Hope and Charity

Belief and faith. They're not quite the same thing.

I believe that this object in front of me is a teacup. My belief may be correct or it may be misguided, I may have good reason to believe it or not, but do I have faith that it's a teacup? No. That would be a very strange thing to have faith about.

Some people say they believe in marriage. It's a strange collocation - believing in something rather than believing that or believing about. But what does it mean? Others "believe in" love, which is not simply to believe that there is such a thing as love, but to regard it as in some way valuable. Telling someone "I believe in you" or "I have faith in you" seems to mean something like "I trust you".

Evangelicals don't encourage us to believe that there is a god, but to believe in a specific god. Theologins aren't much concerned to prove that there is a god up there, but that he deserves to be worshipped. Their job is to defend faith, not to defend belief. Indeed, some of them wind up having lots of faith, but no actual belief.

Belief concerns matter of fact. Faith is about value. Faith is an attitude, an emotional state of cherishing, idealising, even idolising.

But it's not as simple as that, because there's one other defining feature.

Faith has to be under attack. It's a defensive position. To have faith in, say, the future means to be optimistic, but also to be clinging to optimism in the face of doubt - otherwise it's just a belief that the future will be good. People only have faith in their romantic relationships if they fear the relationships might crumble.

We say "Keep the faith", implicitly admitting that it takes constant effort not to lose it. Indeed, that faith is constantly on the brink of being lost.

People who have faith in a deity feel the need to constantly re-affirm and prove their devotion. That's what a lot of praying is really about - not asking for things or saying thankyou for things, but checking that the connection with the deity is still there by sending contentless messages along it. That's why regular prayer, even when you've nothing to pray for, is always strongly encouraged by churches.

There are of course other ways to try to retain god's attention. One is to sing sycophantic songs at him. Another is to prosetylise - even if it's done by leaving holy books in hotel rooms in the forlorn hope that strangers will one day read them. Charitable works, caring for the sick and helping the homeless are routinely done by exactly the kind of people who, in different parts of their lives, moralise about the laziness of vagrants. If you want to know why people blow themselves up while shouting religious slogans, a cost-benefit analysis of loss of life versus the rewards of an afterlife won't give you a motive.

And then there are stagmatics. Indeed, I suggest that self-harm in general is an act of faith, even when it's not an act of devotion. It's a reaffirmation, a defiance, and the least important thing about it is what's being reaffirmed or defied. The cutter doesn't seem to know, and it doesn't seem to matter.

Political causes are often compared to religions. It's a lazy analogy, but activists do have faith. Which is to say, they see themselves as defending something - often from activists in opposite causes. Both left and right are defending culture against attack from heathens, and the greater the faith of the activist, the greater their fear of the enemy at the gates.

And that, I think, is at the heart of the difference. Belief is simply a description of reality which is accepted by the believer - usually not accepted in any passionate way, just held and not questioned. Faith is a desperate hope against fear that something precious is about to be destroyed.

Belief is holding, faith is clutching.

The strange thing is, most of us seem to have a need to clutch.

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