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Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 | 5 comments

What is Belief?

“To hold something with the intellect is not to believe it. A person’s true belief is that by which they live.”
– George MacDonald

“Abram believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

In the Biblical languages, the word for belief equally means trust, faith, and faithfulness. There is no difference in the Bible between these four concepts expressed by the same word. Abram’s faith is noticeable in this verse because it represents a decision to live his life as if what God had said was true – in other words, to trust God and to remain faithful to what God had told him. For Abram as for the rest of the Biblical worldview, “to believe something” meant much more than simply “to think it correct.” The next few chapters of Genesis show what it meant for Abram to have oriented his life this way.

Abraham Sacrificing Isaac by Giovanni Battista TiepoloIn Western society we tend to have a model of how human beings work that starts with our rational intellect and works its way down to our bodies and practices. This model comes largely from Descartes (with some modifications from Kant) and goes something like this: our conscious beliefs drive our behaviour. So if we want people to behave differently, we need to explain rationally to them why they should. According to this model, the conscious mind of a person is in the driving seat of their life and everything else follows from it. So when we come to the Bible and read about faith/belief, we can easily import our modern Western understanding of these words into our interpretation. This can lead to a view of what it means to be Christian that is focused on what theological opinions we have and ignores the way we live.

But our beliefs are not simply the things we consciously hold opinions about – that is only the entryway to belief, the front door. In fact most of our deepest beliefs – about the meaning of life, our own value and worth, what can be hoped for and lived by – may never have been in our conscious minds. It is those beliefs, however, that form the basis of all our actions, from little daily decisions to huge life-changing choices.

The model of the human person that Descartes taught is too simple. In reality, our beliefs and our practices mutually influence one another. If we continue to live a certain way then it will influence the sorts of things we think are true and meaningful. For example, I may believe theoretically that courage is a good thing, but unless I am trying to be courageous in small insignificant ways in my daily life, then I will probably lose my nerve in a critical moment when courage is really needed. Another example: when I learnt to dance, I found a big difference between knowing what a dance move looked like and being able to do it myself. It wasn’t enough to rationally understand how to do the move. I had to practice it for hours before I could actually do it, and that way I learned something that couldn’t have been learnt any other way. I also gained a new respect for professional dancers that I had never had before. My practices changed my perception of the world, not the other way around.

Why does all this matter? I think it has important implications for the way we as Christians do both Evangelism and teaching. We can often live under the impression that the most important thing is to make everyone hold the right conscious beliefs/opinions, thinking that these will make the difference for our salvation and our daily lives. So we put our effort into persuading people to change their minds about things, and try to ensure that we have all the correct opinions about God and the world. But what if this is not really the most effective way of changing ourselves or other people? I don’t mean that these things aren’t important. I wouldn’t bother to write this to change your opinions if I thought opinions made no difference whatsoever. But maybe their importance can be relativised against other valuable activities and projects.

Our anthropology – our understanding of how human beings work – is a vitally important part of our theology. We must resist being too easily influenced by whatever the prevailing anthropology might be, by making the effort to understand what makes Christian anthropology different. I would highly recommend the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a start. His academic book is Phenomenology of Perception, but he has also written a popular easy-to-read volume called The World of Perception. The Christian author James K.A. Smith has also made use of Merleau-Ponty for our understanding of worship, in his book Imagining the Kingdom.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Barney, while I appreciate your fight against a kind of facile apologetics that is only concerned with the “right conscious beliefs/opinions,” I think you have made two mistakes: one in your analysis of the problem and the other in your prescription to said problem.

    As per you analysis: I don’t think the bogey for such an etiolated view of belief is the fault of Descartes first and foremost. Much of the Christian intellectual heritage (and the Hellenic traditions which it subsumed) also emphasized the cognitive over the practical ramifications of belief. Aquinas spends sixteen sections of the Summa (ST II.II) detailing the kind of “thinking” that is faith (fides). While the the niceties of his argument are not presently relevant, what is important—I think—is that St. Thomas is concerned to defend faith qua thinking. For the Angelic Doctor, it is not so much a question of thinking versus acting, it is more a question of what kind of thinking is faith (viz. fides as just intellectus or as both intellectus and voluntas). What’s more, Aquinas thinks himself to be following the thought of St. Augustine on this matter. So it would seem that Christian theology has a very deep tradition of privileging the cognitive over the practical, and I don’t think we do any favors to ourselves or others if we pawn such problems off on modern philosophy.

