Christians… Do YOU believe what could only be Unbelievable to others while disbelieving what THEY believe on Faith, the same way you do your beliefs? Why?
Last night, an interesting post on a blog titled The Recovering Know It All by a guy with the username “KIA” posed several questions to Christians, all of which seem to boil down to the question quoted above. If believers accept ridiculous truth claims “on faith,” then what right would one believer have to call a believer from another religion “wrong”?
It’s a good question. Unsurprisingly, I have an opinion on this. Actually, I spent a few years and, no doubt, hundreds of hours of reading, discussing, and pondering, all attempting to work out the relationship of faith and belief. KIA’s questions are ones that have kept me up at night. I have lived these questions, and I have come to some good-enough-for-now answers, so I am happy to offer my two cents on the matter.
My short answer: 1. Faith is not “about” belief. 2. Faith influences beliefs. 3. I critically examine beliefs within my own particular context. Let me explain:
1. Faith is not “about” belief
What do we mean by “faith”? Many Christians today seem to think of faith as a belief in certain truth-claims, either without or in spite of evidence. KIA seems to share this definition when he asks about taking things “on faith.” I think this is a shallow definition of faith.
What did the writers of the Bible mean by “faith”?
An interesting case study is the letters with Paul’s name on them. Mainstream New Testament scholars think that some of these letters (like Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians) were written by Paul, whereas some of them (like 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) were written by later followers of Paul, probably as a way of sharing what Paul might’ve said if he were still around.
Why do scholars think this? One reason is that both sets of letters use the Greek word pistis (usually translated “faith”), but they seem to mean totally different things by the word. In Romans, for example, pistis has to do with relationship, trust, devotion, and faithfulness, whereas in later books written by Paul’s followers, pistis has to do with adhering to a set of doctrine. Evidently, the more relationship-centered definition of faith gave way to more belief-centered definitions as time went on.
I side with Paul on this one. I think faith is a kind of relational commitment to a person, not claiming to believe a set of truth-claims. Beliefs have to do with the “head,” whereas faith (in my opinion) reaches down into the “heart.” It makes sense to trust and be devoted to a person, but not a set of propositions. I do not “take beliefs on faith,” because I don’t think faith is as shallow as believing things without good evidence.
Besides, I spent years trying to make myself believe what the preacher said at church even though I was pretty sure he was wrong, and guess what? It doesn’t work. Like many people, I don’t have much control over what seems true to me.
2. Faith influences beliefs
For some, the notion that faith means anything other than belief will be a strange concept. What could this relational notion of faith actually mean?
For me, “Christian faith” is about being in a particular kind of relationship: a trusting, committed relationship with a loving God one on hand, and a trusting, committed relationship to the Christian Church on the other. Again, this is not about believing. This is about being in relationship to. A Christian cultivates a relationship with God and with a community of faith, engaging life through the narratives and symbols found in Scripture, various forms of Christian Spirituality, and Church History.
Loving and being loved by God and the Church is not “about” believing a set of truth claims any more than a healthy marriage is about believing certain truth-claims. No, relationship is about faithfulness, trust, and growth. But relationship no doubt influences belief.
Where do beliefs come from? In my opinion, our sense of what “seems true” is a product of our socialization. Without diving too far into the deep waters of my own epistemological convictions, I will simply note that most of our beliefs (whether religious, scientific, historical, political, etc.) are not derived through a careful process of analytic reasoning, and any attempt to think critically requires us to draw on inevitably un-examined assumptions. Our community gives us a variety of beliefs and methods that we can never prove, and we can only think from within some combination of that system.
So, although faith is not about belief, faith (relationship to God and membership in a community) influences every aspect of who we are, including what and how we think. The same is true of any relationship and any community.
It is no wonder that Christians tend to believe some crazy things about Jesus; Christians are saturated in stories about Jesus, Christological confessions, and worship directed to Jesus. There is nothing sinister about the process; this is how all beliefs work. It is impossible to consider beliefs from some detached, carefully sanitized, un-socialized perspective.
3. I critically examine beliefs within my own particular context
If beliefs come from community, how could we ever change our beliefs? Wouldn’t we be “stuck with” whatever we’re raised to accept?
Yes and no. Our conscious beliefs form only the tip of an iceberg, a small window into the web of assumptions and assertions that inform and guide our complicated feelings, relationships, and actions. Much of this cannot be changed because we take it for granted and, without much probing, we would never think to to question it.
But what about this probing? We may, of course, think through a few beliefs we are handed in terms of other beliefs that we are handed, and perhaps find contradictions and come to different opinions. Or, more dramatically, we may find ourselves socialized into a different community, and our twin identities (with their different sets of assumptions and beliefs) may give us opportunity to explicitly change our beliefs. This is common today: Many people, like me, grew up in a secular academic community (public school and college) as well as a church community. Eventually, contradictions between the two communities’ implicit beliefs become explicit, the cognitive dissonance comes to the surface, and we re-examine what we actually believe as individuals.
To sum up:
As a Christian, do I take things “on faith”? No. Faith is not about believing something to be true.
But does my faith influence my beliefs? Of course! Concrete relationships and communities are the starting point of any critical reflection. My Christian relationships direct me to give special attention to certain things (in this case, including Jesus and Scripture), and they shape how I think.
Do I believe things that are unbelievable to others? Of course! I live in a particular context that others do not share! This is what part of being a real, particular human.
Do I critically examine my beliefs? Of course! I have also been socialized (indoctrinated?) into secular academic communities as well, and they have instilled certain principles and methods for critical reflection. This internalized socialization follows me when I go to church. It would be impossible for me to turn this critical capacity off, just as it would be impossible for me to consider my Christian beliefs as an entirely secular outsider.
Do I accept the faith-claims of others? Of course not! I am not a member of their community, so I do not (and cannot) “see from their perspective.” If I joined their community, I would have to negotiate another split identity, and there is no way of knowing ahead of time what I might end up believing. But until then, I consider distant perspectives from my own, grounded, entirely contextualized location – not because I’m a dogmatist, but because I’m a human, and this is how being a human works.