A collection of items about the word belief
and related matters.
from Diana Butler Bass
CHRISTIANITY AFTER RELIGION
The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
DIANA BUTLER BASS © 2012 --from Chapter Four, “Believing”
transcription, italicization, etc not guaranteed
pls report errors -- footnotes omitted
angle brackets indicate indented text
[xxx:] indicate page numbers
As demonstrated in the polling data, about 9 percent of Americans understand themselves as "'religious"' only. They are probably still greatly concerned with the what of faith. About a third of Americans describe themselves as '`spiritual" only. They have embarked on a quest of how to relate to transcendent things. But half of all Americans claim to be "spiritual and religious." For them, what is not necessarily being replaced by how; the what of religion is being redefined by the how. When belief springs from and is rewoven with experience, we arrive at the territory of being spiritual and religious: experiential belief.
Understanding belief-as-experience is not a new concept. Actually, it is much closer to the original definition of believing than the popular definitions we have inherited from more recent centuries. [117:] In his essay "Believing: An Historical Perspective" (first published in 1977), Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues for a distinction between "faith" and "belief" based upon the etymologies of the terms. Although the words overlapped at one time, he says, the "English word `believe' has, in usage, connotation, and denotation, undergone an arresting transformation" in recent centuries—one that at has had an unprecedented negative impact on Western religious life.
"To believe" in Latin (the shaping language for much of Western theological thought is opinor, opinari, meaning "opinion," which was not typically a religious word. Instead, Latin used credo, "I set my heart upon" or "I give my loyalty to," as the word to describe religious "believing," that is, "faith." In medieval English, the concept of credo was translated as "believe," meaning roughly the same thing as its German cousin belieben, "to prize, treasure, or hold dear," which comes from the root word Liebe, "love." Thus, in early English, to "believe" was to "belove" something or someone as an act or trust or loyalty. Belief was not an intellectual opinion.
. . . .
In previous centuries, belief had nothing to do with one's weighing of evidence or intellectual choice. Belief was not a doctrinal test. Instead, belief was more like a marriage vow--"I do" as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to and with the other. Indeed, in early English usage, you could not hold, claim, or possess a belief about God, but you could cherish, love, trust in, or devote yourself to God.
[118:] From a historical perspective, the misidentification of faith-as-experience and belief-as-opinion also involved the translation of the Bible from Greek (the other theology-shaping language of Christian thought) into English. In Greek, there is a verb for the experience of beloving God: "to faith" (i.e., pist-). In English, however, "faith" is a noun and not a verb. With no equivalent active word, English translators rendered the Greek verb "to faith" in English as "to believe." The verb to believe" (meaning "to belove, prize, or treasure," as explained above) appears frequently in the English Bible. It typically occurs without a direct object, in the form "I believe" or believe you" (or "him," "her," or "God"). This reinforces its original meaning "belove" as a general confession of trust or a specific disposition of trusting someone—it is a personal and relational action initiated by love, In only 12 percent of scriptural cases does "to believe" appear as "I believe that . . . ," an impersonal affirmation about something.
To read the Bible with this understanding orients our attention away from cognitive speculation about God toward the state and direction of our hearts. For example, John 3:16 might be the most well-known Bible verse across North America as a result of signs held up by evangelistically minded Christians at sporting events: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish, but will have eternal life" (CEB). If we think that "believe" means doctrinal truth, then the verse means "everyone who agrees that Jesus is the, Son of God won't perish" or "everyone who thinks that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity won't perish." According to its more ancient rendering, however, the verse would better read, "everyone who trusts in Jesus" or "everyone who directs his or her heart toward Jesus" will not perish. You may or not may want to trust in or incline your love toward Jesus, but it is an entirely different, and more spiritually compelling invitation than an offer of debate about Jesus. And it is a fresh way of understanding a widely misused text.
[119:] Smith demonstrates how belief shifted away from "trusting the beloved" toward being a word that is "increasingly technocratic and thing oriented," outside the realm of personal relationships. The shift occurred gradually in the eighteenth century, mostly through the work of the influential philosopher David Hume. When people use the word "believe" today, it is often for factually erroneous opinions, disconnected from any aspect of interpersonal trust or love: "I believe that dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time as human beings," or "I don't believe in global warming." No wonder people can no longer "believe" in Christianity. For masses of contemporary people, to believe in Christianity is like believing in aliens or that President Obama was born in Kenya, since "the word [belief] denotes doubt, and connotes falsehood." Thus, Smith claims, "The idea that believing is religiously important turns out to be a modern idea. . . . [A] great modern heresy of the Church is the heresy of believing. Not of believing this or that, but of believing as such." Christianity was never intended to be a system or structure of belief in the modern sense; it originated as a disposition of the heart.
