Saturday, November 05, 2011


Faith is a hard thing to define, it turns out. My new project - a nonfiction book provisionally entitled Negative: Why Positive Thinking Is Not Enough - actively refutes faith, or at least the blind and silly kind that The Secret tends to promote. But is it possible to have faith in a healthy way?

Let me explain.

Faith is one of those words that is habitually used in ways somewhat different to the definition in the dictionary. The OED has it thus:
1. Complete trust or confidence. 2. Firm belief, esp. without logical proof.
The dictionary sensibly doesn't opine as to whether one should believe or not, whether faith is reasonable, but in the common parlance faith has come to mean religion. Faith is no longer something one possesses as a quality, but something one picks up and wields as a weapon. To have faith is a declaration of intent, a banging of cutlass against shield.

What about hope, then? Is this any closer to what faith used to mean?
1. Expectation and desire combined, e.g. for a certain thing to occur. 2. A person, thing or circumstance that gives cause for hope.
I love that the second definition of hope is something that gives cause for hope - circular reasoning is rare in the OED, if perhaps inevitable sooner or later. But it makes for a convenient definition of faith, I suppose: faith is something that gives hope.

When it comes down to it, I suppose some people are allergic to hope. Hope is something that requires either evidence (in which case it's not really hope, but expectation) or faith (which has nothing to go on) - most people just can't get their heads around this, especially if they don't believe in an all-knowing, all-loving beneficent God. Hope requires a sudden gap in sense, and that's a hard thing to sustain if you don't have a handy deity to cram in there.

People tend to conflate positive thinking with hope, and I think these are separate. Positive thinking is identified as an action in and of itself: the myth of it is that simply thinking happy thoughts will make happy things happen - hope has no such guarantees, no promises, no rules. The whole point of hope is that it may lead to nothing, and there will be nobody to complain to at the end.

Hope, then, like faith, is a choice, much like trust. You can choose to trust someone, choose to have faith in them, choose to hope everything will come out right in the end... but the choice is yours, and the consequences if you choose wrongly yours to bear alone.


Kavey said...

For me, faith and religion are not synonyms. Religion is a subset of faith. But faith does not have to be religious. I have faith in the loyalty, reliability and helpfulness of certain friends... for me this fits into faith because, whilst one may have the evidence of prior behaviour, only a fool would not acknowledge that people can and do change. I have faith in people more than in things, generally.

I am often hopeful and optimistic.

I'm not sure I understand the positive thinking bit.

Maddox Kent said...

Norman Vincent Peale (the man who introduced the popular notion of Positive Thinking) probably explains that better than I - whereas faith is often misrepresented in daily language as a kind of nonspecific religious fervour, positive thinking arguably IS a nonspecific religious fervour. The fact that Peale was a Protestant pastor and campaigned against JFK's election on the grounds that a Catholic should not be allowed to be president sheds some light on the thinking behind his books...
But there'll be more on that in my new book ;)