    As per your prescription: In the same way that I believe the intellectualization of the faith is a problem wrought by Christian theology, I also believe that Christian theology has—in the past—proffered solutions, solutions that I believe may be of a more salutary nature than some of the insights of the phenomenology that you suggested. Since at least the early medieval period, Christian thinkers have recognized the problem of the primacy of mind within Christian theology; thus, they created a schema that was believed to provide a fuller account of what faith is within Christian anthropology. For these theologians faith had three parts: notitia (knowledge); assensus (assent); fiducia (trust). True faith could not exist without all three of these components present. I think the problem that you identified is the modern tendency to tend toward the first two without recognizing their fulfillment in the final phase. Presenting faith as such rectifies your difficulty without resorting to the labyrinths of jargon offered by phenomenological theory.

    Lastly, I am curious how you think phenomenology is a more “Christian” anthropology than Cartesian dualism. You seem to imply as much in your last paragraph concerning anthropology in your recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and Smith.

    • Ryan, thank you for your helpful clarifications and corrections.

      I am not competent to pass judgment on the earlier part of the Christian tradition and whether its anthropology of faith gave enough place to non-cognitive aspects of the human person. Compared with modern Evangelicalism, the traditional Christian practices of the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches all seem much more ‘thickly’ ecclesial and liturgical, recognising the embodied nature of religion. Virtue ethics as taught by the tradition is also less cognitive in its focus than Kantian deontics which is closer to the modern cultural milieu. The tradition may not have it perfect, but we would make a great improvement if we at least got as far as they. In the meantime, Merleau-Ponty certainly saw Descartes as his primary interlocutor from whom the Western world needed to be rescued.

      In regard to the medieval Christian account of faith, I confess my ignorance concerning these distinctions and am delighted to discover that such existed! Can you point me to a work which explicates them?

      Finally, you are right that it’s a controversial position to see phenomenology as being more Christian than Cartesian dualism. Why do I believe this? Well, I guess I just think phenomenology is a truer account of reality, and therefore contains more fruitful resources for Christian theology. I would argue that phenomenology should be treated today the same way the first Christians treated Hellenic philosophy. There is much good in it, although it needs to be bounded by Christian dogmatic constraints. Philosophy is a good handmaiden to theology but a bad master.

      • Sorry, I did not mean to come across as combative as it might have seemed; I merely wanted to you hold you accountable to your own statement: “We must resist being too easily influenced by whatever the prevailing anthropology might be.” From the manner in which the post was written, it appeared to me that you had too uncritically taken aboard Merleau-Ponty position on modernity. It might be, in the end, that we need to resist M-P (and Smith) just as much as they would have us resist Descartes. I just wanted to hold your feet to the fire a bit.

        As for the medieval distinctions of fides, I first came across them in Melanchthon’s Topics when I was reading for my comprehensive exam. I have since come across them again in both Bultmann and Barth. I had assumed that they were of older vintage than Reformational orthodoxy, but now I am having difficulty finding older sources for them. So, it may be that they were Protestant distinctions that were meant to correct older Catholic emphases on the intellect over practice—the plot thickens . . . I’ll keep looking.

      • No offence taken! I fully expect to have my feet held in the fire by the MH crew. My literary leaning is in the direction of simplification for the sake of clarity, which always carries the temptation of distortion and conflation of complex positions, where prejudices can come out more easily. I need the counterpoint of academic voices to ensure I don’t grossly misrepresent positions in my keenness to make them accessible.

        One of my friends here at Cambridge already picked me up on the irony that you highlight here. I claim that we must resist the prevailing cultural anthropology, and then swallow Merleau-Ponty’s cultural anthropology whole. I guess my simpler point is just that it’s better for us to be reflectively thinking about anthropology than not. M-P would be a good start to the journey, even if we later turn round to critique him.

  • Sarah

    This is very insightful, Barney. I realised this before but its nice to have it spelt out a bit more.