The Return of Faith

Sometimes a step back is necessary for us to move forward.

Faith vs. Belief

Every once in awhile I run across a book that keeps me up late and has me excited to wake up in the morning.  Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith is one such book.

In the first chapter he notes that contrary to earlier predictions, faith and religion are as vibrant as ever.  But things are shifting.  People are turning to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.  “The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institution and beliefs.”  In short, Cox claims that we are moving from an era of ‘belief’ to an era of ‘faith.’  But aren’t belief and faith the same thing, you ask?  No, and understanding the difference is vital, not only for one’s own spiritual journey, but for grasping the undercurrents of the larger shifts in the world of spirituality.

An excerpt from Chapter One:

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing.  But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference.  Faith is about deep-seated confidence.  In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure.  It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion.  We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty.  “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” future_faith_book_520Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential.  We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.  Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.

The Spanish writer Migual Unamuno (1864-1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” in which a young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying.  In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her.  The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in Unamuno’s story recognized the difference between faith and belief.  He knew that prayer, like faith, is more primordial than belief. He might have engaged the son who wanted to pray but did not believe in God in a theological squabble.  He could have hauled out the frayed old “proofs” for the existence of God, whereupon the young man might have quoted the equally jaded arguments against the proofs.  Both probably knew that such arguments go nowhere.  The French writer Simone Weil (1909-43) also knew.  In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.”  Weil’s words sound paradoxical, but in the course of her short and painful life—she died at thirty-four—she learned that love and faith are both more primal than beliefs.

Debates about the existence of God or the gods were raging in Plato’s time, twenty-five hundred years ago.  Remarkable, they still rage on today, as a recent spate of books rehearsing the routine arguments for and against the existence of God demonstrates.  By their nature these quarrels are about beliefs and can never be finally settled.  But faith, which is more closely related to awe, love, and wonder, arose long before Plato, among our most primitive Homo sapiens forebears. Plato engaged in disputes about beliefs, not about faith.

Creeds are clusters of beliefs.  But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds.  It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs.  It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds.  As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians have at times sought to represent their faith.  But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end.  Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

The nearly two thousand years of Christian history can be divided into three uneven periods.  The first might be called the “Age of Faith.” It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated.  During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.  To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.

The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.” Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally.  Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.  Thus, even during that early Age of Faith the tension between faith and belief was already foreshadowed.

Then, during the closing years of the third century, something more ominous occurred.  An elite class—soon to become a clerical class—began to take shape, and ecclesial specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs.  Still, however, these varied widely from place to place, and as the fourth century began there was still no single creed.  The scattered congregations were united by a common Spirit.  A wide range of different theologies thrived.  The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire.  He decreed that the formerly outlawed new religion of the Galilean should now be legal, but he continued to reverence the sun god Helios alongside Jesus.

Constantine also imposed a muscular leadership over the churches, appointing and dismissing bishops, paying salaries, funding buildings, and distributing largesse.  He and not the pope was the real head of the church.  Whatever his motives, Constantine’s policies and those of his successors crowned Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The emperors undoubtedly hoped this strategy would shore up their crumbling dominion, from which the old gods seemed to have fled.  The tactic, however, did not save the empire from collapse.  But for Christianity it proved to be a disaster: its enthronement actually degraded it. From an energetic movement of faith it coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs, thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries to come.

The ancient corporate merger triggered a titanic makeover.  The empire became “Christian,” and Christianity became imperial.  Thousands of people scurried to join a church they had previously despised, but now bore the emperor’s seal of approval.  Bishops assumed quasi-imperial powers and began living like imperial elites.  During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees.  Heresy became treason, and reason became heresy.

…Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation did much to alter the underlying foundations of the Age of Belief… The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century.

Still, to think of this long middle ear as a nothing but a dark age is misleading.  As we have seen, throughout those fifteen centuries Christian movements and personalities continued to live by faith and according to the Spirit.  Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his Kingdom their motivating drive. [I cut a fair bit of this and the preceding paragraph for the sake of brevity.]

Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story.  Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster that it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies.  We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are sharking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined.

So, can we make a distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?

The book, as best I can tell (I’m into Chapter Four), dives further into this delineation, into what got us to where we’ve been, and what might move us forward into the future.

Terrific stuff, and as I read it, it seems to make a decent amount of sense.  And perhaps more pertinent, it seems to connect with what we find in the text: Jesus himself and the earliest believers, it seems, were not motivated by assent to a list of beliefs, but rather a deep-seated and profound faith that God was doing something new and his kingdom was breaking into the world in unprecedented ways.

I find that for some time perhaps I’ve been losing faith in belief, even as my faith continues to grow in new and exciting ways.  It is encouraging to consider this larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world, which, despite our best efforts to constrain it, continues to “blow wherever it will.”


4 thoughts on “The Return of Faith

  1. Giving birth to new concepts is painful, unless you take your time and use your patience (with yourself.) It seems to me that we could substitute the word “think” for the word “belief,” and not be as confused. And I think it best to remember that faith in oneself (and the process) is as necessary as faith in God or a god. After all, Allowing “the powers that be,” (God/Christ to some of us,) to work within you, is the first giant step to a fuller understanding of any subject.


    1. ‘Allowing the powers to be’ to work within you sounds a lot like assuming the existence of something for which, if such vague entities (?) exist, we know nothing of and most likely are incapable of comprehending. People like to anthropomorphize such entities and apply their own characteristics to said “powers to be”. It is a remarkable coincidence that the gods of ancient lore are so like humanity in that they are capable of jealousy, wrath, lust, love, etc., but without our other corporeal failings like mortality or illness. Some may say that god made man in his image, but I think the reverse is more accurate.


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