Religion, as argued in my post on the West Wing, is often assumed to be a person’s belief in a supernatural God. Yet anthropologists and sociologists of religion would wince at this statement. From a social scientific perspective, belief is not necessary to religion and what is meant by ‘belief’ depends on the context, the time, the place, and tradition. The popular idea of belief as a statement about the supernatural refers to a particular time in the European history of Christianity, which is mostly alien to other religious traditions and more and more irrelevant to Christianity too. This narrow and flawed understanding of belief is the result of a narrow conception of rationality (see my post on Sleepy Hollow), centred around a materialistic understanding of reality, which served modern science well, but also liberal and utilitarian ideas of society of the nineteenth century. In the post-Enlightenment milieu, religion was defined against the scientific model of knowledge and relegated to the realm of irrationality made palatable by a suffusion of ethics.
However, the history of ‘belief’ is a lot more interesting. Anthropologists for decades have been complaining that the term belief was a Christian concept and could not and should not be used in relation to other religions (see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Rodney Needham, Talal Asad). Yet, even Christian ‘belief’ has a history. As Malcolm Ruel argued, Christian belief started as trust, or confidence, just like the Greek word pistis and the Hebrew root ‘mn suggested. Trust denoted a relationship between people and the gods, a recognition that there was a higher authority, such as fate, over human affairs. Human beings were still very much at the mercy of nature and painfully aware that their luck could change quickly and they couldn’t plan for crops, let alone a surplus of food. They were not masters of nature; rather they sought to be in harmony with it, gods included. Belief denoted trust in a world order rather than any personally held convictions.
Belief was trust also in New Testament Greek; yet, at that time, it also began to be used to refer to ‘becoming a Christian’ and therefore to belonging to a specific community. It became the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian. The word went on to become belief in the teaching about Jesus and, in particular, in the resurrection. At this stage, belief was –what anthropologists call – ‘belief that’ (propositional), but also retained the element of ‘belief in’ (trust). ‘Belief that’ is a proposition about reality, such as ‘belief that Jesus Christ is God’, while ‘belief in’ is akin to believing in one’s friends. When we say that we believe in them, we are not stating that they exist, but that we have a particular relationship with them (Simmel 1912/1997: 166). Things took a different turn with the Council of Nicea, in 325CE, when the Church developed as a formal organisation in need of clear religious boundaries. From Nicea emerged a set of (propositional) beliefs that identify the ‘true Christian’. The ‘spirituals’ in the middle ages accentuated mysticism as well as anticipating the Reformation’s criticism of the institution of the Church. Luther was crucial, however, in making a belief as personal faith mainstream. For Luther, one needed to be possessed by faith, thus emphasising sincerity.
Belief as trust became at best secondary, yet it is much closer to what ‘ordinary’ religious people would recognise today, including Christians (see my thesis). The distinction between ‘belief that’ and ‘belief in’ (trust), far from being an obscure academic point, would make religion much easier to grasp for everybody. All you need is to watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Empire Strikes Back. In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is training under Yoda (Frank Oz ‘in green’). His spaceship is stuck in a swamp. Yoda tells him to lift it using the Force, trusting the Force. Luke retorts that it’s ‘impossible’. He can move a small stone, but a ship is another matter altogether. Yoda sighs and tells Luke to ‘unlearn what you’ve learned’. Luke says that he will try and Yoda famously says ‘Do or do not, there is no try’. More importantly he describes the Force as something that is all around us. It is a ‘divine’ that is very immanent, thus not at all a transcendent supernatural. Yoda lifts the spaceship. Shocked and awed Luke says: ‘I don’t believe it!’ to which Yoda replies: ‘That is why you failed.’
Indiana Jones doesn’t fail the test. At the end of the film, Indiana’s father (Sean Connery) is dying and it’s up to Indiana (Harrison Ford) to get to the Holy Grail and bring the life-saving cup to his father. Indiana faces a deep canyon, which he needs to cross to get to the Grail. His father’s notebook and travel guide to the Grail shows a Crusader crossing the canyon seemingly walking on air and the phrase “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.” “It’s a leap of faith,” says Indiana. He takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes and places his hand on his heart. He takes a step into the void and yet does not fall. The material world appears to be the only reality. That requires a leap of faith into the unknown to trust that there might be other realities. These are not necessarily ‘supernatural’, but are simply what we believe to be true of being human, which cannot be reduced to atoms and particles and is best sung by myth. In Indiana Jones, faced with a deep plunge, Indiana, can’t help say that “it’s impossible.” In both Indiana and Empire the hero is a mystic gaining a deeper or more nuanced understanding of reality, which does not stop with materiality. Like in any good old fashioned myth, the hero needs to go beyond appearances and the everyday sense of reality to open himself up to a different dimension to life; that dimension that we often sense in music, art, poetry and, of course, in movies.