The type of faith that is most important and most relevant in today’s modern world may be different from what most people think about when they think of faith. It may be different from how people understood faith a hundred years ago, or a few thousand years ago. It is not a faith that requires believing in an ancient, outdated, scientifically indefensible concept of God. But it is a faith that involves a belief in something that is important and relevant today.
Progressive faith involves a belief that there is beauty or goodness in the world and in the universe.When I say that faith involves a belief in beauty and goodness, what do I mean by “beauty and goodness?” First, let me say what I do NOT mean. I am NOT talking about a mere human opinion that something is attractive or desirable, for this type of opinion is nothing more than a fleeting figment of our imagination that ceases to exist when we die. Instead, I am talking about a beauty and goodness that existed even before humans evolved to walk the crust of our planet. This type of beauty and goodness is like gravity in that it can be noticed and experienced by people, but like gravity, it is not something that is caused by people, and it is something that continues to exist even if people fail to notice it or understand it. At the same time, this beauty and goodness is different from gravity in one important way. Specifically, it cannot be tested with scientific observation. For example, the theory of gravity can be used to predict where the moon will be one month from now, and if the moon goes to a different place, it would disprove the theory of gravity. In contrast, there are not types of observations that could be made that would disprove the existence of beauty or goodness. This means that a belief in beauty and goodness requires an act of faith.
Two reasons for defining faith as a belief in beauty and goodness.
FirstOne reason I define faith in this way is that this definition has the potential to be understood both by people that consider themselves to be religious and by those who do not. It defines faith in a way that does not require use of religious terminology, yet for those who are religious, it may provide a definition of God. In fact, from my perspective, this definition captures the most important characteristic for how I understand God. Of course, there are many ways that people might think about God. Some view God as a power, or a judge, or a source of miracles, or an authority that demands obedience and worship. While it is common for people to view God in these terms (such as power, judgment, miracles, and authority), and while these viewpoints of God have been prevalent in many religious traditions throughout history, I do not find it particularly meaningful to view God in this way. These viewpoints fail to describe the God I experience in life. Instead, I experience God primarily as the presence of beauty and goodness.
Like other ways of understanding God, the viewpoint that God can be defined by beauty and goodness is also one that can be found in religious traditions throughout history, and moreover, regardless of whether people use the word “God” or not, I suspect that many people may share this same basic experience of beauty and goodness in the world. It is the experience of gazing out into the night sky and marveling at the vastness of the infinite universe, or holding the hand of an newborn baby and feeling awed by the complexity of human life. These are experiences where beauty is tangible, powerful, and real.It is my hope that the core nature of this experience can be understood by people from many different religious traditions as well as by people that do not consider themselves to be religious at all.
By defining faith as a belief in goodness and beauty, it makes faith applicable to many diverse people.
For further discussion on the the difference between a faith based on a belief in power and a faith based on a belief in beauty and goodness, visit the page titled, "How music for a progressive faith is different from other religious music."
SecondAnother reason for defining faith as a belief in beauty and goodness is that this highlights the reason why faith is relevant in the world today. Faith is relevant and consequential because it makes it meaningful to talk about ways that people can do things that are good or bad. We can talk about distinctions between beauty and ugliness. We can find beauty on earth and beauty in human relationships; we can do things that promote or sustain this beauty, and we can oppose or avoid things that destroy or harm it. For example, we can discuss the extent to which slavery, racism, exploitation, genocide, and environmental destruction might be bad things, and we can discuss the extent to which social justice, compassion, love, and environmental protection might be good.
Why do we need faith to talk about these things? Without a foundational belief in the existence of beauty and goodness, then beauty and goodness become nothing more than mere personal preferences. If there is nothing more than personal preference, then it does not make sense to talk about anything being inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Ideas about good and evil could never be either true or false. A debate about whether social justice is better than genocide would be like a debate about whether jazz music is better than country music – people may have preferences, and they may have reasons for their preferences, but neither preference is inherently correct or incorrect.
If we want to seek true beauty and goodness, we first need to believe it exists, and that requires faith.
For the sake of analogy consider a hypothetical situation were two people somehow float in an infinite void where there is no gravity. If these two people were somehow able to communicate, they could not have a meaningful conversation about which way is up and which way is down. Any direction they pointed would be arbitrary. Similarly, without a belief in beauty and goodness, it is not possible to have a meaningful conversation about what types of human behavior are good and what types of behavior are bad. Any opinion about goodness and beauty would be arbitrary.
A belief in the existence of beauty and goodness is not a claim to fully comprehend it or to own the definition of it.
Just because I believe that beauty and goodness are more than mere arbitrary opinions does not mean that I always accurately understand beauty and goodness. Faith may lead me to a belief that it is valuable and worthwhile to seek beauty and goodness, but it certainly will not produce a complete or perfect attainment or understanding of it. Indeed, the extent of beauty and goodness in the universe may be something so grand and mysterious that we can never fully comprehend it. The fact that people often disagree in defining what it is good suggests that any one person’s understanding of goodness is almost certain to be at least partly wrong.
Yet, faith involves a belief that we can have some partial awareness of this goodness and beauty, even if our understanding is far from perfect, and most importantly, faith involves a belief that it is worthwhile to seek this goodness and beauty. In other words, it is worthwhile to seek to experience beauty, to talk with other people about how we define and understand beauty, and to seek ways to promote goodness on earth. This is what makes faith relevant. Without faith – without a reason to seek goodness or beauty – I suspect that humans will eventually destroy each other and the earth. Indeed, I fear this is a real possibility. But with faith, it is possible for humans to work together to understand goodness and beauty, to make the world a better place, and to bring hope for the future. This does not mean we will perfectly obtain goodness, or that we will agree on what is beautiful, but does mean we have a reason to pursue goodness and beauty, and if we pursue it, we might move toward it. Thus, goodness and beauty are relevant and consequential, but not fully comprehensible.
In sum, I define faith as a belief in a type of goodness and beauty that both touches and transcends human experience.