Friday, March 25, 2005

Faith and Belief

I want to personally recommend Harvard theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith's magnum opus Faith and Belief to my secular-minded friends. Smith's major thesis is that faith is wholly distinct from the modern Western conception of belief. The latter term is obvious to Westerners, since it refers to some sort of creedal assent to a set of doctrines or "beliefs" (as in, "I believe in fairies").

But when modern Westerns have linguistically conflated faith with belief, so that the former is merely a synonym for the latter, they lose the original meaning and sense of what faith means in a broad sense in the world's religious traditions.

Faith, Smith argues, is "an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one's neighbor, to the see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension." Faith is something that all religious traditions have in common, despite their varying doctrinal belief systems. In a religious system, faith is more important than a particular set of beliefs, since that is what animates and sustains a religious person. When an Orthodox Jew rises in the morning and recites the Shema, its not the literal rendering of words in Hebrew that matters as much as the act of reciting itself.

With regard to some of the blogs I have read here, it's obvious to me that many of my secular-minded friends fail to grasp this fundamental distinction, and thus reduce religious discourse to some set of creedal formulas, which of course they can make hay with all the logical contradictions and inconsistancies. ("Why would a 'Christian' cheat on his wife if he believed in the threat of eternal damnation? ..." "Christian morality is fixated on an infinite heavenly reward..." "Christians have a 'Get-out-of-jail-free' card with deathbed confessions..." etc.)

Such discourse misses the point of religious symbolism (Heaven, Hell, and yes, even the concept of God itself) entirely. It makes a reductive caricature out of religious practice, an intellectual straw man to demonstrate the superiority of scientific empiricism and logical positivism.

More later...