Faith is a commitment to be in the conversation; beliefs are the content of the conversation.
I owe this insight to Catherine Keller and her book On The Mystery, which I have been devouring as of late. Differentiating between faith and belief has always been of interest to me, I think because “belief” seems like it has hard edges, places of inclusion and exclusion, where faith seems like something softer, something… shared. Maybe something that is at once both harder and easier to do than to try to force oneself to believe all the “stuff” of whatever religion, or non-religion, one is a part of.
I have never been very good at belief, and for a long time, I thought that meant I was also bad at faith, too. Things that seemed so easy for other Christians, other seminary students, other pastors – things like saying the creeds, making assertions about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Things that are ostensibly supposed to be easy for a Christian clergyperson. They have always been valuable to me, but never easy. I’m just not good at believing things – even things I can see with my own two eyes. It’s like there’s always a space in me that insists, “Well, I could be wrong…” and the chances of me being wrong seem to be at least 50/50. I have never been able to say that I truthfully believe, for example, that Christianity is the one “right way,” although most major religions, including Christianity, do claim that about themselves. These claims have, of course, often been invoked during times of violence and war. Everyone wants to be the one with the right answer.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
This is an apocalyptic I can get behind (2nd chapter of Isaiah): we will not learn war any more. Learning war? Do you think we have “learned war?”
Is war not only something we do, but also a way of being in the world?
How have I “learned war?” How have I been formed by a culture of war?
I think of “war culture” as one that is grounded in an ethic of power-over. There is no empowerment in a culture of war, only the imposition of one will on another. Christianity is rife with it, though it certainly isn’t alone on the religious landscape in that way.
Here’s one subtle way this formation has manifested for me: the way I have tried to force myself, over and over, to “believe” the right things. The way I have been complicit in the colonial/Christian mentality of enforcing belief structures and control… by hiding my own doubts and wonders and perspectives. For a long time, I privileged “belief” over “faith,” and the result was that I cut off parts of my self, my spirit, and tried to keep them quiet, locked up inside me.
What that meant was that I missed out on real conversation, real relationship.
I had the privilege today of having a cup of tea with a person who identifies as Hindu but goes to church every Sunday. We spent a long time talking about Hinduism and Christianity and where there is overlap and where there is not. I shared with her about how my learning about the feminine Hindu deities – Kali in particular – shifted my own thinking about the figure of Mary in Christianity and really enhanced my experience of her. She shared how she views Mary not as a construct or a principle, but as an actual spiritual presence in the world.
This is what I love about privileging faith over belief: we can joyfully explore the ways our beliefs differ and also rest in the shared commitment to relationship and conversation. So we find our similarities not in the content of our beliefs, but instead, in the process of being our authentic selves, together.
It is in that process that I have most profoundly “unlearned” war and power-over, and also where I have often experienced the most face-to-face connection with the Divine, the Sacred, the Spirit… who Christians call, “God.”