Defining Faith: Paul Tillich on Faith and Doubt

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW



“The faith that stands on authority is not faith.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson



“An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite.”

Paul Tillich from Dynamics of Faith



How to Define Faith


I would like to explore the experiential dimension of faith. Ultimately I want to examine faith and its counterpart, doubt, from the point of view of the psychotherapist. But before doing this I will step back and ask the more basic question of how to define faith in a way that can apply to a wide range of people, including those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.



Faith As Distinct From Religious Beliefs


When we consider faith as one of the spiritual emotions it takes on an entirely different meaning than when it is used to designate a particular type of religious belief. If we asked someone to describe their faith, for example, we would expect to hear an answer such as Presbyterian or Catholic or Unitarian or Agnostic. But if we ask someone if they have faith, the answer is likely to be much more nuanced and complex. Having faith in a general sense suggests a trust in life, a source of comfort or ease. We might say that we have faith, even if we do not believe in a personal God who is watching over us and hears our prayers, or a heaven that awaits us after we die.


Faith is too broad a concept to confine to religion, and yet to call it “spiritual” implies more than just trust in the most basic sense. We might trust that we will wake up in the morning and that the day will proceed without any unexpected horrors, and this is truly a blessing for those of us who are fortunate enough to possess this basic trust. But the word “faith” in the context of a discussion of spirituality suggests something more, something we have faith in that is beyond the ordinary and the mundane.



Faith as a Relationship with the Infinite


I propose that we think of faith as Paul Tillich defined it: “An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite.” The beauty of this definition is that it is quite specific and yet is independent of the content of our faith; it could be said to include anyone who has a particular type of relationship with the “infinite,” whether they call themselves religious, spiritual, or anything else. And he is not just speaking of a basic trust in life but is focusing on all that is implied by the word “infinite.”


The infinite stands for the transcendent, that quality of life that defies our normal boundaries or explanations and that encompasses the mysterious. The infinite symbolizes the extra-ordinary– the “ultimate reality” that escapes our rational understanding.



Faith Is Not Just an Intellectual Process


“Faith is precisely the letting go and letting truth hold us.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast from “The Monk in Us”


For Tillich, having a relationship with the infinite goes well beyond simply contemplating the endless expanse of the universe. Faith is not just about our thoughts or the conclusions that we have drawn about ultimate reality, nor is it just a process of willing to believe. His definition of faith includes a cognitive element and a behavioral element, since he speaks of an “act” where we are “turned to” the infinite; but it also includes an emotional or “ecstatic” element, in that we must be “grasped by” the infinite. Faith includes all of its elements, the unconscious as well as the conscious, the ego, the superego, the cognitive and the emotional.


Brother David Steindl-Rast makes a similar point in “The Monk in Us” when he discusses the relationship between faith and truth. Faith is not just an intellectual process where we settle on some truth and hold onto it. Faith is really the opposite. It is about our ability to fully open ourselves and to experience what is true for us in a more visceral way. Rather than hold truth, truth is something that “holds us.”



Faith and Doubt Go Together


“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

Paul Tillich from Systematic Theology, Volume 2


“Faith, by its nature, includes separation. If there is no separation from

the object of faith, then it becomes a matter of certainty, and not of faith.”

Paul Tillich


We tend to think of faith and doubt as opposites, but if we examine these concepts in more detail it becomes clear why this is not the case. If we lived in a world of certainty, without mystery or the challenge of infinity, then why would we need faith? If we fully understood the origins and nature of the universe and had the answers to all of our questions about the purpose and meaning of life, then the word “faith” would not need to exist. It would not be necessary to take the “leap of faith” because the nature of ultimate reality would be a certainty to us.


The concept of faith is only relevant in an uncertain world which, by definition, ultimately defies rational explanation. But the lack of certainty also invites doubt, just as it offers the opportunity for faith. When considered in this way, faith is not in conflict with reason; instead, it offers an alternative way to respond to the mysterious aspects of life. Faith allows us to approach the dimension of life that is unfathomable–something that reason alone cannot do.


Faith and doubt are like two sides of the same coin. There is an aspect of faith that feels certain in that there is an experience of the sacred. This is the aspect of faith that grasps us or holds us. But as finite beings attempting to come to terms with the infinite, the element of uncertainty is also present. Tillich explains that the concept of faith includes separation from the object of faith. It is this experience of separation which creates the opportunity for doubt and disconnection. For most of us at least, we are not always in touch with our feelings of faith. Faith is not something that we can expect to experience on a consistent basis.



Ultimate Reality Can Only Be Described Symbolically


Because of this inherent uncertainty, Tillich claims that ultimate reality can only be described symbolically. We develop what he calls “myths.” When our myths are seen as symbols rather than taken literally as the final truth, this represents a “dynamic” type of faith that allows for doubt and uncertainty. In contrast, “non-dynamic” faith excludes the possibility of uncertainty. When myths or symbols are taken literally as the ultimate truth, this does not represent the kind of dynamic faith that Tillich is describing.


This may explain why Tillich is considered somewhat controversial in certain circles and why his views have been rejected by some who are religious in a more traditional sense. But the fact that he examines faith from the broadest perspective, independent of the specific content of faith, makes his ideas particularly relevant to a discussion of contemporary spirituality. And the way that he introduces doubt as a necessary complement to faith offers a helpful reminder to all of us, including psychotherapists, that both faith and doubt have legitimate roles to play. We need to include both if we are to understand how the therapist experiences faith and the lack of faith as we navigate with the client through the psychotherapy hour.