Shiur #02: Faith

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.    Introduction


Our previous shiur focused on the Rambam's claim that there is a commandment to believe that God is the source of everything. Crescas argued that one cannot be commanded to believe. He claimed that beliefs (in the sense of convictions), including belief in God, cannot be accomplished or achieved voluntarily, and as such could not be commanded. I hope it is clear that the relatively academic question of whether beliefs can be commanded is not the main point. The discussion of a commandment to believe was a means to explore the nature of belief generally, and of belief in God particularly. In modern society, in which faith in God has been called into question, the notion that faith is achievable, that there is some way to reach it if we only try hard enough (and that we are commanded to do so), is very attractive. It suggests to us that we can answer the doubters (who are often ourselves); our doubt is not really valid – it can be resolved if we only try hard enough. This shiur will continue to use the notion of a commandment to believe in order to explore what it means to have faith in God.


2.    The Leap of Faith


I left off the previous shiur with an unpaid debt – to address the notion of faith as “belief which exists in the absence of evidence,” in which the acceptance of faith is a kind of act of will, along the lines of what Kierkegaard called a "leap of faith."[1] Perhaps, emuna, faith in God, is accomplished through such a leap, through the assertion of commitment to God that creates conviction. Before discussing such leaps and other precipitous activities, let us consider some more prosaic situations in which we talk about faith and belief:[2]


1.            "I believe that that was the greatest World Series game ever played." Here belief is used to state an opinion that cannot be stated as fact. The parallel claim "I know…" comes across as pompous.

2.            "I believe that there is a supermarket around the corner, but I am not sure." Here the speaker uses the word belief to qualify his assertion – to express uncertainty about the assertion he is making about the location of the supermarket

3.            "I believe that the stock will go up but I can't prove it." Here there is not necessarily an element of doubt: an investor might invest a lot of money based on his hunch that some company will succeed. In this context, "faith" seems an appropriate word – the investor has faith in the company's future success.

4.            "I believe in you / have faith in you – you will survive this awful experience and eventually feel better." Note the change here in the preposition – this is belief in rather than belief that. Here an element of trust clearly enters into the picture. The speaker is communicating that he trusts the other person to have the wherewithal to survive. But "believing in" someone, in this sense, is not just trust – there is a propositional element too, namely, that he will survive and feel better.

5.            "I believe in our team – we will win the game." Here the assertion of trust has a kind of hopefulness to it – you can almost see it as a prayer, in which the speaker, in asserting his trust in his team, somehow wills it to victory.


All these various uses of faith and belief involve, in varying degrees, the conviction that some proposition, some assertion about the world, is true. [3] Some include an expression of trust as well. Faith can be more than merely the conviction that some assertion is true. It can involve a sort of devotion to something or someone, a confidence and trust that the subject believed in can be relied upon. In the last example we see an additional aspect of this trust – it can be a source of hope, a kind of wishing that something will result. All of these elements are also significant when we speak about belief in, or faith in, God. Belief in God is both the affirmation of some set of propositions, that God exists and is involved in the world, as well as the expression of trust in His goodness and care for His creation, including an element of hope, that He will bless our own projects.


Can these additional elements help us to understand the notion of a "leap of faith," of achieving by an act of will the set of convictions associated with faith? This act of will is somehow analogous to doing something difficult – perhaps to gathering one's inner resources in order to perform an act of courage. Faith, in this analogy, is the gathering of one's inner resources not to do, but to trust in God, with that trust being the source of the belief that God exists rather than the other way around. Understood in these terms, perhaps there can also be a mitzva to believe.


There is something appealing about this idea, which I will return to in a moment, but nonetheless I do not think it overcomes Crescas's critique of the Rambam about the nature of belief. The conviction that something is the case, that is the central element of belief, is not something that one can achieve by simply trying to do so. Conviction remains a psychological state that either occurs or does not, and wanting or even trying to be convinced, though it may contribute to the ease at which it is brought about, is never enough by itself to bring it about. Adding trust and hope to this mix does not change that. Trust and hope in something or someone pre-suppose the conviction that the object of one's trust and hope exists – it does not make any sense to place one's trust and hope in what one concedes is a fantasy.[4] So we cannot use these elements as a way around the problem that one arrives at one's convictions but does not produce them.


