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The Birth of Modern Belief, by Ethan H. Shagan

24 May 2019

Belief isn’t what it used to be; this book shows why, says Alec Ryrie

CHRISTIANS have been saying “I believe in one God” almost since the beginning. Most of our arguments about those credal statements have focused on exactly what is believed, or, especially in recent centuries, on the rise of unbelief. Ethan Shagan’s book asks a different and more disconcerting question. As he puts it, when we are asked, ‘“Do you believe in God?”, why does no one ever respond, “What do you mean, believe?”’

Believing God; believing in a God; believing in God — these are not the same as one another. Belief is not quite the same as faith, or trust, or knowledge, or thought, or opinion: arguably, it is the opposite of some of those things. To what extent is belief propositional (subscribing to a set of claims) and to what extent is it relational (placing your faith in someone or something outside yourself)? Can it be one without the other?

These are knotty metaphysical problems, and mercifully, Shagan is not a philosopher, but a historian. So he is not trying to solve these problems. He is merely pointing out that any functioning Christian culture is going to have to come up with at least provisional understandings of what “I believe” means. Therefore, as he puts it, belief has a history, and an important one at that.

This might still be a little daunting, but Shagan is an endlessly engaging writer, ranging across periods, countries, and disciplines with a gift for clear exposition, an eye for telling details, and a knack for humanising the sometimes forbidding characters that he is dealing with.

His argument is that, between the Middle Ages and the 18th century, the nature of belief fundamentally changed. We may say the same creeds as our forebears, but we do not mean what they meant. If he is right, that shift in what belief means underpins most of the other transformations of the modern world.

Medieval belief was, as he says, “amphibious”: “a kind of knowledge-claim without implying knowledge”. We believe precisely because some truths are too immense to be known by human minds. In that sense, belief is both easy and hard. Like a dog watching its owner cook, we do not need to understand what is going on to have faith in it.

Then, along came the Reformation. Protestantism’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone made belief into a rarefied faculty — indeed, something humanly impossible, a gift that only God could give. “I believe”, Luther’s catechism stated, “that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe.”

It was not an exclusively Protestant problem. Most of us, that subtle sceptic Montaigne pointed out, do not really believe what we claim to believe. We do not even believe what we believe that we believe. For him, as well as for other, more orthodox Roman Catholics, the answer was to redefine belief as simple submission to the Church’s authority. So, belief became either unattainable or an act of the will disconnected from one’s own opinions.

That sounds unsustainable, and Shagan argues that it was. It led to the loneliness of Pascal’s wager, the despairing acknowledgement that true knowledge and honest persuasion are beyond our reach — and so, ultimately, to the emergence of the distinctively modern phenomenon that he calls “sovereign judgement”. We now say “I believe in . . .” (God, Brexit, human rights, a flat earth) as a way of ending a conversation. “I assert this; I will not be persuaded out of it; I do not really expect to persuade anyone else.” To say I believe is not to assert a fact about the world, but about yourself.

So belief and opinion were once opposites, and are now synonyms. Or so Shagan argues. Part of the joy of this book is that, fizzing with energy and bons mots as it is, you will find yourself wanting to argue with him throughout. But one claim at least is, I think, undeniable. “Belief has a history; it changes over time.” If we care about that history — and we ought to, because we are part of it — this book is a terrific place to begin.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.


The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment
Ethan H. Shagan
Princeton University Press £27
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

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