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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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 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. 

When I 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.

Two 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.

The 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 [1]. 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 [2]. John Robinson [3] and John Spong [4] 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.

The contention is that an implicit, and often explicit, identification of faith with belief lies at the root of many difficulties in the Christian religion [5].

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 error originate?

[1]  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 [6]. 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 "trust." 

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 hairdresser.

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 [7]:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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.

[2] 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 and preaches.

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 from God.

  • 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 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 God. 

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 limitations?"

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 great nation.

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 be required 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 states.

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. 

[1]  The Discarded Image by CS Lewis (1964) and The Use and Abuse of the
(1976) by Dennis Nineham are good introductions to this exploration.
[2]  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)
[3]  Honest to God, 1963 and the New Reformation (1965)
[4]  Why Christianity Must Change or Die and The Bishop's Voice (1999)
[5]  See my brief essay on Belief 
[6]  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)
[7]  I am indebted to the Revd R Colby for these elements of trust