Faith: Experiential or Conceptual?

I was asked recently, ‘Do you think faith is experiential or conceptual?’

This was an interesting question, is faith – more particularly, faith in God as made known in Jesus Christ – something that we experience, or is it rather an idea or a set of ideas to which we mentally assent to by saying, ‘I believe xyz’?

I responded something like this:

I don’t think that I would categorise faith in that way. For me personally, there have been moments where my faith is definitely a lived and experienced thing, but equally it’s hard to separate it from the ideas about that faith. However, I know that I, at least, have those days where my faith can feel somewhat absent. The experience of it can feel oddly empty. And when you think about the concepts and ideas of faith, if we examine the presuppositions and the logic and arguments then there can be spells where actually we might say that we don’t know what we think about those ideas. We might not think they are wrong, but we might not feel able to say, at that moment, that they are right. Yet faith isn’t as simple as this, I don’t think. For me, even in the absence of the experience of faith there’s still an intangible something, an essence of faith which lies underneath the absence. I once had an occasion after a bad break up where I didn’t want to believe, I didn’t feel like God was close to me or there at all. Yet, when people challenged it in my philosophy and ethics classes I found myself rising up to defend Christianity, to defend Christian faith. Even in that moment of absence, faith seemed to hide enduringly underneath it. And if we flip it the other way around, I’ve had strong faith experiences in my life. Faith experiences where my heart has been filled with joy and I’ve needed to praise and love God just as urgently and naturally as I need to breathe. Yet even in those moments it feels as though I am filled with a faith that is somehow above that experience, pouring into it. Faith is no clearer when it’s experienced than it is when it is not being experienced. Somehow it’s underneath the absence of experiencing, and above the experience of its presence. It’s the same with the conceptual, the content of faith is the main focus of the ideas about faith; the theology of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension, the theology of the Trinity, of salvation, of hope, of love – all these things are at the centre of the ideas which are the building blocks of our faith, but our faith is not found in these ideas; it’s found somehow on the periphery of them. Yet when we look to the side to focus on this elusive faith our gaze is drawn magnetically back to the centre. Faith is somehow under the absence of the experience of faith, it’s somehow above the experience of the presence of faith; faith is somehow central to the ideas and understanding of faith, and yet it is found outside of those same ideas in such a way that to look outside you have to look inside. For me, faith is an intangible essence under and above, central and peripheral.

Is faith experiential or conceptual?

I would probably say it’s both/and; neither/or.

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