As someone who is more intuitive than logical by nature, I’ve never had a real need for proof. That being said, for many years into my adult life, I didn’t have a real need for God, either. I was more than happy to credit my intuitions to my sensitive nature and a kind of agnostic assumption that there were energies “out there” and between human beings that no one could clearly define. (And I was more interested in making my intuition work for me, rather than understanding it.) Regardless, my dreamy approach to things drove those more rational, intellectually ordered people in my life a bit wild. They seemed to crave, even need, the facts, the formulas, the definitions and categories, and always, the proof. Sometimes I wished I could believe in such clarity. On the other hand, my tolerance for ambiguity and nuance (which they probably would call a “mushy” mind) seemed a lot more open to new ideas.
It was after I came to faith that I began to see how great an obstacle this insistence on proof can be for so many people. In the quest for accuracy and pinpointed understanding, there was a huge limitation. They could only go so far. Over and over I saw this happen with the belief in God. These would be people who were unhappy, spiritually hungry, and searching… and clearly wanted to believe. Yet they just couldn’t take that final leap. As a friend or therapist, I was sometimes sought out because I had previously come from a similar place of searching (and my education was supposed to mean I was intellectually intact). I would answer questions, listen to the ambivalence, and then the always exasperated, “But I just need some proof.” I would explain how it wasn’t about proof, but then I could tell it wasn’t real for them and had to be mentally discarded. Emotionally, I could feel the palpable disappointment, sometimes anger or despair. And then they were right back to where they were before.
What do we mean by faith? There are a number of definitions. The most general involves strong confidence in a person, a thing, or idea. For example, we tend to “have faith” in those people who have earned our trust over time. They’re a known quantity. We can depend on them. We may also “have faith” in certain ideas, such as modern medicine or science or the jury system… or that the train will arrive safely and more or less as scheduled. None of these things are guaranteed, but we believe they’re a good bet, based on the odds and our experience. We can have reasonable confidence and predict they will turn out a certain way.
Another definition takes this one step further. “Faith” can also mean a belief that is held without proof. It’s no longer about the odds or well-reasoned chances or the wisdom of our past experience, but a conviction about a person, idea, or course of action that is very strong and without guarantee. There’s something subjective and possibly irrational about it. It’s more about pure commitment (which some would call courageous, others stupid) and the strength of the person’s belief. Examples of this level of faith might be with regards to a business venture or relationship that no one else believes has a shot at working, but the person maintains faith, regardless. (And sometimes these are amazingly successful businesses or relationships; sometimes they’re disasters.)
It is this idea of belief without proof, which goes toward another definition of “faith,” specifically, the belief in God. Such belief may or may not involve affiliation with a religion, although “faith” is often defined as synonymous with religion, either a specific denomination or religion in general. We speak of a school or program or gathering as “faith-based,” meaning that religious principles or participants are predominantly involved. We also refer to the various, large institutionalized “faiths” throughout the globe, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism. These are usually associated with a body of doctrine and practices of worship that are organized around a central belief in a Higher Power or greater spiritual reality. However, from an entirely personal perspective, an individual can have a strong faith in God and not belong to any religion at all.
What most of these definitions suggest is that faith involves a condition of trust beyond mental belief. It’s not what is logical or proven or predictable. Faith is a belief in something beyond the intellectual. It’s an emotional truth, which is compelling and arises out of conviction or instinct, instead of logical analysis. A belief in God absolutely is without proof, at least in the way we think of objective, physical “proof” in our physically obsessed world. In the modern, scientific approach, it doesn’t matter that many people say they have experienced subjective proof of God because of the way they feel or something unusual they experienced. Even if several people confirm the same experience, this is generally discounted because it can’t be proven by traditional scientific means. In other words, there is no accepted proof in the material world of God. Still, faith in God does seem to be a universal and timeless human experience.
