Saturday, December 28, 2013

Faith, Trust, and "Miracle on 34th Street"

"Miracle on 34th Street," as most Americans know, is a Christmas classic movie from 1947 about a department-store Santa who claims to be the real thing.  I watched it again this year on Christmas night, after all the presents were opened, Christmas dinner eaten and the dishes washed.

As often happens with the best movies, something jumped out at me in this viewing that I hadn't seen before.  "Miracle on 34th Street," with its story of a disillusioned single mother who learns to trust again, and her pragmatic little girl who discovers the joys of imagination, illustrates beautifully the nature of faith.

I have felt for a long time that when it comes to faith, both Christians and non-Christians* often seem to miss the point.  This blog post on Counter Apologist, which asserts that "faith is belief without good evidence" encapsulates the usual atheistic understanding of faith:
My main contention is that defining faith as "belief without good evidence" is not only defensible in the religious context, but it's actually implied that this is what is meant in the Christian bible, at least in some cases. . . The primary piece of scripture that an atheist appeals to which defines faith as "belief without evidence" is Hebrews 11:1 - "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Christians, of course, generally deny that this verse is talking about "belief without evidence."  Their problem with understanding faith is a different one.  As I discussed a few months ago in my post Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism, Christians often approach faith as belief in the "right" doctrines -- those that constitute foundational, orthodox Christianity.  The ancient Athanasian Creed illustrates this approach when it says:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity . . . This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
Though I do hold to the Athanasian Creed, I believe it is to be read as a definitive statement of orthodox doctrine and not as a definition of faith, as faith.  (And I think even the writers of this Creed would have acknowledged, when pressed, that the thief on the cross in Luke 23 was saved without believing, or even understanding, any of these things.)  Despite what Counter Apologist says above about the Bible itself defining faith in terms of belief, faith is actually shown throughout the Bible to be trust in Christ, trust in God, and it is on this trust that belief is based. 

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian puts it pretty well when he quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary:
Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.”
In other words, when Hebrews 11:1 says "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see," this isn't a complete definition of faith, but a continuation of the understanding of faith as trust set forth in Hebrews 10:22-23:
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. [Emphasis added.]
Faith, then, is not simply belief in certain assertions, but the assurance that those assertions can be believed, based on trust in the faithfulness of the one making the assertions.  This is why the word "faith" also applies to human interactions.  "Have faith in me," a father says to his child, or a leader to her people, or a wife or husband to their spouse. "Have faith in me, and I'll make good.  Have faith in me, and I'll keep my promise."

So what does "Miracle on 34th Street" have to do with all this?

"Miracle on 34th Street" opens with a round, jolly, white-bearded old man correcting a department-store window decorator on his rendition of Santa's reindeer.  The old man speaks in the full confidence of apparent first-hand knowledge.  His words and actions throughout the rest of the movie consistently show that he firmly believes himself to be "the one and only Santa Claus."  The mother and daughter in the movie, caught between their own pragmatic disbelief that Santa could possibly be a real person, and their face-to-face encounters with the sheer believeability of this man as Santa, eventually embrace his Claus-ness.

It isn't that they believe without good evidence.  If they are willing to see and accept it, there is good evidence that this man is who he claims to be.  He says and does a number of things which are much more consistent with his being the real Santa than with him being simply a delusional old mental patient.  But if they do believe, they must do so against their own common sense, against the prevailing mindset of adult society that Santa simply cannot be real.  The evidence is never overwhelming, to where anyone is forced to accept him as Santa.  Rather than conclusive proof, the standard of the evidence amounts to a "rational warrant."  My respected scholarly friend Metacrock describes rational warrant as follows:
Rational warrant is any logical argument that warrants a belief, or a sense of placing confidence in a proposition. Being "rational" means there are logical reasons to support it, being a "warrant" means it's a reason to believe something. . . So the aspect of an argument that logically demonstrates a reason to believe something is a warrant. Rationally warranted belief is confidence placed in a proposition (the belief) that is well placed as demonstrated by the warrant. . . This means one [does not] need to demonstrate beyond all doubt. . . but in demonstrating the rational warrant for belief one has shown that good logical reasons allow for belief.
"Rational warrant" is the difference between belief and knowledge.  No one speaks of "believing" in things that are incontrovertible fact.  No one says, "I believe chickens lay eggs" or "I believe snow is cold."  Neither the audience nor the characters in the story are able to say, "I know Santa is real and this man is he."  They can only believe-- or disbelieve.  But we are still talking about belief, not faith.  The characters have a rational warrant for belief, but they also have the contradictory force of their own pragmatism and common sense.  How do they move, then, from doubt to conviction?

