Faith, Belief and Religion
By Robert Traer
You may order this book online. This brief summary is followed by recommendations.
Talking about religion today is largely an impersonal way of describing how people are religious. Descriptions of religious life that equate objective observations with all the truth we can know may blind us to truths expressed through stories, symbols and rituals. The way we talk about religion in studying and teaching about the religions may make it more difficult to express religious conviction within a community of faith. Learning about religion may make it harder to be religious.
Teaching and writing about the religions is generally impersonal, but this book is personal. It represents my quest for a way to understand my faith, as a Christian and as a student of religious life. It is also personal because it argues that personal language is necessary, if we are to make sense of the language used in the study of religion and the language of faith.
The book begins by looking at how these words are used in two popular works that have been written to educate the general public about religion, the religions, and the wisdom of the religious traditions. Differences are immediately apparent, and thus the reader can see that the key words concerning religious life have a variety of meanings and require careful consideration.
The next three chapters describe in detail the history of each word. The reader will see that faith is a more personal word, meaning trust, and that its use in the Christian Bible has influenced the way that the word is used more broadly in English to refer to a trusting engagement with life. Belief originally had the same meaning as faith, but has come to mean having an opinion about something. If faith suggests a movement of the heart, belief implies a calculation of the mind. Faith is expressed in beliefs, but belief is not faith. Being faithful is a virtue. But "belief-ful" is not even a word.
Religion once meant engagement with the divine. Today religion means the rituals that are used by religious persons. Religion is understood now to refer to a human phenomenon that manifests itself in various religions. Religion can be observed, and religions can be described and compared. Once God was obvious and the existence of God was unquestioned. Now that God is no longer obvious, the existence of religion (and religions) is unquestioned. But religion no longer means engagement with the divine. Religion now refers to the way that people believe they are engaged with the divine. Religion is the word we use to talk about the religious beliefs and rituals of others.
Faith is the word religious people have used to affirm entrusting themselves to the teachers, teachings and divine representations that today we describe as constituting religions. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims affirm faith, stress the importance of faith for religious life, and see faith as essential for salvation or liberation. This can be demonstrated by looking at the teachings of each tradition. Therefore, we may speak intelligibly of Hindu faith, Buddhist faith, Christian faith, Jewish faith, and Muslim faith. In doing so, we acknowledge that there are differences in these forms of faith, but we also see similarities. Moreover, we may discover that discerning the faith of the world's peoples has more meaning for us than describing the religions of the world.
Such discernment opens up new choices. We will avoid phrases such as "the Christian religion" or even "the Christian faith." We will focus on personal meaning rather than on impersonal analysis. We will balance our concern for objectivity with a deep commitment to dialogue. These choices will affect how we speak about religion, how we engage others in the study of religious faith, and how we witness with others to our faith.
N. Bellah, Professor of Sociology, Emeritus
"Robert Traer has written a lively, intelligent, and accessible book (in which he develops) the idea of the great historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, that understanding the meaning of faith in the various religious traditions is the best way to approach them. This moves us away from religion as a set of doctrines or institutions into a sense of the personal, experiential, and practical. The book should have wide appeal."
Dr. John B. Taylor
"Faith, Belief, and Religion is an appealing and lucid introduction for anyone who is challenged socially or theologically by the reality of a world where there are so many, sometimes conflicting, families of faith. It is also a pleasure for a more specialized reader who can savour Robert Traer's patient and precise writing even as he expresses a sense of passion for the supreme importance of his subject. He provides a timely revival of Wilfred Cantwell Smith's careful discussion about the inadequacies of the word 'religion/religions' and gives both epistemological precision and spiritual depth to the words 'belief' and 'faith'. The author's accurate and sensitive exploration of 'faith' in a wide range of religious traditions makes this an admirable teaching tool or basis for group discussion."
S. Wesley Ariarajah
"This book is unique in its genre, and is a remarkable contribution to those who are struggling to make sense of living faithfully in a religiously plural world. In opening up a new sense of purpose to the study of religious traditions it is the most fitting tribute yet to the memory of Wilfred Cantwell Smith."
A Summary of
Faith, Belief and Religion
I took up the study of religion to comprehend the diversity of religious life. Years later, as I taught the world's religions objectively, I discovered that the way I was teaching religion was making it more difficult for me to enter into the religious life of my own faith community. Following the trail blazed by historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, I argue that the personal language of faith offers a way of appreciating both objective observations about religion and subjective religious commitment.
To see how faith, belief and religion are used in describing the religions of the world, I look briefly at Roger Schmidt's Exploring Religion, a popular university textbook, and Huston Smith's The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, containing half the text of Smith's widely read overview of The Religions of Man. Both books present religions as systems of belief. Each presents faith as an aspect of religion. Both books use the word faith to identify an orientation to the world that transcends the beliefs of any particular religious tradition. But Smith presents to the reader "religion alive," whereas Schmidt offers an objective descriptive analysis of religious phenomena. The language of the two books is different and offers the reader different choices.
