[The following excerpt is from a piece by C. S. Lewis entitled ‘Religion: Reality or Substitute?’ It was written some time during the Second World War.]
Have we now got to a position from which we can talk about Faith without being misunderstood? For in general we are shy of speaking plain about Faith as a virtue. It looks so like praising an intention to believe what you want to believe in the face of evidence to the contrary: the American in the old story defined Faith as ‘the power of believing what we know to be untrue.’ Now I define Faith as the power of continuing to believe what we once honestly thought to be true until cogent reasons for honestly changing our minds are brought before us. The difficulty of such continuing to believe is constantly ignored or misunderstood in discussions of this subject. It is always assumed that the difficulties of faith are intellectual difficulties, that a man who has once accepted a certain proposition will automatically go on believing it till real grounds for disbelief occur. Nothing could be more superficial. How many of the freshmen who come up to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment? I don’t know how it is with others, but I find that mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first—God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College. The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless.
These irrational fluctuations in belief are not peculiar to religious belief. They are happening about all our beliefs all day long. Haven’t you noticed it with our thoughts about the war? Some days, of course, there is really good or really bad news, which gives us rational grounds for increased optimism or pessimism. But everyone must have experienced days in which we are caught up in a great wave of confidence or down into a trough of anxiety though there are no new grounds either for the one or the other. Of course, once the mood is on us, we find reasons soon enough. We say that we’ve been ‘thinking it over’: but it is pretty plain that the mood has created the reasons and not vice versa. But there are examples closer to the Christian problem even than these. There are things, say in learning to swim or to climb, which look dangerous and aren’t. Your instructor tells you it’s safe. You have good reason from past experience to trust him. Perhaps you can even see for yourself, by your own reason, that it is safe. But the crucial question is, will you be able to go on believing this when you actually see the cliff edge below you or actually feel yourself unsupported in the water? You will have no rational grounds for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight. We can face things which we know to be dangerous if they don’t look or sound too dangerous; our real trouble is often with things we know to be safe but which look dreadful. Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable—when the whole world takes on that desolate look which really tells us much more about the state of our passions and even our digestion than about reality.
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