A question that theologians have pondered about throughout the centuries is the true definition of faith. Faith holds a complex meaning when discussed in terms of religion. Faith is a belief or set of beliefs that one person may have– and actually follow. Beliefs can be different for people that follow different religions; however, the uniting of a group of people by a belief system is faith. Christianity and Islam, for example, are two of the world’s major religions. They have common principles, but they differ in terms of practices people perform on a daily basis. This difference does not mean one religion is superior; it means people live their religious lives differently. Faith is a commitment and trust to the God that relates to an individual in his or her daily life.
Paul Tillich, a contemporary theologian, says that God is belief in an ultimate concern. Humans are finite creatures that point to something unlimited. The problem with this is that we are looking for the infinite, but we often settle for the finite. Tillich also says that Faith is the dimension of depth in all of its functions. By depth, Tillich means that the religious aspect points to the infinite in a person’s life. Ultimate concern is asking questions to become knowledgeable in the search of an ultimate concern. It is also the desire of a human to be encouraged and excited to express his or her thoughts and beliefs. “[Religion] gives us the experience of the Holy, of something which is untouchable, awe-inspiring, an ultimate meaning, the source of ultimate courage. This is the glory of what we call religion” (Tillich 8-9). Asking questions and being concerned about something ultimate is Faith because an individual is committed to learning about the God that relates to his or her life.
Ultimate concern relates to what is important for one’s life and according to Tillich, must be expressed symbolically. A unique characteristic of symbols is that they point beyond themselves to something else. A flag, for example, is a symbol in that it not only represents a country’s colors, but a country’s power and dignity. Symbols allow us to explore ourselves on a deeper level– we can reach inner depths, or understandings, that are otherwise hard to reach without the use of symbols. “The third characteristic of a symbol is that it opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us” (Tillich 42). Tillich then goes on to say that myths are an integral part of an individual’s ultimate concern. Myths signify a collection of symbols that stand for our ultimate concern. Tillich defines myths as “symbols of faith combined in stories about divine-human encounters” (49). Myths are always present in Faith and can never be removed. Even a “broken myth” (50) cannot be replaced because it is a symbolic language of faith. Ultimately, Tillich states that Christianity is an expression of ultimate concern because it is a myth.
As opposed to Paul Tillich’s contemporary views, Durkheim views faith in a functionalist way. According to Durkheim, faith is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community, called a ‘church’, all those who adhere to them” (224). Faith expresses the identity and validity of community. Faith should not be understood in terms of its surface claims, but as a reflection of more basic forces. A key idea for Durkheim is Totemism; faith expresses the spirit of a community. It is a fundamentally social matter. “… they are social forces. They are the direct product of collective sentiments which have clothed themselves in material covering” (Durkheim). Unlike Tillich, Durkheim expresses that we should not define faith in terms of the idea of God. We should define it in terms of pre-existing sentiments, or views. “Religious ideas, then, result from the interpretation of pre-existing sentiments” (Durkheim 219). In order to study faith, we must understand these sentiments and pay attention to the way people have interacted socially. Although Durkheim refutes the idea of God, he believes that people are united and committed to a “church” in their daily lives.
In my experience, I was born Muslim, and to this day, I view my God as Allah. Tillich and Durkheim are opposite thinkers; however, both theologians are relatable to my faith. Tillich’s description of symbols is apparent in the Islamic faith. The crescent moon and star is often used to symbolize Islam. The crescent represents progress and the five points on the star represent light and knowledge, along with the five pillars of Islam– the essential elements of the Muslim faith. Durkheim expresses a spirit of community, which is highly present in the Islamic faith. However, the Islamic faith does not have churches; it has mosques. If Durkheim is using the term “church” to represent a congregation, then he is relatable in that all faiths have a common place of worship to commit to and trust whatever God they believe in.
I have learned and experienced Islam mainly through interactions brought upon by my father. As a kid, I went to the mosque with him. At a young age, I learned about faith and discipline through praying to God while an Imam read verses from the Qu’ran. Islam is a very strict religion and teaches discipline. I had to take my shoes off as soon as I entered the mosque and women had to be separated from men– usually in another room. I was very young, so I could stay with my dad while praying. No talking was allowed while the Imam was preaching. As a kid, I was curious. I wanted to ask questions about Faith to my dad, but learned that I had to wait until the prayer was over. Being silenced as a curious kid was difficult, but the overall experience gave my life structure. Because of the structure and peace I feel in my life when worshiping God, I will forever be committed to Allah.