3.    The Appeal of Belief as a Leap of Faith


I do not think that the notion of a leap of faith, either in the form of a leap of trust or in the form of a straightforwardly cognitive leap to God’s existence, is capable of solving our problem. However, it is worth considering why the focus on trust and hope as objects of volition is so attractive. One's conviction in one's beliefs is not usually black-and-white but rather comes in degrees. I might "fully" believe that Albany is the capital of New York State but not be willing to stake my life on it (I will leave it to the creative amongst you to come up with a scenario in which my life depends upon knowing the capital of New York State). Thus, once one already has a basic level of conviction, that conviction can usually be strengthened as well as undermined.


The simplest way to strengthen one's belief is through the acquisition of evidence: I might be willing to stake my life on my belief that Albany is the capital of New York if I have just looked it up in on the New York State website. But evidence is not the only way to strengthen one's convictions, as is clear from thinking about belief that includes an element of trust and hope: I might strengthen my faith in someone's ability to weather the storm, or win the game, by bringing to mind those qualities that affirm my trust and hope, while consciously avoiding focusing on whatever might undermine them. Positive (or negative) thinking tends to be self-affirming – by focusing one's attention on some optimistic result, one becomes more optimistic; this, in turn, can contribute to that result obtaining.[5]


This is true not only of trust; it is true of belief in the more prosaic sense as well. Doubt about the presence of God can be resisted by engaging seriously in activities that pre-suppose His existence: Torah learning, tefilla (prayer) and mitzvot. Perhaps most of all, being in the presence of people who exhibit great faith, whose frame of reference is avodat Hashem (serving God), can be a transforming experience that inspires and intensifies one's consciousness of God.


But such activities are ways of strengthening pre-existing conviction in the face of doubt; they are not ways of creating conviction, of bringing oneself to a state of belief from a state of unbelief. Someone who does not believe will have no motivation to strengthen his belief. No doubt she may undergo some transforming experience that will inspire belief, but that is not something she brings about – it is something that happens.


4.    Summary of Strategies So Far for Establishing Religious Faith:


So Crescas's challenge remains: we have not identified any reliable way of moving from unbelief (whether agnostic or atheistic) to belief in God. To summarize what we have discussed so far, we can say that we have described and critiqued two strategies for creating religious conviction, as follows:


1. The first position supposes that philosophical investigation and reflection can produce arguments that would convince anyone rational to believe in God. We can then argue that our religious beliefs are not unfounded – they are not ungrounded faith but established knowledge. This is the approach of the classical Jewish philosophers like Rav Sa'adia Gaon, as well as the classical Christian (e.g., Aquinas) and Muslim (e.g., Averroes) philosophers who were their contemporaries. The Rambam's approach bears some resemblance to this, but I think it is more complicated.


There are many difficulties with this position. In the previous shiur I mentioned two problems:


a.     The philosophical arguments of the great medieval philosophers are not very convincing nowadays. Since Kant, few philosophers are willing to defend belief in God based on metaphysical arguments.

b.     If there is a mitzva to arrive at religious conviction through philosophical investigation, then this is an esoteric mitzva that only an elite few are capable of performing. This problem can be attenuated if we understand that mitzva to be relativized to each person's level: not everyone needs to be able to establish the truth of the fundamentals from scratch – we can rely on the testimony of the great minds that went before us that these truths are well established and go on from there.


I want to point out two additional problems that arise, even for someone who presumes that the two problems listed above are not insurmountable.


c.     According to this position, the validity of religion stands and falls on philosophical arguments. Religious belief is legitimate only insofar as the philosophical arguments are successful. In other words, our basic faith is predicated on the fact that valid philosophical arguments are unassailable. As such, our belief in God and belief in the Torah are based on this unassailability, or at least justified by it. However, this is difficult, given that any philosophical argument is, at the very least, contestable.[6]

d.     More subtly, this philosophical position is necessarily a critical one. Only those parts of the religion that pass philosophical scrutiny are deemed legitimate. Beliefs that cannot be defended on rational grounds remain, at best, mere beliefs, that may be discarded when under pressure from other fronts. Some might think this is a good thing, making for a more rational religion, but in other cases it might be very destructive.


