Faith and Belief (5)

The relation between faith and belief is dialectical: (1) belief is one of the forms in which faith is expressed, (2) belief is one of the sources from which faith is nourished.

Let me elaborate. People’s faith expresses itself in a variety of historical forms; these historical forms, in turn, sustain and nourish their faith. The historical expressions of faith are many — symbols, myths, beliefs, doctrines, theologies, rituals, customs, laws, ethics, institutions, activism, music, poetry, calligraphy, architecture, and so on. The entire range of historical forms produced in the context of a given religion together constitute what Wilfred Cantwell Smith calls a “cumulative tradition.”

A cumulative tradition comes into being, and continues to expand and change, within the limitations of historical time. Historians can therefore trace the birth and growth of a religious tradition to the relevant individuals and groups acting within particular historical settings. What often remains elusive in such studies, however, is the quality of personal faith without which that tradition would never have emerged in the first place; as well as the role played by that tradition in sustaining and nourishing the personal faith of countless individuals and communities over hundreds or thousands of years.

Academic studies of religion tend to focus on cumulative traditions, even though religion is much more than its historical expressions. No understanding of religion can be complete without giving due attention to the quality of personal faith that gives birth to, and is maintained by, these historical expressions. In fact, any given cumulative tradition is necessarily imperfect when judged from the viewpoint of faith. In effect, the cumulative tradition is supposed to serve the faith of an individual or community; not the other way around. Even though faith can hardly thrive without a cumulative tradition, faith must take priority over all aspects of the cumulative tradition.

In other words, a given religion consists of both personal faith and a historically expressed cumulative tradition, but these two components do not enjoy the same value. From a religious viewpoint, it is indisputable that faith is primary; the cumulative tradition — including belief — is secondary.

To some extent, faith needs belief. While belief is based upon faith, it is also one of the many ways in which faith is sustained and nourished. Smith writes that “belief is one among many of the overt expressions of faith,” but then goes on to emphasize that belief is an important part of the apparatus that helps support and maintain the personal faith of an individual or a community.

Yet the term “expression” is inadequate, and in danger even of being misleading. For once the form has been set up, and especially once it is preserved by becoming incorporated into the on-going tradition, where it may serve for decades or even for millennia, it functions not only to express the faith of its formulator and then that of subsequent generations, but more importantly to induce and to nurture the latter, and to give shape to it . . . Great men contribute to a tradition new forms which express their personal faith; but that faith has itself in its turn been stimulated by earlier forms, so that all religious men, great and small, derive from (or we may better say, through) the forms of a tradition the faith by which they live their daily lives . . . (p. 17)

We can see that belief is clearly an important part of any historically contingent religious tradition. Since personal faith is supported and maintained by the various forms of the cumulative tradition with which it is associated, one could say that personal faith depends, among other things, on beliefs — at least to a certain degree. This partial dependence of faith upon beliefs can become problematic when, with the passage of time, some religious beliefs become untenable, i.e., difficult or impossible to maintain. Depending upon how closely the personal faith of an individual or community is tied with a particular set of beliefs, a weakening of beliefs will have varying degrees of negative consequences for personal faith.

And yet, we must not forget that belief is only one of the countless ways in which faith can express itself in history; as such, belief is only one of the countless sources from which faith can receive its nourishment. This means that when a particular set of religious beliefs becomes untenable as a result of historical change, faith does not immediately perish.

Consider the fact that faith is expressed in beliefs (ideas that we hold in our minds) as well as in practices (what we do, or how we live our lives). As certain beliefs become untenable, the continuing availability of certain religious practices can still nourish the personal faith of individuals and communities — at least for some time. Under these conditions, the importance of beliefs may decline somewhat as attention increasingly shifts in the direction of practices. The problem, of course, is that religious practices are no more immune to the pressure of historical change than are religious beliefs. As certain religious practices become difficult or impossible to maintain, we can expect the personal faith of individuals and communities to decline even further.

Let me digress for a moment to make a point about the relative importance of beliefs and practices within a given cumulative tradition. In certain historical contexts, the former may receive more attention than the latter, giving rise to an apparent opposition between “orthodoxy” (correct belief) and “orthopraxy” (correct practice). Commenting on this important point, Smith writes:

Every great religious movement has had many expressions. We can observe that, of these, one or a few tend at times to be singled out for special emphasis and centrality — probably never to the exclusion of all others, although it can happen that the others come to be interpreted then in terms of that central one. These may then be seen less as immediate expressions of the fundamental faith than as secondary expressions of the primary expression . . . . (p. 17)

Smith goes on to say that while Christians tend to take “monotheism” primarily as a “doctrine” (i.e., a matter of belief), Jews and Muslims tend to take it primarily as a “moral command” (i.e., a matter of practice). For Jews and Muslims, says Smith, monotheism is “less a metaphysical description than an ethical injunction.”

