|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
The Church is in grave error - and has been for many
centuries. The error derives from a false understanding of faith. From
this misconception come a host of bad practices which bedevil the life of
Christians worldwide. This is not to say that expert theologians are at
fault. They generally are not. But it is to say that ordinary Christians
have been irresponsibly misled.
The religions of the world have
come under unprecedented pressure in the last few centuries. Some two or
three hundred years into the scientific age, many religious people still
look back for guidance to a time when religious worldviews defined
reality. In doing so they are confronted by huge and apparently
irreconcilable tensions between old and new paradigms.
Or, to put the matter differently, a large majority of those who call
themselves religious can't easily credit how much our perceptions have
changed about "the way things are". They don't seem to realise that a great
divide has opened up between us and our ancestors. As a result, it seems to
me, they have gradually been forced to define faith in a way which divorces
it from reason.
This essay will attempt to explain
why I think it necessary to speak in such strong terms. Let me illustrate
the nature of the great divide as best I can.
I look back on my adolescence I am aware of the degree to which I was then
confusedly searching for, amongst other things, a self-identity. That
awareness has become sharper and clearer as I progress towards old age. Over
the decades I have gradually changed into the person I now am. I know more
clearly than before my place in society. I now know some of my strengths and
weaknesses. I know a little about how others perceive me.
There is nevertheless a deep continuity between me as I am now and me as I
was at 16 years old. An onlooker seeing boy and man side-by-side would
undoubtedly recognise them as the same person.
others as far apart in time as Thomas Aquinas and Abraham exhibit a similar
continuity. Relatively minor differences of language and culture aside, they
share fundamental ways of understanding reality.
Both, for example, would think of the universe as a continuous spectrum from
the physical to the spiritual. The physical world would pass imperceptibly
from the earthly to the heavenly. Rational beings would rank hierarchically
from mankind, to the angels, and thence to God.
list of similarities could be extended. Abraham and Aquinas dressed
differently, did different things each day. One was pre-Christian the other
post-Hebraic. But each had a very similar backdrop of unquestioned
realities, of things taken for granted. Both would have agreed, despite
differing terminologies, about the basic fabric of "the way things are."
Just as the 16-year-old me and the me in the year 2002 dress very
differently and do very different things, so with Aquinas and Abraham. And
just as the teenage me and the elderly me share essentially the same
worldview - the later me leavened only by greater experience - so the two
greats of religion share similar constructs of how the universe functions.
But both Abraham and Aquinas would find it almost impossible to talk to a
modern scientist. Any dialogue they would attempt with an economist, a
psychologist or a a statistician would founder from the start. It would
founder because the way the two groups perceive reality is fundamentally
different. They are incompatible at many points. There would be no meeting
of minds. The old mental clothes would not fit the new minds and vice-versa.
It's my contention that the great divide also affects how I understand faith
today. If I attempt to force my perceptions into ancient perceptual
garments, something's got to give. Either my limbs will be encumbered by
strange shapes, or the cloth will stretch and split. I'll end up either
unable to move effectively, or arrested for indecent exposure. The new wine
will split the old wineskin.
The great divide has
been effectively dealt with in terms of Medieval literature and the Bible
. Faith in Christian tradition is likewise a common
theme in contemporary writing. The reader will be rewarded by looking
into historical summaries and expositions of biblical meaning
. John Robinson 
and John Spong  are among
those who attempt to work out the implications for traditional theology of
the great divide between two perceptual epochs.
Here I want to briefly examine faith, not as it has been, but as it
today. It will be obvious that I make a number of assumptions. But I hope
nevertheless to have grasped reasonably well how some who call themselves
Christian think of faith. I suspect my analysis may apply to other religious
people as well.
In other words, I don't intend to
deal here with the fine verbal distinctions and elaborate formulations of
theologians. The equally profound but simpler understanding of ordinary
people are more my concern here.
My contention is that an implicit,
and often explicit, identification of faith with belief lies at the
root of many difficulties in the Christian religion .
It seems that this identification is almost universal in common usage. A
person "of great faith" is almost always thought of as someone who
"believes" certain propositions more unwaveringly than most. Faith lies in
willingness and ability to believe. That is, the strength of faith
correlates with the firmness with which beliefs are held.
Where does this
 The first source may appear mundane. We should remember
that one of the sea-changes of modern times is an ability to read the
Bible translated from Greek into one's own language. The advantages of
this are many. But there is one important difficulty - the loss of some
of the original meaning through the inevitable changes which come about
The common-Greek word pisteuo has almost always been
translated into English by "believe".
