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What do we believe?

31 January 2014

Precisely what Christians mean by 'belief' differs according to their tradition, Anna Strhan discovers


WHEN the the computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee was guest-editing the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, on 26 December, he asked that an atheist should provide Thought for the Day.

Andrew Pakula, the atheist minister of a north-London Unitarian church, said in his "Thought": "While I don't literally believe the stories underlying Christmas, I do very much believe in its most important messages." He later criticised the BBC's approach to religion, tweeting: "I'd say I have faith although I'm an atheist. BBC says this is impossible - except for Buddhists."

What it means to be religious, and a Christian, is often framed through the lens of "belief". Debates about Christianity's social significance refer not only to statistics on church attendance, but to surveys demonstrating percentages of the population believing in God, heaven, hell, etc.

Yet Dr Pakula's questioning of how "faith" relates to belief in a supernatural deity raises questions about precisely what we mean when we use the term "belief", and about the part that belief plays in the lives of those who attend church.

I AM a sociologist who conducts fieldwork in different kinds of churches. I am often struck by the way the significance accorded to "belief", and the different styles that belief takes, varies across traditions.

When carrying out research within Evangelical Anglican churches, I found that Charismatic Christians expressed the meaning of belief somewhat differently from conservative Evangelicals.

For conservative Evangelicals, to be a Christian is - first and foremost - to be a believer. Belief, in this case, is understood primarily in terms of propositional knowledge: in other words, "belief that" certain statements of knowledge are true.

One student said: "Feeling God as present - I don't know what that feels like. I have knowledge, and . . . I believe that God is always there watching over us, and that his love extends to all of us."

They also saw belief as relational - what we might describe as "belief in" - centring on a relationship with God which requires obedient submission. This is bound up with beliefs about the correct ordering of human relationships. For example, one minister preached that "God rules: he's delegated his authority to the head of the family; and then the father and the mother - under the headship of the man - are in authority over the children."

YET, contrary to popular stereotypes of Evangelicals as always certain of their beliefs, and perhaps contrary to how they might respond to a survey, I found that, as I spent time with them, they articulated awareness of doubts. And, in sermons, ministers described doubt as a recurring feature of the Christian life.

Individuals I spoke to described doubt as an uneasy state. For example, one woman said that it was "this huge black hole of, 'Is it really true?'" Church leaders encouraged particular practices to encourage individuals to "cling" to their beliefs.

One minister said: "The default position for all of us as Christians is drift. We don't have to do anything to drift; if we don't do anything, we do drift, but we've got to make an effort to keep going, to continue.

"The old line people used to say to me: 'Read your Bible and pray every day' - when you chat to somebody about why they've drifted into all sorts of mess, almost invariably you can trace it back to "Well, I was in a busy patch, and my Bible-reading and prayer went out the window.'"

Individuals I came to know also knotted each other into relationships of accountability - for example, texting friends if they did not see them at church - through which they established expectations of regular church and Bible-study-group attendance. Through these communal and individual practices, they worked to form themselves and each other as believers.

THE Charismatic Anglicans I have spent time with emphasise "spontaneity" and "messiness" as central to their relational believing. a sense of intimate relationship with God, and conviction in God's unbounded, cherishing love, is at the core. Singing songs for long periods, and the intense emotional experiences associated with these, are key practices. The language expressing this intimacy with God is primarily that of love and friendship.

The term "belief" is also used to reinforce a sense of a pluralist public sphere, when addressing those outside the Church. They use phrases such as "as Christians, we believe" to articulate a consciousness of their addressing others with different convictions.

In speaking about their practical social engagements, Charismatics' belief is also infused with the language of hope. One church leader, for example, quoted the writer Anne Lamott to describe her work with local parents: "Hope begins in the dark; the stubborn hope that if you just show up, and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come."

NON-EVANGELICAL and "mainstream" Anglicans may be less likely to describe themselves as "believers". An exchange between a Roman Catholic philosopher and a liberal Anglo-Catholic university chaplain evokes this. The philosopher told the chaplain: "The problem with you Anglicans is that you're so vague about your beliefs." The Anglican replied: "And why is that a problem?"

There is a wider latitude of belief among non-Evangelical and liberal Anglicans. Professor Linda Woodhead's YouGov survey (Feature, 23 April 2013) demonstrates that most churchgoing Anglicans do express a "belief in God", but they do not take their moral authority from religious leaders or scriptures, but prefer to make up their own minds.

Regardless of the extent to which Anglicans think of themselves as believers, different practices of believing are deeply interwoven into the mundane rhythms of what they do when they meet together in church.

Any act of believing means an orientation towards an "other" - whether God, or people - who transcends the self; and towards a past and a future beyond, but folded within, the present moment.

Perhaps it is in this gesture of the self turning outwards that belief, in its very diverse forms, remains significant in Anglican lives today.

Dr Anna Strhan is the Leverhume Early Career Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent.

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