Processing Jesus Part I: Belief
Christians believe in Jesus, and Christians are saved by faith. This is how many people see it. If you don’t believe in Jesus, or if you don’t have the right faith, you are not saved. Now that I’m starting to see myself as a Christian I have to process this and decide where I stand on it. And I’ve decided to blog on this in three parts. First I want to look at the word ‘belief’ because there is a lot that people don’t understand about this idea. Second, I want to look at the idea of ‘faith’, because it is so central to Christianity – and all religion – and it can be seen in a lot of different ways. After that will I be able to explore my faith in and belief about Jesus more clearly.
*This is based on the beginning chapters of Stages of Faith by James W. Fowler
So much depends on the word ‘faith’ and how you interpret it. If you try to put the word ‘faith’ in to verb form, in other words, if you try to make ‘faith’ into an action, the first word that comes to mind is probably ‘believe’. One of the first things people ask about a religion is ‘what do they believe?’ Religion and faith go together. Religious people believe things.
Today, the word ‘believe’ has come to mean ‘give intellectual assent to’. If you tell me something convincing, I will believe you. If I take on that idea myself, I make it my belief. So, you tell me the water is deeper than it looks. I either believe you or I don’t; if I make that belief my own, I might not jump in. So belief impacts the way we see and act in the world.
On the other hand, belief is often contrasted with knowing. I haven’t measured the water, so I can’t say for sure that it is deeper than it looks. I don’t know that it is deep, but I believe it to be. Anything which isn’t empirically tested, or worthy of certainty, is ‘belief’. So believing in something is considered to be a weaker form of knowing.
When it comes to religion, it’s all about belief. Religion makes claims, not about water, but about the spirit, the afterlife and God. These statements have to be taken on board without proof, and are therefore an inferior kind of knowing.
This is not, however, what belief was originally meant to be. To believe is connected to the old German word belieben which is rooted in the word ‘to love’. ‘Believe’ is cousin to the word ‘beloved’. In declaring belief you are expressing love and loyalty to something. You are setting your heart on it. It wasn’t until late Victorian times that the word ‘believe’ began to change. So when early Christians made statements of faith such as the Nicene creed, they weren’t expressing intellectual assent, but sincere dedication.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all that is, seen and unseen
So when you ask what a person of some other religion believes, the question is really, “Who are you loyal to? What do you set your heart on?” The underlying idea is: what they believe is not what I believe. And for anyone who understands the depths of those words, the question is a bit silly. God is a universal God; the Spirit moves in all people. The answer to that most important question is the same; their ‘beliefs’ in the common sense of the word are comparatively superficial. In this case, you are looking, really, to identify differences.
The way that many Christians (and I wonder how many other religious people) handle ‘belief’ today reflects this confusion between intellectual assent and heartfelt dedication. It promotes a shallowness of faith which grants salvation through the acceptance of an idea which, on its own, is frail and under constant assault. As a result, it promotes a fierce protection of these ideas. They think that religious ideas are the same as scientific ideas. This results in a kind of idolatry, where rather than worshiping God, you worship the idea that God exists, the idea that he is a ‘triune oneness’, the idea that through Jesus you are saved, the idea that your ideas are getting you into heaven.
Ironically, then there is no true belief. On what are you setting your heart?