On Christian ‘belief’

Posted on January 7, 2008

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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.

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