The Belief Confusion

Probably few questions have led to more argument and more pain in modern religious life than the question, “Do you believe?” Today the question usually implies acceding to certain intellectual propositions. The tragedy is that the question is usually misapplied if we look closely at how certain concepts were used in our sacred texts.

James Rowe Adams, the founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity (now, also wrestled with the oft imposed requirement that an individual accede to (believe) certain intellectual propositions in order to be considered part of a religious community. His scholarship pointed out that these requirements are based on a mis-translation.

Here is what he says in his book So You Think You’re Not Religious:

“The Latin word credo, from which we get our word “creed”, is usually translated “believe”, but it means literally “to set the heart.”

He goes on to note that old English had no verb form for “heart.” Today, just as we talk about parenting, dialoguing, etc., we would have no trouble coining a new verb “to heart.” But in translating the early creeds into English, the church chose the phrase “to believe in” to translate the word credo. Unfortunately over time this was confused with “to believe that”, which could involve intellectual propositions.

Similarly, Paul’s use of the Greek word kardia could apply to emotional or mental life – but never refers to logic or analysis.

The wonderful 14th Century book The Cloud of Unknowing picks up this early Christian concept of finding God in your heart rather than with your intellect. The book is not anti-intellectual but keenly aware of the limits of logic in approaching God. The anonymous monk who wrote this book stood on the shoulders of a long tradition that can be traced back to Clement of Alexandria in the second century, who may have been the first to articulate the need for religious language to express matters of the heart which cannot be put into logical form.

The oft-imposed confusion between setting the heart and acceding to an intellectual proposition takes on added significance when we look at the word “faith”. Too often it is assumed that unless one accepts certain things as intellectual fact, faith is out of one’s reach. Again, Adams points us in a different direction.

He notes that Paul frequently used two words in his letters –the noun pistis and the verb pisteuo. The noun can properly be translated as faithfulness, reliability, trust, confidence, or faith. The verb, usually translated “believe” meant either to give credence to what someone said or to have confidence or trust in the person.

The kind of confidence pointed to here is one that allows an individual to transcend the fear of death; it is not one that relies on certain stories being historical fact. It is a confidence that allows one to accept the reality of the world around us and to chart our own course in it regardless of what happens to us.

We are today so tied to the language of fact and data that it is often difficult to remember that there are other forms of truth – forms that come to us through myth, metaphor, poetry, story. We forget – or fail to recognize – how much we learn, how much our lives are shaped, by story.

Rather than asking what people believe, I think the church would be much better off to ask, “Tell me your story, and come hear mine.”


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