Today I read a letter in a newspaper which asserted that religious faith rests on the second hand testimony of people in the distant past. I do wish that atheists would adequately study religion before they make assertions about it. There may indeed be people whose faith rests on the second testimony of people in the distant past, but this is not how faith works for man or most.
The essence of Christian faith is that the Spirit of God is active in the community of the church, guiding, inspiriing and strengthening, giving wisdom and spiritual charismata. The church has always recognized that the Spirit is the product of Jesus' ongoing presence in the heart of his community, which is a particular case of his presence in the world. John's gospel describes Jesus as the Word incarnate among humankind, and the church has susceptible to his influence acting through the risen Christ present in the world
What does this mean in practice. It means that at the heart of any Christian faith there are charismata, the divine influences in a person's life. There may be some people who occasionally or more often enjoy a sense of presence, but Buber, the Jewish thinker, probably has it right when he speaks of presence/power. For most Christians the root of their faith is the spiritual strength that they draw from their membership of the Christian community and from prayer, both private and collective.
Thus the statment that faith rests on acceptance of testimony from the distant past is wrong. It is far more dependent on influences in the present. But what then is the role of such testimony. As humans we rely on knowledge passed on from others. We discover few , if any new ideas ourselves and have to be educated through contact with the human community and by sharing in its culture. Thus the experience of God or the reception of charismata do not depend upon a human community, but as humans we depend upon others for the ideas by which we understand and interpret our experiences. Put simply, I would not understand Christianity without the human community of the Catholic Church in which I was raised and of which I am happily a member.
Faith is a plant that needs constant nourishment by a prayerful life. Without prayer and the reception of divine influences therein it will soon fade. I have so far not met an atheist account of faith that even recognizes this fundamental fact of religious living. This is a testimony to the poverty of thought in modern atheism.
The church provides the story of Jesus which gives me the narrative tradition that explains the identity of the community whose prayer-life strengthens me. It provides the theology which enables me to interpret my religious life. This is not to say that I am uncritical or believe everything said to me, far from it. I am in constant dialogue with my spiritual tradition and develop my own critical thoughts therein. The church also provides the language of worship. Without this language I would have to have made all the spiritual discoveries myself, and that would have meant that little progress would have been made.
The cultural community is the locus in which the first steps in faith are made, and its stories are the vehicle through which divine influences operate. I have a great deal to thank my parents for, as they gave me the religious background in which faith could grow. My thoughts on theology have outgrown theirs over the years, but they provides the home in which spiritual influences could flourish and in which I could be sensitive to them.
A weak faith rests on second hand testimony, but it is the kind of faith that will probably fade quickly under pressure, like the seed that fell on the path or the seed that fell among thorns. But a deep religious faith is an ongoing process of discovery, thought and growth that is rooted in the divine influence in life, but nourished by the linguistic/ conceptual culture of the community in which its holder grows