From an ancient perspective—whether of Latin or Greek, of the creeds or the Christian scriptures—the words "belief" and "believing" implicitly carried within them relational and lived dimensions. Accordingly, you cannot "believe" distinct from trust, loyalty, and love. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, analyzing this history some forty years ago, had a dim view of the future of belief. He writes:
<The English "belief," which used to be the
verbal sign designating allegiance, loyalty, integrity, love, commitment,
and entrusting, and the capacity to perceive and to respond to transcendent
qualities in oneself and one's environment—in short, faith; the Christian
form of God's most momentous gift to each person--has come to be the term
by which we designate rather a series of dubious, or at best problematic,
"The Facts" vs "The Knowledge of God"
from Spirit magazine, 2016 June
Two columns on "belief"
803. 100203 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
*CRES WEB-ONLY NOTES
“So what do you believe?” is usually a poor way
to begin a religious discussion. Sharing experiences is often more useful
than an abstract theological debate.
What I have now discussed, namely confusion surrounding the uses of the word “belief,” is connected with another misunderstanding, namely, that Christianity is a set of doctrines, of propositions, a theory, an explanation. And what can one do with those? [He writes with irony:] Prove them. And who will show you how to do that? Well, Aristotle was a prover and Euclid has been teaching us for 2,000 years.
And Saint Paul? Saint Paul tells stories. But what then is Christianity? Christianity is a faith, we all know that. It is also a hope and a fear. It is a promise and a threat. It is a light shining in the darkness. It is a knock at the door. It is a guest at supper. It is coals of fire. It is weeping at a betrayal. It is reconciliation. It is hearing the voice of the shepherd. It is new wine to drink. It is madness. It is a house built on a rock. It is the Truth walking. It is the eternal in rags. It is the finishing touch. It is the lily of the valley. It is the Roysterer son, home again, home again. It is the black sheep found. It is the rich young ruler, sorrowful. It is the widow's mite. It is love rebuffed. It is rosemary for remembrance. It is a lamb slain. It is ”a brand plucked out of the fire.”
—O K Bouwsma,
Without Proof or Evidence: Essays of O. K. Bouwsma,
Edited and introduced by J. L. Craft and Ronald E. Hustwit,
University of Nebraska Press, 2004, page 22.
THE HEDGEHOG REVIEW:
VOL. 14, NO. 2 (SUMMER 2012)
A Conversation with
Your recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, if I see it correctly, is a world history of religion in its early phases, directed against a biologically founded critique of religion and against all Western triumphalism. It is based on an understanding of religion as a complex of human experiences, symbols, rituals, and myths and shows how the traditions were created that still nourish us today, for example, in ancient Judaism, in India, and in China. . . .
. . . . I do feel that religion, to use Clifford Geertz’s terms, is concerned with the general order of existence. It is primarily a way of acting in the world, but it also involves a concern for knowing in the world. Remember the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “all men by nature desire to know.” . . . I follow a rather pluralist notion of various spheres that is rooted ultimately in William James, a methodological and even a metaphysical pluralist.
. . . For one thing, we know that cooperation has been crucial in the evolutionary process in ways that Darwin was not wholly aware of. But my focus has been on the idea that evolution leads to new capacities, and I think, for instance, one of these is the capacity to communicate with our bodies. Human beings can do things with their bodies that no other creatures can do, things that are perhaps fundamental for religion. The capacity to keep together in time, to dance to a beat—even chimps can’t do that. So that may be very important in the early phases of religion, that we have that capacity to express our common membership in a group by some kind of drumming or singing and dancing. And then the capacity for language. Merlin Donald thinks that language developed because we needed myths, rather than that myths developed because of language. In any case, language is really an enormous increase in capacity that no other species has.
. . . There’s been an enormous focus in the field of religious studies over the very term “religion,” and half the discipline wants to reject it all together. My own problem with definitions of religion, and why I use them only as starting points, is that they too often concern only beliefs. But religion is a thing you do. The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust. . . .
The Latin word for faith, fides, means trust, not belief, and I think a religious life is very much a form of practice, a form of relationship. Religious truth is not something you sit in your private room and decide, “oh, does God exist or not?” You will never understand God unless you are involved in some kind of community where that word begins to make sense in the life of that community. . . .
I felt that there is an immense variety of cultures out there that most of us ignore but are worth studying. There is a section on Aboriginal Australia in my book. That’s something that has fascinated me from undergraduate days because it is so cut off from the rest of the world and developed in its own way, and so rich in its way of life. And then in graduate school, my degree was in Sociology and Far Eastern Languages; I not only had to study Japanese, but Chinese, the high culture language of Japanese, just as Latin is for us. I had to start with the classics of Confucianism: Confucius and Mencius. I was raised as a Christian, I learned from I. A. Richards to read Plato’s Republic, I’m deeply saturated in both biblical and Greek classical culture, and I have the highest regard for them, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that matters. I think there has been extraordinary cultural creativity in Japan, China, and India. The tendency among Westerners is to speak about “the West,” and then everything else is “the East.” I insist that there is no East; China and India are as radically different as either of them is from Greece or Israel. So I want to stress that there were four great cultural developments in the first millennium BCE and that we need to learn from all of them. . . .