Religion once meant engagement with the divine. Today it refers to a system of religious belief and ritual practice. In the last four hundred years the idea that human beings engage in religion and have religions has become commonplace. Even cultures that had no word for religion, at least in its modern meaning, are said to have one or more religions. But this language does not allow for the diversity of religious experience and expression even within a religious tradition much less between the religious traditions. Moreover, the emphasis in social science on objectivity makes it hard to "see" the world in the personal way that religious people of faith do. Thus, there are important choices to be made in the way we think and talk about religion, religions and religious faith.
The old meaning of belief was faith. Believing involved a trusting relationship with another person. After the Reformation, however, believing came to mean holding certain ideas. The idea that religious beliefs or opinions are an important part of each religion seems to follow. Scriptures may, therefore, be represented as containing the beliefs that a religious community holds to be true. But a better understanding of scripture allows us to discern that it orders the world for those who read and recite it with faith. And that means some beliefs about scripture and about life are better than others are. The study of religion and religions generally does not encourage inquiry into what beliefs are better and why, but a concern for faithful living raises this question.
Faith means to trust or to be faithful. The Bible is about faith not belief. This is particularly important in understanding what it means in the Bible "to believe," as the English words, faith and belief, share this verb. The New Testament repeatedly uses faith without an object. It would make no sense to say that someone "has belief," but we know what we mean when we say a person "has faith." Having faith is illustrated in the New Testament by parables. Faith is more concerned with living than with having certain beliefs. This notion of faith allows what might be described as a secular form of faith, such as having faith in human rights. It also means faith may have a variety of objects, allowing us to speak of different forms of religious faith. How are we to know what form of faith is true? The New Testament suggests the test for faith is love.
For Hindus faith or sraddha involves a "setting of one's heart." All reality manifests the divine. Faith is the way one responds to that fact. Faith is not the same as having certain beliefs. Faith is necessary to know reality as it actually is, by being one with it. Faith is the first step to realizing "that thou art." Gandhi's life and teachings provide examples of Hindu faith. Faith, in the Hindu tradition, is trusting that reality will reveal itself, if we are willing to look and to listen.
Faith in the Buddhist tradition is an attitude of trust toward one's teacher. This attitude of trust leads one to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Faith involves an act of the will that manifests itself in disciplined practice. Buddhists differ, however, about what sort of practice is necessary to achieve enlightenment or wisdom and about whether faith is merely necessary or is also sufficient. As faith must be awakened within us, faith is not merely an attitude and an act but also a gift. The Buddha, the dharma and the sangha elicit our faith and offer salvation from illusion through ordinary living.
Jewish faith is rooted in a covenant recorded in the Torah between God and the ancient Israelites. Jesus of Nazareth understood his calling through the scriptures of this covenant and knew that being faithful meant trusting in God. Although the church sees Jesus as the foundation of Christian faith, his faith was Jewish. A comparison of two famous Hasidic rebbes demonstrates that the Jewish tradition of faith allows for significant diversity. Jewish faith in the covenant has meant trying to understand the meaning of the persecution of Jews through much of their history. Today Jewish faith struggles with the recent memory of the Holocaust and with division in modern Israel over the meaning of being a chosen people.
Christian faith is rooted in the New Testament teachings of Paul and the gospels. Paul argues that faith makes keeping Jewish law unnecessary, because he experiences the growth of the church among Gentiles. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke write this concept of faith into the stories of Jesus of Nazareth, although the gospel of Matthew also relates that Jesus urged his followers to be faithful to the covenant. The gospel of John relates that Jesus rejected "the Jews" because they did not have faith in him, as the word of God made flesh. In an effort to express the gospel faith in statements of doctrine, Christian churches have affirmed creeds. These are best understood, however, as affirmations of faith rather than as lists of beliefs requiring personal assent. Through the diverse religious life of their churches, Christians witness to their common faith.
The story of Muhammad reveals that Muslim faith involves call, obedience, witness, persecution, struggle, and victory. In Arabic faith is iman and means recognizing and responding to God's call. Muslims are called to bear witness to God, not to hold certain beliefs about God. Faith for Muslims is a personal commitment to the truth revealed by God. The creed that Muslims chant in their prayers is not a statement of belief but a means of submitting to the one God. Muslims affirm that Islam is the "true religion" but acknowledge that Jews and Christians are also called to resist idolatry through faith. The power of Muslim faith to transform life is illustrated by the experiences of Malcolm X, Prince Hassan of Jordan, and President Wahid of Indonesia.
It matters how we talk about faith, belief and religion. Faith is trusting, personal and saving. Faith is the word we use to express what religion means to us. Religions are religious traditions of faith. Religious beliefs are a way of pointing to the life of faith. Our choice, therefore, is not between teaching and talking about religion and the religions or teaching and witnessing to the beliefs required by a particular religious faith. We may engage in "shared inquiry" into the meaning of life for those within one or more religious traditions of faith. This involves responding to the personal meanings that students and teachers bring to the study of religion and faith. Shared inquiry offers a dialogue concerned with making better choices, with understanding and appreciating the worlds created by diverse religious beliefs and practices, and with discerning how faith might turn us toward what is true, just and beautiful.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer