Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Belief as 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.

Since 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 (8.24).

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 propositions.

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 banned.

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?

An initial question needs to be faced. What is the nature of the "belief" which is demanded?

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.

Until very 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 "know".

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.

Why should "belief" in the Christian sense of assent and commitment to doctrinal formulas be regarded as essential?

An illustration 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 interview [1], 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 

stands outside 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 proposition. 

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. 

Meier maintains 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 otherwise. 

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 rest.

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 easily reversed. 

    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 possibilities. 

    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 distinct minority.

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.
[1] See The Messenger

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