Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Belief

The latest survey of religious belief in Britain looks to be the usual muddle of the obvious, the mildly surprising and the probably meaningless. Here's a question: What does it mean to believe in God? In English, the construction 'believe in' has two distinct meanings. If I say I believe in democracy or free speech, I am not concurring in the existence of those things, but rather expressing a mental/moral/spiritual alignment, a solidarity, an aspiration. Whereas if I say I believe in fairies or the Loch Ness Monster, I am saying simply that I believe such things exist. It seems to me that to express belief in God is to use the word in the first of these meanings rather than the second. And this must have been even more the case in biblical times and antiquity, when the mere existence of God/ a god/ gods was taken for granted. When Jesus used the construction, 'Those who believe in me will live even though they die', he certainly didn't mean those who believed he existed - he was after all standing in front of them.

13 comments:

  1. Found that a bit confusing Nige. Surely believing in democracy or free speech means you think these concepts are a good idea. So you are suggesting that belief in God means that one thinks God is a good idea - something to be supported like a good cause? Surely belief in God is of the second order in your two definitions i.e. that you believe in his existence? Gordon Bennett - this could run and run!

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  2. Replies
    1. Yes, if that particular Jewish teacher did ever make that remark he surely referred to belief in him as speaking with the authority vested in him by Yahweh, that is belief in the second sense. Most people who say they believe in god mean it in both senses, though interestingly there have been some who believe only in the second sense, disapproving of, or hating, god, for obvious reasons. Happily there are many of us who take a natural view of things and believe in neither sense.

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  3. Is that belief in the second sense? Not exactly, I'd have thought... I agree that most Xtians probably believe in both senses, but I'm not sure the second sense is essential, and the problem is that now it seems to have gained precedence over the first, to the point where it's become the only sense of 'belief' and the crux of the matter. This is surely wrong, esp as the statement 'God exists' is something like an oxymoron.

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  4. PS: You seem to have reached some pretty firm conclusions in this area!

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  5. Another string to your bow, Nige - theologian too! So God appears to conflict with 'to exist' in the definition of an oxymoron? Why's that? I'm still genuinely confused. Doesn't God exist?

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  6. Or perhaps God holds all in existence so cannot be said to exist?

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  7. Well, let's see... A transcendent God can't be said to exist, as an entity among other entities, or even as an entity standing outside His creation. As someone put it, God plus the Universe doesn't add up to two. The strictly non-existing God can be seen rather as the ground of all being, that which makes being itself possible. Or, to come at it from a slightly different angle and more pithily, 'Dieu n'existe pas puisqu'il est eternel' (as some French sage put it). Now I must go for a lie down...

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  8. Goodness! You are a theologian. It's all fallen into place now. Very interesting. I like the phrase "ground of our being". Isn't there a third meaning of belief - to have faith in someone's promises - to trust them? Isn't that what Jesus meant also in the words you quote?

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  9. Yes, exactly - a word of wide meaning, and it all gets narrowed down to a tick-box question: Do you believe in the existence of God? Tick Yes and you're a Believer, tick No and you're an Atheist...

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