Long Reads

On believing and ‘really believing’

When Slavoj Zizek leads you to ponder the centuries old question of faith and works.

This morning I read Zizek’s new article on the Independent, where he affirms: “We no longer ‘really believe’ religion but more of us follow its rituals than ever before because of ‘culture’.” and, “This is how ideology works in our cynical era: we don’t have to believe in it. Nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corruption, but we practice them – in other words, we display our belief in them – because we assume they work even if we do not believe in them”. Zizek is a known provocateur, and, as I assume it was intended, his text provoked me to think about a lot of things at the same time, and to write this. My intention here is not to respond to his article or to his point about Marx’ insights, but to take his article as a starting point and dissect what I understand belief to be, and how, as a religious person in this post-Christian society, I navigate the dynamics of belief.

My first question is what it means to believe. Zizek says that we are aware of the corruption of democracy and justice, which is something I question: did we give up on justice and democracy or have we simply realized that our electoral and judicial systems are not democratic and not just? Yet, he says we still practice them, displaying our belief, despite our unbelief. In my understanding, that practice shows we do, indeed, take justice and democracy seriously, regardless of our intellectual assent to their absence in our constitutions, courts, and ballots. We do the best we can with what we have, and maybe we have only given up on having institutions that embody these principles, not on the principles themselves.

Zizek brings this to the realm of religion, as the parallels of the ambiguity of belief are present in Christianity from the beginning, Christianity being the main tradition that informs our notions of religion and culture in the West.

In the famous Sermon of the Mount in the Gospel of St Matthew, where Jesus supposedly taught his largest audience about the coming Kingdom of God, he ends his teaching with these words:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Mt 7:21-27 NRSV)

However, seemingly in contradiction, the Apostle Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rm 10:9)

When Paul says “believe in your heart”, the verb used is the same as to have faith, coming from the word pistis  (Πίστις). One could argue this contradiction is only superficial since this verse, in context, is making a point about how God’s salvation extends beyond the people of Israel by means of faith, rather than compliance to the Torah. However, this verse is still used today as a quick answer to what it means to be a Christian, while the Matthew passage is largely disregarded, and this is worth some attention.

Pistis as a concept meant trust, but it was also a rhetorical term for, broadly speaking, convincing someone of something through argumentation and logic. Paul had a Greek education and was versed in rhetoric, so it is very possible that he understood pistis to mean being convinced of something, an intellectual assent. This seems to be the case since the object of faith in this verse is not the person of Jesus, but rather truth claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, or “God raised him from the dead”, which are debatable facts.

Decades later, the writer of the Gospel of St John says that “God gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16 NRSV), which portrays pistis not as a question of debate over a fact, but rather in the sense of personal trust, since the object of faith/belief is Jesus himself, going far beyond intellectual assent.

The Gospel of Matthew is generally accepted to having been written years after Paul’s letter to the Romans. Matthew has a clear focus on action (doing the will of the Father) instead of intellectual assent regarding factuality. Paul’s letters were written to follow up and correct early Christian communities who faced challenges in their Christian practice and doctrine, but Paul himself had never walked with Jesus in flesh. The Gospels were written to preserve the core of Jesus’ teachings, by mature Christian communities who, supposedly, received their teachings from the Apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus. I believe it is right to understand that Paul addressed specific questions of faith and belief for specific communities, but when it comes to the broader Christian faith and practice in all places and times, his teachings should be measured by the standards of the Gospels, not the other way around. I do not think it would be wrong to say, even, that the Gospels correct some misunderstandings that may arise by reading Paul. Still, the Gospels themselves have different perspectives, and early Christian tradition accepted to have this multiplicity of voices in the same Canon. It is no wonder that Christianity has so many branches since its beginning, and the only moments it reached something resembling doctrinal uniformity were by the means of imperial force. The Christian Gospel is naturally multivocal.

Another important text on the question of belief, also written after Paul’s letter to the Romans, which many argue is intentionally correcting any misunderstanding of/from Paul, is from the epistle of St James:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. ” (James 2:14-23)

Here, again, the words for faith and belief are all derivations of pistis. James’ letter seems to be addressing directly the sort of misunderstanding someone would have from reading Paul: that believing a factuality (such as “God is one”) can save you. James is categorical that this sort of faith is meaningless, and what matters is the faith you display through action, or works. He exemplifies this by saying that Abraham believed God, meaning, Abraham trusted God, or, the object of Abraham’s trust was God’s own self, not a factuality about God. When God told Abraham to do something (absurd) Abraham did it because of his trust in the person of God. His action demonstrated his trust, which is something far deeper than intellectual assent. One could argue that in the case of Abraham, this trust was even independent of intellectual assent, as he knew very little about God, and God’s request was absurd, and yet, he was saved through his trust. Another indication of personal trust as opposed to intellectual assent is that Abraham’s salvation is phrased as “he was called the friend of God”: this is relational trust, not being convicted through argumentation.

In other words, what James considers saving faith is your relational trust in God being displayed through action, not your intellectual belief in things about God.

Back to the Matthew passage, Jesus equates damnation with having never known him, even though the damned were saying Jesus is Lord and had used his name by doing miracles, exorcisms, and prophecies. Never knowing someone is the opposite of having relational trust. Jesus answers that it is only those who listen and obey to his words who know him and who will survive the tribulation to come, the great storm. Again, the relational aspect: trust saves, and salvation is intimate knowledge, or friendship.

What are these words we need to obey? This passage in Matthew is the conclusion to the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus says that “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). He is not referring to some future teaching, but to the words he just spoke to the crowds. In other words, taking the Sermon of the Mount seriously is like building your house on the rock, but dismissing it is like building your house on the sand.

But is this not trying to be saved by works, rather than by faith? No. It is faith, but not the intellectual assent of rhetorical faith: it is the personal faith of trusting someone as a friend. The object of faith is not whether or not Jesus died, whether or not he came back from the dead, or whether God is one or three or something in between. It is the person of God whom we meet through Christ. How do we know we trust him? By following his teachings when we hear them. Does it matter what we think, or believe, intellectually, about Jesus? Only inasmuch as it affects the way we follow him.

Going back to Zizek’s point, after this quick exploration on the views of belief in the bible, what does it mean to ‘really believe’ our religion? For a Christian, does it mean being awake at night praying and afraid of hell because we had a sexual thought for someone who is not our husband or wife? Does it mean having the name “JESUS” on a bumper-sticker? Does it mean church attendance? Does it mean baptizing our children and getting married in the church? Does it mean making prophecies and exorcisms and miracles in the name of Jesus? Does it mean saying “Jesus is my Lord” in public? Does it mean thinking that a Galilean rabbi coming back from the dead 2000 years ago is a historical fact? This sort of belief is going up and down throughout the globe.

Or does it mean doing to others as we would have it done to ourselves? Giving the other cheek? Walking an extra mile? Avoiding judgement? Being generous? Forgiving others’ offenses against us? Blessing those who persecute us? Loving, as Jesus loved his disciples? I am not aware of any research that has been able to measure this in statistics, although maybe people’s priorities in their political choices may be a good indicator: is our society choosing money, war, and power, or our neighbors’ well being?

And lastly, are these mutually exclusive? I do not think so. I believe even in our post-Christian society, even without institutions that we could trust, we can still, like Abraham, hear the words of an absurd God as a friend’s invitation for a trusting relationship into the unknown, to be friends to our neighbors and even our enemies, and be called friends of God.

…Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 cor 13:13)

 

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

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