Thoughts On A Really Dangerous Word

Some people seem to think that “faith” means believing six impossible things before breakfast. Both Christians and anti-Christians are sometimes under this impression. The English word “faith” is ambiguous. It can mean either an emotional or a cognitive relationship. The emotional relationship is also called “trust”; that is to say, trust in another person, while the cognitive relationship is also called “belief”, that is, the opinion that something is the case out there in the external world. These are not the same thing. For there is no logical reason why one should not believe in a powerful spiritual being but refrain from trusting in it; this is in fact the position of any Christian who believes in the existence of Satan. There is, admittedly, some overlap: the term “belief” may itself contain elements of “trust”, as when we say that we “believe in” a person. When we say this, we do not mean that we believe merely that he exists, but rather that we believe that he possesses certain qualities that make him deserving of our trust or admiration. On the whole, however, the two concepts are easily distinguished, belonging to two kinds of mental operation.

The words used for “faith” in the New Testament are pistis (noun) and pisteuein (verb), and almost – but not quite – invariably describe the emotional relationship. They are primarily about trust in the sense of having confidence in a person, rather than about indifference to the contents of the real world. If we believe that there exists a god in whom one can repose such trust, that is one thing; but it is not the same thing as believing in everyday counterfactuals. Even less is it about noisily proclaiming that something is so when clearly it isn’t, or insisting that you get brownie points for defiance of reality. Believing that Shanghai is the capital of China, or even believing that the world was created on a Thursday, is not what the Greek writers primarily intended. They seemed to be thinking more of the sort of trust you are supposed to place in someone trying to teach you how to swim. In one case, in Acts 17, pistis carries the notion of “evidence”, and it is probably no coincidence that the scene is Athens; for Aristotle had used the same word to mean “intellectual conviction”. In Greek, therefore, the meaning of the words mostly depends on who is using them.

With Latin, however, fides and the verb confiteor means a relationship of trust, while credere means to believe that something out there is objectively the case. There is thus no doubt that someone speaking of his “faith” in Latin is meaning his emotional reliance on a person, as opposed to his cognitive performance: Adeste, fideles is rightly translated as “O come all ye faithful” rather than “all ye believers”. At the same time there is a whole different suite of mental furniture arranged around the Credo. When we use the word “creed” for a religion, we are operating within this second conceptual tradition, in a way that might not necessarily make sense to other religions.

I am not competent to say anything about the concepts in Judaism, but it might be interesting if someone were to chart the balance in all the languages that have been influenced by the three Abrahamic religions. We might then wonder whether the emotional and the epistemological operations have been more forcibly associated in our culture than is natural or good for us.

The Arabic root, ‘mn, which we meet in for example the caliphal title Amir al-mu’minin, “commander of the faithful,” and the personal name Amin, definitely means faith in the sense of confident trusting in someone, and originally had nothing to do with epistemological processes. Another cognate is aman, safe-conduct. On the other hand, the key Muslim duty of “testifying” is more related to believing that something is the case in the external world, and insisting publicly that it is the case.

To a Muslim, “belief” means internal conviction plus verbal expression plus prescribed works. Conviction of what? This is the same dangerous ground as in Christianity. The Ash’ari theology speaks of an internal judgment of truthfulness leading to adherence to God, whereas the Hanafi school employs a phrase I consider nonsensical, the knowledge of the heart. In general, however, Islam is more about praxis than cognition, and many have taught that works are faith. At the risk of correction by better scholars, I would suggest that the Christian curse of antinomianism, the notion that if only you have the correct belief (often meaning appropriate emoting), you can act however you please, is relatively alien to Islam. I find myself wondering whether European jihadis who despise what they are told by the learned of their religion are actually more influenced by popular Christianity’s concept of “faith” than they realise.

When modern Anglophone Christians talk about their “faith”, they seem more often than not to be referring to an epistemological stance. For the emotional relationship, they prefer “trust”, as in “Put your trust in Jesus”. This suggests the opposite approach to the Graecophone Early Church; that is, that making improbable statements about reality is now primary. No doubt the Reformation and the various pietist movements had something to do with this, as did the rise of Biblical literalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. When the televangelists and the revivalists are strutting their stuff, “Believe and be saved” – or rather “Believe and pay up” – one does not always get the impression that they are exhorting to a relationship of absolute trust in a saviour. With some, certainly; but with others, there is more a sense of a strenuous and desperate effort to rearrange the cognitive furniture and believe “half a dozen impossible things before breakfast” in order magically to attract worldly prosperity. Many of the half a dozen impossible things are concerned not with a trustworthy Person but rather with the contemporary culture wars. Perhaps a shift in the meaning of “faith”, from emotional to epistemological operation, requires the cultural decks to be cleared first; and the resulting cognitive performances become the touchstone of who is “in” and who is “out”.

Now wherever there is duality of meaning, there is a clear and present danger of thinking about this thing you are obliged to have in order to get saved, “faith”, in terms of what you believe and proclaim about external reality rather than of whom and how you trust to do what for you. From here it is a short way to demanding “respect” for your faith, now meaning immunity from being called on nonsensical propositions about external reality. There is no reason why this privilege has to stop with old-school religion; for example, I expect shortly to be told that vaccination is an insult to people’s belief that it causes autism, and must be suppressed because such “faith” is to be respected – read, indulged.

Posted on May 22, 2009 at 21:44 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion And Conceptual Muddle

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