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 about "the
way things are" have changed. 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
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.
look back on my adolescence I may be aware of the degree to which I was then
confusedly searching for, amongst other things, a self-identity. That
awareness may 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 a person at 75 and the same
person 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 and the 75-year-old dress very differently and do
very different things, so with Aquinas and Abraham. And just as the teenage
person and the elderly person share essentially the same worldview - the
older 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.
The great divide also affects how we 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.
Now to briefly examine faith, not as it has been, but as it generally is
today. It will be obvious that a number of assumptions are made.
In other words, the fine verbal distinctions and elaborate formulations of
theologians will not be dealt with here. The equally profound but simpler
understanding of ordinary people are more my concern here.
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 firmly "believes" certain propositions. 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 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 a sample of the New Testament
more or less at random) is translated in the Good News Bible and
others using "believe" for the Greek:
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. Contracts and treaties don't improve the level of
trust - they merely clarify detail.
Briefly, trust has four behavioural components :
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.
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.
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.
- I will trust you more if I know from experience that
you will do everything in your power to carry out your commitments to
The above four building blocks of faith can be considered in relation
to how one perceives God as creator of the universe, and Jesus as the
pioneer of the Christian way of life. Does it matter what you
believe about God and Jesus if you trust neither?
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 one from mere doctrinal assent to
putting one's money where one's 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 in its teachings.
Such is the condition of Christianity, however, that
"the faith" isn't one thing, but many.
To the Roman Catholic party "the faith" is
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.".
The Christian parties seem to have one aspect in common.
Each urges assent to the propositions of the faith-tradition it preserves
The point to be emphasised is that each tradition
stresses "the faith" as a set of teachings. 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
The authority of both appears ultimately to be based
upon the claim that truth lies primarily in what has gone before rather
than on reasoned conclusions.
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 explains why the Church's creeds, for example, are
regarded by most churches as essential to the faith.
But explore the convoluted arguments by which creedal
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". There is in the 21st century an increasing opposition to tradition
as a set of constructs to which all must conform to be accepted as God's
beloved (to use a metaphor from romance).
But what we can place our trust in is the
commitment of those who have gone before. They and their lives are a
"tradition" which can be trusted. They, like us, 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 negative outlook on sexuality.
Having said that, Augustine and countless others can
be trusted inasmuch they are pioneers who have gone before. They have
lived out as best they could the life and teaching of Jesus. They are
worthy of respect even though we recognise that we don't think about
reality quite as they did.
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, the lives and witness of those with whom
the Christian tradition or "faith" of today's Church began are not to be
devalued. They can be trusted because they gave themselves in a
multitude of ways to Jesus, the first pioneer. People are Christians
today because they were faithful.
But trusting them ancestors in "the faith" doesn't mean
that we have to willy-nilly think and believe as they did. On the
contrary, we may interpret God's creation very differently from them.
To take an extreme instance of how our ancestors are
not followed 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 us that we 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 anyone possibly
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 a large
majority want no part of it. But they may be - and many are - content to
be part of what was pioneered by our ancestors in "the faith".
Thus if faith is trust rather than belief, it turns
out that we don't have to be caught up in straining our brains to
believe this or that often apparently absurd or patently false
tradition. We are not put right with God by the rightness of our mental
Instead, we are freed to honour and learn from the faith
of the saints - when it makes sense for us 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