Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part VI: "Faith In" Versus "Faith That"

Much of what I try to do on this blog -- which is a reflection of what I hope to do in the church -- is a melding of academy and normality. Meaning, it is fine to discuss complex, abstract, and/or technical matters in the context of the academy -- actually, that is exactly where it ought to be done -- but to presume either that others can partake of the conversation who do not belong to that world, or that an academic discussion will directly affect matters on the ground, is generally ignorant or seriously deluded. Part of my conviction, though, is that theology has power on the ground: that when God's people take the time to discern theologically what the Spirit is doing in their midst, new and extraordinary things can happen. And that is the promise and the task before Christian theologians.

And I realized, in coming to write this post, how beneath the surface this mindset can be for me. At times I feel amateurish in my discussions of theological matters -- and to be sure, they often are -- but more often than not what I am doing is the task described above: attempting to concretize heady stuff. Which is only to say -- qualifying explicitly -- that what I say in this forum almost always may be found elsewhere, in better words.

That said, few topics have had more ink spilled on them than faith. So pardon my self-aware attempt at incarnating other, better said accounts into more manageable terms.

Put simply, I am tired of hearing Christians repeat the phrase "believe in God."

"I believe in God." "He believes in God." "I'm not even sure if she believes in God." "Well, at least they believe in God."

Enough already!

"I believe in God" bears almost no relation to the content of Christian confession or faith. The statement that a friend or family does or does not "believe in God" has no more informed us of their status as Christian or pagan (much less Muslim or Hindu) than if we were to say "they are human."

For the record, I believe Christians (especially academics!) ought to be excessively gracious toward fellow Christians who may use unspecific or unhelpful colloquial language, but whose hearts are in the right place or who simply aren't "in the know" about what certain technical terms mean. And I continue to believe that that is a discipline educated Christians must learn.

But on the other hand, part of being a Christian is being trained in how to speak truthfully about the faith. And the language of "believing in God," in my estimation, has finally lapsed into incoherence in attempting to articulate anything meaningful or substantive about Christian (or any other type of) faith.

The reason the language is so ubiquitous is, I suspect, a broad reaction to a culture that is increasingly hostile to any theistic commitments whatsoever. Thus to be someone who would publicly "admit" to "believing" that "God" exists is to be grouped into a minority category more constitutive than any specific conviction about the God being believed in.

So we might say of a coworker that "he believes in God" -- but he doesn't belong to a community of faith, or show evidence of a life made possible or different by this God-belief. We might also say of an older, faithful Christian that "she believes in God" -- and her life seems impossible to understand apart from this God-belief. Yet in general these two persons would be categorized beneath the broader term "believes in God."

Not only does this language lead to a kind of nonsense in our religious speech, it nullifies any meaning or difference implied in holding Christian commitments. A person who believes that a spiritual world exists, or that a spiritual power created the world, or that spirituality is important, is not only not one and the same with a follower of Jesus -- such descriptions simply have nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian rather than not. Almost the entirety of all human beings, up until the last couple hundred years or so, believed in (what we now call) a spiritual world. Even since the Enlightenment, it is truly difficult to find what we might call a "100% atheist" (though they certainly exist). Furthermore, however, the deceptive prevalence of agnostics and atheists are, for the most part, confined to the western or industrialized world. A supreme majority of all human beings that live in the world today continue to retain (and flourish in) theistic-spiritual "beliefs." What matters -- and that especially for Jews and Christians -- is what these beliefs say about God.

In that sense, then, Christians do not believe in; Christians believe that.

Christians believe that God is the creator of all things; that God made humankind in his image; that God called Abraham; that the children of Abraham were brought up by God out of slavery in Egypt; that God gave the Law to Israel through Moses at Sinai; that God brought back the exiles from Babylon.

Moving forward, Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the anointed one of Israel; that he is the Word made flesh; that he was crucified for the forgiveness of sins and raised from the dead in power; that he reigns as Lord of all; that his Spirit has been poured out in fullness on the church; that he will one day return again, and that all things will be made new.

These are the sort of "that" things Christian believe. Christians are a "that"-believing sort of people. And that accords exactly with the sort of God Christians serve: a God whose person and character are defined by actions: creating, calling, promising, delivering, breathing, raising, restoring. We believe that God is the one who does these things.

Now, of course the New Testament does use the language of "faith in," but almost universally this simply means trust. When Jesus says -- for example, throughout the Gospel of John -- "Believe in me," what he means is either "Put your trust in me" or "Believe that I am of God," and decidedly not "Believe that I exist." I hope we are able to see the absurdity of such a claim!

And so it makes sense to continue to say "Put your faith in God, not [man/money/family]," which is only another way of saying, "Don't worship idols; they aren't trustworthy!"

But with regard to "believing in God," as for me and my house, we shall instead believe "that God..." Only that language is adequate for that God.


  1. "Even the demons believe (in)...and shudder."
    Not really, demons "believed that..." too. That's just what was going through my head as I was reading.

    Good post! Clear enough for the non-academics out there, too.

    p.s. search for "they they" in the post

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I have yet to dig up your previous Grammar of God posts, which I intend to do soon, but I enjoyed reading this one. I am particularly interested in how you see community identity forming around the lowest common denominator of "believe in" in light of how you view language. Grammars themselves are interesting grounds. Goethe and, later, Wittgenstein both argue that our most basic grammars are indeed constitutive, but in their understanding, and to be honest my German is so bad as to need a good translation, grammars aren't used to merely filter our perceptions of the world,but ultimately they shape our perceptions and thus our way of life. And thus, your distinction between faith in vs. faith that becomes very important in shaping a Christian mode of life.