What is faith if you cannot defend it?

Today, I’ve been thinking about faith. And today I’ve decided to write a post on faith, and hopefully you will tell me what you think about it. You see, when people think of faith, they attach certain opinions to it, such as…

  • It’s biased
  • It’s ‘blind faith’
  • It has no rationality to it
  • It doesn’t carry any weight
  • It’s a mechanism for coping
And the list goes on. Well, today, I’ve been thinking specifically about Christian faith (I hope you don’t mind if I talk about Christian faith, because this blog is primarily Christian; though input from other philosophies and religions will be most welcome). And the result of my thinking was this Twitter Status (and the title of this post):

It’s occurred to me that faith isn’t very valuable if we cannot defend it. What do I mean by this?

Well, firstly, I mean that faith just doesn’t come out of nowhere. Something within someone has weighed up an experience, a situation, some (or a lot of) data and concluded “I have faith in x“. In my situation it is this:

I have weighed up my own experiences plus some claims and other data, evaluated them and come to a conclusion that I have faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

So in other words, I have pieced together my own ‘case’ and I have investigated it. It has ended up in faith in Jesus. Of course, if you do the same thing and don’t have faith in Jesus, you have still put your faith in something, but can you defend it?

What about the defence of this faith? To answer this question requires a lot of study, but I shall just highlight a few notes that I have made in my head. I wish to make 2 points first;

  1. Faith can be rational. This does not mean to say that all the facets of someone’s faith will be rational, but it does mean that rationality can be present. For example, I can be a rational being and believe in God because belief in God requires faith, and faith is non-falsifiable.
  2. Faith can be irrational. I completely agree with anyone who says that there are people out there with irrational faith. What sort of people have irrational faith? I think it would be those who make wild claims without basing their claims on anything. I cannot say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without basing that claim on something. To demonstrate, I can say that Jesus is Lord because of the Bible, the amount of people that still follow him, his influence in my own life and other things.

It is the former point which has any milage in it. Only rational faith can be defended. And it is with Christian faith in which I am interested as the subject of this post.

You cannot defend something you don’t know. Which is why it is important to study God’s word, to study theology and to engage in reason, science and other things. See my post on why you should study theology, and things you should know about interpretation for more information.

Quite often, Christians these days find all this study a bit too much work and would rather have an irrational faith. That’s OK, but irrational faith is something that will not sustain you and stints your spiritual growth massively. I’ve found this the most with fundamental Christians. They take everything in the Bible word for word (which, of course is OK if that’s how you want to read the Bible) but they refuse to use their brains to critically engage with the text. They won’t touch science with a barge pole and they expect everyone to be as irrational with them.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones said that the difference between Fundamentals and Conservative Christians is that Fundamentals deny rationality to be applied to their faith. Very true. And if fundamentalism rears it’s ugly head (in any religion) then we all know what the consequences are…

If you’re going to take the Bible word for word (by this I mean 6 day creationism and all that sort of stuff) then you must be able to defend that rationally. Having faith requires work. Christians are not just left to have an irrational belief. There are things out there which help us to come to terms with the faith we believe in. Christian faith is not blind faith. Of course, there are some things we cannot explain and take 100% faith, but the major things of the Christian faith do contain rationality, and therefore can prop up the things that we’re not quite sure of.

I know some of you will be rabid atheists reading the blog. At this point you may be thinking that the entire Christian message must be based on irrational faith. Well if you do think that, then you yourself possess irrational faith. You cannot conclusively deny Christ as God. Because God is non-falsifiable and of course, it takes a great amount of faith for you to make such a conclusion. Indeed, Science at it’s foundation is based on philosophical ideas, which, in turn are also based, fundamentally, on faith themselves. I’m quite happy to dialogue with you if that is what you wish; though of course I’m not some Doctor in any field and I’m only writing from my own experience and study. Being only 21 at the point of writing, this experience and study has its limits!

Back to Christian faith:

After I had posted my tweet, I had a bit of feedback…

What is God if he needs defending? : Well, this is a great question. I’m glad I have wise people on Twitter who I am friends with. The answer to this is that, indeed, God does not need defending. But we aren’t talking about God in and of himself, but the things we believe as a response to God. As God is rational, then we are created to be rational too (at least, that’s how the Christian teaching goes), so it is therefore that our faith carries weight, and in that weight is the power of rationality.

