The Error of Belief
When people ask if I believe in God, I ask them if they believe in beauty. By answering their question with a (telling) question, I attempt to initiate an inquiry into the trouble with the word “believe”, along with its nominative form, “belief”.
While manifest beauty may be subtle and ephemeral, beauty is not something you believe in — in order to experience it. We see beauty, hear beautiful sounds, intercourse with beautiful smells and touches, feel beauteous. We don’t believe in beauty, just like we don’t “believe” in gravity or not. Belief is not the method whereby we intercourse with beauty or gravity. In contrast, “God” (the Abrahamic theological word for the fundamental Reality or beauteous “divinity”) has become something we “believe” in or not.
Yet beauty and God are at least related, if not identical. Do you have to believe in beauty to experience beauty? No, it’s self-evident. Belief is not required to be informed by the beautiful.
Former nun and renown scholar Karen Armstrong has called our use of the words belief/believe “a cul-de-sac of history”, wherein our social dialogue is stuck going round and round. “The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity, and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves about the metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data.”
As a result of this “accident of history”, our modern attempt to privatize our “beliefs” is going nowhere and to engage the dramatic discussion surrounding the orthodoxies of provincial belief and scientific materialism is dizzying. Therefore, it behooves us to understand this error of belief, this accident of history, so that we can see our way forward.
Albert Einstein pointed out that problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. So rather than arguing about the validity of our beliefs, let’s look closely what belief is, where it came from, what it is attempting to do, and how to transform the dead end of our private beliefs into widespread understanding.
An academic examination of the historical use of the words belief/believe will shed light how “belief” came to mean what it does in today’s conversation.
“Belief/believe” can be traced back to the Old English geleafa, “to hold dear” (ge- changed to be- in the late 12C). Deeper roots can be found in the Proto-Indo-Euro root leub, meaning “care, desire, love”. The English word “love” is from the Germanic lieb, related to leafa and leub. “Believe” is quite close to “beloved” as they share the same root of love.
Coming out of the Dark ages with the nascent re-birth of rational, scientific views, some of the teachings and “beliefs” of the Christian Church were questioned and a long-running conflict ensued. In the late 12th century, (Saint) Anselm attempted to construct a scientific proof of the existence of God and bring peace to the growing friction. Beginning in the 13th century, “belief” had a religious sense as things true as a matter of religious doctrine. By the 16th century, “belief” had become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true.” The battle between science and religion seemed endless.
Based on meticulous, long-term observations, Copernicus mathematically justified “the revolution of celestial spheres” which was only mildly opposed by the Church. A generation later, one of the Church’s own Domincan friars, Giordano Bruno, went even further than the heliocentricity of Copernicus and proposed that the sun is probably just another ordinary star among the countless stars and that many, many stars probably have planets, and that some of them must be worlds like ours with intelligent beings like us. Well, this of course, was utterly unacceptable to the mighty Church’s “only begotten son/chosen people” mentality. The Roman Inquisition burned their own open-minded, highly-intelligent and deeply devoted friar at the stake in 1600 and then went after Galileo and Tyche. The backlash was strong: the Church had not enforced its power, but lost potency, suffered great shame, and a peace was invoked.
“Belief”, as we now use it, was born in that early 17th century truce. It was a compromise word, so that the social dialogue around provincial religion and modernist science can agree not to kill each other. “Well, it’s my belief that…” is how we often preface our statements, and even science is “believed” or not.
But this only dances around a faux armistice while the war goes on. We need to take the next step out of the conflict. We need to understand our error thoroughly and gracefully grow in the understanding that is already at peace.
“Belief” holds its social gravity because it is how two words are usually translated: the Biblical Greek pistis (and all of its linguistic variations) and also the Church Latin credo (with all of it Romantic extensions).
Let us start with the Greek pistis. We need to look no further that John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in him so not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Pistis is also translated as “faith”, as in Matthew 6:30: “If God clothes the fields today (even if tomorrow the grasses are thrown into a furnace), thus He will clothe you, will He not? O you of little faith.”
