Of all the words that we’ve mangled when describing our relationship with God—and we’ve mangled plenty—none is greater or more tragic than what we’ve done to the word “faith”.
The fault is not entirely ours. Both scripture and church writings properly equate the word “faith” with “belief”. That’s the way the original languages of scripture read. But we haven’t accounted for the transformation the word “belief” has undergone in our modern age. Faith and belief—at least the way we think of believing—are no longer so equivalent.
The word “belief” originated in a world populated by mysteries. Few people in ancient time strayed more than a few miles from the town in which they were born. Stories of forests populated by fairies and talking wolves sprang up because nobody knew what was actually in those woods. They were dangerous places. Why would you go there?
People had a tenuous grasp, at best, on the nature of the universe. The sun rose every morning and set every night but the earth was at the center of the universe. Illnesses were caused by spirits or “humors”. Everything that wasn’t right in front of your face was a mystery, including how it all worked.
In this context, “belief” carried with it connotations of the unknown. When you said you “believed” something you acknowledged forces in the world beyond your control or comprehension. “Believing” there were fairies in the forest was less a personal creed or statement of experience, more an admission that the forest was far bigger than your ability to make sense of and that something was out there making things happen.
As I write this in North America, circa 2019, untouched forests are an endangered species. Not only have we been in the woods, we’ve mastered them and converted them into raw material for production. The idea of fairies or anything in the woods beyond our comprehension seems silly and childish to us.
The sun still rises and sets, but we understand that we’re not the center of the universe anymore. The sun itself is only a peripheral star in a far greater galaxy which is hurtling through space along with billions of other galaxies just like it. We’re sending out probes and missions to some of our nearer celestial neighbors and we can envision a future where we jet through the firmament to any of them we choose.
Illnesses are caused by viruses, bacteria, and germs. Not only can we fight most of them, we’ve developed the skill to cure conditions that our ancestors couldn’t identify and prolong life to triple their life spans.
Mysteries still abound. (The universe is a big place, after all.) But the word “belief” has little relationship to them anymore. Believing in something you can’t prove is seen as a sign of weakness, not a way to make sense of the world. We only want to believe in things that are proven. We insist on demonstrations, studies, and evidence before we’ll invest our belief. If we can’t comprehend it, we won’t believe in it.
Notice that this is the opposite of the old construct. Belief used to be pointed towards things outside the self, things too big to talk about in any other way. Now belief happens inside the mind, not granted until the outside thing has been reduced to a form small enough to fit inside our heads.
Even though the definition of belief has changed radically, we still equate it with faith. This is disastrous.
When we say, “I believe in God” we mean, “I have reduced God to the point that I understand him. I agree with God and godly principles. I hold onto pleasing and easily-digested ‘evidence’ of God’s existence. I have judged God acceptable.” All of these are different ways of claiming that God fits within our own minds and that believing in him is a personal, internal choice.
How can any of that possibly apply to the Lord of the Universe who stretches to infinity, beyond every sphere that we’ve ever dreamed of? We will never, ever understand God by sitting in judgment over him. The “god” we end up with will be a pale imitation of ourselves…idolatry in its purest form.
How ironic is it that when we say, “I believe” we’re actually committing the worst slander against God possible?
Next Time—Redefining faith to make it more faithful.