belief and faith (they are not synonyms)

I started reading James Fowler's Stages of Faith, subtitled The Psychology of Human Dvelopment and The Quest for Meaning.  It's very academic, and I've only limped into chapter 3 so far, but I wanted to share an insight of Fowler's that has already made the reading worthwhile to me, and that might be helpful to you as well.

Here we go: belief and faith are not the same thing.

Fowler says that belief is "the holding of certain ideas," and quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith on faith, in contrast:

"Faith is deeper, richer, more personal.  It is engendered by a religious tradition, and in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of a person and not of the system.  It is the orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one's neighbor, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a trascendent dimension."  W. C. Smith, quoted in Stages of Faith

St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, photo: me and my cell phone

St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, photo: me and my cell phone

Fowler's separation of belief and faith is extremely helpful if we are going to be intellectually honest on our spiritual journey.

We need to acknowledge that, as human beings, we just don't know everything.  We like to think that we know everything, but we don't.

How many religious beliefs have proven false over the years?

  • Remember when the church believed that the earth was the center of the entire universe, and excommunicated Galileo for saying otherwise?
  • Remember when the church believed that white people were superior to people of color, proved it with Bible verses, then oppressed, enslaved, and murdered millions of brown people?
  • Remember when the church said it was God's will to vote for... well.  

Let's just accept that humans are prone to error, and in the service of intellectual honesty, it might be helpful to hold our beliefs as spiritual hypotheses rather than absolute truth.

"Based on what I know now, I believe that X is true.  However, if and when new evidence comes to light, I'll adjust my beliefs."

If we can separate our specific beliefs from our higher faith, we can continue to explore the world around us without fear.

If we can't separate specific beliefs from higher faith, when we conflate belief and faith, we're afraid to change beliefs, even when they are proven false.  And we end up with epic cognitive dissonance: we know things that we can't let ourselves know.

When we have cognitive dissonance, then we have emotional turmoil, and when we have emotional turmoil that we can't be honest about, we project that fear and anger out onto other people in the form of Spanish Inquisitions. 

It's happening in our country today, all in the name of "protecting religious freedom."

Those of us who care about justice and mercy, we have to let the revolution of righteousness begin within ourselves. 

We have to be people of rigorous honesty and self-responsibility, so that we don't join the chorus of insanity, baying for the blood of whoever it is that represents our cognitive dissonance to us.

We have to be willing to face the truth and let it set us free, even when we have to say, "I was wrong.  Racism is a thing.  Misogyny is a thing.  Transphobia is a thing.  I was wrong, and I will change."

Because that's really the problem with changing our outdated beliefs: our ego doesn't like it.  We'd rather be arrogantly wrong and let others suffer, than admit we were mistaken.

God help us.

But the reality is this:  we can set our FAITH on higher ground than our specific, often-mistaken beliefs.

Here's what's true for me:


My faith that God is LOVE.

LOVE is the bedrock of my life, my North Star.

I no longer believe many of the things I used to believe. 

But my faith is stronger than ever.

The deep, rich, personal quality of Love within me, oriented with compassion toward myself, my neighbor, the universe? 

That part of me is more open and available than it's ever been.

The ability to respond in Love, to see and handle life with Love, the capacity to live in Love, to see and feel and act in Love in both the mudane and trascendent moments of life? 

That part of me is richer, fuller, deeper than ever before in my life.

Making Love the faith-center of my life has meant that along the way I've had to leave behind specific beliefs that are incongruent with my faith that God is Love. 

  • I've had to drop the belief that my perfect behavior was going to save me and mine.
  • I've had to drop the belief that shame was a good, helpful tool that would keep me in line.
  • I've had to drop the belief that shaming others would make them into better people.
  • I've had to drop the belief that controlling others was my job in life.
  • I've had to drop the belief that God wants to shame and control us into perfection.

No doubt I'm still carrying beliefs that are incongruent with Love.

No doubt I have things left to drop along the way.

But I know that this is true:

every time I trust Love more,

I have more freedom.

I have more beauty.

I have more light.

And all that freedom and peace and beauty and light is well worth the work of changing some mistaken, outdated beliefs along the way.

But don't just take my word for it.

Try it yourself and see!

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