Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric
California State University, Sacramento
A national politician recently touted his “great and unmatched wisdom” in a twitter expression.
This seems as good a time as any to talk about blind faith. Blind faith is a cage-free confidence about my beliefs. Think of the cages as (what we used to call) evidence. Politics are rife with it these days. I could cite seven examples from the front pages of three national newspapers (across the partisan spectrum) this morning, but the present firestorms are moving so fast that the examples would seem simply antiquated and misplaced when this column gets published. And politics is only part of my target.
The word that gets translated as faith in the Christian writings is, in Greek, pistis, and it has a long and very sighted history that more of us in communication studies should be aware of.
First of all, pistis is the goal of rhetoric. Aristotle notes that there are three basic domains of the human soul. There is knowledge: things we would call mathematical or scientific facts. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level. Set against this is desire, preference. These are things that belong to our animal cravings and are generally tied to our bodies: the need for water, the desire for sex, the preference (in civilized persons) for coffee above tea or Tolkien above Rowling.
But between knowledge and preference is the arena of conviction, confidence, faith, pistis.
Pistis is the arena where we do not have absolute knowledge. Neither are the conclusions a matter of personal preference like asking what you want on a pizza. Pistis is a belief held with good reasons. These reasons are strong enough that even those who might disagree with us will have to—if they are honest—take our reasons into account when they form their (different) faith.
There are three ways pistis can be supported: (1) by showing that you are thinking deeply and clearly about the issues and understand both causes and effects; (2) by demonstrating that your faith is consistent with the depth, mystery, and panoply of human experience and emotion; and (3) by citing established authorities who have tested and proven the worth and appeal of this confidence in broad traditions and under various circumstances. Logos, pathos, ethos, Aristotle says. These are what he calls the pisteis. The word is simply the plural of pistis. These are, in other words, the confidence-builders, the faith-makers. Evidence. They get translated proofs in the last century’s English versions of Aristotle’s works.
An attentive reader will have noted the complete absence of bombast, insistence, or smug superiority in Aristotle’s list of faith-making evidence. That same reader will likely realize that, in fact, faith cannot be blind at all. Pistis necessarily means the confidence I have in my conclusion plus its supporting reasons. Be ready, St. Peter says, to give an account (the Greek word is apologia) of your hope. Faith, hope, and love do not operate through some heroic act of will-power that the Christian forces upon the world as an arbitrary system. Faith is the lively conclusion of (and inseparable from) robust reflection, disciplined emotion, and time-tested traditions of authority.
Thus, the core and foundation of the communication studies discipline is a scholarly exploration of faith and its sources. Pistis is formed in politics, religion, and matters of human relationships, and without reasons for our conclusions in these areas we do not have faith. Blind faith is no faith at all. It is simply an adrenaline hit of the undisciplined emotion of asserting, by willpower alone, one’s superiority over another. It does not require disciplined reflection—and fears it. It does not require disciplined emotion—just emotion. It does not require disciplined submission to those who have gone before us and fought better than us; rather, it champions its own insights as founded on such great and unmatched wisdom that it needs no one else.
True faith, conviction united to its reasons, invites discourse and discussion. The traditions of Christianity suggest this is very much a process at which honest Christians excel. But where reasons are made superfluous, blind confidence will probably become indistinguishable from the culture around it. Without disciplined, hard-won, deeply held, richly nourishing, long proven, specifically Christian reasons, the roots of our pistis will inevitably absorb the assumptions of our surrounding culture. If too many Christians of late—Right and Left—are talking too much like the political factions around them, that resemblance is no accident. It is the result of blind faith. It is anti-faith.