|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
envisioned in the New Testament developed into a ruthless drive for
universal compliance to Christian doctrines. We can today recognise
several valid types of belief, each with its own rationale. If evidential
belief is paramount in today's West, it's by no means universal. Nor is it
necessarily either the only or the best type of belief. Nevertheless, it's
possible for all types of belief to be promoted as infallible, absolute
answers to life's mysteries.
the earliest times Christians have been exhorted to "believe" in God or
Jesus. So, for example, according to John's Gospel, Jesus said that we
will "die in our sins" unless we "believe" that Jesus is the Messiah
John's Gospel, by
far the latest of the four canonical gospels, contains more references to
belief than the other gospels. By contrast, Paul writing some 60 years
earlier hardly uses the Greek word for belief (pisteuo). So it
seems that as time went on, Christian God-talk developed a stronger
emphasis upon "belief". But we must do Paul and the Gospel authors
justice. The word which is today translated as "believe" seems for them to
have meant something closer to a trusting attitude of confident reliance
upon God - rather than the later meaning of "belief" as assent to verbal
Still later, in
the fourth century and amidst heated and sometimes violent
theological controversy, the Johannine slant became as it were cast in
concrete. By the time the first creeds were composed and then imposed, the
biblical idea of belief as trusting reliance had, at least in the eyes of
the Church hierarchy, changed to refer largely to assent to verbal
formulas which purported to convey truth in an absolute form.
By the 1180s in
the West, Pope Lucius III was exhorting diocesan bishops to sniff out
heresy and hand unbelievers over to secular authorities for punishment (to
keep the Church's hands free of the blood of its victims). From there is
was a short step to the full-blown Inquisition. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV
licensed the use of torture against obdurate suspect heretics. As late as
1600 death by fire - as in the case of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno
- remained a possible penalty for unbelief.
Today the Church
still insists that belief in verbal propositions is a necessary part of
being Christian. Official formulas must be publicly assented to at
baptism. Public recitation of the 4th century creeds is obligatory at
certain liturgical events. Ordained men and women who step over invisible
doctrinal boundaries can expect at least severe formal and informal
pressures to conform with traditional doctrine. In some cases, if the
heresy is considered extreme by Church officialdom, they can be removed
from their livings, publicly censured by authority and have their writings
What is so
important about "belief"? Why is it equated with being Christian? What is
it about belief which enables some Christians to think that they can and
should, as a matter of principle, impose verbal formulas on others?
question needs to be faced. What is the nature of the "belief" which is
It seems to me
that the word "belief" can be contrasted with the word "know". If I say,
"I know that I exist" I'm stating that I have no doubt that I am a being
who is truly part of "reality". But if I say, "I believe I exist" I'm
stating a conviction about my existence which, though in my opinion true,
is at least open to doubt.
recent times almost everyone would look to "authority" for confirmation of
a doubtful truth. Authority could be found either in a living person, or
with a past authority perhaps enshrined in a document or writing of some
sort. Doubt in this context is in a very real sense denial of God-given
authority because it was thought that reason, though a useful tool, must
always give way. One can therefore understand (though perhaps with some
difficulty) why doubters should have been pilloried and even killed. To
express doubt or "disbelief" was to subvert the very foundations of the
given order of things on earth and in heaven.
Today in much of
the West, doubt is more often than not met with appeals to evidence.
Evidence succeeds when [a] it's objective and [b] when a widespread
consensus exists concerning its validity (though there's good reason to
think that the two may be the same).
One element of
rational debate today is that dissent is essential to establish and
maintain truth. It is held that without argument and discussion, assertion
and rebuttal, truth cannot easily be established - if at all. Another
element is that all truths are, by the very nature of truth itself,
provisional. That is, no truth is absolute. All truth may be changed
either by new data or out of revised perspective.
In this context
the word "belief" indicates a level of evidence insufficient to attract
that degree of consensus which is normally required. So if I assert, for
example, that I "believe" I have discovered a malaria vaccine, I'm
essentially asking others to investigate my claim, weigh up the evidence
for and against it, and if that evidence stands, to change "believe" to
Both belief and
doubt in this case have, it seems, a very different nature to the words
"belief" and "doubt" normally used by Christians and some other religions.
"belief" in the Christian sense of assent and commitment to doctrinal
formulas be regarded as essential?
can be found in the debate about the historical Jesus. Do we have, ask the
debaters, evidence for "what Jesus really said and did" in the same way
that we have evidence for "what Adolf Hitler really said and did"? The
experts in the debate draw up their cases, and depending upon detailed
analysis of the language of New Testament writings, documentary sources
outside the Bible, information about the social and cultural contexts in
which Jesus lived, and a host of other data reach tentative conclusions.
Few would today
assert that we can have a wholly satisfactory historical account of "what
Jesus really said and did". We don't have either enough historical data,
or data of sufficient quality, or sufficient expert consensus to write a
biography of Jesus. We know far, far more about Hitler or Julius Caesar
than we do about him.
Let a well-known
Roman Catholic researcher of the historical Jesus make a case for those
who require "belief". Fr John P. Meier is the author of the three volumes
of A Marginal Jew which has impressed contemporary scholars with
its detailed and careful examination of historical evidence about Jesus.
In a recent
Meier allows that in the historical Jesus debate there's bound to be "a
lot of arguing back and forth and a lot of negating of positions." That's
good, he says, and adds,
The Church has
never imposed the grand philosophical position of the day on ordinary
believers as a necessary part of believing.
In other words,
he appears to rest the historical case on information regarded by the
general body of expert historians as valid evidence.
