Is ethics possible without faith? A young mother recently asked me this question. She told me that she had lived immorally before she found faith in Christ. Now she and her husband want to enroll their son in a Christian school, so he will have the Christian upbringing they believe is necessary for a child’s moral development. Their parents, however, who are not religious, would prefer that their grandson be in a public school.
A discussion of faith and ethics requires understanding what we mean by each of these words. So, we begin by considering what faith means in the New Testament, which has shaped the use and meaning of the word whether we are religious or not. Then we look at what we mean by ethics.
Faith in the New Testament
Faith is central to the preaching of Jesus and the witness of the church, yet in the gospel of Luke we find the disciples saying to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" (Lk. 17:5) Moreover, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus criticizes the disciples for their "little faith" (Mt. 8:26, 14:31, 16:08; Mk. 4:40). It is striking that in these gospels, those closest to Jesus seem to have such weak faith.
John 3:16 says this about faith: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life." (Revised English Bible) Most of us are more familiar with the translation: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This translation uses the English verb "believe in" to render the Greek verb pisteuo that means "to have faith." The Revised English Bible uses the noun "faith" for the Greek noun pistis to translate this passage, because today the verb "believe" may be understood to mean "belief" rather than "faith."
We may misunderstand John 3:16, if we think that having certain beliefs about Jesus is what really matters. It is not belief, but faith — trusting in Jesus and in the kingdom of God — that is saving. The word "belief" appears only once in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (2 Th. 2:13), but the word "faith" occurs more than 200 times. Moreover, the gospel of John, which does not contain the Greek noun for faith, uses the Greek verb for faith more than 90 times.
The English translation for the Greek verb for faith is "believe in," rather than "believe that.” The phrase “believe that" means to have a belief or to hold a certain point of view. The phrase "believe in" means to trust in. The difference is crucial. Belief is a state of the mind, whereas faith is an act of entrusting. Belief is about thought. Faith is about character.
Beliefs are important in so far as they turn us to God and our neighbor in faith, hope and love, but the New Testament affirms that faith, not belief, is saving. Frequently in the New Testament gospels Jesus indicates that those who have great faith are not Jews, which means these individuals do not have the same beliefs as Jesus and his disciples, who were Jews. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that a Roman centurion (Mt. 8:10, Lk. 7:09), a Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:28), and a Samaritan women (Lk. 17:19) all have great faith. Jesus says nothing about their beliefs, nor does he require any specific beliefs of them. They trust in him, and that is all that is necessary.
Paul's letters in the New Testament proclaim salvation by grace through our faith and point to Abraham’s trust in God as a model of this faith (Gal. 3:6-9). Obviously, Abraham did not have Christian beliefs. Abraham trusted in God, not in Jesus. He did not recite the Nicene Creed, nor did he believe in the Trinity. Yet, Paul says, Abraham was saved by his faith.
Do we find faith today only among Christians? Or might Jews, Muslims and others have faith? Only Christians have Christian faith, which we might describe as a combination of faith and Christian beliefs. Does it make sense to speak of Jewish faith, as combining faith with Jewish beliefs and practices? Might we also speak of Muslim faith in the same way? Although the beliefs of Jews and Muslims differ, in significant ways, from the beliefs of Christians, might Christians, Jews and Muslims, who share the tradition of trusting in God, also have a common faith?
I explore this question in a book entitled Faith, Belief, and Religion. But a more obvious example of this kind of faith is the Twelve Step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Those who have followed these steps to health describe them as including:
- Belief that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
- A decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
This kind of belief and faith in God can be (and is) affirmed by Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as others, and has helped people around the world transform their lives and live more ethically.
Participants in Twelve Step programs may differ in their religious beliefs, but all must have the faith to take the following steps that the original AA members found necessary for healing:
- Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another person the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Be ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
- Make a list of all those we have harmed, and be willing to make amends to them all.
- Make direct amends to them wherever possible, except when it would injure them or others.
- Take personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admit it.
- Seek through prayer and meditation to improve our awareness of God as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
The steps involving a moral inventory, character development, making amends to those we’ve harmed, and admitting it when we are wrong — these steps describe a personal ethic that is deeply rooted in faith. This faith, however, is not limited to Christian faith, but to faith in God as we may understand God.
Clearly, for those with faith in God, faith is the source of their ethics. But all of us can think of Christians or Jews or Muslims, who act unethically. Affirming faith in God does not seem to guarantee ethical conduct. Moreover, most of us have non-religious friends who are ethical. So, how are we to understand the relationship between faith and ethics?
Anyone who has raised children or taught elementary school knows that ethics can be taught. Children first learn what is right and wrong by copying the adults who care for them. As they grow older they develop a sense of empathy for others, and finally they begin to articulate ethical principles (and demand explanations) concerning what is fair or why something is wrong.
Yet, some children become more ethical than others, even children raised in the same family. Furthermore, those who learn how to explain what is fair and right may nonetheless do what is unfair and wrong. Those of us who are Christians know our faith is weak like that of the disciples, and that we often fail to live up to the ethical standards we affirm. We agree with Paul, who says, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19) As in Twelve Step programs, Paul is saying we have to admit our failings, if we hope to live more faithfully.
Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, acknowledge this problem of sin, and all three religious traditions try to combat the weakness of our faith by urging religious and moral disciplines that have similarities with those described in the Twelve Step program. Repentance is at the heart of the life of all three of these religious traditions, and repentance is faith in action as ethics.
But what about people who aren’t religious and yet are ethical? My oldest son fits that description. He doesn’t attend any church, but is a wonderful father and a loving son. He gets along well with all kinds of people, and is remarkably accepting and forgiving. I don’t think he would claim to be at all religious, but among family and friends he is admired for his compassion.
I expect you have loved ones or friends who are like my son. I think persons like these have "faith" despite their lack of religious conviction. I believe my son trusts in love and has faith in our human capacity to be moral. I would say his reverence for life and his trust in the power of love is a kind of faith, even if he wouldn’t use this word to describe his convictions.
In a book entitled Faith in Human Rights I present evidence that religious as well as secular advocates of human rights often speak of their "faith" in human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the United Nations in 1948 without dissenting vote begins by stating "the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." There was no legal precedent for this affirmation of faith, but after the horrors of World War II those founding the UN felt that ethics among the nations required faith in the moral character of the peoples of the world.
International human rights law rests on faith in the goodness of human beings and on trusting in the rule of law. Some believe that the human capacity to be moral is a gift from God, whereas others accept that the source of human goodness is beyond our understanding. Yet, religious supporters and secular advocates have a common faith in human rights law.
Fifty years ago the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court held that the American Constitution required an end to segregation in the schools. The issue was ethical: Should discrimination in public education against African American children be tolerated? Chief Justice Warren wrote the decision for the Court, and more than a decade later in a speech given on World Law Day he affirmed that "we acquire our faith in the objectives of the nations of the world and of the justification for the United Nations itself" from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for it expresses "our faith in humanity, the kind of faith that is based on things not seen."
Chief Justice Warren did not say that his last statement paraphrases a text from the Christian Bible, which reads: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) He spoke in the language of faith that he believed would embrace all his listeners, whether or not they were Christians or even religious. Faith in human rights is faith in humanity, faith that is based on things not seen, faith in the possibilities of peace and justice on earth.
The Brown decision brings us back to our initial question about the teaching of ethics in schools. Our society allows parents to choose between religious schools and public schools, and I’m sure we all hope that both will nurture ethics. What is best for a particular child is generally best left to his or her parents. But both religious and public schools must teach our children that discrimination is wrong, and that respect for fundamental human rights is right. For ethics requires this kind of faith.