You know the rope won’t break—but it’s still a long way down.

Picture yourself in a position in which I have been many times as a mountaineer. You are perched high on a rock face, about to begin a rappel. Sixty feet, 70 feet, perhaps hundreds of feet yawn between you and the ground. You have checked the piton to which the rope is attached several times to see if it is secure.

You feel the rope in your hands, and you know from every spec sheet available that the doubled three-eighths-inch nylon strands in your grip have a combined tensile strength of over 8,000 pounds. There is no way the rope can break. You don’t want to look down, but you glance quickly over your shoulder once more to make sure the rope reaches the ground, or at least to another ledge from which to continue the rappel. It undulates gently in the breeze beneath you. In a moment it will be tight as piano wire, humming with vibration as you jump out and down on the descent.

Everything is in order. Technically, statistically, your descent is assured. You have told yourself that a hundred times. Now is the moment of truth. Do you believe it—believe it enough to entrust your entire weight to the piton, carabiner, and rope, and to jump back into empty space, suspended like a spider on a thread? The specs on your equipment are mere knowledge now. You’ve got that in your head. But to act on that knowledge, to jump backwards off the precipice—that takes more than your head. It takes something lower down—in your stomach, perhaps—called faith.

What Is “Faith”?

There is scarcely a word more common to Christianity than the word “faith”—and equally true perhaps, there is no word less clearly understood. A mist of vagueness, and sometimes a cloud of misunderstanding, surrounds ...

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