Making headway

Faith and hope

In Jacques-Louis David’s <i>The Death of Socrates</i>, the philosopher chooses death by poison hemlock.

In Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, the philosopher chooses death by poison hemlock.

One of the great things about working for the editorial department of this newspaper is that, to a great extent, we’re all the same kind of crazy. Nobody gets all wigged out when we have serious discussions about topics so esoteric that they actually defy description or—to some degree—a literal recollection. We’ll get all heated over something, fail to come to a conclusion, and then shrug our shoulders at each other: “Do you think they’re talking about verb forms and tenses of ‘teabag’ at the New York Times today?”

Such was the atmosphere as we were exploring the topic for this column. I was thinking I wanted to write about “faith in the future,” including such things as human beings’ tendency to believe things will get better—looking at things like the economy or the housing market or even the increasing credit card bills—and acting as though this belief were real, something that could be nailed to a board or held in the hand.

But I realized, to some extent, that kind of faith is merely hope. Kat Kerlin and I started riffing on the difference between faith and hope. We basically agreed that there was a great deal of similarity between the two concepts, that maybe “faith” was a more certain version of “hope.” Faith is when you believe in something, hope is when you have a desire or a stake in an outcome. It’s possible for both to exist in kind of a Venn diagram intersection, and it almost always takes hope to have faith.

Not so, flared Brad Bynum, searching for objective backup to his viewpoint on, the Merriam-Webster dictionary website.

Faith, according to MW: 1 a: allegiance to duty or a person: loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions

2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust

3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>.

Hope: intransitive verb 1: to cherish a desire with anticipation <hopes for a promotion>

2 archaic: trust

transitive verb 1: to desire with expectation of obtainment

2: to expect with confidence: trust

“They’re completely different words with completely different meanings,” said Bynum, verbally punctuating his argument with complete faith in his own awesomeness, to which I nod in acknowledgement.

Those stipulations accepted, though, I had to probe my own feelings on the words. I mean, words have two meanings: denotative, the one in the dictionary that everyone can agree on, and connotative, the underlying meaning that each of us associates with it.

On an intellectual level, I can accept that it’s possible that people can have an absolute faith in a god’s existence, without having hope that there’s a god. But I don’t think there’s a lot of that going on out there in the world. For example, hardcore Christians don’t believe in some “conceptual” god; they believe in the God who’s going to take their faith in Him into consideration when He’s doling out privilege at the Pearly Gate. They have a dog in the fight. God has to be that God. They have to hope that their faith is accurate at the same time as having faith that it is.

And that’s a long way of never coming to a conclusion about whether faith that the future will turn out all right can exist without hope that the future will turn out all right. Or visa versa.

But if faith in a future did indeed exist independent of hope, I think we’d have many more people coming to the same conclusion as Socrates.

But then, that’s just me.