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Faith in beliefs

28 May, 2007

Lloyd Geering has some fascinating insights into the nature of faith in an article at the Sea of Faith Network (NZ).

He points out that the idea that religious faith consists of holding a certain number of specific and often irrational beliefs is not only mistaken but also a modern phenomenon.

Geering says:

“To put the matter bluntly and over simplistically we may say that in pre-modern times people put their faith in God; today, in contrast, too many put their faith in beliefs, such as the belief that the Bible cannot be in error”.

He goes on to point out that our words “belief” and “faith” have changed in meaning since earlier times.

“When people today say “I believe in God”, they are often simply expressing their opinion or conviction that there exists a spiritual being called God. That is not what was meant by “belief in God” four centuries ago. …

The difference can be illustrated by noting the way in which some today also say they “believe in the Devil”. No medieval Christian would have dreamed of saying such a thing. To say “I believe in the Devil” in those days meant giving one’s allegiance to the devil. The appropriate expression was not “I believe in the Devil”, but “I renounce the devil”, meaning, “I will reject all suggestions made to me by the devil”. In contrast, when they said, “I believe in God” they did not mean “It is my opinion that a God exists”. They meant “I give my allegiance to God” or “I entrust myself to God”. It was unthinkable to say, “I entrust myself to the Devil”.

“Belief in God used to mean “putting one’s trust in God” but it now refers to an opinion about reality, namely that the world was created by and is ruled by a supernatural personal being. This belief, like all beliefs, is human in origin and expression. Human beliefs and opinions are always changing in the course of developing culture. This belief has never been universal to all humankind, and in the Western world, where it was once practically universal, it is now held by increasingly fewer people.

“It is because we live in a cultural setting so different from either the ancient or the mediaeval worlds that the common beliefs they had no longer have the power to convince us.

“It can be religiously dangerous to commit oneself to the beliefs of former generations and to do so may become a form of idolatry.

“To regard any set of beliefs as absolute and unchangeable is to turn into an idol something human, finite and fallible. To continue to accept any beliefs from others or from the past, those beliefs should have the inherent power to convince us.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 29 May, 2007 12:29 pm

    Another interesting article, you are reading well!
    Last post first: Fear at a base level might be more of a fundamental identity thing rather than the anxieties or adrenalin fueled fight or flight reactions of our consciousness. I don’t own existential thought, and there are plenty of squabbles and differences between existentialists. The style of thinking fits better with my digital, analytical thinking rather than my preferred analog, empathetic thinking. Which leads to this post. The concept of putting your trust in God is something I feel strongly about. I also agree strongly with the contrast between putting trust in God and putting faith in beliefs. The context is awkward for me though. There might be a bit of the tendency to romanticise the past here?

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