Belief-in, belief-that and faith — Kierkegaard and Where's Wally?;

Søren Kierkegaard
One of the last lengthy, valuable and in depth conversations I had with my friend the philosopher of religion, Jonathan Harrison, before he died earlier this year was about faith. He always wanted to make a distinction between faith and belief and felt I didn’t talk enough about faith. In fact I agreed with him on this point but, I told him, the reason I didn’t speak about it was that I wasn’t sufficiently clear about what was meant by the words “belief” and “faith”.

In terms of his own thinking about belief Jonathan was very influenced by his teacher at Oxford University during the late 1940s, a certain H. H. Price (1899-1984) who was at the time the Wykeham Professor of Logic. In so far as his work is still remembered, Price’s “best known” works were his 1969 Gifford Lectures collected together in a book called “Belief”. Jonathan would often point me towards a distinction Price made between “belief-in” and “belief-that”.
Wally being painted by Martin Handford 

Price thought belief-in was not empirical. That is to say belief-in was not based on the guidance of external evidence but was, instead, something like an inner conviction. A good, everyday example of this is the belief a parent might have in their child. John Byrne, writing on critical thinking for medical practitioners notes, “People can believe-in their children, meaning that they always consider them to be truly good people (even if their children have not demonstrated such qualities outwardly).” Byrne also adds these helpful examples of “belief-in”:

“People can believe-in an idea (such as democracy) without empirical evidence. One can believe-in a god or other supernatural forces even while acknowledging that such things may never, or could never, be proven. Most of us believe-in human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech. Many believe-in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.” 

“Belief-that”, however, is a very different animal. Byrne, again following Price, writes:

“Belief-thats can have measurable degrees of uncertainty. [So, for example] A meteorologist can believe that there will be a 70% chance of rain on Tuesday, based on observable facts today and applying scientific theory to come up with a prediction. When scientists use the words “believe” and “belief”, they are likely referring to believe-that and belief-that.”

Now, whilst it is impossible ever to be wholly free from some kind of belief-in, given the nature of this skeptical church tradition with it’s long commitment to the natural sciences, most of us here, when we use the word “belief”, are going to be using it primarily as “belief that” and we really should hold this in mind. I realise that to some this may seem overly technical and complicated but, as Price himself said,

“It is not trivial. Religious belief whether we like it or not is quite an important phenomenon. Those who have no religious belief themselves should still try to understand what kind of an attitude it is and they cannot hope to understand it unless they pay some attention to what is said by those who do have it.”

Living in an age when belief-in is coming back very much into play, whether it is the kind of belief-in of religious fundamentalists (of whatever religious flavour) or the kind of belief-in that is, for example, driving so much of the current murky politics concerning immigration or our involvement with, say, the European Union, we are becoming increasingly and acutely aware that this is not a trivial issue at all.

So let’s now turn to consider faith. However, this is not a turn that can be made without difficulty. This is primarily because most of us, coming from a generally Christian culture, tend to think of “faith” in terms of the famous passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews from which you heard an extract earlier and this text has come to be understood by most Christians — and Christian secular culture — as being belief-in something.

So, when the author of Hebrews said that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” the conventional Christian (theistic) believer will believe this refers to a list of propositions about those unseen things that they believe-in. Here’s an example of a typical list — I’ll just read the first four of eleven propositions of the things believed in (that cannot be seen) which are found in the Statement of Faith presented by the Cambridge University Inter Collegiate Christian Union (CUICCU):

We believe in:

  • The unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.
  • The sovereignty of God in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  • The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
  • The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  • etc. etc.

In this context notice that the word “faith” (remember it's supposed to be a statement of faith) "is clearly being used as a synonym for “belief-in” these propositions about unseen things, things which can be recited and listed and posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt.

But, despite this common usage, is “faith” just a synonym for “belief-in” and is this really the insight the author of Hebrews was trying to pass on to us? Jonathan would certainly say no. Well, we can only have a hope of teasing out some kind of satisfactory answer if we can see that faith is something different from belief. The question is pressing upon me once again because the difference between belief and faith is so important to J. L. Schellenberg’s work to which I’ve started introducing you in recent weeks.

Serendipitously, just a yesterday morning my friend, the philosopher Ed Mooney, read a paper at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Diego at a session on Kierkegaard. His paper is a very accessible and moving piece which draws on his book “Excursions with Kierkegaard” and in it he asks, what is faith? Given the fact that “faith” is so often misunderstood as “belief-in” we can see why he begins by telling us the following story:

“Let’s say we overhear a conversation about religious believers. The gist is that persons of faith are victims of massive self-deception. “Faith offers beautiful beliefs. God is perfect goodness; he grants forgiveness, and immortality. These are pipe-dreams, lovely thoughts, but nonsense.” The chatter continues: “There’s a simple reason why believers don’t see the nonsense of their lovely beliefs. They shield against the realties of cruelty, suffering, and death. The believer,” we’re happy to learn, “clings to these lovelies to blot out what are really ugly facts of life.” In some corner of consciousness, the believer, it seems, knows death is final, and only half-believes that God exists, and half-believes that God’s at fault for letting evil and injustice win. The believer, we’re told, is in the sad business of manipulating her belief as part of a massive cover up” (From It’s Impossible: Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith can’t be self-deceptive by Edward F. Mooney).