The second bit of feedback was this…

Again, a very wise point indeed. We need to be careful that our defences have the purpose of building rather than of tearing down.

So, what does the Bible say about defending the faith? Quite a few things, actually.

  • 1 Peter 3:15
  • 2 Corinthians 10:5
  • Philippians 1:7
  • John 2:23; 10:25; 10:38; 14:29
  • Titus 1:9

We are told to always be ready to give account of what we believe. And ‘I believe because I do’ is simply not good enough; that will not put people on the right path to salvation. Whilst we ourselves cannot save anyone, and this is a VERY important point to make, we have been told to be tools for God so that we may direct people towards the truth. And for me, personally, that includes defending the faith in a rational way.

I guess the best way you can start to build up your case for the faith is to actually start learning the faith you claim to be your own. Reading the bible and engaging with theology is the way to go. And there are also great resources out there for us to use to help us on the way.

That’s my discussion over now. I’m perfectly aware that I may be wrong on this issue, and I just want to say that this post may not change anyone’s opinion on what faith is. But to me, faith can be rational. But I may be wrong on something… and if I am, I’d love for you to tell me. I’d love to engage, discuss and work out some of these tensions that we face in life. I think the last point I wish to make is that if you’re searching for faith in God, then you can only be persuaded so far. Belief does, at some point, require a ‘leap of faith’ as we know it to be; stepping into the unknown, making a jump and not knowing the consequences. This is the same whether you’re a Christian, or an Atheist. We all go through the same process.

Anyway. I think I’ve rambled a little bit. What do you think? I’d love to know!

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Dean Roberts

Dean is a Minister in the Anglican Church. Currently he is Curate in the parishes of Bedwas, Machen, Michaelston-y-Fedw and Rudry in South Wales. He was born and bred in Wales, is married to Megan, and has two dogs called Taliesin and Melyn, and two cats named Sinsir and Hâf. He graduated from Cardiff University with a BA Hons. in Theology & Religious Studies, and has studied for an MA in Theology, Ministry & Mission at Trinity College Bristol. He also holds a Cert.RSCM from the Royal School of Church Music. He loves playing music, walking, reading, blogging and horse riding as well as going to the cinema and theatre. Read More @ http://deanroberts.net/about

  • I feel very honoured (and slightly fraudulent) to be quoted as a source of wisdom 😉

    I think my point about apologetics is, in it’s attempt to make Christianity reasonable and rational, it sometimes robs it of its other-worldy nature ie faith as that which comes over against the world in judgement of the world claims of power (epistemological claims included).

    I’m always reminded of Barth’s famous quote in his commentary on Romans:

    “The Gospel is not a truth among other truth. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge” (Romans 1:16-17 in the commentary I think).

    There’s always the danger in focussing on the rationality and truth claims of the gospel we blunt its power to convict, change and subvert our very lives and reason.

    Anyway, that is a slightly longer thought on what I meant. I still don’t think I qualify as wise!

    • Haha, don’t feel fraudulent! It was a brilliant point!

      I think you raise some really good things here, and I think Barth has got it spot on.

      There’s a delicate balance when you start getting into apologetics, and it’s crucial to realise that it isn’t the power of arguments that saves or convicts.

      Thanks for visiting, David! Your comments will always be appreciated here!

  • Mark

    Hey I realize I’m coming to the party a couple weeks late, but I just stumbled upon your blog and was wondering if you would let me pick your brain a bit with regards to your understanding of faith and your defense of it. I am an atheist and as such I have a hard time understanding the perspective of the devoutly religious, and quite frankly most people I talk to about these things don’t give very satisfactory answers. However your emphasis on rationality in faith is very encouraging and leads me to believe you could be a good person to discuss these things with.

     

    I guess the short version of what I’m trying to say is I was wondering if you would mind going on a bit about the rational basis of your faith.

    Also I’ve got a few issues with what you wrote in this post. I think they are mostly semantic issues, both those are quite important when discussing these things. This drags on a bit and may not be very clear but if you are interested in dialoging with me about faith this also serves as a bit of a crash course in my understanding of the relationship between faith and atheism. (also I use a ton of examples, which reads a bit condescending for some reason, this is not my intent I assure you. Whenever I do any heavy thinking I use a ton of examples to help myself through the though process).

