The sin of mere belief

I recently read two articles that, while they’re directed at very different audiences, have a common thread between them that regular readers will recognize as a concern of mine lately.

English writer Francis Spufford is on the press-junket for his book, Unapologetic. This article he wrote for the Guardian (with a tip of the hat to Arni) seems to be setting up an approach toward speaking of religion that consciously and…well, unapologetically avoids putting up faith as “Reason 2.0” as is done by most Christian apologists. To give you an idea of his approach, which is sure to be controversial among believers and unbelievers alike, here’s a bit from the post:

The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

I have recently been considering that the goal of “breaking down the barrier between faith and reason” may be misguided, at least to the extent to which it tries to blur the line between them. “Faith isn’t against reason: it is reason!” The enterprise of making sure that people don’t conclude that our religious convictions contradict the world of reason too often slides into the quagmire of “proving” our unprovable convictions.

This pitfall comes from the ubiquitous misconstrual of “faith” as “believing”. Faith is not belief, but a commitment to a belief (at least in its dullest form: for the Christian it should be a commitment to the Truth himself). Reason is for believing; faith is for living. I think Spufford was trying to say that we will only live out what we want to, what is emotionally real to us.

To be sure, we don’t want to base our beliefs on things that we know aren’t true (which isn’t the same thing as resting in beliefs we aren’t sure are true). But living without reasonable beliefs is the danger of Scylla to the Charybdis of reasonable beliefs without faithfulness.

It’s the latter danger that I see gobbling up most Evangelicals. Everything important to them about their faith has to do with beliefs about this or that fact or “truth”. If Jesus were to come back today, they’d rather be found committing an act of sin (since we’re all hopeless, dirty sinners) than believing something incorrectly (something about finding “faith” on the earth, wasn’t it?). Completely, utterly, hopelessly backwards.

This observation is behind the other post I wanted to share, a post by Zac Bailes called “Jesus, Truth, and Coffee“. It’s his reflections on a conversation with one of those Evangelicals I was just talking about. Here’s a salient quote:

Christians across the globe have become so concerned with making sure people know the truth about Jesus that they forget what that truth provokes. Love for the neighbor becomes sublimated to a concern about recognizing truth. They remained entombed in the truth of power, rather than the liberation of love.

No wonder our faith seems so trivial to the world! We tell them it’s about believing “facts” without any evidence, often enough in contradiction of evidence, and then we refuse to live as though those “facts” had any value for our lives at all. When the positivists tell us that our beliefs must be proved to be worth anything, we take them at their word and get waylaid as we single-mindedly turn our entire religion into an exercise of maintaining the right beliefs and proving them to others.

Instead, we have despised the only thing that could demonstrate the value of faith, the one unmistakably clear charge given to us by the one in whose name we claim to be acting: devotion to God as expressed by devotion to one another. The most emotional investment we have is put into holding everyone else accountable for behaving in ways that indicate that they believe correctly. This is why, as Spufford notes, the world looks at believers as people doing our level best to shut our eyes, clench our fists, and just believe something. We do not attempt to feel our faith; we are content to believe it. We do not love that in which we believe; we are not committed to it enough to energize it with the affection of commitment.

And in so doing, we demonstrate ourselves faithless.

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  • “Instead, we have despised the only thing that could demonstrate the value of faith” – yes, exactly!

  • Your commentary on faith being more than intellectual belief is one that I’ve found to be a necessary corrective in the Christian church today. Our faith is something that must be lived out, not just subscribed to. Didn’t James write about faith and deeds and showing that faith absent from the deeds is just dead weight?

    My own reflections on this can be found at http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/20120/03/20/faith-defined/

    Thanks for an excellent corrective.

    God bless!

    • Robert,

      As I mentioned, these thoughts have been on my mind in recent weeks, and so I recall being struck by that post you mention when I stumbled across your blog for the first time last week. Well said!

  • John Anngeister

    I think it is quite possible for Christians to come from faith and love without emphasizing mere belief, per se – by distinguishing between faith and belief.
    There are beliefs which cannot inform action and those which can and do.
    The virgin birth concept, for example – it is not the same crucial adjunct to a theory of incarnation as it was 2000 years ago (incarnation is conceivable without requiring that a human father’s DNA be barred from the human child’s anatomy), and there’s absolutely nothing one can really DO with the belief otherwise – and so it is better to leave it in the background (if believed to be true) or reject it (if believed to be false or unnecessary to faith).
    On the other hand, an example of a belief we can act on would be the teaching that, after the resurrection, the risen Lord sent his Spirit to uplift the world. That is something we can live into and explore – hence that is a faith issue.

    • We should definitely distinguish faith and belief. Equating faith as belief is indeed the problem I’m critiquing.

      As I’m sure you’re aware (I say it for others’ benefit), the word faith is a translation of the Greek word πίστις, which meant ‘commitment’. But as people don’t commit their lives to something without first committing their credulity, belief became an fundamental entrance point to Christianity. And then as people began focusing on individual things that should be believed, commitment to dogma came to be central and eventually eclipsed the more foundational meaning of faith (the same tendency birthed gnosticism); I blame the movement’s popularity among the Gentiles for that.

      So yes, we must “believe” some ideas in order to have faith in the sense that you can’t properly commit to something you don’t believe in. But as you intimate, the beliefs that Jesus or Paul would have recognized as worthy of commitment would be beliefs that directly influence behavior (the virgin birth is not one of those); not assent to data but ethical commitments. Even belief in God and Jesus as Messiah has clear, immediate ethical effects.