What is faith? What is belief? Are they the same?
Last Sunday's epistle from the letter to the Hebrews was cause for me to ask those questions once again. It was also cause for me to dig out my copy of Christian Believing by Urban T. Holmes and John H. Westehoff. This was a volume of the previous Church's Teaching Series. I often find it to be an excellent resource. If you want to learn more about it, The Anglican Scotist offers a good review. What follows includes a paraphrase of chapter 2 of Holmes and Westerhoff's book, entitled What Can We Believe?
Many philosophers and theologians have suggested that faith is the basis of all knowledge. One example of this is St. Augustine of Hippo, who presented the idea of "faith seeking understanding." What Augustine is suggesting is that faith must be present in order to know anything. In other words, one must assume, or have faith, in the trustworthiness of the person, thing or idea in order to have a foundation from which to seek further knowledge.
We see this most clearly in the way children learn. For their early years, they place their faith in their parents. They are not intellectually advanced enough to understand how things work, and their limited moral development requires guidance as to what they should do. So, they put their faith, their trust, in their parents. From that foundation of faith, they can then begin to understand the world around them.
Faith seeking understanding.
Now, when we bring the idea of faith into contemporary Christianity, we run into a problem. Unfortunately, the word “faith” has become understood by many Christians as a synonym for “belief.” Consequently, the test of being a "real" Christian has become that you hold the right set of beliefs.
I think we need to sort out this confusion.
Holmes and Westerhoff suggest that seekers of God begin with two basic questions. The first is “Is there a God?” That question requires a yes or no answer. To ‘have faith” is to answer yes to this question.
The second question is “What is God?” That is a question of belief, and the answer is going to be complex, and always inadequate. Beliefs are intellectual expressions of our faith. They cannot contain God. They may dance very close, but as with any statement about the nature of God, we have to add, "But God is much more than this."
Another way Holmes and Westerhoff suggest we might define religious belief is to say that belief is what we predicate of God. Most of you probably remember learning about predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives. They are the noun or the adjective that follow the verb in a sentence. For instance, if we say “Jesus is the Son of God”, Son of God is the predicate nominative, or the belief we are stating. If we say “God is good,” then “good” is the predicate adjective, or the belief we have about the character of God. These are both belief statements.
A faith statement would be “God is.” Nothing more. God exists. That is all we have to say yes to if we desire to begin seeking understanding, of growing our relationship, with God.
Faith has an absolute quality that belief does not. Either you have faith, or you don’t. Either you answer yes or no. There’s no such thing as partial faith.
Beliefs, on the other hand, tend to shift depending on the time in history we are in and the cultural setting of the belief system. They also vary according to the abilities of the person. A child’s beliefs will not be the same as an adult.
Beliefs are important, don’t get me wrong. It is our beliefs, our understanding built upon our faith, that guides our actions. But we can allow a diversity of beliefs, of understandings, within our community. It is our faith in God that unites us.
Christianity is not built on intellectual ideas. It is about having a relationship with the living God. Much like children have faith in their parents, we begin by placing our faith in God. And the first step in establishing such a relationship is to say yes to God. Over time, if we nurture this relationship built on faith, our understanding will grow as well.