Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (Faith)

What is faith? Is faith necessarily a matter of belief in God, or in religious doctrines? Is faith by necessity in contrast to, or divorced from, reason and rational thinking? Even to begin to understand the problem of faith one must differentiate between rational and irrational faith. By irrational faith I understand the belief (in a person or an idea) which is based on one’s submission to irrational authority. In contrast, rational faith is a conviction which is rooted in one’s own experience of thought or feeling. Rational faith is not primarily belief in something, but the equality of certainty and firmness which our convictions have. Faith is a character trait pervading the whole personality, rather than a specific belief.

Rational faith is rooted in productive intellectual and emotional activity. In rational thinking, in which faith is supposed to have no place, rational faith is an important component. How does the scientist, for instance, arrive at a new discovery? Does he start with making experiment after experiment, gathering fact after fact, without having a vision of what he expects to find? Rarely has a truly important discovery in any field been made in this way. Nor have people arrived at important conclusions when they were merely chasing a phantasy. The process of creative thinking in any field of human endeavor often starts with what may be called a “rational vision,” itself a result of considerable previous study, reflective thinking, and observation. When the scientist succeeded in gathering enough data, or in working out a mathematical formulation to make his original vision highly plausible, he may be said to have arrived at a tentative hypothesis. A careful analysis of the hypothesis in order to discern its implications, and the amassing of data which support it, lead to a more adequate hypothesis and eventually perhaps to its inclusion in a wide-ranging theory.

The history of science is replete with instances of faith in reason and visions of truth. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were all imbued with an unshakable faith in reason. For this Bruno was burned at the stake and Spinoza suffered excommunication. At every step from the conception of a rational vision to the formulation of a theory, faith is necessary: faith in the vision as a rationally valid aim to pursue, faith in the hypothesis as a likely and plausible proposition, and faith in the final theory, at least until a general consensus about its validity has been reached. This faith is rooted in one’s own experience, in the confidence in one’s power of thought, observation, and judgment. While irrational faith is the acceptance of something as true only BECAUSE an authority or the majority say so, rational faith is rooted in an independent conviction based upon one’s own productive observing and thinking, IN SPITE OF the majority’s opinion.

Thought and judgment are not the only realm of experience in which rational faith is manifested. In the sphere of human relations, faith is an indispensable quality of any significant friendship or love. “Having faith” in another person means to be certain of the reliability and unchangeability of his fundamental attitudes, of the core of his personality, of his love. By this I do not mean that a person may not change his opinions, but that his basic motivations remain the same; that, for instance, his respect for life and human dignity is part of himself, not subject to change.

…Another meaning of having faith in a person refers to the faith we have in the potentialities of others. The most rudimentary form in which this faith exists is the faith which the mother has toward her newborn baby: that it will live, grow, walk, and talk. However, the development of the child in this respect occurs with such regularity that the expectation of it does not seem to require faith. It is different from those potentialities which can fail to develop: the child’s potentialities to love, to be happy, to use his reason, and more specific potentialities like artistic gifts. They are the seeds which grow and become manifest if the proper conditions for their development are given, and they can be stifled if these are absent.

One of the most important of these conditions is that the significant person in a child’s life have faith in these potentialities. The presence of this faith makes the difference between education and manipulation. Education is identical with helping the child realize his potentialities. The opposite of education is manipulation, which is based on… the conviction that a child will be right only if the adults put into him what is desirable and suppress what seems to be undesirable. There is no need of faith in the robot, since there is no life in it either.

The faith in others has its culmination in faith in MANKIND. In the Western world this faith was expressed in religious terms in the Judaeo-Christian religion, and in secular language it has found its strongest expression in the humanistic political and social ideas of the last hundred and fifty years. Like the faith in the child, is is based on the idea that the potentialities of man are such that given the proper conditions he will be capable of building a social order governed by the principles of equality, justice, and love. Man has not yet achieved the building of such an order, and therefore the conviction that he can do so requires faith. But like all rational faith this too is not wishful thinking, but based upon the evidence of the past achievements of the human race and on the inner experience of each individual, on his own experience of reason and love.

While irrational faith is rooted in submission to a power which is felt to be overwhelming strong, omniscient and omnipotent, and in the abdication of one’s own power and strength, rational faith is based upon the opposite experience… We have faith in the potentialities of others, of ourselves, and of mankind because, and only to the degree which, we have experienced the growth of our own potentialities, the reality of growth in ourselves, the strength of our own power of reason and of love. The basis of rational faith is productiveness… It follows that the belief in power (in the sense of domination) and the use of power are the reverse of faith. To believe in power that exists is identical with disbelief in the growth of potentialities which are as yet unrealized. It is a prediction of the future based solely on the manifest present; but it turns out to be a grave miscalculation, profoundly irrational in its oversight of the human potentialities and human growth. There is no rational faith in power. There is submission to it or, on the part of those who have it, the wish to keep it. While to many power seems to be the most real of all things, the history of man has proved it to be the most unstable of all human achievements. Because of the fact that faith and power are mutually exclusive, all religions and political systems which originally are built on rational faith become corrupt and eventually lose what strength they have, if they rely on power or ally themselves with it.

To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whosoever shuts himself off in a system of defense, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern – and to take the jump and stake everything on these values.


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