Faith and Belief

I sometimes wonder what would have been my journey if I had taken the other fork of the road?  I am not being flip.  I assume that we all have come to numerous forks in the road.  We have to choose and when we do choose, heading down one particular way, we know the other road at the fork that we did not choose is lost to us.  We will never know what life would have been like if we had chosen that other road.  I don’t lament lost choices.  I don’t regret any of my choices---although they certainly have not all been good choices!  But I do wonder.

One of the good choices I made was to continue being a reader.  Clearly there were choices in my life, where if I had made them, would effectively have meant that I would have quit reading.  Oh, that does not mean I never would have read anything.  There probably are many jobs that people do that entail no reading.  But most people working those jobs are literate.  They can read.   

They have to read to pass the driver’s test and get a license.  They have to read enough to order from a menu.  They may read the sports’ page---but less necessary in our ESPN world!  They might read a book to their little child.  But reading is not something they would choose to do.  And certainly, they would not do it for fun. 

I am different.  I am a reader.  I love to read newspapers---even the newspaper that you literally hold in your hands and, sometimes, get ink on your fingers.  I read magazines and Twitter.  I read online.  I read things that seemingly have nothing to do with my life or my job.  Maybe that is the source of some new ideas. 

I like to read things that turn out to be surprising.  Recently I read an op ed piece in a famous national paper.  I recognized the author’s name, T.M. Luhrmann.  I remembered that she is a professor of anthropology at Stanford.  I also recall that she has just written a book based on her observation among evangelical churches.  The title of her op ed was “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.”  I was hooked and read on. 

Essentially, she distinguishes faith and belief.  Given my job as spirituality professor, that was not new.  Quickly, I realized she was more focused on faith and thinks faith is primary; belief is secondary.  I would agree.  But I liked even more how she was developing her thoughts.  Her argument is not based in heady scholarship, but rather based in the life experience of folks she has observed and whom she has come to know.  That makes sense to me. 

One thing she noted interested me.  She says, “you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon.”  That probably is quite true.  She continues by citing one of my graduate school professors---famous, but now deceased.  She writes, “as the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, ‘to believe’ meant something like ‘to hold dear.’ 

She continues by quoting Smith: “’The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul.  I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him.  I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’  Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’”  These are significant words from an old friend that are really words about faith and not belief.  Faith is a bet with my life.  Belief is cognitive principle.  There is a difference. 

I like how Luhrmann talks about faith.   She says, “it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.”  I very much like the idea of faith as questions.  For example, I might say that I believe in God, but it could very well make no difference in how I live life.  On the other hand, to have faith in God is to begin living life “faithfully.” 

Belief affirms that there is a God.  Faith seeks to involve that God in my life and attempts to live my life following the Divine Desire for me.  And my faith journey is enriched if I can find a community of people also living out of their faith.  They might say a creed to affirm their beliefs.  But more powerful will be their communal effort to know God, love each other as their selves.   

And in the best scenario, they are willing to try to love their enemy.  If they can begin to pull off that feat, they will become transformers in this world.  In this sense they will participate in the building of the Kingdom about which Jesus spoke.  This has a great deal of attraction to me.  I want to have the faith to be part of the process.

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