Faith - the Basis for Meaning and Love
The question in the title of this debate invites two more – indeed, demands them. What is “a good life”? And “faith” in what?
Whatever a good life is, it is not self-evident. For many cultures it has been characterised by power or strength or a certain strategic munificence. For many contemporary liberal capitalist societies, it is a life of relative comfort and ease; about having enough and knowing “where to spend it” as the Financial Times tells us each week. The Christian idea that a good life is the life lived for the ‘Other’, without regard for return favours, is rarer than we might imagine.
Similarly, “faith” covers a multitude of sins. In one regard, humans can’t live without faith – in people, in things, in ideas. (We often prefer to call this trust but the two are pretty much interchangeable.) Even if we choose to narrow it down to “religious faith”, the differences are vast. The faith of Pope Francis or former Archbishop Rowan Williams is not really the same faith of American televangelist Pat Robertson or, er, Donald Trump, let alone Daesh or Al-Shabaab.
So, it depends - but as that’s not a particularly satisfactory answer, let’s try to be a little more specific - and a little more provocative.
If we are talking about a ‘good life’ in the sense of one lived for the Other, a life marked by the kind of virtues that saturate the pages of the New Testament, a life of generosity, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness and gentleness – a life ultimately marked by love – then the Christian faith is a help. And it is a help for three reasons.
First, it offers grounds for moral realism, the idea that what is good is real and objective, rather than a matter of opinion. That may seem theoretical but the more one is told that ultimate reality is blind, amoral, pitiless, indifferent, harsh and brutal – as a thoroughgoing Darwinian world is supposed to be – the less theoretical it becomes. Faith’s moral realism stops the good life from being one long attempt to haul yourself up by your moral bootstraps.
Second, it offers encouragement. Ultimately, people tend to be good because of other people. Hang about with Donald Trump’s “bad dudes” and you are liable to become one yourself. Hang about with a bunch of saints and they may just drag you upwards. Christianity is, self-evidently, communal: the idea(l) of going to church is about a bunch of different people who gather together to honour Christ’s supreme act of self-sacrifice and encourage one another in their own self-giving. The fact that it doesn’t always feel like that doesn't mean it isn’t so.
Finally, it offers forgiveness. No matter how much we are moral realists, we should also be morally realistic. Humans are plagued by inadequacies and faults that Christians call sin (not a word to be used in polite company). Our best efforts notwithstanding, we fail and in failing we hurt ourselves and others. What avoids this pain becoming a vicious circle, in which we pay back hurt with interest, is forgiveness, and forgiveness is foundational to Christianity.
So, here’s one clear answer to the question of whether faith is a help or hindrance to a good life. It’s a help, as long as we are talking about faith grounded honestly in Christ, and a good life predicated on self-giving love.
But here’s also one caveat, an attempt to fish out an all-too-familiar red herring. None of this means others not motivated by this kind of Christian life are incapable of living this kind of good life. Saying faith is a help is not to say that nothing else is.
Rather, it underlines the fact that if you seek to live a life marked by meaning and love, it helps if you believe you live in a reality that is also ultimately marked by meaning and love.