Faith vs. Belief

By Jeremy Fackenthal

photo courtesy of Saquan via C.C. License at FlickrHarvey Cox, emeritus professor of religion at Harvard and author of The Secular City, has recently released his latest book, The Future of Faith.  The Future of Faith provides a critical analysis of Christianity's reliance on "belief" as opposed to "faith," and points hopefully toward a future in which many of the world's religions -- not just Christianity -- are moving toward a more "spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking" focus.  Cox makes use of numerous anecdotes from his long career, making the book an interesting and accessible read.  His arguments are clear, and I find myself agreeing with most of his conclusions, though I also hope to raise some questions along the way.

In the first chapter, "An Age of the Spirit," Cox divides Christian history into three periods: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and an emerging Age of the Spirit.  While he recognizes that history never fits neatly into clearly defined pieces, he argues that Christianity moved from an early church focus on following "the way" to a more creedal, imperialistic form of Christianity that followed from Constantine's "conversion."   

Now, he writes, we are moving into an Age of the Spirit -- away from hierarchical, creedal, belief-based religion and toward a time when "faith as a way of life or a guiding compass has once again begun, as it did [in the Age of Faith], to identity what it means to be a Christian.  The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it" (pp. 19-20).

His thesis is based on Tillich's understanding of the difference between faith and belief.  Here, as with Tillich, faith is the state of being ultimately concerned -- it is "about deep-seated confidence" (p. 3) -- while belief is likened to opinion.  In his second chapter, Cox writes that faith begins with a sense of awe -- of wonder and fear that we feel toward the mystery of the universe, the self, and the other.  Faith, however, does not simply correspond to mystery, but is "a basic posture toward the mystery, and it comes in an infinite variety of forms" (p. 35).

This differentiation between faith and belief arises again and again throughout Cox's book and, as I will mention, raises some significant questions about the role of creeds in Christianity today.  I strongly agree with Cox that a deep-seated faith, rather than a collection of opinions (which he likens to belief) is what shapes our interaction with and understanding of the world, including our relations to those around us.  Yet, can we honestly categorize all creedal traditions of today as simply holding on to a collection of opinions, or rather can't these creeds themselves serve as a framework (and not a rigid dogmatic statement) for religious reflection out of which action and engagement can indeed occur?

Watch a video interview of Harvey Cox on the Big Questions of Faith here.


This article is reprinted with permission from the blog at Transforming

Jeremy Fackenthal is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University in the Philosophy of Religion and Theology. He is interested in Jewish-Christian relations, process philosophy and theology, and post-structuralism. He addresses issues around the importance of theology for the church today and blogs regularly for the Transforming Theology Project.

11/17/2009 5:00:00 AM