Psych of Religion #3: A New (OLD!) look at “belief.”

We did not always define belief as we do now. Sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries, secular culture transformed the meaning of “believe.” The orthodox believers of the day went right along with it (grudgingly, perhaps?) accepting the change of the word into something more akin to an intellectual acceptance of a set of propositions.

By the 19th century the apostasy was complete: people started considering “what do you believe?” as an actually important question.


Fowler suggests that much more significant questions would be “On what or whom do you set your heart? To what vision of right-rightedness between humans, nature and the transcendent are you loyal? What hope and what ground of hope animate you and give shape to the force field of your life and to how you move into it?” This idea of belief and faith somehow being two different things is a “modern divorce” caused by a secular re-defining of the word.

While the Latin term “credo” might be translated as “I believe,” it actually means something closer to what faith actually means: to “set one’s heart upon” or to “align one’s heart or will,” or “to commit oneself.”

“Literally and originally, ‘to believe’ means ‘to hold dear’: virtually, to love… What you have faith in or believe: What values have centering power in your life.”

“If faith is reduced to belief in credal statements and doctrinal formulations, then sensitive and responsible persons are likely to judge that they must live “without faith.” But if faith is understood as trust in another and as loyalty to a transcendent center of value and power, then the issue of faith—and the possibility of religious faith—becomes lively and open again.”

Idolatry, according to Fowler, has nothing to do with statues or paganism. It is to break the first commandment – to set one’s heart on something finite… perhaps, like a set of propositions that one might hold as furniture in the mind?

As an exercise, how might the first three temple recommend questions look through the secular vs. the sacred definitions of faith and belief (let’s throw “testimony” in there for good measure):

Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

  • Secular: Do you have a knowledge that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost exist in reality? If you don’t have that knowledge, do you at least accept that proposition?
  • Sacred: Do you trust in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?

  • Secular: Do you have a knowledge that the Atonement of Christ is real, and that Christ is actually the Savior and Redeemer?
  • Sacred: Is your heart set upon Christ as the center of your ultimate concern?

Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?

  • Secular: Do you know that the restoration of the gospel has actually happened?
  • Sacred: Are you loyal to the restored gospel as the vision in your life of right-rightedness between human beings and the transcendent?

Accepting propositions as literal maps of reality never sat well with me. Now I know why. Of course “I believe” could be seen as a “delusion” (or at least an “illusion”) when one uses the twisted secular definition. The original intention was so much more meaningful:

“There was a time when ‘I believe’ as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: ‘Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.’ A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: ‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.’”

So what will it be? Do you need to accept doctrine as the furniture of your mind? Or can it be the language you use to describe the Transcendent vision on which you set your heart?