Certainly, on a personal level, given the potential effect on one’s life, the belief in God is the most important of all the definitions of faith. Among spiritually minded people, such faith is generally assumed to be all-or-nothing. You either are a believer… or you’re not. In other words, a vague, qualified, or relativistic notion of God doesn’t work. Yet it is interesting that so many people essentially want to have it both ways. They like the idea of entertaining the notion of God. Likely, this does speak to some experience deep within. But, as described before, making the ultimate leap of faith is very difficult. Often they just can’t do it… because once you do, the effect is huge. Faith is the acceptance of a Supreme Being and true Higher Power, who becomes central in their personal belief system. This will affect how the person understands life, one’s place in it, where to find meaning and value, what is ultimate “truth,” and standards of right and wrong in behavior. All this opens up an entirely different way of looking at (and potentially living) life… and will almost certainly contradict many of the assumptions the person had held before.
On an emotional level, faith also leads to a sense of inner, loving connection and guidance. For the person of faith, God is the highest authority but also the loving caretaker and support, the teacher, a friend, and companion when needed. This is an extraordinary (and usually wonderful) life adjustment to make for someone who has not lived that way before. But to get to the point of fully recognizing these feelings, the mental leap of faith has to be made, which, again, is an enormous challenge in our modern scientific age.
Why is the idea of “proof” and physical reality so important? Why is it considered unintelligent to believe in God? Believers will say that faith is necessarily without proof. It’s a personal experience, predicated on trust in a mystery, a reality and truth beyond human comprehension. Although we can’t observe spiritual reality through our senses, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. In fact, there are a lot of things in life we can’t prove. What about aspects of the human condition, such as love or death? With love, we feel it, but what comprises proof of love? There are definite times when we may wonder if love exists in our marriage or other relationships, but we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say it isn’t real or doesn’t exist. We make decisions based on our feelings and subjective perceptions. With death, how do we know for sure there isn’t an afterlife? We don’t have any more evidence that there isn’t an afterlife than that there is. In fact, a lot of what’s involved in life is uncertain and dealt with best by “gut” impressions or the instincts that we have, not by proof or formula. So why is faith any different?
Also, for many people, faith just seems to offer better explanations. There may not be proof of God or of a spiritual reality beyond the physical, but there may be evidence within an individual’s life and human experience. For instance, just in terms of what goes on within—it would seem there has to be something more than what we can account for physically. There is such multileveled richness of our emotions, thoughts, and dreams… as well as that layered and constantly unfolding movie inside our mind… and the strength of our relationship bonds (such as in love or motherhood). To reduce all this to only physical mechanisms just seems like an oversimplification.
There are also the spiritual feelings that seem compelling evidence of “something more.” While faith may be an all-or-nothing decision, what does vary is how greatly the individual’s faith affects day-to-day life. The more people live their faith, the more they experience an actual sense of connection with and guidance from God. They often feel embraced, soothed, and counseled by their bond through worship and prayer. Such feelings of spiritual connection seem almost tangible, even if they can’t be observed or measured physically (although described by so many throughout the world and history). Often this sense of connection extends to a feeling of being lovingly or meaningfully bonded with other people on an uplifted level. There also tends to be the awareness for spiritual people that their lives have a greater purpose and meaning—and that they will be led in the direction of their greatest good, even if this doesn’t seem to make sense, given what is happening or the way things appear at the present time.
The person of faith learns that things may not be what they seem, which is why spiritual knowledge is accepted as beyond human comprehension. What starts out negative may not be down the line or in the bigger picture. Through living in faith, people begin to see patterns and another unseen “truth” play out around them and in their own lives. In faith, there tends to develop a sense that God does take care of and fulfill us to a degree that is greater than we ever thought possible and in ways we never could have imagined.
All these experiences are very powerful. This is why the need for “proof,” which is basically a mental understanding, is besides the point in terms of spiritual understanding, experience, and vision.
Faith is a vital and all-encompassing truth that lives within the individual heart.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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