Thursday, June 06, 2013

Belief and faith

Last week, T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, had an op-ed in the New York Times called "Belief Is the Least Part of Faith." She is the author of a recent book on American evangelicals.

Here again is someone making a distinction I have a hard time grasping: the difference between belief and faith.

It is a version, I suppose, of Pascal's wager: I don't know whether God exists or not, but I choose to live as if he does because the risk of not believing -- eternal hell-fire -- is too great.

Luhrmann's evangelicals, she says, have faith for practical reasons. It makes them part of a group, bigger, better, more alive, p art of something greater than themselves. "You don't go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church."

She speaks of one evangelical woman who chooses "to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there."

I can't speak for evangelicals, but this is not so different from the distinction I have sometimes made here between agnostic Catholics and Catholic agnostics: those who foreground faith over belief, and those who give primacy to belief (or the lack of it) over faith.

I have many friends who count themselves faithful practicing Catholics who weave and dodge when confronted with the doctrines of their faith -- the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the immortality of the soul, and so on. They have faith; they say the Creed without batting an eye. Belief -- well, let's not go into that. Agnostic Catholics, I call them. Faith submerges doubt.

I have sometimes called myself a Catholic agnostic. Catholic, culturally, by virtue of having been brought up in that faith and having spent my life in a Catholic milieu. But I can't separate belief and faith. Perhaps it's my scientific training, but I can't have faith in what I don't believe, no matter the practical benefits. Truth is not subject to an act of the will.