Faith is one of the key concepts used to define and explain religious and spiritual development. For many, it is the key concept. Given its importance, then, faith might be expected to have a clear and agreed upon meaning. However, it does not. There are, in fact, many meanings, but each can be classified under one of two major traditions.
The first tradition defines faith in terms of belief or assent to supernatural, often "revealed" truth. This tradition was strong in the first centuries of Christianity, but today it can be found in discussions both within and outside the Christian tradition and within and outside religious groups. For example, a major topic among cognitive anthropologists and cognitive developmental psychologists today is the topic of how children acquire beliefs in the supernatural. Contrary to previous generations of researchers, today's researchers are emphasizing similarities in the religious beliefs of children and adults and demonstrating the complex mental operations involved in children's acquisition of religious beliefs. However, even a cursory analysis of this new literature suggests that in their focus on children's acquisition of religious beliefs, social scientists today are assuming that for all intents and purposes, belief and faith are the same. Likewise, in ordinary discourse about religion, it is common to find discussants equating faith and belief- as when individuals pose the question, "What religion are you?" and follow immediately with questions about what members of a particular religious group or faith are supposed to believe in.
The second tradition defines faith more in terms of trust, commitment, and an individual's response to a faith tradition. In this tradition, faith becomes an orientation toward life. In this tradition too, faith becomes a quality of persons rather than a single attribute or set of beliefs. In this tradition then, though belief is assumed to be one expression of faith, faith itself is far larger than belief.
In the second tradition, the meaning of faith as trust and commitment often leads to faith being discussed as a particular kind of response within a relationship. So, from the point of view of this second tradition, someone might say he believes in an evil person or power (e.g., Hitler, the devil) but has no faith in that person or power. In this tradition then, belief is neutral whereas faith is never neutral. In this tradition, most of the time faith is a virtue.
These two traditions and meanings of faith have important implications for defining and explaining religious and spiritual development. In adopting the first, intellectualistic meaning of faith as belief, religious and spiritual development become tied to whatever is considered to be revealed truth and the core beliefs of a particular religious group. In adopting the second, holistic meaning of faith as trust, commitment, and orientation toward life, religious and spiritual development become tied to how individuals and communities attempt to live their lives as expressions of what they take to be transcendent and sacred. In the first tradition then, faith (belief) development is a precursor to the development of the whole person. In the second tradition, faith development is the development of the whole person-or at least the core development that matters most.
In the last several decades, a number of scholars have argued that the first, intellectualistic tradition has led to a trivializing of religious and spiritual development. They argue that treating faith as belief provides a way for nonbelievers to dominate intellectually the study and explanation of religious individuals and communities. This same group also argues that the intellectualistic tradition continues a largely Western and biblical bias since in many non-Western faith traditions belief plays a relatively minor role in the religious lives of individuals and communities. Finally, those currently arguing for the second meaning of faith underscore its power for explaining not only individuals responding to religious faith traditions but individuals responding to secular "faith" traditions as well. For this group, one can have an entirely secular faith and live life trying to express some ideal or secular tradition such as the American democratic ideal or the scientific tradition. Indeed, more than a few have pointed out that science today has become a major, perhaps the major, faith tradition.
Finally with respect to the usefulness of defining faith as trust, commitment, and orientation to what is considered to be transcendent or sacred, faith can be usefully employed to define and explain narrowminded, mean-spirited, even pathological faith. There are, after all, many examples of false prophets or individuals who come to see themselves as saviors of the world, individuals whose distorted faith leads them to commit evil acts motivated by their faith.
In sum, there are two main ways of defining faith and its development, one in terms of belief, the other in terms of trust, commitment, and orientation toward what is taken to be transcendent and sacred. The first way continues to be the most common way of defining faith, but there are good reasons for adopting the second way-reasons having to do with its capturing what is central and most significant about religious and spiritual development.