christianity more importantly and is the definition which this writing will most address.

Lewis was convinced of Faith as virtue as a result of his understanding of Faith’s relation to reason, “It is not my reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.”[7] Lewis finds Faith and reason at odds with emotion. Unlike Russell, Lewis finds a way to address the issue of emotions by excluding them from Faith and indicating that they are often at odds with one another. This makes reason his chief concern regarding Faith, “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point which Faith comes in.” [8] Lewis echoes Russell’s position on the constitution of a free thinker here. In rejection of Russell’s initial definition of Faith, Lewis agrees with Russell’s position on evidence here. Lewis in no way denies the rejection of evidence or truth because Faith upholds it.

Lewis then opens the discussion of human emotions and their role in Faith as a virtue. “Faith,” Lewis writes, “is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods… I am a Christian and I had moods in which the whole thing looked very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.” [9] Faith to Lewis is not the belief in evidence and reason alone, it’s the continued acknowledgment of it despite what you feel. Lewis appeals to this phenomenon of Faith as a virtue of struggle as a foundational element for his definition of Faith:

“Beleive in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that… Now I define Faith as the power of continuing to believe what we once honestly thought to be true until cogent reasons for honestly changing our minds are brought before us.”[10]

He acknowledges clearly the reality that despite being able to accept certain truths, there will be people who disagree, social pressure, aggravation and sacrifice that makes that truth very difficult or inconvenient to obtain, but that is not so much a kind of truth that is “truer” than the rest as it is Faith in what one holds to be true. When Lewis writes, “Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases,”[11] he writes directly to the conflict with Faith that Russell raises, the conflict between emotion and reason on a continuum of time and temptation, regardless of the truth won. To maintain belief in these truths, one must practice Faith in daily routine, by reminding oneself regularly.

As Lewis begins to unfold the philosophical implications of how he defines Faith, the questions of Faith from the Christian standpoint can begin to be answered, because for a Christian, emotions are only one side of the obstacles presented to reason. The other side is temptation, which leads to some important concepts about Faith in Christianity:

“you may say that no temptation is ever overcome until we stop trying to overcome it – throw in the sponge. But then you could not ‘stop trying’ in the right way and for the reason until you had tried your very hardest. And, in yet another sense, handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust him means, means, of course, trying to do all that he says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you really handed yourself over to him, it must follow that you are trying to obey him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because he has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”[12]

Faith in Christ for Christians does not end with merely insisting on belief. This is not because of the Christian definition of Faith as Lewis points out, but what Faith in Christ calls one to because of what he taught. It is in other words, impossible to have Faith in Jesus Christ without acknowledging his divinity and striving to carry out his philosophy to love one another.

Establishing this role of Christ in relation to Christian Faith leads to the question of salvation, good works or Faith in Christ. “I have no right way to speak on such a difficult question,” Lewis writes, “but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” [13] Faith as a means of salvation would be inactive in a sense which makes Lewis’ thesis on the reason the joining point of these two forces in Christian life, works and Faith. Without evidence, without reason, good works and Faith would not be able to work together. Lewis upholds it is with both that Christ calls his followers to live.

The usefulness of Lewis’ definition of Faith is in its defeat of the common objection to Christianity, that Faith is persistent belief against reason, is not in the shifting of a paradigm for rational thinkers but in the practicality of its application. Defining Faith as a virtue allows for the fundamental understanding that Faith can be the result of good reason, but it will also most certainly be tested by circumstances beyond one’s control. In Hebrews 11: 1, what is known of Faith is never contradicted, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” [14] Despite not being able to see Christ, by weighing the evidence, one can still make simple use of the rest of the Bible by practicing what Lewis terms the “habit of Faith”, where Faith is not only a belief but a reminder and action each day, but still something we come to by reason.

It is important to remember that when confirming one’s beliefs, particularly as a Christian, that one’s Faith is centered on Christ. However, for the definition to work, Christ is not an essential component for Faith, merely Christianity. One can have Faith in any number of ideas that can for any number of reasons, be subject to change by the emotions. Lewis makes no attempt to escape this and therefore realistically assess the dilemma of reason for Christianity. For those concerned with the legitimacy of the claims of Christ, this definition of Faith is none the less functional and calls into question that while belief in Christ requires Faith to begin with, so do a great many other scientific proofs and extrapolations that are questionable elsewhere. The definition provided by Lewis in this case remains intact.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Bishop, John. “Faith.” Stanford University. 2010. Accessed July 02, 2016.              http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/#FaiVir.
  2. Lewis, C. S. Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church. London: HarperCollins, 2002.
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007.
  4. Wielenberg, Erik J. God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  5. New International Version Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

[1] John Bishop, “Faith,” Stanford University, 2010, 1, accessed July 02, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/#FaiVir.

[2] Bishop, “Faith”

[3] Erik J. Wielenberg, God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 154.

[4] Wielenburg, God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell, 155.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 148.

[6] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 115.

[7] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 116.

[8] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 116.

[9] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 117.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 135.

[11] Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church, 137.

[12] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 121.

[13] Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 121.

[14] NIV Bible, Hebrews, Chapter 11, verse 1.

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