On Christian ‘belief’

Various folks commented in response to the two posts I managed to put up during Christmas travels, suggesting that a properly Christian account of ‘belief’ implied rather more than I had implied or allowed for. I am aware of this, of course, but probably should have been clearer that I was. The best analysis (as almost always…) comes from the scholastics: ‘belief’ is to be divided into three parts: notitia (‘knowledge’); assensus (‘agreement’); and fiducia (‘commitment’ or ‘trust’). To ‘believe’ in the gospel is, simultaneously, to know the claims of the gospel, to agree that they are true, and to stake one’s life upon them.

My problem is that I don’t think that anyone asking the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ in modern Britain has any of that analysis even subconsciously in mind. They are asking for an affirmation or denial of the factual veracity of a hazily-formed and unanalyzed proposition–in scholastic terms, assensus without notitia or fiducia. And I think that, in sheerly missional terms, this is a problem for us. Take a look at this, rather heart-warming, press comment; the writer records an entirely positive (for her…) experience of church-attendance, and even implies a certain wistfulness that she feels excluded from more active and regular involvement in her local Christian community, on the basis that she ‘doesn’t believe in God’.

This is not uncommon, in my experience. (I acknowledge that it may be rather peculiarly British, or even English: unlike the French in particular, our atheism was always tinged with regret, as Mathew Arnold discovered looking at Dover Beach.) If we could get away from the ill-formed and unhelpful ‘Do you believe in God?’ question, people like Vikki Woods might be given the chance to discover in Christian community what Christian ‘belief’ really means.

4 Comments

  1. Jim Gordon
    Jan 7, 2008

    I am completely at one with you in this post Steve. And the appeal to the scholastics enables you to pinpoint a missional problem with a precision usually lacking in missiological theology and praxis, and even more in some contemporary forms of evangelistic introduction by franchised programme. The pastoral responsibility of the church to those who don’t believe because they don’t know what to believe, or don’t know what they don’t believe! – is itself a form of evangelism waiting to be embodied in welcoming communities prepared to become kenotic in their hospitality to the stranger.

  2. Steve H
    Jan 8, 2008

    Thanks Jim.
    ‘evangelistic introduction by franchised programme’–great phrase!

  3. Aric Clark
    Jan 10, 2008

    People, at least in the US, certainly do NOT have this subtle complex understanding of what belief is when they ask such questions. On this front Dawkins and friends are quite right to criticize because when a majority of Christians in this country say ‘I believe in God’ they mean merely I give cognitive assent to the empirical existence of God.

    Of course, I still think cognitive assent is important. As a person who enjoys theology and tries to exercise reason I would only be interested in confessing and worshiping a God who I could also rationally appreciate.

    Nice blog. I’m glad to have found it.

  4. Steve H
    Jan 11, 2008

    Welcome, Aric, and thank you for the kind comment.

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