     

    I mostly have issues with the way you distinguish between faith and lack of faith. Lets start with a direct quote of your post.

    I have weighed up my own experiences plus some claims and other data, evaluated them and come to a conclusion that I have faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

    So in other words, I have pieced together my own ‘case’ and I have investigated it. It has ended up in faith in Jesus. Of course, if you do the same thing and don’t have faith in Jesus, you have still put your faith in something, but can you defend it?”


    I was following you until the part where you say that one I still placing faith in something when they do not have faith in Jesus. Like I said this is probably a semantic disagreement, probably stemming from our definitions of faith. Most definitions of faith seem to be along the lines of it being belief in a proposition with the knowledge that you cannot be certain that the proposition is true.

    However the way that you talk about building and evaluating a case for Jesus suggests that you are not operating with this definition (obviously I don’t actually know what your definition of faith is, so please correct me if I am wildly off target). The way you talk about faith, particularly the emphasis on rational evaluation, suggests that you view it as somewhere on the spectrum of belief. In fact your use of the word makes does appear to have any real distinction with belief, so I will be using that as your effective definition. (I’m defining as belief as holding a proposition to be true based on some epistemological standard).

    Using that definition if I were to be presented with your case for Jesus and was unconvinced I certainly would not have faith in Jesus, but what would I have faith in?

    The gut reaction would be that I have faith that your proposition regarding the divinity of Jesus is not true. However a lack of faith in something does not necessitate faith in it’s opposite. To use a rather mundane example, if I were looking to hire a carpenter and you tried to convince me that a fellow you know would do an excellent job, but I was unconvinced that doesn’t mean I think he won’t do a good job, does it?

    This next paragraph is a brief, rather confusing and poorly written diversion into amateur epistemology so I would hold it against you if you skip it. However if you can follow it I think it raising some potentially interesting issues regarding how a rational basis of evaluation can exist.

    I think a more convincing counter argument would be that in rejecting your proposition regarding Jesus I was putting forth a claim that your proposition was insufficiently supported. Obviously justifying the methodology of justification just leads to a recursive nightmare or some unjustified first principle (quite like the issue of the existence of the universe actually). If I was majoring in philosophy instead of science I’m sure I could tell you what the epistemological justification of epistemology is, unfortunately I have no idea, so it’s probably best that we don’t go there. Although I would be interested as to what your thoughts are regarding the basis of epistemology. Anyways this whole counter argument is something of a moot point because if you were to use it then you are essentially attacking rationality as a concept, which would rather undermine your efforts to make faith rational.

    Moving on from that diversion another thing that I take issue with is the use the argument that being an atheist requires as much faith, or even more than being Christian. This is a rather common argument and in some cases it is true, however this is as always dependent on our definitions. I consider myself an atheist simply in the sense that I am not a theist, meaning that I do not believe in a god. This is quite different from saying that I believe there is not a god. I hold this stance because, as you rightly point out, if I believed that all the concepts of gods do not exist I would be holding a belief regarding the existence of things which are non-falsifiable.

    Regarding the falsifiability of God (capital G indicates I am referring to the god of Abraham such as you understand Him, or would you rather I call Him YHWH?) it is up for debate depending on what version of God we are referring to. As you are no doubt aware pretty much everyone has there own idea of what their god is. Depending on what that idea is their god may or may not be falsifiable. For example if your God claimed that the world would end on Friday he would be falsifiable and I would be justified in believing he doesn’t exist provided we made it to Saturday.

    So I would contend that it is possible to not believe in the existence of a god without it being an act of faith, however believing that a specific unfalsifiable god does not exist would be an act of faith. However not all gods are unfalsifiable I would be interested in your definition of God and whether or not he is falsifiable.

    Well this ended up a bit longer then I was expecting, I hope that you put up with reading the whole thing.

    I’m about as much of a layman as it is possible to be regarding philosophy and especially theology so I would like to hear what how my definitions of faith compare to yours and if you think that a person who is an atheists as I define it is committing an act of faith. And of course, above all else I am interested in how your faith is justified such that you think consider it to be rational.