Their conviction comes from faith.  Faith in this old man who calls himself Kris Kringle, who says he is Santa Claus.  It makes no sense to them, but there is something deeply trustworthy about Mr. Kringle, and as time goes on and they get to know him better and better, they find it more and more difficult to believe that he is lying or delusional.  The child finds her world opening up as she accepts Kris's teaching in how to be imaginative and open to new possibilities.  The mother finds it within herself to hope again in ideals which she had thought permanently driven out of herself by past disappointment and betrayal.  And the mother's new boyfriend finds it worth risking his career to defend Kris Kringle's sanity to a disbelieving tribunal.  In the end they all tell Kris, in one way or another, "I have faith in you."

It is at the point of triumph that the little girl's newfound faith is tested.  It appears that Santa has not managed to get her the difficult Christmas gift she had asked for.  Now, against all apparent evidence otherwise, she whispers to herself, "I believe, I believe." Is this, then, faith showing its true colors after all?  When push comes to shove, is faith really just "belief without good evidence?"

C. S. Lewis's essay "On Obstinacy in Belief," published in The World's Last Night and Other Essays, addresses this issue.

To believe that God . . . exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. . . You are no longer faced with an argument that demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.  A faint analogy would be this.  It is one thing to ask in vacuo whether So-and-So will join us tonight, and another to discuss this when So-and-So's honour is pledged to come and some great matter depends on his coming.  In the first case it would be merely reasonable, as the clock ticked on and on, to expect him less and less.  In the second, a continued expectation far into the night would be due to our friend's character if we had found him reliable before.  Which of us would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we  had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay?  We should feel that we ought to have known him better.
Once she had come to know Kris Kringle, little Susan felt that it was due to her friend Mr. Kringle's character to continue to believe that he would send her the Christmas present she asked for.  It should not be considered (as Lewis puts it) "sheer insanity" that her belief was "no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence."  This is because her belief was based in faith, or trust in the person of Kris Kringle-- not upon a set of propositions about him, but in the man himself.

Soren Kierkegaard, who coined the term "leap of faith," did not see it as a leap into an evidentiary abyss, or into a set of doctrines.  He said:
[A]ll the individuals who are saved will receive the specific weight of religion, its essence at first hand, from God himself. Then it will be said: 'behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident, the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade--and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God'.
Faith is a leap, yes-- but it is a leap of trust.  It is like a child on the edge of a swimming pool responding when her mother, in the water with arms outstretched, calls "Jump!"  God is not like that mother in having a voice we can hear or arms we can see, but countless Christians through the ages, like Lewis, like Kierkegaard, have understood faith in terms of trust in Someone they have directly and personally encountered.

Faith isn't rocket science.  It doesn't have to be.  It's more like a child meeting Santa Claus.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth a thousand pictures.

Thanks, writers of "Miracle on 34th Street."

*Disclaimer:  I recognize that the viewpoint of this blog post is limited to the question of faith as it is set forth in Western Christianity and the secular response to the same, and doesn't take into account the viewpoints of non-Christian religions.  This should not be construed as intentional disregard of such viewpoints, but rather as simply a recognition of the limitations of my own education, understanding and perspective in dealing with this topic.  Readers of other faiths are welcome to give input on their own definitions of faith in the comments.