2. In this week's shiur we explored an alternative strategy. Instead of suggesting a philosophical basis for religious belief, this approach claims that religious faith is in some sense volitional. We believe despite the lack of evidence, as an act or leap of faith. Faith can then be conceived as a kind of religious heroism: despite the fact that belief in God and the Torah cannot be proven rationally, faith in God is higher and more sublime than mere rationality. One could go so far as to say that it is because we cannot know, because our devotion to God requires a kind of blind commitment and trust, that faith is so difficult and such an achievement. This kind of position has deep roots in the Christian tradition from Tertullian to Kierkegaard and Tillich. One is harder put to find an explicit rendition of it in our tradition, though perhaps it is a subtext in some Chasidic thought, such as that of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.


The attractiveness of this position is clear: it sidesteps the whole issue of the rationality of belief in God or the validity of the evidence for or against it, with all of the attendant difficulties of making philosophy the basis for religion. It also fits the important idea that faith in God is not merely the assertion of some proposition but involves trust and hope. And finally it makes sense of the ways that we can and should work on ourselves to strengthen and enrich our connection to God and resist doubt and religious insecurity. However, the whole notion of volitional belief as a point of departure (rather than a volition to strengthen and enrich an already existing faith) seems to be incoherent. Crescas's critique of the Rambam that belief cannot be commanded, that conviction cannot created by an act of will, remains valid regarding this approach as well.


5.    What's Next


            Sometimes a difficult question proves to be difficult because of a hidden assumption that initially was not apparent. I believe that that is the case here, both regarding Crescas's critique of counting belief in God as a mitzva and, more significantly, regarding the basis that can produce or inspire faith in God. What happens if we accept Crescas's point that conviction cannot be commanded? What if we consider the possibility that the Rambam himself agrees with Crescas? Perhaps most importantly, where does practice, or keeping mitzvot, which is so central to Judaism and the Torah, fit into this discussion of faith?


In the next shiur, I want to look again at what it means for faith to be a commandment according to the Rambam and argue that he can accommodate Crescas's point. From there, I will argue that we can understand the Rambam's position about faith (though perhaps not about mitzvot) to be the mainstream position of Chazal, which is unwilling to dissociate faith from practice. With the help of some philosophy from Wittgenstein, I hope to outline an approach to belief in God that Chazal understood implicitly and that has become harder to see in our secularized society.



[1] Kierkegaard's conception of the leap of faith is complex and deeply connected to his Lutheran Christianity with its doctrine of salvation by faith alone. My usage here is colloquial and not meant to evoke Kierkegaard’s own sense of the term.

[2] I am going to use 'faith' and 'belief' interchangeably. Despite their different connotations, the meaning of both words is connected to both cognition and trust. In Hebrew, the same word, emuna, is used to translate both.

[3] There are some modern philosophers of religion who have tried to defend a notion of faith that eliminates any doxastic element – i.e., that faith involves any sort of claim about what the world is like. I am not going to relate to such attempts, which seem to me a sort of religious atheism.

[4]      Note that Crescas's other argument against the commandment to believe makes this point: a commandment presupposes a commander and one must believe in the existence (and authority) of the Commander for the notion of a commandment to make sense. This point can just as well be applied to God being a source of hope and trust as it can to His being One who commands.

[5]      This "power of positive thinking" does not directly influence the result so much as influence the agent's ability to achieve it. The athlete who is confident of victory is more likely to perform well than the athlete who lacks such confidence.

[6]      One of the ways of interpreting Rav Yehuda Halevi's critique of philosophical religion in the Kuzari is along these lines – that our belief in God in the Torah is prior to our faith in philosophy and we maintain it regardless of what philosophy concludes. It is worth noting, however, that Rav Yehuda Halevi does not conclude that that our religious beliefs are not knowledge-based, but rather that the empirical experience of Ma'amad Har Sinai, the revelation at Sinai, is the best possible evidence for the truth of the Torah, and as such substantiates our beliefs better than speculative philosophical arguments. Strikingly, there is a modern school of Protestant philosophers of religion (Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Alston) who make arguments along these lines, without the communal element of public revelation that is so central to Rav Yehuda Halevi.