Augustine: on faith
Faith, Belief, and Knowledge
When asked; "What is faith?" a religious person may immediately point out certain articles of faith:
Such statements (articles) will certainly narrate an individual's faith in terms of what it consists in. While this may tell us what that individual has faith in, it does not answer the question as to what faith is. To approach the later question we may compare faith to other states of being such as belief and knowledge.
Some people treat faith as if it were one among many different types of belief. To "believe" something in this sense is to accept it as true. One's belief that a particular political candidate is the best for the job, and one's belief that the next winter will be severe, and one's belief that there is life on other planets in the universe, and one's belief that God created the heavens and the earth, are thus all on the same conceptual level. The only differences among these is the content, that is the statement accepted as true.
Few of the religious faithful (I think) will accept this equivalence. Something about religious faith, it seems, sets it apart from the other forms of belief. This is one reason why simply attesting to article of faith does not answer the question; "What is faith?" Insisting on the content alone adds support to the view that faith is just another kind of belief.
Here is one way to distinguish faith from ordinary belief. With many beliefs it is consistent to say; "I do believe this, but I may be wrong". That is, we may accept something as true while still holding open the possibility that it may turn out to be false. I can believe that "There must be other life in the universe" while allowing the possibility that perhaps there is not. Religious faith does not seem to work this way. One cannot so clearly say; I have faith in God the creator" while also holding that perhaps there is no God or creator at all. Faith need not be rigid, but it implies a stronger relation to what is held than does ordinary belief. Faith and belief are not identical.
Perhaps, then, faith is really a form of knowledge. Like faith, it would be odd to claim to know something while holding that it may in fact be false. When someone says they know something, we typically may ask them how they know it. So asking is a request for the reasons or evidence one has for what is said to be known. If a person is unable to provide reasons or evidence, we have cause to doubt their knowledge. If I were to say; "I don't just believe that there is life on other planets in the universe, I know it", I will be obliged to offer my evidence. If I cannot give adequate evidence, you are within rights to say that I don't "know" that at all.
Faith seems to differ from knowledge in this respect. While some religious people do point to miracles, prophesies, and sacred texts as evidence of articles of faith, it remains that much of what faith holds is essentially mysterious. To treat religious faith as a kind of knowledge akin to scientific knowledge or historical knowledge changes the nature of what many people seem to express in their having faith. A deep faith in the love of God is not a matter of having employed a systematic testing procedure. On some accounts, for that matter, faith is precisely what one holds to in the absence of evidence and proof. This view fits some aspects of faith. If we had proof that God existed, there would be no need for faith. An incident consistent with this notion of faith is described in the New Testament (John: 20.)
The implication here seems to be that anyone can be a believer given sufficient evidence and proof. But the authentic faith persists in the absence of evidence, the lack of proof. This is not the way we typically treat knowledge at all. In fact, if someone were to persist in claiming to know something to be true even when the evidence and proof failed to materialize, we would likely say "They are acting on faith."
None of the forgoing deliberation has settled the issue as to "what faith is." But we have begun to work out a method of inquiry. By comparing various concepts and their uses (i.e. faith, belief, knowledge) we are able to make distinctions and draw similarities. This serves to turn us away from false characterizations of faith and, perhaps, come closer to a true one. One of the first philosophers to investigate the nature of faith by this method was St. Augustine.