chapter  5
BELIEF
Pages 24

For many Christians, a defining element of their religiosity is the statement called the creed (or credo), which begins ‘I believe in one God, the father almighty’. The creed is based on a form of words agreed by 218 (male) bishops at the seminal Council of Nicea in 325 CE. From this there is a widespread expectation that to be a Christian is to believe: not only in a general sense (of believing in anything), but specifically believing in something (in the Christian Trinity concept of deity). Along with accepting the centrality of a particular book (that is, the Bible), it is this concept of belief which is seen to define Christianity. Christians may believe in many different interpretations of the Trinity, and may be organised into many different institutions and groups, but they are all supposed to believe in a god who combines the status of father, son, and spirit. The study of Christian traditions, therefore, requires us to take

this concept of belief seriously. Very often that may entail an examination of the historical and cultural differences between (Christian) believers, as well as the historical formulations of particular belief statements. At its most simple, this may entail an examination of how Martin Luther’s statements on his beliefs differ from other significant Christian figures, such as Calvin, Wesley, Aquinas, St Paul, Martin Luther King, Hans Ku¨ng, Joseph

Ratzinger, and many others. This may be taken further, by looking at how each of these individuals came to develop and to present their beliefs within their particular social and cultural contexts. It may also look at the range of ways in which these beliefs were practised as a part of a much larger dynamic of social and cultural life. In this respect, Max Weber’s subtle analysis of the development of modern capitalism from Calvinistic beliefs in pre-destination is a good example. The centrality of belief within Christian traditions is not, how-

ever, universal. That is, the ways in which Christians have understood the practice of believing has varied considerably. After all, one of the chief arguments of the Protestant Reformation in the fifteenth century was to establish the prominence of individual faith (or belief) over what Protestants saw as the suffocating and corrupt hegemony of the Catholic Church. There is an immense difference between contemporary twenty-first-century ideas of belief as a matter of internal resolution of certain concepts about reality, and medieval European Christian assumptions that belief comes through recitation of certain words. Neither is intrinsically a ‘better’ or ‘truer’ form of belief, they are instead two very different Christian (theological) perspectives on what religious belief is meant to be. So far my discussion of religion and belief has focused exclu-

sively on belief as an aspect of Christian traditions. We are, however, used to applying the concept of belief to other religions than Christianity, and indeed to make it central to our assumptions on the general ‘nature’ of religion. After all, do not Muslims also believe in Allah, Hindus in Vishnu, Shiva, and other deities, Jews in Yahweh, and so on? And is it not obvious that all religious traditions must have some form of belief – for if there were no beliefs then there would be no religion? This idea is summed up particularly succinctly by the nineteenth-century anthropologist Edward Tylor, who gave a famous definition of religion as ‘the belief in spiritual beings’ (Tylor 1871: 8).