It is often claimed, in light of this observation, that Judaism and Islam are religions of orthopraxy while Christianity is a religion of orthodoxy. Such sweeping labels can be misleading. The difference, insofar as it actually exists, is not that of exclusive commitment but of relative emphasis (as Smith correctly notes). While in many contexts Jews and Muslims emphasize monotheism as an ethical imperative and Christians focus on its doctrinal subtleties, the reverse is also true. The oneness of God  has an obvious doctrinal importance for Jews and Muslims, and it has a profound moral and practical importance for Christians. It would be wrong to say, therefore, that Christians don’t care about practice, or that Jews and Muslims don’t care about beliefs. Perhaps the distinction can be articulated as follows: The moral command flows from the doctrine in one case, and the doctrine emerges from the moral command in the other case (though even this formulation is not absolute by any means). We should note that there is a growing emphasis on “discipleship” in contemporary Christianity, which represents, at least partly, a shift of emphasis away from issues of doctrine.

In short, the relative significance of right belief and right practice can vary from one tradition to another, and even from one period to another within the same tradition. Regardless of such variations, the fact remains that both orthodoxy and orthopraxy act as forms of expressions, and as sources of nourishment, for people’s faith.

Let’s return to the question of the relationship between faith and belief. To reiterate, at any given point in history, personal faith is expressed in the form of certain beliefs and, in turn, the resulting beliefs help sustain the personal faith of individuals and communities. As history moves on, however, societies inevitably change in both small and dramatic ways. Consequently, many beliefs that used to be effective sources of nourishment for personal faith in the past tend to become increasingly untenable; they lose their ability to attract the allegiance of a person’s mind and intellect. Such beliefs become increasingly ineffective sources of nourishment for people’s faith, leading to what may be called a “crisis of faith.” In the face of such a crisis, the personal faith of both individuals and communities tends to lose its strength and vitality to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the crisis. Typically, religious individuals and communities struggle with the crisis and eventually discover or create new historical forms; among other things, they are able to formulate fresh and more credible beliefs through which to express their personal faith. These new beliefs then replace the older ones as effective sources of nourishment for personal faith at both individual and communal levels.

The loss of a particular set of religious beliefs is not unique to the modern period. The history of any cumulative tradition will show that beliefs tend to change all the time, that it is perfectly normal for one set of beliefs to disappear while giving way to another set of beliefs. Consequently, the loss of a particular set of religious beliefs does not mean the end of faith; rather, it represents a challenge that has been successfully met countless times in history. As religious individuals and communities face this challenge with courage and perseverance, their cumulative tradition undergoes a process of renewal and revival.


  1. I think another essential element of faith is the ability of the individual to be creative and exercise his/her creativity. If one is in a cultural tradition/environment that frowns on creativity and innovation, then faith suffers.

    “…Islam’s self image of timeless perfection, the institutional context in which knowledge of Islam has been acquired and passed down, the absence of mechanisms for the accumulation of a collective memory of the dynamism and inventiveness of Islam, and the self-perpetuating nature of stagnation–have combined to reify popular and scholarly perceptions of bid’a as illegitimate tinkering with the Divine Will. Today bid’a is still seen as blasphemy, and the label is used, albeit seldom, against innovators perceived to be corrupting the purity and essence of the religion.” p 9, “Innovation in Islam” edited by Mehran Kamrava, (University of California Press:2011)

  2. All societies, cultures, institutions, and traditions (whether religious or not) have a strong bias towards conservation, which is why any attempt at fundamental change is usually “frowned upon” and even actively resisted. Resistance to “innovation” is by no means unique to Islam. We often assume that some fields are particularly open and accepting of change, such as science or education. But if you work in one of these fields, try to bring about a change in any established practice. Even if you have very convincing reasons, you will experience the entire weight of the establishment against your proposal. This doesn’t mean that change is impossible; it only means that change is necessarily a slow and uphill process. In fact, one of the main reasons why societies, cultures, institutions, and traditions exist at all is because of the human proclivity towards conservation and a natural fear of what they have never tried or experienced before.

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