Upon the vast tree of language, pistis and “faith/fidelity” interestingly share the same deep, Proto-Indo-Euro root bheid, “to be awake/aware” (also root of “Buddha”). But “belief” and “faith” are poor (or narrow) translations of pistis. The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon reveals that pistis is used to indicate “trust in others, the feeling of assurance, confidence, good faith, and honesty”. An aware, honest sense of trust is the dominant meaning conveyed by pistis. [There are many, many uses of pistis (tr. as “faith” and “belief”) in the Christian scripture that can be re-appreciated and even re-translated into this deeper trust and confident awareness.] Pistis is not the suspension of discernment but the assurance that comes with glimpsing what is not limited by time.
In ancient Greece Pistis was a spirit, a personification of trust, faith, and reliability. Because people need/use images, parables, and stories to support their understanding, it was said that the spirit Pistis surrounded and aided honest and harmonious people—along with her companions Elpis (Hope), Sophrosyne (Temperance), and Charites (the Graces). (Pistis’ Roman equivalent was Fides, Fidelity, Faith).
The Latin credo is also translated as “I believe”. We need to look no further than the refrain of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; We believe in Jesus Anointed, having the same Being as the Father ...” Worthy to note is that credo has a deep root in the Proto-Indo-Euro, kerd-dhe, “to put one’s heart” (into something). Kerd can be heard in the Greek word for heart, kardia; in the Latin word for heart, core; in the Sanskrit, hri-dayam; and in the Germanic herz and the English heart. “Believe” and “creed”, like love and heart, are obviously related.
It was the war between religion and science that twisted the Church Latin credo and the original pistis into “faith” and “belief” and “belief” into something for which there is no proof. And that twist of abstraction gave us orthodoxy (with its repression) and the privatization of understanding—even as its bent took away the deeper meaning of real trust.
Pistis used to mean “trust in absolute or fundamental reality, trust in supreme being, trust in the divine beauty”, and among the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), “trust in God”.
Faith conveyed a “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty”. “Keep good faith” has been common advice for centuries. Faith, as cognate of Latin fides, also took on its religious sense beginning in 14 century. And by the 17th century, “belief” was reduced to the un-provable conviction and “faith” was your confidence in God and your church. Science marched forward and gained power, but abstraction’s weakness in alienation and manipulation was regularly met by emotional “great awakenings”. The incompleteness of science and the immaturity of official churches caused the war to rage on.
“Belief” was cast as a mockery upon the stage of modernity’s flatland. In Through the Looking-Glass the White Queen says, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." All beliefs would soon be explained as a compensation for psychological immaturity. Certainly this can be true. But while early understanding has serious developmental and provincial limitations, there is truth conveyed by all the religions and a simple relationship to these provincial frameworks of truth helps us grow (and maintain social stability).
Mature consideration of the nature of language, thought, and understanding is rare and it is obvious that beliefs serve a great function in providing basic wisdoms for good-hearted people. Of course in a single world of one very large family, different ways of living and looking at realities will take a bit of time; this we have noticed.
The integration of science and religion is not only possible; it is the next step we are taking. Have you heard the good news? Everything is a form of light. You just have to change your way of looking at things and suddenly the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
By the 20th century dominance of scientific everyman/woman, our fundamental reality was pushed from the outer world to inwardness and psychology. Personal opinion was now sacrosanct along with personal beliefs. But it is commonly said, “opinions are like assholes, every body has one”. Suddenly, the privatization of beliefs and opinion reduces what is deeply useful to the heart to the level of feces. Being reduced to provincial beliefs can stink up our sense of our deepest reality.
Perhaps that is too harsh. After all, millions of people get great solace and wisdom from their beliefs. That is good and carries great truth, but the problems begin when we bring what is true and wonderful from the personal to the widely shared. The provinces have blossomed beyond their origins into a new world, but are having a hard time adjusting their language of absolutes with others. Poignantly, we must hear and heed the call of the prophets and not demand our provincial interpretation be the only face or name of the faceless and nameless divinity.
Intuiting the unconditional foundation of all conditions, we can understand that human knowledge is forever small compared to the whole of reality, and trust in what is beyond all human understanding, in what is unlimited, unconditional, wholly foundational, most real. We can humbly align ourselves to the truth we glimpse in scientific revelation as well as in sacred words from every province. Right action, right practice, or orthopraxy is how we align ourselves to the fullest truth, not the “straight opinion” or orthodoxy of belief. We must understand scripture in depth, not just believe it: that is how we show its truth. We walk the walk, not just talk the talk. To fully understand love, we must not only be loved, we must actively love. Therefore, to merely “believe” in scripture is, at depth, a heresy.
