Running, Philosophy, and an Ethics of Faith

In an April post on his blog Requiem for Certainty, friend and fellow traveler Colin Koopman writes about the need to find room for faith in the contemporary cultural scene. In the wake of the confrontation between science (which puts too little value in faith in unverifiable propositions) and religion (which puts too much faith in unverifiable propositions), we have become a culture bifurcated between camps that believe too much in faith and camps that believe too little in it.

In response to this situation, Koopman calls for a working faith that grows out of a realization of the contingency and fragility of the world. This faith is not traditionally religious; it is not founded on the idea of an ever-present and all-powerful creator, nor would it be backed by powerful institutions. Instead, it is the sort of faith that grows out of a strenuous confrontation with the facts of change and uncertainty--a faith that is a working hope that change and fragility, as frightening and dangerous as they might be, might with some effort be turned towards the good. Koopman finds this sort of faith in the ethical writings of William James, and I find it there myself.

Another place where philosophers might look for a model for this sort of faith is the working attitude of the distance runner. As a friend and I ran down the road last night, we talked about how training always requires a delicate balance between one's ideal plans and the contingencies that life throws at you. It is easy enough to chart out a course to a certain goal. The difficulty is not conceiving an ideal; we all know what it takes to become a better runner, just as it is likely that we know how to become a better person. The difficulty comes in the interaction with the contingencies that life throws at you. The difficulty is in the execution of the ideal, and it is here that we see in action the flexible melioristic faith, the sort of working hope, that Koopman and James are talking about.

The runner has to dream big in order to achieve. We all have a picture of the runner we could be if everything went right. This picture is, of course, a pure figment of imagination. Its function is to provide a range of working possibility, a sort of center of gravity that keeps us in orbit, pushes us out the door. We make steady progress towards that ideal. Along the way, in the execution, we learn what keeps us back and make efforts to transform ourselves. Slowly, over the course of time, we refashion our habits against the rough edges of the obstacles we encounter. We eat differently. We sleep differently. We try different sorts of workouts. Our bodies change, cell by cell. Capillaries bloom. Muscles grow lean and striated. The creases of long effort work their way onto our faces. Our tendons become steely cords. Our minds learn the rhythm of a hard pace, our mouths the tangy flavor of lactic acid. Incrementally, intangibly, with multiple setbacks along the way, through frustration and effort, we edge closer to that picture of the runner we want to be.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a first-rate philosopher of democratic faith.

It is this slow process of self-transformation through ongoing effort towards an ideal that James means to denote by the simple word "faith." This is the only thing faith has ever meant for actual people living on and in the world. This, it seems to me, is a vision of faith worth believing in, a faith worth working for. Running has value beyond itself because it shows this faith in action; it shows that this human form of faith is possible. Philosophers can find it alive and well in the working attitude of the distance runner.

We runners can learn from philosophers how to dream bigger dreams. We can learn to inculcate this sort of faith beyond our sport, in our communities, in our friendships, in our wider ethical selves. Such a faith will be necessary to continue working towards the worlds that we desire. And, just as importantly in a pluralistic and democratic culture, such a faith will be necessary to do the work to understand and live with those who have faith in different worlds. This is the work of a strenuous democratic faith--the ongoing reconstruction of our minds, our habits, our communities, our selves--to be able to live together, with our differences, without violence and indignity, hopefully, perhaps, someday.


  1. Thanks, Jeff. This is one of those posts that has gotten me thinking, in particular, about how ends influence means; also about faith, what it means to have faith, and how that affects the nuts and bolts of how I act, speak, decide every day.

    It's interesting that you picked MLK. This post also reminds me of Oscar Romero. He experienced a "slow process of self-transformation" from bookworm-theologian to social activist and martyr. The horrible injustices around him led him to "dream bigger dreams."

  2. From my perspective, "faith" is best defined as the belief in things for which there is no evidence, and is utilized as a weak attempt to justify terror and pain and death to fellow inhabitants on our little speck of dust in the universe (tell us how you really, feel, Josh!). Not a fan of faith.

    One of the reasons I like to run is because it's real. I got from here to there. It took me this long. If I want to run faster and farther, I practice running faster and farther. This Sunday I'm racing a half, and I hope to finish sub 1:30 (fast for me). I "hope" instead of "know" because I understand there are factors outside of my control, including perhaps my inherent ambitions which may be unrealistic. But I know it's possible: I certainly won't be the first to finish a half in that time. I've trained hard. My other race times suggest it's a realistic goal. I am finding more comfort in the effort required, so I won't panic when I get tired. That's not faith, but rather observation and aspiration.

    "Transformation... towards an ideal" isn't faith. It's transformation. It's patience and discipline and a control over instincts temptations that steer us away from that ideal.

    So why do we continue to try to put lipstick on the pig of faith? I suspect it's because most of the pillars of society and culture are on record as "having faith" whatever that means. Even now I feel like a jerk for expressing my opinions on the subject, and have already rewritten this comment numerous times to hopefully make it less offensive. But I just don't get it; how is faith different than ignorance?

    (Sorry to be long-winded; this is a subject I don't discuss much, due to the fact I live in a churchy community and a coward.)

  3. Josh,

    Thanks a bunch for your comments. I like that you put your thoughts straightforwardly out there. It's hard to do philosophy on the internet, but here goes! A few points:

    1) You should read James' "Will to Believe." I don't know if you will agree, but I think you'll find it interesting.