[The] body is central in religion—embodied practice. I belong to a tradition in which the Eucharist is the central act of worship. And that’s a physical practice. You’re partaking of some physical matter, bread and wine, which you believe is the body and blood of Christ. You participate in that, and it says to you, “yes, I am a member of the body of Christ.” The bodily involvement in religion is certainly never going to go away.
Also, religion can never be turned into a set of abstract propositions. Narrative is absolutely central. Religion is full of stories—every religion. You read the Analects of Confucius, and you get one amazing anecdote after another of what Confucius did or what his disciples did and so on. And, of course, the life of the Buddha is extraordinarily rich, and for Christians the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the center of everything. It cracks the skulls of rational thought, but narratively it’s beautifully and profoundly real. You can’t get away from narrative in religion.
. . . I would reject the notion that all religions
are basically the same—different paths to the same end. They’re not all
the same. And yet, at some level, particularly at the most general theological
and ethical level, they do share some profound commitments. At the same
time, it’s their very difference that is so important to us because what
the Buddhists know and what the Hindus know are things that Christians
often don’t fully know. They’re not entirely missing in our tradition,
but we are helped to understand more about our own faith if we open ourselves
to others. So it’s that sense, neither homogenizing nor denying a profound
resonance among the great traditions. . . .
. . . I am delighted that someone would draw that
conclusion because a clash of civilizations is exactly what we don’t need
in the world today. We need global collaboration, not global conflict.
We need to see that all the great traditions, in the end, are respectful
of each other and have the capacity to work together for common ends, for
something incipient that we might call a “global civil society.” And we
need not to be convinced that cultural differences are so deep that they’re
irreconcilable. That’s just empirically wrong.
Starting with the Big Bang, and reviewing tribal religion, "archaic" religion, and finally the crucial "Axial Age" of classical Greece, ancient Israel, Vedic India, and Confucian China, Bellah—a religious man himself, but by no means beholden to modern belief's sacred cows—advances a whole host of dinner-discussion-worthy arguments. To name a few: Religion may emerge out of the mammalian “play” instinct, “sheltered . . . from selectionist pressures”; ritual has functioned as crucial social glue, enabling the expanded social groups integral to humanity's rise; God, on the other hand, is far from necessary, where human religion is concerned.
. . . I wrote an article on religious evolution which was published in 1964, but I got hijacked by America. That was the problem with my “Civil Religion in America” essay—it got such an enormous response at a time when things were pretty critical, towards the end of the Vietnam War. I never intended to work on America but then I got hauled into America for decades. So it wasn't until I retired in 1997 that I finally had time to do what I’d been wanting to do all my life, which is write a big book about the evolution of religion and religion in human evolution.
You mention play as a way of getting out of normal working consciousness, and religion emerging from the play instinct, a mammalian characteristic common to sparring puppies and humans experiencing art.
Play is a very elusive idea because it comes in so many forms. It’s hard entirely to put them all under one category. Johan Huizinga’s work was a great help to me, because he makes a strong argument that ritual emerges out of play. I’m a practicing Episcopalian and they call Sunday School “holy play,” which seems to me a little bit cuckoo but there’s some sense to it; in a sense what we’re doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.
Where do we draw the line between religion and play? How is a Hindu wedding ritual or a Catholic Mass different from experiencing art or drama?
[When] you’re watching a play by Schiller or Tennessee Williams, the audience is observing it but is not part of it. We can identify with it to some extent but there’s a split. Nietzsche pointed out . . . that if you look at the beginning of Western drama, which is the Greek tragedies, the audience was in it. The chorus was the audience. The chorus represented the citizens of Athens. And furthermore, Greek tragedy was presented at the festival of Dionysus, and it was a sacred event. You had to be there at the crack of dawn and it was all day long. And so the beginnings of drama, of plays, were so close to ritual that the difference between the actors and the audience was minimal. We walk out of the theatre and we say, “Well, that was quite moving, but it’s only a play. It's not real life.” But for the Athenians, it was real life. It was a form of self-criticism, Greek drama. . . .
The notion of God as a kind of absolute person in control of everything all comes from one place and it isn’t found anywhere outside it. Of course, since Christianity and Islam picked this idea up it's become very widespread. But it certainly isn’t inherent in religion, per se. And it's not very obvious in Confucianism or Buddhism or any of the non-Abrahamic religions.
HEATHER HORN is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.