There are positive uses and implications in the word “belief”. It does suggest the engaged trust of pistis, not just orthodoxy. “Belief” is oriented to the feeling core or creed, rather than the abstraction of knowledge. “Belief” intimates the trust in what is beyond knowledge or human understanding, and affords a rightful humility. And however powerful and responsible we may grow to be, reality is unlimited and unfathomable at last. “Belief” suggests that self-knowledge and ‘divine’ appreciation.
But unless we are specific and intentional in the use of the word “belief”, the stink of orthodoxy creeps in like the flatulence of the common arrogance.
In ancient Hellas, it was observed that there were two ways to interpret sacred story. The demotiki, or common people, took the stories to have literal truth, but the sophisticated knew the stories in their ouranos (heavenly), metaphorical sense. Accordingly, two methods of understanding were appreciated: mythos and logos, story and reason.
Now there are many ways in which reason has surpassed and bested myth, story, and legend. But we must also appreciate that there are times when a story best conveys an idea, and is able to convey it widely. Beyond the aetiological or explanatory myths, mythos provides understanding of the human situation in two very useful ways. One, mythos intimates the invisible dimension of reality where the spirit of the individual’s behavior, reciprocity, and prayerful intention show mysterious intercourse. Two, mythos provides a primary psychology. From Oedipus and Electra to Narcissus and Psyche, from King Midas and Medusa to the stages of Dionysus, deep human issues are given a framework for understanding and growth.
In the ouranos light, logos appreciates mythos, and sees how both mythos and logos are useful to understanding and have overlapping domains of influence. For instance: it is thoroughly logical to love all the time, but how’s that going for you? What is more helpful than reasonable abstraction is to understand our primary psychology, especially those depicted in mythos. See how you are self-possessed and self-fascinated like Narcissus, or act out unconscious patterns because of your father and mother, O Oedipus and Electra. Do you confuse the happiness of things with the happiness of relationship like Midas? Or does your hubris transform even your beauty into a head of snakes? Will your Psyche trust Love at last and drink Zeus’ immortal ambrosia? Mythos trumps Logos in usefulness in places.
But even the demotiki, the common people who operated in the concrete/literal sense, did not “believe” the mythos to be so true that another version of the telling was wrong. Many versions of the same myth did not indicate falsity, but subtlety. (Look at the ancient Hebrews and their five stories of creation in Genesis.) Stories were indicators, reflections, a way to sufficiently understand so that you may live rightly; mythos was neither fact nor proposals to be merely believed. The point is right living, not right opinion. You learn this by right living, not by thinking about the rulebook. Even the demotiki knew this in the ancient world.
But today, the scientific framework has so thoroughly destroyed the credulity of mythos that now logic is the only path to truth. “That’s a myth” means “it’s not true.” Certainly, logos participates in reality, but so does mythos. And while logos is superior in many ways, there are places where mythos helps us better and we can come to a renewed appreciation of the functions of myth, such as proposed by Joseph Campbell and the like.
But more importantly, we must discern where (and how) logos is useful, where (and how) mythos is useful; where we think and ponder and where we trust our gut; where we formulate knowledge and where we stand in awe. Let us jettison “belief” from the precinct of our deep knowledge and sacred intuition and turn from this error of private belief to our single human family with its world of wisdom.
Our use of the word “belief” and “believe” must be tempered and made conscious. Instead of “my beliefs”, we can say, “It is my understanding…” Or where it fits, “belief” can be replaced with “trust” or “faith”. I can still believe in my students and fellows, have faith that they will persevere in growing beyond themselves in tolerance and cooperation, open-mindedness and mutual appreciation. I believe we can grow beyond orthodoxy to right practice, and I understand that change is the real truth.
We can exit whatever cul-de-sac we are in and turn every sword in the war between science and religion into a plowshare. We don’t believe in divine beauty; we stand in awe of beauty and the unconditional reality, through all of its conditional forms; and we trust in that which we behold.