But the Greek doesn't mean
"believe" in the sense of assenting to a proposition or agreeing with
a truth. The Hebrew word to which the Greek usually refers back means
"to make firm or strong." The sense in which the Greek is used relates
to a firm confidence or reliance as distinct from mere credence or
"belief that". So to "believe" someone or something is actually
to "believe in" the person or thing .
One version (King James Bible) occasionally uses the more accurate
English word "assurance" to translate the Greek.
It seems to me that a better English equivalent of the Greek is
Matthew 21.32 (to take one sample of the New Testament
more or less at random) is translated in the Good News Bible and
others using "believe" for the Greek pisteuo:
For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right
path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax
collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw
this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.
But it would be fairer to the original if it read:
For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right
path to take, and you would not trust him; but the tax collectors
and the prostitutes trusted him. Even when you saw this, you did
not later change your minds and trust him.
You might think that the substitution of "trust" for
"believe" is no great improvement. But I propose that such a reaction
might arise because the word "trust" is itself often devalued and emptied
of full meaning in current usage.
For example, if
my wife says, "I trust my hairdresser to give me the right cut," I'd
better comment favourably when she returns from her hairdo. But if she
says, "I trust the doctor to see me through the baby's birth," I know
that she has a depth of confidence radically unlike that in her
Trust is essential to our lives.
The micro-world of business, in which I have spent many years, could
not operate without it. The world of politics would be much more
stable with it. So, for example, many think that legal contracts and
treaties help improve the level of trust. As any experienced
businessman or politician will tell you, they do nothing of the sort -
they merely clarify detail so that potential misunderstandings are
reduced or even eliminated. This leaves mutual trust which, as much as
"love", makes the world go round.
Briefly, behaviour which can be trusted has four behavioural
Openness I can trust you if I know
that you will share with me any information which impacts my well-being.
Trust between us will grow if you are open with me, and I with you.
- Congruence If you are straight with
me about both good and bad news, so that I know exactly where I stand, I
will be more likely to trust what you say and do.
- Acceptance If I know that you accept
me as I am, that you won't penalise me because I'm not who you want me
to be, I'm more likely to trust you.
- Reliability I will trust you more if I know
from experience that you will do everything in your power to carry out
your commitments to me.
Of course, the four elements of trust are more complex in practice
than the above very brief summary allows. But I ask only that you
consider the above four building blocks of faith in relation to how you
perceive God as creator of the universe, and Jesus as the pioneer of the
Christian way of life. Putting this another way, does it matter one iota
what you believe if you trust neither God nor Jesus?
Understood in this way, faith is transformed into a
powerful construct. It is more than just an idea, however. In practice,
faith becomes a set of behaviours critical to a Christian way of life.
As pertinent, however, is the potential transformation
of faith from wishy-washy "belief" to a dynamic trust in God as the
creator and mover of all life. It shifts me from mere doctrinal assent to
putting my money where my mouth is.
 Current use of "belief" as a synonym for "faith"
often appears to connect with the phrase "The Faith." Christians
are supposed to commit themselves mentally and emotionally to the
teachings and institutional life of "the faith" as preserved and developed
by the Church.
Such is the condition of Christianity, however, that
"The Faith" isn't one thing, but many. Many try to tell us otherwise.
But even the most casual examination of the Church's many parties and
schools will reveal startling variety, colour and vibrant life. "The
Faith" as a set of absolute truths held by all doesn't exist. I can
discern four main types of underlying difference:
To the Roman Catholic party "The Faith" is put forward as
ecclesiastical tradition at one with right scriptural interpretation
of the Church.
To the Protestant party "The Faith" as right belief is based
on the Bible, as variously interpreted by Protestants.
The Orthodox party preserves "The Faith" in its creeds,
liturgies and teaching.
Around these main players scrambles a host of lesser parties,
all with this or that variation on the main themes, their own
interpretations of "The Faith.".
I am not dealing here with the objection raised by some - that there
is a gap between the ideals of faith and the practice or behaviours of
those who adhere to "The Faith". That seems to me to be the same gaps
which usually exist for all of us between what we say and what we do.
The Christian parties, despite their differences, seem
to me to have one aspect in common. Each urges its followers to assent to
the propositions of the faith-tradition which it preserves and preaches.
The point I want to emphasise is that each tradition stresses "The
Faith" as a set of teachings or propositions. Almost always, potential
converts are presented with a series of absolute truths backed up not as
much by reasoned argument as by claims to having received truth direct
Roman Catholics say that their faith propositions must be true
because they have both the Bible as God's revelation, and an unbroken
chain of authority and witness stretching back to St Peter.
Protestants claim their faith propositions are true because
they are derived from a virtually infallible written record of God's
dealings with, and revelations to, humankind - that is, the Bible.
The Orthodox Church claims that its teachings are true because
they are scriptural and authorised by the Councils of the Church.
