Posted by: shawnjohnston | September 12, 2007

Belief & Faith: Synonyms or Opposites?

Like so many terms and notions in spiritual contexts, the terms Belief and Faith have become incredibly skewed. Belief has come to mean to be committed to an idea or notion to a degree where we would willingly defend it, but do not technically “know” it to be true. Faith has come to mean blind submission to doctrine and dogma as true, even though we have no possible way of “knowing” it to be true. This couldn’t be further from the truth of what these terms actually mean.

In the US, to use them as an example, over 90% of the population (from a recent poll I read) “believes that God exists”. Whereas to some this may indicate the profound religious convictions of a vast majority of a country’s people, it says something entirely different to me. It is my opinion that in today’s culture we have been told and sold on the idea that we can do and be and have whatever we want. That all things are possible for us. Consequently that has lead to the false idea that we can also “believe” in whatever we want, and that that belief is by default true, or at least true to us. I can believe my toaster is a water buffalo, but it’s still going to toast bread and it most definitely will never moo. The high numbers of believers in the US (a shining example of Western Lifestyle where rampant consumerism and materialism are the norm) indicates to me that the belief in God has become a part of being American and has little to do anymore with actually being religious minded. It’s a catch phrase rather than a spiritual conviction.

So what then is belief? Belief used to mean “trust in God,” while faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty” (a sense preserved in keep one’s faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of the Latin “fides“, took on the religious sense beginning in the 14th century translations, and belief had by the 16th century become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true.” In essence faith and belief are the same thing, with different overtones.

So if belief is the acceptance of something as true, then is a belief then in fact something we develop on our own, or is it something presented to us for our consideration? And on what faculty or evidence do we make this determination?

Enter Faith. Thomas Merton had the following to say of the notion of faith:

The mind of man is, by its very nature, a participation in the intelligence of God, Whose light illumines the conclusions of rational discourse. Words can be sadly mistreated and misused; but they could not be false if they could not also be true. Language may become a suspicious instrument on the tongues of fools and charlatans, but language as such retains its power to signify and communicate the Truth.
Faith, without depending on reason for the slightest shred of justification, never contradicts reason and remains ever reasonable. Faith does not destroy reason, but fulfills it. Nevertheless, there must always remain a delicate balance between the two. Two extremes are to be avoided: credulity and skepticism; superstition and rationalism.
If this balance is upset, if man relies too much on his five senses and on his reason when faith should be his teacher, then he enters into illusion. Or when, in defiance of reason, he gives the assent of his faith to a fallible authority, then too he falls into illusion. Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.
It is absolutely impossible for a man to live without some kind of faith. Faith, in the broadest sense, is the acceptance of truth on the evidence of another. The essence of all faith is the submission of our judgment to the authority of someone else, on whose word we accept a truth that is not intrinsically evident in our own minds. Human or natural faith is the acceptance of truths on the authority of other men. Supernatural faith is the belief in truths revealed by God, on the testimony of God, and because of the authority of God Who reveals these truths to us.

Even atheists take their beliefs on faith, since as they hold, we believers cannot prove that God exists, so too must the reverse be true. Faith is not the blind submission to doctrine and dogma that it has come to represent. We take things on faith everyday. Every time we buy a product because a commercial has told us that it’s the latest and greatest. Ever found yourself saying “I heard this is really good” but in the back of your mind you know that I heard = I saw a commercial that grabbed my attention or I really like the packaging? And this is the root of what Merton is speaking about…we’ve given up our ability to reason. Is it reasonable to take the words of someone trying to profit from our buying practices entirely on faith and to swallow them as true? Absolutely not. But we do it everyday.

So why then, in terms of religion and spirituality, do we find it so hard to do? What about religion and spirituality makes us reject it so casually? It is my opinion that it is what comes with it that is truly the issue. All religion/spirituality requires things from us, that we are not prepared through our mindless need to satisfy our every desire and want to give up. Even the most PR friendly religion, Buddhism, complete with the peace-filled and ambivalent smile of the Dalai Lama, requires us to live a certain way. But to treat everyone we meet with grace and compassion and loving kindness, to protect the Earth, to help those in need would require us to set our own whims and desires aside for the needs of another. Religion demands that we shift our perception from selfish narcissistic materialism to holistic compassion for all sentient beings and the benefit of the community. I consider it one of the greatest travesties of our time that the idea of giving up our Starbucks and SUVs to give rather than take is greeted with such knee-jerk and absolute rejection.

We’ve become a generation of children who refuse to eat our vegetables based on nothing more concrete than we think they are yucky. If we would just try them we would be introduced to a world of wonderful flavour, health and dimension. If we would just trust what our elders are trying to impart to us backed with 2000+ years of religious and spiritual exploration, experience and revelation, we too could enjoy a life far more fulfilling than mindless grubbing for material trappings. Even the Dalai Lama, the world’s greatest spokesman, encourages everyone to partake and participate actively in some form of religious tradition.

Never has human kind lived in an age where information is so accessible, ideas so prevalent, and open acceptance of traditional and non-traditional notions so complete. And yet, never has human kind been so completely absorbed with ourselves. Global warming, poverty, slavery, child soldiers, hunger, social inequity, disease epidemics, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, religious intolerance and fundamentalism could all be countered and abolished completely if we would just try our vegetables.

So, care for some broccoli?

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