– ONE – Meanings of Faith
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. —Hebrews 11:1
Faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences. —Clarence Jordan
Faith is the foundation of this book, and it is a rich, complex, even elusive concept. In its broadest secular meanings and also in a more specific reference to religious life, the word “faith” is profoundly important to all of us. When I completed my term in the White House and described the relationship I had tried to maintain with the people of America, I entitled my presidential memoir Keeping Faith. Fifteen years later, I wrote a book about the religious values and experiences that had shaped my life, and how the beliefs I inherited had been transformed into what I called Living Faith. It is obvious that my having kept faith with the citizens when I was in office and the faith that I have in my Creator and moral values are not the same. When I look for synonyms of the word, the short list includes (as used
in Keeping Faith) “devotion,” “loyalty,” “commitment,” “fidelity,” “fealty,” “dedication,” and “allegiance”—and (as in Living Faith) “confidence,” “trust,” “reliance,” “conviction,” “belief,” and “assurance.” Since this book covers many of the same influences in my life, there is some inevitable similarity in the texts.
Both keeping faith and living faith have provided the foundation for our governments and great religions. Trusted leaders of ancient times defined those principles that described their highest ideals and expressed them in words and beliefs, and people agreed to adhere to them. The combined Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights would be a notable example for the people of the United States, while for Christians it would be the Ten Commandments amplified and further explained by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. As already described, world leaders made a concerted attempt to reach the same goal following the Second World War, with the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These were supplemented by various international agreements, such as the Geneva Conventions, designed to protect wartime prisoners from torture or extreme punishment. In 1976 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were ratified by enough nations to become international law. I signed both covenants while president, and the United States finally ratified the ICCPR in 1992. Our country still has not ratified the ICESCR;
the American Convention on Human Rights, which I signed in May 1977; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Ours is the only country of 193 that has not adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since these global moves were effected, no important actions have been taken by the world community to improve the prospect of more equitable and humane relationships among people.
Instead, the disparity in wealth between rich and poor has increased greatly, the portion of Americans in prison has skyrocketed and now exceeds that of any other nation, the partisan and racial divisions among our citizens have become deeper and sharper, our democratic system of elections and governing has become a tool of the wealthy, and we no longer believe that the future for our children will be better than the life that we experience. Even more recently, the threat of nuclear war has become more acute, America has abandoned its leadership as champion of a clean and healthy environment, confidence in our elected leaders has deteriorated further, and we citizens have tended to lose faith in each other. Many of our citizens have also lost faith in other “principles that never change,” including truth, equality, and goodwill.
These issues are of great concern to me as I enter the last stages of my life. I still have faith that the world will avoid self-destruction from nuclear war and environmental degradation, that we will remember inspirational principles, and that
ways will be found to correct our other, even potentially fatal, human mistakes. My faith is the key to my optimism. It is important to understand what it means, because faith is involved in almost every aspect of our lives.
The first absolute faith that most of us developed was in our mothers, as we suckled at their breasts or relished the warmth of their protective bodies. Even as a child, I soon acquired faith in my father and later in my siblings, my teachers, some other relatives, and then a few of my close friends and playmates. I evolved faith in myself, with an increasing awareness of my own limitations. Later came faith in the U.S. Navy and fellow crew members on my submarine, plus things to which I was devoted during my career: democracy, freedom, and the ideals shared by citizens of the United States; service to others, justice, equality, and the truth. A simple example of faith is when we sing in a chorus or play in an orchestra, which requires an element of faith in one another, and a reciprocal need to cooperate. It is helpful to be reminded of the dictionary definition: “Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing, or the observance of an obligation from loyalty, or fidelity to a concept, promise, or engagement.” Faith involves each of us in a highly personal way, as an agreement or contract, a kind of devotion, confidence, loyalty, or reverence. Faith transcends what we learn from experience or from reasoning, but every human also retains the freedom to lose confidence in a thing or person and to break promises or oaths—even to violate marriage vows or to become a traitor to our country.
There is a difference between reasoning and believing, but both can lead to faith. “Faith” usually means belief either in a doctrine that we accept as truth or in a truth that is self-evident. We believe in things we never see, like historic events; ideals, like freedom; or the existence of germs and atoms. Sometimes we don’t believe things we observe ourselves, like the apparent small size of stars and other heavenly bodies. There is much illusion and much expansion of our thoughts in the activity of believing or having faith. We like to understand what it is that we believe, and how and why we believe it. Immanuel Kant says that we have faith in something (a) because we have always believed it; (b) on authority that we respect; (c) by self-evidence; (d) through persuasion; (e) through reasoning; or (f) because it could encompass what our community accepts as real or true without discussion or dissension.
It is obvious that “faith” has many meanings, but it is most commonly considered to be religious in nature, and the best definition and examples of Christian faith are found in the
eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. . . . By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
Because the Hebrew Bible does not focus on faith as belief, and assumes that all who read the Bible believe in God, the
word “faith” is used only twice in the King James Version of the Old Testament and 245 times in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews relates faith directly and by name to a number of biblical heroes of Old Testament times whose actions were determined by it.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. . . . By faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. . . . By faith Abraham, when tested by God, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son. . . . By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. . . . By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. . . . I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; . . . whose
weakness was turned to strength. . . . These were all commended for their faith.
The Bible goes on to say that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ”
(Romans 10:17); “A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified”
(Galatians 2:16); “But my righteous one will live by faith”
(Hebrews 10:38); “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you”
(Romans 12:3); “We walk by faith, not by sight”
(2 Corinthians 5:7); “You are all children of God by faith”
(Galatians 3:26); “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast”
(Ephesians 2:8–9); “your faith—of greater worth than gold”
(1 Peter 1:7); “. . . strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness”
(Colossians 2:7); and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”
(1 John 1:9). In fact, the Holy Bible is primarily about faith.
For humans to exist and live together and to share a
common cause, we had to develop some degree of collective faith in each other, beginning within families and then extending to communities, villages, and ultimately to nations and even coalitions of nations. There can be disparities among them; citizens can be loyal to a nation, usually sharing common rules or laws, but it is not necessary for them to maintain personal faith in each other. Shared languages, beliefs, or interests help bind them together. We also submit to deities in which we have faith, out of our need for something or someone on whom to rely for meaning. I know from personal experience that faith in people or things can be a source of joy and strength and can help me meet challenges or accept times of sorrow or regret. Our faith is an integral part of our personalities.
Faith is always a living thing, which is usually shared with others. In fact, Richard Niebuhr said that when we hold something to be true, we always have a relationship to it through a person we trust. His exact words were “All knowing involves this triadic relation of at least two subjects and an object.” To be a person is to be able to keep faith with each other, and Niebuhr’s claim is that we are bound to each other only as we are mutually bound to some third reality, to a transcendent cause to which both owe loyalty and on which both depend. By necessity and in utilizing our human freedom, we recognize in each other a common loyalty and a common bond. His statement is somewhat difficult to understand, but it raises an interesting point for discussion.
The most important example of faith in my life has been
the marriage vows I exchanged with Rosalynn. I realize that marriages can be based on many things, like common interests, sexual satisfaction, a desire to have children, economic or social advantages, or just to evolve a family community. In every case, there must be a strong element of faith in one another, something like an agreement or contract. This shared commitment can be transcendent, requiring a leap of faith more binding than all others, designed to survive any future challenges or differences. At the time of our marriage we could have said, “I love you now, and I believe I will always love you and be faithful.” Instead, we both took an oath before God “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death us do part.” Fortunately, our continuing love and faith in each other has made it possible to honor these pledges despite many differences and challenges.
We cannot remain true to ourselves if we are not faithful to those with whom we share a pledge, responsibility, or common cause. Faith implies, at least to some degree, a pledge of fidelity, and sometimes this can be at risk, or prove to be an error. There are occasions in our lives when we learn that our confidence in someone or in a concept no longer prevails. Marriages can prove to be ill-conceived, as can the formation of a close friendship, a business agreement, or a pledge of loyalty to an organization or an ideal. There are other limitations on faith. Sincere faith in something may not result in appropriate or commensurate action. For instance, we may accept and
have total faith in the concept of racial and sexual equality, but we can then assume a superior relationship to others if it is to our advantage in dealing with blacks, Hispanics, or women, and act accordingly. The motivations for this response to a favorable opportunity usually come from an unattractive trait, like pride, envy, or selfishness.
Having genuine faith in something or someone almost always means that we will have a positive reciprocal action or a tangible response. We live by faith, always with trust in other people and in mutual causes or values that we adopt, such as equal status of people, the principles of democracy, the deleterious effects of lying, the value of an agreement or contract, or the shared benefits of justice and adherence to common laws. These kinds of principles can be understood and honored by expressing them in inspired language, like the American Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount. Through them, we strive to comprehend and to improve ourselves and the world in which we live. Many of us associate reliance on a deity with the maintenance of an ideal structure of human relations. Interpersonal faith is the foundation for love and hope. If humans no longer have faith in each other, can we continue to exist?