    • Hey Mark,

      First off, thank you for connecting here and for wanting to get involved with the discussion. You seem like a wonderful person to talk with and I love it when atheists pop by and say hello.

      I’m not a scientist or an expert in any field, but I’ll try my hardest to answer your question.

      OK, firstly I must make myself clear: My definition of faith is something/someone which you put your whole belief in and you believe it to be true. Faith can be many things, as you’ve rightly pointed out and I think atheists and theists work from different perspectives a lot of the time when discussing these issues. One tension between science and, in this case, Christianity is that there is a language/jargon barrier. When I talk about faith, I mean either believing something to be true based on factors that have led me to that truth (faith) or false/a lie, meaning that there isn’t any reason for me to believe it is true at all (lack of faith). But in a scientific sense, faith is not really a word in the scientific dictionary. However, probability is and therefore, many scientists, in a theological/faith debate will use “faith” and “probability” interchangeably, (and vice versa of course) which confuses the discussion.

      So you’re entirely right when you say that there are semantic problems here. Our definitions of faith differ (or at least, that’s what appears to be the case to me). Therefore, I entirely agree with the first bit of your discussion.

      OK, let’s go further a bit:

      “The gut reaction would be that I have faith that your proposition regarding the divinity of Jesus is not true. However a lack of faith in something does not necessitate faith in it’s opposite. To use a rather mundane example, if I were looking to hire a carpenter and you tried to convince me that a fellow you know would do an excellent job, but I was unconvinced that doesn’t mean I think he won’t do a good job, does it?”

      Within Christianity, you can’t have faith in Jesus without believing that he’s divine and part of the trinity (or any other facets/qualities/characteristics of his persona and work). In this case, Christian faith is unique to other sorts of faith, which is why, as you rightly said, there isn’t really a distinction between belief and faith as there would be in other theories. So a lack of faith in this sense would mean exactly what you said: it would be to not have faith in Christ. Because as one Bible verse says: Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. (I know you probably wouldn’t appreciate me quoting scripture, but I merely do so to demonstrate how many Christians approach the idea of faith).

      In other realms of life, I would entirely agree with you regarding your example, but not in the Christian sense. Because in your examples, we are going back to probabilities. You may be 100% sure that your friend could do an excellent job, whereas you may be 90% sure that my friend would do an excellent job. At which point does belief become unbelief in this sense? 89%? 50%? 1%? Hopefully, I’m explaining myself clearly here.

      Within Christianity, faith is an all or nothing sort of deal when it comes to things like Christ’s divinity etc. Because heaven/eternal life/being saved/salvation (whatever you want to call it) depends on what you believe about yourself, and what you believe about Christ. According to theology, you cannot be saved if you don’t believe Christ was God, that he was raised from the dead, and that you and I are fallen people who need repentance. Because salvation contains all of these things. As far as Christian faith goes, you cannot be 80% sure that you’re sinful and 50% sure that Jesus was God and 32% sure that he rose again from the dead. You either have to believe it, or not. So we go back to the faith/belief, faith/probability problem again!

      I’m terribly sorry, but after this little bit, I got confused with what you were trying to say, so I will move on to this:

      “Moving on from that diversion another thing that I take issue with is the use the argument that being an atheist requires as much faith, or even more than being Christian. This is a rather common argument and in some cases it is true, however this is as always dependent on our definitions. I consider myself an atheist simply in the sense that I am not a theist, meaning that I do not believe in a god. This is quite different from saying that I believe there is not a god. I hold this stance because, as you rightly point out, if I believed that all the concepts of gods do not exist I would be holding a belief regarding the existence of things which are non-falsifiable.”

      Again, you’re right; you’re not working from my definition, and I’m not working from yours. Of course, you’d probably hear many scientists who are atheists saying they believe in a higher force or whatever they want to call it, with Christians saying “Ah, yes, so you DO believe in God!” – of course this is deeply unhelpful to atheists and angers many, I would say that Christian belief would say that everyone has the capacity to find belief in God, and those atheists, in a Christian’s understanding be referring to that capacity. Again, if you are saying you’re an atheist, you are saying that you don’t believe in any god, due to the definition of terms mentioned above. I hope that makes sense!