The authority of all is, I think, ultimately based
upon the claim that truth lies primarily in what has gone before rather
than on reasoned conclusions on the basis of how the world is perceived.
It is held, in effect, that "The Faith" is clearer and
more certain at its origins than in the present. If you want to know about
the essence of "The Faith", they would say, go back in time to the
authorities of the past. Latter-day faith can be believed inasmuch as
those authorities to whom it is entrusted accurately reflect and interpret
teachings as they were originally intended.
This is the only explanation I can come up with to
explain why affirmation of the Church's creeds, for example, are regarded
by most churches as essential to right Christian living.
But explore the convoluted arguments by which credal
authority is justified. Note dispassionately the contortions of phrase and
word by which theologians and bishops attempt to capture the nature of
And then ask yourself, "Even if I can give some sort of
mental assent to these subtle verbal statements, do I trust
them to in any way bring me closer to God? Are their pronouncements
reliable? Do they express straight-forward truths about life as I know it?
Do I recognise in them open communication which hides nothing and reveals
what I need to know? Do they convey acceptance of me as I am, with all my
If your answer to these questions is "Yes" then read no
further. But if you feel even a twinge of uncertainty, if your reason
balks at the creeds, then try asking what you can trust about "the
faith". I personally find myself opposed to tradition as a set of
constructs to which I must conform to be accepted as God's beloved (to use
a metaphor from romance).
But what I can place my trust in is the
commitment of those who have gone before. They and their lives are a
"tradition" I can trust. They, like me, have many shortcomings.
Augustine of Hippo was, for example, what we today would call highly
neurotic about sex. His God-talk (theology) is profoundly contaminated
and distorted by this deep-seated outlook on sexuality.
Having said that, I can trust Augustine and countless
others inasmuch they have been pioneers before me. They have lived out
as best they could the life and teaching of Jesus. They are worthy of my
respect even though I recognise that I don't think about reality as they
Perhaps an analogy will help clarify. Just as pioneers
went before me in my native land, so have others gone before me in the
Christian pilgrimage. My ancestors in South Africa, starting some 300
years ago, left me with the legacy of Apartheid. But I don't
devalue them because their way of life eventually issued in legalised
racism. On the contrary, I value them because - with all their faults - I
live through them and because they laid the foundations of a potentially
Similarly, I don't devalue the lives and witness of
those with whom the Christian tradition or "faith" of today's Church
began. I trust them because they gave themselves in a multitude of ways
to Jesus, the first pioneer. I am a Christian because they were
But trusting them as my ancestors in "the faith" doesn't
mean I have to willy-nilly think and believe as they did. On the contrary,
I interpret God's creation very differently from them.
To take an extreme instance of how I cannot follow my
ancestors just because they believed this or that: Some of them persecuted
and ruthlessly killed those they called heretics. No sane Christian
authority today would require of me that I have that sort of "faith". No
bishop or Pope would require intellectual assent to propositions for which
people were once cruelly murdered, just because a Church authority
pronounced them the correct thing to believe.
If that is the case, on what grounds can I possibly be
to assent to the proposition, for example, that "God is three and God is
one" as a matter of so-called "faith"? If this is "The Faith" then I'm
fairly sure I want no part of it. But I am content to be part of what was
pioneered by my ancestors in "The Faith" and I don't discount them just
because what they did no longer serves me well.
Thus if faith is trust rather than belief, I find I
don't have to be caught up in straining my brain to believe this or that
often apparently absurd or patently false tradition. I am not put right
with God by the rightness of my mental state.
Instead, I'm freed to honour and learn from the faith of
the saints - when it makes sense to me to do so.
Having said this, it's important to point out that
today's common usage of faith as belief isn't necessarily
consistent with traditional roots. For example, Martin Luther is usually
recognised as the "father" of Protestantism. While he thought that
believing is important, his main theme related to trust. He wrote, "The
person who does not have faith is like someone who has to cross the sea,
but is so frightened that he does not trust the ship." Faith for him is
the choice to trust the promises of God.
 The Discarded Image by CS Lewis (1964) and The Use and
Abuse of the
Bible (1976) by Dennis Nineham are good
introductions to this exploration.
 The following review the subject:
Christian Theology, AE McGrath (1994)
A New Dictionary of Christian Theology (1983)
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (1992)
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997)
The Modern Theologians, Ed. DF Ford (1997)
 Honest to God, 1963 and the New Reformation (1965)
 Why Christianity Must Change or Die and The Bishop's
 See my brief essay on Belief
 According to A Greek English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott
(1961); A Manual
Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, G
Abbott-Smith (1964); Hebrew and
English Lexicon of the Old Testament,
Brown, Driver & Briggs (1907)
 I am indebted to the Revd R Colby for these elements of trust