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.
Having looked at the two meanings of belief, let us now consider the word faith. Unlike belief, whose meaning changed drastically during the seventeenth century, the word faith has retained much of its original meaning in modern English. Yet, the two words are often used inaccurately as synonyms, thereby adding to the confusion and giving rise to a distorted view of religion.
The word faith word is derived from the Latin fides, which means “trust, confidence, reliance.” The word fides, in turn, comes from the Latin root fidere, “to trust.” The same root is also found in the word fidelity. Even though the word faith is sometimes inaccurately used as a synonym for the modern sense of belief, the word fidelity still carries the original sense of loyalty. The word hi-fi (an abbreviated form of high fidelity) is a case in point.
Based on its etymology as well as usage, we can say that faith is not primarily a matter of holding certain ideas in one’s mind, i.e., it is not a matter of believing per se. Rather, faith denotes a particular kind of attitude or orientation that is characterized by trust, loyalty, and commitment. As such, faith is a way of being in the world, a way of relating to oneself and others, a way of living. It is not believing something; it is being someone. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. . . . It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbour, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles . . . ” (p. 12).
One way to overcome the confusion between faith and belief is to think of the word faith as denoting an attitude of faithfulness. When we hear someone say “Tom is a faithful husband,” we know that it does not mean “Tom believes that his wife exists.” Rather, the sentence means “Tom is loyal to his wife.” Similarly, the statement “I have faith in God” does not mean “I believe that God exists.” Rather, it means “I trust God” or “I live a life of commitment to God.”
If it is true that the essence of religion is faith, rather than belief, then we can expect this to be reflected in the language of religious scriptures. Consider the Christian scripture, for example. In the Greek New Testament, the words pisteuo and pistis appear many times. The former is a verb and the latter is a noun, both denoting an attitude of trust, confidence, commitment, and loyalty, i.e., faith. Yet, these two words are often rendered in English translations of the New Testament as believe and belief, respectively. This rendering is highly problematic, since it transforms the New Testament’s emphasis on a particular kind of practical attitude into the somewhat passive notion of holding an idea in one’s mind.
Below is the transliterated Greek text of a frequently quoted New Testament verse, John 3:16.
Notice the word pisteuon and how it is rendered into English in two different translations.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (King James)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)
In the King James translation (1611), pisteuon is rendered as “believeth.” Given that in the early seventeenth century the word belief still meant something very similar to faith, this translation was quite adequate. However, when the New Revised Standard Version (1989) uses the word “believes,” the translation can no longer be considered accurate, since the meaning of the word belief in 1989 differs significantly from its meaning in 1611.
But this is not entirely the fault of the translators. Part of the problem is that contemporary English treats the word faith only as a noun. If it were possible for the word faith to be used as a verb in contemporary English, we would have been able to say sentences like “I faith” or “I am faithing” or “I have faithed.” In that scenario, the modern translators of the New Testament would have rendered the relevant part of John 3:16 as follows: “everyone who faiths in him . . . .” It is unfortunate that the English language does now allow this usage; for faith is not a thing that we possess but is a quality of how we live, act, and be in the world. In other words, faith refers to a sort of practice or activity more than it refers to an entity or an idea. For this reason, the notion of faith is best expressed using the active language of verbs, and less so through the relatively passive language of nouns.
Since the English word belief allows itself to be used as a verb — believe, believes, believed — it is tempting (and sometimes unavoidable) to use it as a substitute for the word faith in certain contexts. As already mentioned, the use of belief as a synonym for faith posed no significant problem before the seventeenth century, since the meanings of the two words overlapped to a very large extent. In the twentieth century, however, this usage has led to a plethora of confusions and misunderstandings.
But notice what happens when the New Testament verse quoted above is translated into Arabic.
Here, the Greek word pisteuon has been rendered as u’minu, which is one of the verb forms of the Arabic word iman (faith). It can be seen that the Arabic translation of John 3:16 is much more faithful to the original Greek than is the English rendering of NRSV. In both Greek and Arabic, the respective words for faith have corresponding verb forms, allowing these two languages to convey the dynamic and active quality of this concept. In sharp contrast, the notion of faith as a verb cannot be directly and concisely expressed in contemporary English, forcing English speakers to use an entirely different word — belief. The unfortunate outcome of this is a virtual conflation of faith and belief. (The problem highlighted here with respect to the New Testament applies to English translations of the Qur’an as well.)
As mentioned earlier, Wilfred Cantwell Smith has contended that the modern conflation of faith and belief has generated a distorted view of religion. Now that we have looked at both of these terms in some detail, we can begin to appreciate Smith’s insight into the nature of this distortion.