      OK, the next bit:

      “Regarding the falsifiability of God (capital G indicates I am referring to the god of Abraham such as you understand Him, or would you rather I call Him YHWH?) it is up for debate depending on what version of God we are referring to. As you are no doubt aware pretty much everyone has there own idea of what their god is. Depending on what that idea is their god may or may not be falsifiable. For example if your God claimed that the world would end on Friday he would be falsifiable and I would be justified in believing he doesn’t exist provided we made it to Saturday.”

      I would call him God, Jesus, Yahweh, YHWH… whatever – he isn’t fussed on those sorts of things these days 😛 … but yes I completely agree with you. He can be falsifiable on those grounds. But it is important to note that the Christian God isn’t confined to those sorts of parameters. You may remember Harold Camping… who predicted the end of the world many times. If we based belief in God on his predictions then he would have been falsified a million times over! But if we based him of the person and work of Christ, then I think you’d find it much harder to falsify (I understand this could get into a whole other debate, so rather focus on a God who created the universe by whatever means rather than Christ’s person).

      I hope that’s given you something to chew on for now. I’m sorry if you’re unsatisfied with this answer, but I’m more than willing to continue to converse and discuss. I find these conversations stimulating and helpful, and at the best of times, deeply enjoyable. So thank you for visiting my blog! Do continue to read and have your own input! And I look forward to hearing from you soon, maybe!

       

  • Mark

    Hey Dean, I really appreciate you responding to my post. Particularly that you are taking the time to address my arguments individually, something many people don’t do. Unfortunately I won’t be able to give a full length response until some time this weekend as I am studying for a final.

    As a bit of a tangent, what do you think of genetic engineering? (The final is in a subsection of it called metabolic engineering). I know alot of people have ethical issues with it. I can certainly understand that when it comes things like engineering humans, but I don’t understand why people would have an issue with engineering things like E.Coli (a bacteria commonly used in research). I’d be interested to read your thoughts on the matter.

    • Dear Mark

      No problem! I’m more than happy to discuss with you – I enjoy it and find it really challenging at times (in a good way!).

      As for genetic engineering, I think like with all things, there are good and bad sides to it. As you mentioned,  genetic engineering to help cure cancer or whatever is fine to me, but there are ethical issues that I would have with cloning and all the implications that it may have on our world, and secondary  ethical issues with things like GM crops (not because of the science, but because of the adverse effects it has on employment in the agricultural industry). I’m sure there’s other things that I would be for and against, but that’s just thinking off the top of my head!

      Does that help?

  • Mark

    Hey, sorry I took so long to respond to you. Things got even more hectic than I thought they would, but they have cooled down a bit so I gave your response a more thorough look.

     

    First of all, starting off with your definition of faith is a huge help, as it is probably one of the most important factors in this discussion. I will try to work with your definition to they extent that I understand it, please correct me if I use it incorrectly.

     

    One point I would like to make regarding your definition of faith is that a lack of faith does not necessarily mean I believe a proposition to be untrue. My point is when I say I don’t have faith in Jesus I don’t mean that I think your beliefs are wrong, merely that I don’t have a stance on it’s validity. I realize that the distinction between my not believing in Christ’s divinity versus my believing Christ is not divine seems like a very small one, but it is very important to me. The second statement is not something I could support while being consistent with my standards of evidence because it places the burden of proof on me, whereas the first statement places it on whoever is proposing that Christ is divine.

     

    I don’t want to belabor this point so I will move on. You later say that Christian faith is distinguished between other types of faith because “Within Christianity, you can’t have faith in Jesus without believing that he’s divine and part of the trinity”. Are you saying that faith in Jesus is unique when compared to more secular types of faith, such as my hypothetical carpenter, or when compared to other religious figures? If you mean it in the later sense I’m not sure I agree. It seems to me that there would be a similar relationship in other faiths, ie I couldn’t have faith in Muhammad without believing he was divinely inspired or I can’t have faith in Zeus with out believing he is divine. I suspect I am missing the point and would appreciate you elaborating a bit on this. Also for the record your use of a Bible quote in this context (describing the Christian understanding of faith) is completely justified. Using the Bible help explain something is almost always acceptable. It only becomes problematic if you were to try to use it as proof of something without any other support.