But it turns out
that he has a fallback position. In the case of certain matters such as
the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus after his death, Meier
says that it
of the sort of questing by way of historical, critical research that is
done for the life of the historical Jesus, because of the nature of the
Resurrection ... The resurrection of Jesus is certainly supremely real.
However, not everything that is real either exists in time and space or
is empirically verifiable by historical means.
This position in
essence places certain kinds of information outside the ambit of what most
today would call evidence. In today's language, if I say, "I believe that
Jesus rose from the dead" I usually mean that the weight of evidence,
though not entirely free from doubt, comes down on the side of that
That is, I am
reasonably certain of the resurrection of Jesus in the same way that I am
reasonably certain that men have landed on the moon. Some evidence may
suggest that the moon landing was enacted in a NASA film studio - but most
data and the overwhelming consensus of experts in both history and space
flight suggest that my belief (after all, I wasn't there) is reasonable. I
can say that I know beyond reasonable doubt that humans have landed
on the moon.
Fr Meier and
others suggest that in the case of Christian doctrine the word "belief" is
to be used in an entirely different sense. He asserts that "Ancient,
medieval, early Christians never had such a thing" as a search for the
Jesus of history.
that the quest for the Jesus of history, which he so ably pursues in his
book, "... is not essential for simple, authentic Christian faith." He
distinguishes between such people and those who articulate "... faith in
Jesus Christ in a fashion which reflects and speaks to the culture they
live in" in which case "... there has to be some awareness of historical
critical consciousness." [I have often noted that those who expect assent
to doctrines as proof of Christian commitment tend to switch between using
the word "belief" and the word "faith", apparently equating the two.]
How is this
apparent dual-track approach to be interpreted? I take it to be a fallback
strategy which allows what we normally call evidence and rational debate
to operate as normal until doctrine is no longer supported. Beyond
this point doctrine must rather support the lack of evidence. Then
"believers" are allowed and encouraged to revert to the ancient idea of
knowledge as conveyed by authority from God - through Holy Writings or the
Pope or bishops and so on, but nevertheless coming ultimately from God.
Those who hold to an evidential way of understanding reality, for whom
provisional conclusions are reached through thoughtful analysis of
evidence, must by definition grant others the freedom to operate
Freedom of debate and opinion is an essential component in their
lives. Indeed, I would go further to assert that this freedom is the
foundation upon which science, analytical disciplines such as history and
archaeology and many more, modern economics and democratic politics all
It appears to me, in the light of the above, that present-day debates
about "belief" often resemble shadow boxing because the contenders fail to
recognise the various ways through which belief is arrived at:
Belief may come through what religious people often call "witness".
That is, a person offers as evidence their own personal experience. On
that basis, they may win the corresponding "belief" of another person.
Belief may come through what religious people often call "witness".
Religious authority bears witness to the experience of believers in
past ages, including the modes through which they experienced truth.
There is nothing false about a response to such witness. It's an
aspect of everyday life. We're all constantly taking the witness of
others for a multitude of experiences - from the existence of a good
restaurant to the existence of electrons.
A similar type of response which could be called "belief" is
sometimes evoked by an axiom - that is, a proposition regarded as a
self-evident truth. So if I point out that everything must have a
cause (the axiom) and that therefore the universe must be caused, you
might go on to conclude and therefore "believe" that God is the first
cause of everything.
It's an error to think that we reach conclusions about the world
and its meaning exclusively through rational thought. Much evidence
indicates that human beings tend to believe certain things on the basis
of strong emotions stimulated by a wide variety of events.
Once again, this may be a perfectly valid way of arriving at
"belief". It's a type of belief very different from belief arrived at
via the witness of others. That it may sometimes involve the temporary
suspension of rationality isn't necessarily a bad thing. But that
rational enquiry should be permanently banned because belief has
come through an emotional experience - say from music, or poetry or
extreme adversity - may not be acceptable.
So for some, the choice is to believe even though that belief
can't be established from evidence. It's as though seeing sometimes
comes through believing, rather than believing through seeing.
Another type of "belief" is arrived at in the absence
of evidence. This type of belief is theoretically entirely provisional
in the sense that the discovery of suitably convincing contradictory
evidence must change the belief. It may be, for example, that a person
finds no convincing evidence for the existence of God.
In such a case it's valid to choose
a belief about the matter, perhaps on the balance of likelihood or
through some inner hunch based on apparent order in nature, for example.
Such a person may decide to live as though God does exist. Life lived in
this manner may prove satisfying. If not, then the choice can be as
This is not to say that such choices must always lead to an easier
solution. It's possible that the consequences of choosing certain
approaches to life may be extremely inconvenient
and yet make more sense and be more satisfying than other
Once again, it should be clear that this sort of "belief" differs from
others. It may be connected with witness and axiomatic belief, but like
them it revolves entirely around a personal choice.
- "Belief" arrived at out of the sifting and weighing of information
is increasingly the norm world-wide. I might not believe in resurrection
because all the information I have plus my definition of death as the
"irreversible cessation of cellular activity in the human body" indicate
that resurrection is impossible.
If so, in the 21st century and in the West I'll probably find many who
will support my conclusion and "believe" as I do. In
so-called less-developed societies I may find myself in a
This sort of belief is also provisional - though it's fair to point
out that belief arrived at from so-called "facts" can prove as resistant
to change as belief arrived at in any other way.
To sum up, it seems that "belief" can be arrived at in a number of
ways. There is more than one type of belief. In the 21st century,
rationally-based belief isn't the only valid type - though it is the only
one which is always provisional, arrived at through evidence and good
argument , and (even if only eventually) supported by wide consensus.