A recent Relief Society lesson was using the terms belief and faith interchangeably, which reminded me of a post I did a long time ago that I thought I would revisit.
Belief vs. Faith
Belief is defined as “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists” and also “trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.” Faith is defined as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” or “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” They sound roughly the same, with faith just being more emphatic. And yet, I would say that we normally don’t consider these equivalent terms in how we use these terms within the church. Belief is what’s in our heads, our convictions, our assumptions. Faith implies willingness to act. This is why losing “faith” is so much of a concern. There’s an implication, perhaps based on our emphasis on James 1:5-6 that not having faith means you won’t follow the commandments, that you won’t act in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. We are an orthoprax people at heart.
6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
This is often interpreted to mean that if you ask “in faith” you will follow the answer you receive with your actions. If you don’t have the faith to act, you’ll be a flibberdegibbet, tossed around without any direction or purpose (again, implying actions). Faith, as the term is used in our church, is very strongly linked to our actions.
This is good because belief is conceptually blown out of the water by Johnathan Haidt’s fabulous explanation of the elephant and the rider that I’ve blogged about here. He equates our beliefs to an elephant. We are merely the rider. The elephant is really in charge.
The elephant goes where it wants to go, and the rider acts as a PR person, explaining where the elephant went. The rider isn’t really telling the elephant where to go and doesn’t in fact know why the elephant went where it did. Likewise, our emotions go where they go, and we are left to explain to ourselves, and occasionally to others, why they went there. To some extent, we can hear this in Fast & Testimony meeting as people explain why they believe. Likewise, in online discussion forums, we hear people’s exit narratives. The story matches the elephant’s movements. Let’s say the elephant flattened a village on its way. Well, the rider’s got a story for that. Or the elephant ends up at a water source. Or the other elephants are pushing the elephant in a direction. All of these are stories about why the elephant did what it did, but we really don’t know. We don’t control the elephant. We sometimes imagine we do, or that we understand it. Haidt would say that’s an illusion.
A Thought Experiment
Which is more important – belief or faith? Is conviction without action better than action without conviction? Is belief without action better than acting despite disbelief? Which leads to the better outcome or are both fraught with their own dangers?
To illustrate this line of thinking further, suppose for a moment that Tony Soprano has entered a very strange Witness Protection program. He is being relocated to Salt Lake City where he will be living as if he were a Mormon. He will be assigned to a local ward where he will be made the bishop of a local congregation for five years. He will need to attend to the temporal and spiritual needs of the ward while conducting his normal job as a business manager during the week. Tony has been trained very successfully by his FBI Handlers. He knows the lingo (words like “shadow of a doubt,” “every fiber of my being,” and “we’re grateful for the moisture we’ve received.”) He understands the requirements and standards (modesty/no more wife beaters, cutting down his considerable profanity, no porn, chastity and fidelity to his wife, honesty, etc.). While he knows it is a big departure from his previous life, he is confident he can live those standards. However, he is entering this arrangement with no belief whatsoever in the LDS church. He is purely going through the motions.
At the same time, because the FBI are apparently into weird social experimentation (or at least my example is), they will be sending Bishop Mike Young (whom Bishop Soprano will replace) back to run the Bada-Bing and manage Tony’s mafia affairs in his stead. Although Bishop Young is a believer in his LDS faith, this assignment will require him to play a part that contradicts his beliefs. He will be subject to all manner of temptations (dishonesty, murder, illicit sex–the constant barrage of profanity will be the least of his worries), and he will have to participate in these things or be killed by his new colleagues who will immediately smell a rat if he does not play the part.
So, who is in the more impossible situation? What is the likely outcome of each? Will Bishop Soprano become converted to the gospel through his newly clean lifestyle? Or will he corrupt the ward members because he doesn’t believe? Will Bishop Young become converted to the dark side by his new cronies? Or will Bishop Young infiltrate the mafia with his more charitable tendencies? What is the most likely outcome for each situation?
I’m inclined to think that Bishop Soprano is in a good position to become persuaded this new lifestyle is the way to go, whether that leads to a testimony or just a more Christ-like life. I tend to think Bishop Young is at peril of falling into sin, but that he will continue to feel bad about it and long for a future situation that will allow him to return to living his beliefs. In time, behavior trumps belief, not the other way around. That’s my theory anyway. Of course, theories are like beliefs. I can tell you why my elephant goes there, but I’m guessing.
Form Dictates Function?
We usually consider something efficient if the function dictates the form, but what if humans work the other way around?
I often think of an old episode of Star Trek, “By Any Other Name,” in which a crew from a doomed race assumes humanoid form to make the multi-generational journey to save their kind. Although their cultural preferences prior to taking human form were dictated by logic, efficiency, and conquering others, the Enterprise crew quickly exploits their lack of familiarity with the human experience, introducing them to the pleasures of eating, drinking and romance. The Kelvans begin to experience emotions like lust and jealousy that they haven’t felt before. As a result, the Kelvans lose control of their emotions and the captured crew escapes.
In this episode, their form dictates their experience, and their experience is what changes their beliefs and values. Because humans experience unseen motives like emotions, perceptions, sensory input, hormones, and so on, our form is functional. Our actions do create, even subconsciously, changes to our beliefs and assumptions and what is comfortable to us.
Which Comes First?
Considering a much less extreme example, which is harder to manage through? Believing in the church, but not living up to the standards (which often results in inactivity) or not believing in the church while going through the motions (activity, but without testimony)? I would place the hierarchy of belief/action combos like this:
- Easiest: Neither believing nor living the standards. Again, depends on how far down the “not living the standards” scale you go before you get to reduced quality of life. On some level, though, ignorance is bliss. Once you are aware of the standards, though, even if your belief level changes, unless it becomes disbelief, you will have difficulty with this choice.
- Next Easiest: Believing & living the standards. Obviously, all of us fall short at times, but belief causes people to want to live the standards, and living the standards reinforces belief. This helps people minimize guilt and stress.
- Getting More Difficult: Not believing, but living the standards. This is still a valuable choice because the standards can create a good life. This is the worst-case scenario in Pascal’s wager. And belief is not all or nothing anyway. One can believe in the value of standards that have a lifestyle benefit.
- Most Difficult: Believing but not living the standards. Since we all fall short from time to time, this seems like the next logical stop down in the hierarchy. Some just fail to meet on a bigger scale, but their belief is still there. They believe what they are doing is wrong. They feel guilt and shame.
Do behaviors reinforce lack of belief or does belief create our behaviors? Does lack of belief promote self-justification? Is faith a principle of action only (vs. one’s level of belief) in that it colors our actions?
Do you believe it’s possible to “choose” to belief or just to choose to act in faith despite doubt?