Whenever faith is understood like this, as part of a massive cover up, it is no surprise that in a place like this we get mighty nervous about using the word. It was this concern that certainly stopped me from talking about faith and which ultimately triggered Jonathan’s probing comment. But there is another way to understand what faith is and here’s a story that Ed uses to bring it out:

“Imagine a moment in ice dancing when the male releases his partner, throwing her into a leap (or letting her leap?) – and then watching as she lands. Or stumbles. If she falls, she does not return. But he has faith he will get her back. She spins full circle, and drifts back into her partner’s arms. Faith is the openness to contingency of an initial leap and trust in abiding this initial loss and separation – one trustingly awaits her return, assured one will gracefully get her back. Faith is action and release, and receptivity to the gift of return.”

The dancer has faith (it's somewhat like they "believe-that") the partner they have just thrown into a leap will come back into their arms.

Following Kierkegaard, Ed points out then, that faith is a double movement, namely, that “of giving up and getting back”. As he says:

“For the ballet dancer, it’s the leap up (resigning the security of the floor, letting go) and the trust that a safe landing awaits (she’ll get the oak-floor security back, transformed).  The dancer leaps with composure and courage and lands with openness and trust. Trust refuses to let the possibility of disaster have the last word. . . . Faith is rich in ways of moving and being, of giving up and getting back.”

So to “track faith” — that is to find out what it is and to find out if Jonathan was right to encourage me to talk about it more often — I/we need to look around us for this double movement. We see it, Ed suggests, when we “look for love, unflappable assurance and steadiness of purpose, for courage”, for “vulnerability and humility” and always noting “the absence of self-righteousness or of shouting truth from the rooftops.” He also suggests we should keep an eye open for “the modesty of Socratic ignorance.” Ed concludes by saying:

“If it didn’t sound like a patter song, I say we find character, carriage, comportment, and composure — with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.” 

You can see that Ed’s patter song of c-words is very different from the list of propositions presented by the statement proposed by the letter “c” heavy CUICCU. Whilst you can post statements like CUICCU's on a door or website or print it in red on a white shirt you can’t do this with a steady hand or a leap’s graceful descent because faith “concerns the marvellous movements, the ups and downs, of ways of being and becoming.” These are always living, new and changing things unique to this or that situation and person.

It should also be clear that the life of faith is a multifarious thing. It’s not only one narrowly defined thing — like that delineated by any kind of belief-in statements — instead it is a truly rich, moving, lively and incredibly plural phenomenon.

Herein lies, I think the wit of the cartoon strip below — click on the picture to enlarge it. (Source found here).


As I’m sure you know the “Where's Wally?” series of children's books by Martin Handford which challenge the reader to find a character named Wally who is hidden in picture along with hundreds of other characters. Of course, Handford uses all kinds of visual tricks to hide Wally but, in the end, Wally's very distinctive red-and-white-striped shirt, bobble hat, and glasses make him easy to recognise.

Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith”, on the other hand, is in some senses, much harder to recognise because he or she doesn’t a distinctive wear red-and-white striped shirt (which stands here as a kind as a visual equivalent to a list of propositions to believe in which can publicly be posted up somewhere). No, the Knight of Faith displays their faith very differently, namely in their steady hand and graceful leap, in their character, carriage, comportment, and composure, all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.

Faith understood this way can, in principle, be found in everyone everywhere — the Knight of Faith is, potentially anyway, everyone and everywhere. The knight can be the mother, the father, the shopkeeper, the train driver, the checkout assistant, the airline pilot, the engineer, the mathematician, poet, the dancer, musician, teacher, chemist, biologist, physicist secretary, footballer, doctor, librarian, translator, philosopher and even, at times, ministers of religion. It can, of course, also be found in Christian. Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist and Humanist alike.

In the cartoon the difficulty of spotting the Knight of Faith is humorously revealed. He and she is there to find but only when we look well and hard enough through the double movement of faith — something beautifully and movingly displayed by so many people in their everyday lives.

I have a feeling that this might be one way of interpreting what the author of Hebrews may have been pointing to in the last two verses of Chapter 11. Once upon a time we were promised easily recognisable things — simply theological propositions to believe-in. But the faithful are promised something better, far better. Might he not be gesturing towards the phenomenon that through the double movement of faith — of giving up and getting back — people gracefully receive the only life that can truly be their own, one that comes with a steady hand and graceful leap, character, carriage, comportment, and composure all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment?

I imagine most members of CICCU will say to me that I am wrong in this and say that belief-in is the "something better". But that’s OK. Each to their own and I bear no-one any ill-will as long as their belief-in is not imposed forcibly upon me or anyone else.

But, as for me, I’m interested in finding, and in helping you to find, that “something better”. What we find won’t be able to be posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt because, of course, it can only be expressed through your own faithful double movements “of giving up and getting back” — of trusting that disaster, darkness and failure need not have the last word.

Have faith my friends, have faith.
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