If we approach religion primarily in terms of belief (in the modern sense of holding certain ideas as true), then we are likely to judge the value of religion on the basis of its cognitive elements alone, i.e., on the basis of religious ideas. This approach allows the so-called “New Atheists” to argue that religion is false because its truth-claims do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. These critics of religion are right in assuming that the essence of religion is faith, but the problem lies in how they define faith. For many of the “New Atheists” and their disciples, the word faith essentially means “believing without evidence.” If the essence of religion is faith, and if faith is “believing without evidence,” then it is clear that religion is something fundamentally irrational, especially when we compare it with science.
But the notion that faith is essentially “believing without evidence” is seriously flawed. As we have seen, faith is a kind of attitude and orientation towards oneself and others; it is not, primarily, the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind — with or without evidence. In other words, it is true that the essence of religion is faith, but it is not true that the essence of faith is giving intellectual assent to particular truth-claims expressed as propositions (and to do so “without evidence.”). This means that the value of religion cannot be judged on the basis of its cognitive elements alone.
And yet, religion’s cognitive elements are not entirely irrelevant to any judgment as to the value of religion. This is because while faith and belief are two different concepts, they are not unrelated by any means.
Modern “believing” . . . is placed in relation to, contra-distinction from, knowing. Let us consider this briefly, for everyday usage. For the man in the street, may we not say that knowledge involves two things: (a) certitude, and (b) correctness, in what one knows. To use quite unsophisticated terms, in ordinary parlance one knows whatever one knows when there is a close positive relation of one’s ideas both to the inner conviction and to objective truth. At this same level . . . there is the common-sense notion of believing. This is similar to knowing in that it is thought of as conceptualist, as in the realm of ideas in one’s mind (even, of propositions). It differs from knowing in that it involves one or other of again two things, and perhaps both: (a) lack of certitude; (b) open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed. (p. 35)
Notice that Smith is not presenting a philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of belief and knowledge. He is, on the contrary, telling us how these words are actually used by contemporary English speakers.
We can appreciate Smith’s insight by performing a simple exercise. Take any proposition and add the phrase “I believe” at the beginning; then say the sentences out loud and notice how the meaning changes. For instance: “Today is November 6” is a simple proposition, but “I believe today is November 6” contains rather significant elements of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error, and an openness to alternative possibilities. The first sentence is an expression of knowledge; one is saying what one knows to be true. The second sentence is an expression of belief; one is saying what one believes to be true. Even though the first sentence does not actually begin with “I know,” this phrase is tacitly implied due to the very straightforward and matter-of-fact structure of the sentence. When I am completely sure about something, I just say it without any qualifications; but when I am not completely sure, I qualify my proposition with “I believe.”
But what is Smith’s larger point? What is the purpose of all this linguistic hairsplitting? As suggested earlier, the modern meaning of belief is in sharp contrast to its premodern meaning. Smith wants us to appreciate how a disregard for this difference has contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of religion and religious life.
Consider the question “Do you believe in God?” Given that the modern sense of the word “believe” involves the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind, the question seems to suggest the following sense: “Do you hold the idea of God in your mind?” Or, alternatively, “Do you think there is a God?” Either way, since belief is understood as a habit of thought, believing in God appears to be a matter of keeping a particular thought in one’s mind, viz., the idea that God exists.
Notice the difference this makes. Today, believing is seen as a matter of having a particular thought, which is a mental activity. Before the seventeenth century, believing was understood as a matter of having a relationship, which is the activity of the whole person as well as a person’s state of being. In the premodern period, therefore, the question “Do you believe in God?” would have meant something like “Do you love God?” Or, alternatively, “Do you live a life of devotion and service to God?” The contrast between the two meanings is hardly trivial.
With this background, we can also appreciate that while the modern usage of the word belief suggests a significant distinction between believing and knowing, this was not the case in the premodern period. Since belief was understood in terms of love and loyalty, the issue of the existence or non-existence of God was irrelevant to the notion of belief. This is because the question “Do you love God?” has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists; to ask about one’s relationship with God already presupposes God’s reality.
The shift from the premodern to the modern meaning of the word belief did not occur overnight; instead, it took place very gradually over a couple of centuries. But now that it has occurred, we can appreciate the rather stark difference between the two meanings by putting them together side by side. Smith writes:
The long-range transformation may be characterized perhaps most dramatically thus. There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”
In light of this quote, the main distinctions between the premodern and the modern meanings of the word belief (in relation to God) can be summed up as follows: (1) In the premodern period, the reality of God was accepted as self-evident; it was a presupposition that most people took for granted and never questioned. (2) In the modern period, it is no longer possible for most people to accept the reality of God as a self-evident fact; instead, it has become an open question that is to be argued about, contested, and debated.
In effect, belief no longer means love, loyalty, devotion, and service; instead, it simply means a thought in the head, especially a thought about which one is not entirely sure.