Faith and Ideology: An Apologia

Tom Ellis
6 min readAug 13

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[This is an article I wrote ten years ago, before I retired. I just found it on my computer, and it still makes sense to me, so here it is…]

“Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.” –William Blake

Whenever I teach excerpts from the Bible in a literature course, or discuss the rise of Christianity in a humanities course, I risk alienating one or another cohort of students: believers or nonbelievers. To anticipate and forestall this risk, I have decided to clarify, as best as I can, my own stance toward the inevitable issues — belief or nonbelief — that this subject matter entails. By “Apologia” I mean not “apology” in the sense of anything to regret or feel guilty about; rather, I am using this term in its original Greek sense as a “defense.”

That said, let’s jump right in. I will try to anticipate the questions you might have, whether you are a believing Christian, Jew, or Muslim, or whether you are unaffiliated, by using a dialogue format.

Q: Do you believe in God?

A: Mu. I use this Zen answer for this and many other such litmus-test questions, because it provides a third alternative to “Yes” or “No.” Think of it as analogous to a dialogue box on a computer that offers your three choices to a question like “Save Changes before closing?”:

· “Yes” means to save changes before closing.

· “No” means to close, but not to save the changes.

· “Cancel” means not to close to begin with; to keep the application open.

So “Mu” means “Cancel.” Note in the above example that “Cancel” is not the same as “No” — because it negates the premise of the original question: that you wish to “close” the program.

Similarly, when I answer “Mu,” I am not saying yes or no. I am rather asking a question in return that reveals, and problematizes, the premise of your question: What do you mean by “God”? And I am saying, therefore, that I cannot honestly answer “Yes” or “No” without knowing YOUR definition of “God,” since my own definition (or lack thereof) is likely to be different.

Q: Are you a Christian?

A: Mu. See above. Since I have no assurance that your definition of “Christian” is the same as mine, I cannot honestly answer “yes” or “no.”

Q: OK, then; Do you believe that Jesus was the Only Begotten Son of God, who died for Our Sins?

A: Mu. This litmus-test question begs at least three other questions, and I don’t have a good answer for any of them:

· What do you mean by “Only begotten”? Are we not all “begotten, not made”?

· What do you mean by “Son of God?” Are we not all sons and daughters of God?

· What do you mean by “died for our sins”? Jesus died at least 1900 years before I was born, so how could he have died for my sins?

Q: So you are not a Christian, then? You are a nonbeliever?

A: Mu. If a “Christian” is someone who subscribes blindly, unthinkingly, to a question-begging ideology, like the one above, the answer is No. I cannot subscribe to an ideology if I don’t know what it means. But if, on the other hand, “Christian” means a disciple of Jesus, and “Jesus” refers to the core teachings of Jesus, the answer is an enthusiastic “Yes.”

Those core teachings are straightforward and luminous. In all three Synoptic Gospels, when Jesus is asked what it all boils down to — the nugget of his message — he plucks two separate teachings from the Hebrew Bible and links them together: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit, and that which is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself.” X=Y. You cannot love God without loving your neighbor as well. And to the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” his answer is equally luminous: He tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

And who is the Samaritan? The Other Guy. The people we love to hate, who don’t believe as we do, whose rituals and customs are different from ours, who live on the wrong side of the tracks, who may hate us as we hate them. And so, when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was being asked, in effect, to address the question of boundaries — Where do we draw the boundaries of the sacramental community, the so-called “people of God”? Who’s in, and who’s out?

And his answer, implied by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, was radical indeed: “Ain’t no boundaries.”

This was a man whose teachings I can follow, regardless of whether he was God Incarnate, the Son of God, the Alpha and Omega, the Word in Flesh, or any of those other question-begging ideological formulations that came much later.

And one more point that Jesus made unequivocally was this: there is only one legitimate criterion for evaluating anyone else’s belief system: “By their fruits shall ye know them.” So I do not care what you believe — that is your own business. I will follow my teacher, Jesus, in evaluating your beliefs by their “fruits” — that is, by their effect on your behavior and attitudes toward others, whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, none of the above, or all of the above.

Q: So how can you have faith if you do not believe?

A: Here we get to the core of the issue. Christians, along with Muslims, tend to equate “faith” with “belief.” There is no shortage of scriptural and theological justifications of this equivalence, beginning with Paul’s definition in Hebrews 11:1: “[1] Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

But when I read this definition, all I can say is “balderdash!” How can there can be “evidence” of something “not seen”? When “evidence” refers specifically to things “seen” (or otherwise apprehended by the senses)? The definition is self-contradictory — an inverse tautology. The same goes for “the substance of things hoped for.” If it is only “hoped for” there is, by definition, no “substance” yet. So I’m sorry, Paul — this definition does not pass any critical litmus test I know of.

So does this mean “faith” is meaningless as well? To delve more deeply into this question, we need to go back to the Greek New Testament for the word which is translated, in English, as “faith.” And that is pistis, whose precise meaning is “trust,” rather than “belief.” When the New Testament was translated into Latin, St. Jerome used the verb credo to translate the Greek verb pisteuo, thus, in our understanding, substituting “I believe” for the original “I trust.”

But there is a world of difference between “trust” and “belief.” “Trust” is an intuitive feeling of confidence; “belief” is intellectual assent to a proposition. So for example, one may “trust” in God, but this is not the same as “believing” in (a specific definition of) God as the Father of his “only begotten son” Jesus — or the progenitor of the “chosen people” through the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — or whatever. One can trust in God, that is, without subscribing to anyone else’s beliefs about the nature or definition of God.

So for me, the question then becomes, what do we mean by “trust in God” if we choose not to subscribe to anyone else’s definition of God? Can there be “faith” without “belief”?

The short answer, for me, is “yes.” If “faith” means trust or confidence, one can have confidence — that is, to trust — in “God” as a personification of the Sacred, or if you choose not to personify, to trust in the Sacred itself. Which pushes the question back even further:

“What do you mean by “trust in the Sacred”?

For me, this question is analogous to the one asked of Louis Armstrong by a journalist: “How do you define jazz?” Armstrong smiled his famous broad smile, and responded, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Any definition is inadequate, since the reality of jazz — like the reality of God — is intuitive, not intellectual. And since “defining” literally means to set boundaries around something, to differentiate it from what it is not, certain words we use — like “jazz” or “God” or “the Sacred” — resist definition, simply because they cannot be clearly differentiated from anything else.

So my own, entirely idiosyncratic, understanding of “faith” is roughly as follows: Faith is trust without any necessary predicate; it is the will to live, which I have in common with sunflowers, bullfrogs, kangaroos, and all other living beings: the inherently irrational, but entirely trustworthy inclination to keep on keeping on, no matter what. If you need a predefined belief system to sustain your faith, you are welcome to it. I don’t.

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.