    2) I think it's important to admit that yes, James, Koopman, and I are using the concept "faith" in a weird way. Really, we are trying to shake the meaning of the term a bit in order to free it up for use in reconciling the cultural divide between the religious and the scientific. That's part of what philosophers do--reconstruct the meaning of words so that NEW meanings and therefore possibilities can emerge. But, for some of the reasons you point out, this might be a failed attempt. Maybe we are better off giving up on the word.

    3) But let me stick with it and say a few more things. I agree with you: faith is no different from ignorance. It is belief in something for which we have no evidence. When we don't know, we have to have faith. So, the deal is this--until we *know* something for certain, we have to act experimentally in a state of at least partial ignorance. That experimental action is what James is talking about when he's saying he has faith. In a world in which contingency, chance, and change are fundamental features of the universe, certain knowledge is sorely lacking. So what do we do? We can't wait for all the evidence to come in. We act on faith.

    4) So, what distinguishes good faith from bad faith? This is the tougher question. James, as a pragmatist says that in order to understand the value of a particular belief, you have to look at the consequences of holding it. James sees our beliefs as habits of action--they are always fundamentally transformative. They orient us towards the world. So, the value of a belief, or a faith, is in the transformations it produces.

    To use your example: you have faith that you can run 1:30 for the half marathon. This is a good faith? How do we know? Well, it results in good consequences for you. You go out in a race at a reasonable pace. You run your workouts at paces that your body can recover from, etc. If you believed that you could run a half marathon in 59 minutes, this belief would have very bad consequences for you. You would leave the start line sprinting!! You would die miserably. And you wouldn't come close to your potential. So, a bad faith.

    What James wants us to do is to begin to evaluate the things we believe in terms of their consequences for life. Not in terms of their logical properties, but in terms of their experiential results. James wanted to evaluate even religious beliefs in this way. So, what is the value of the belief that God exists? This has to be determined by the effects of that belief on the believer. If your faith in God (or your lack of faith in God, for that matter) leads you to live a good life, leads to good consequences for your community, leads to positive experiences, then it is a faith worth having. If not, then you ought to abandon it.

    Finally (I swear!), James (and I) believe that most of the time we act without full evidence. Our lives are built out of hunches, forays, experimental gestures. Ours is a universe with few certainties. So, the most important thing that a person can have is an experimental attitude towards faith. We have to be willing to change our minds, adjust our faiths when they jar against experience. On the other hand, it is clear that, for example, Martin Luther King's beliefs led him to death. They made his life difficult. His experience was screaming at him to let go of the faith that the black man could be treated equally in the United States. Such a faith was dangerous. There was no evidence for it. Yet, he persisted in that faith, even died for it.

    Our world is better because of it, too.

  4. Hey Nader, thanks man. I think I addressed some of your comments in the previous reply to Josh. I get what you are saying regarding means and ends. I'm not a big afterlife guy, so the cash value of Christian faith--to me--has to be shown here. That's ends to me, maybe means to you?

    I don't know Romero. MLK is probably a trite and too obvious choice--there are many forgotten folks who I could have mentioned. Thanks, as always, for reading.

  5. I don't think MLK is trite. In fact, had not you not mentioned MLK, my mind probably would not have gone to Romero.

    Anyway, you know, I'll tell you a secret, I am not a big afterlife guy either (Ah, a "secret" posted on a blog to which my orthodox spirituality blog links!). But, what I mean by that is *not* that I don't believe in an afterlife. Rather, that I don't primarily think about it in my day-to-day.

    I guess if there is any good I do in my life, the impetus is not really for a reward (in this or another life) and more importantly, *much* more importantly, not to win people to my team, or my belief. I do it because I feel compelled, from the depth of my heart that human beings are my brother's and sisters, created in God's image. They are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, and, yes soul of my soul.

    Now, I can hear almost many of my atheist friends, noting, "But, that's the thing. That's the difference between you and me. Why do you *need* faith or a god to love and to do good?" I suppose I do not, but how far does it go without that belief? With God, it goes all the way to death. Jesus, said, "No greater love does a person have than to give his life for his friends." I don't think it was a command or a prophesy, but an observation.

    Jeff, you are not surprised, I am sure to find me rambling. What am I saying? What am I trying to say with all these words? I guess it's this. I don't need God in the sense of chasing away fear, or of replacing the sense of safety I had as a child, or as a carrot or even justification for doing good. Rather, I only observe that (creationism, creation-science and intelligent design, aside) to me God is the First Cause, the one in whose image we are created. I do good because I know that is how it should be. As an absolute law, like gravity, and that this law emanates from that God, from that first cause, in whose image we are. To steal the words of St. Paul, any good I do, because "the love of Christ compels [me]."

    Jeff and Josh, what would you say to the question - it is not rhetorical point, it's a question - that without God - without a Transcendent Absolute, Limitless Love - love and sacrifice, true and limitless love, breaks down at some point, even in *this* life?

  6. Nader, these are interesting thoughts. Now you are sounding more like an Aristotelian than a Christian, at least to my ears!!

    My answer to your question is that this is a question that has to be answered experimentally. James believed in asking exactly this question, taking it seriously as a question. His philosophy and his life was in many ways an attempt to articulate that this is possible--that it is possible to love without referring that love back to an absolute.

    Another way to address the question would be to reverse it--is is possible to wage war, to kill another, without reference to a Transcendent Absolute? You see, this is the same question.

    I think a long history of experimentation has shown that the Transcendent Absolute is neither here nor there with respect to love or war. It has had multiple, even conflicting, consequences for those who pledge allegiance to it.

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  8. Jeff, re: the dialogue between faith and science, you may want to check out John Polkinghorne:

    Wikipedia has a reasonably good bibliography of his work:

  9. i am enjoying listening to this discussion.


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