     

    I think your point about probability and faith is a very interesting one, particularly question about what probability is necessary to believe something. I think the best way to describe this is that I am never really 100% sure about something, but I do regularly accept things as true, but on a tentative basis. That is to say that I will go about my life acting under the assumption that it is true, but I will try to stay aware of any potentially conflicting information and re-evaluate the proposition as necessary. The level of confidence necessary for me to tentatively accept something as true will vary depending on the situation. For example if you recommended the hypothetical carpenter to me that might be enough for me to tentatively believe that he would be a good hire. However your word regarding the divinity of Jesus is not necessarily enough for me to tentatively believe you. This is because my standards for evidence regarding divinity are much higher than my standards for carpenters because the former is a much more important issue than the later.

     

    I must confess that the idea of 100% certitude in Jesus is somewhat mystifying to me, as I don’t really have that level of certainty in anything.

     

    Terribly sorry that my excursion into epistemology was so confusing, I intended to try again in this response, but it’s late enough that I suspect any effort to improve on it would end up being just as confusing. It’s a hard enough topic just to think about and it’s much harder for me to convey my thoughts on the subject.

     

    Your comment about scientists talking about higher powers and having Christians take it as faith in god is spot on. This seems to happen an awful lot, there are many famous scientists who rather explicitly deny belief in god but subscribe to some sort belief in “higher order”. They generally seem to be referring to the underlying laws of the universe, but the reverential somewhat spiritual quality of it is misconstrued as religion. I’ve seen Einstein held up as a symbol of Christian scientists, which is annoying on multiple levels (aside from it being insulting to Einstein (who was an agnostic Jew who rather explicitly rejected the idea of a personal god), it is an insult to the many exceptional christian scientists, past and present).

     

    Unfortunately I was rather confused by this statement “I would say that Christian belief would say that everyone has the capacity to find belief in God, and those atheists, in a Christian’s understanding be referring to that capacity. Again, if you are saying you’re an atheist, you are saying that you don’t believe in any god, due to the definition of terms mentioned above.”

     

    Regarding the falsifiability of Jesus I agree that we should probably avoid the debate, we could dig up historical records all day but I don’t think either of us are really experts in that sort of thing. As such it is probably easier to discuss this outside of attempts to falsify, although one should not take that as an admission that Jesus is not falsifiable, just that it is probably not the best use of our time.

     

    Thanks for bringing up Harold Camping, he serves as a particularly distressing example of religion gone wrong. I found his whole situation rather funny at first, but at some point I realized that many of his followers had essentially dismantled their lives in anticipation of the end of the world. I read an article about some of his followers who were touring around America telling everyone about the coming end of the world, there was one man who had sold off most of his property and wound up completely estranged from his wife and family because of this. He was sad that his family didn’t support him, but he was sure he was doing it for the good of the world. When the alleged doomsday rolled around I thought about that guy, how he had nothing material, he had alienated his whole family and his entire worldview was no doubt shattered.

     

    I don’t mean to draw a comparison between Harold Camping and anything you or anyone else believes of course. However I do think that smaller scale versions of this happen regularly, I think the problem is with the “bundling” of beliefs. I don’t know about your exact views on these things, but many Christians here in the U.S believe that being a Christian requires a extremely literal interpretation of the Bible. There are a lot of people that think that the divinity of Jesus is directly tied to the world being younger than 6000-10000 years or evolution being a massive conspiracy. I think the pastors that pitch this sort of view of the Bible and Christianity are doing their flock a disservice because they are forcing their followers to insulate themselves from science. If one of the followers does come to realize that evolution occurs or that the earth has been around for a while longer than they thought then it was they think it undermines everything else in their faith and it can cause them to fall away from it all together. Since I am an atheist I’m not sure why I am so irritated by this, after all someone losing their faith isn’t exactly a tragedy to me. I think it is because it is often a tragedy to those who fall away from their faith, and often for their families. Anyways if you don’t buy into evolution I apologize. I’ve studied biology for long enough that I tend to get a little dismissive of those who think it’s a scam.

     

    Anyways your stance on genetic engineering seems quite reasonable, although I was wondering when you said you have issues with cloning did you mean human cloning specifically? Or do you also have issues with cloning other organisms? Pretty much any molecular biology requires extensive use of cloning techniques, mainly in bacteria. Also random cultural question, a lot of Christians in the states say “believe on Jesus” do you know how that is different from believe in Jesus and why it is used that way?