“Believe” –> You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means

By: shenpa warrior
February 13, 2013

Psych of Religion #3: A New (OLD!) look at “belief.”

We did not always define belief as we do now. Sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries, secular culture transformed the meaning of “believe.” The orthodox believers of the day went right along with it (grudgingly, perhaps?) accepting the change of the word into something more akin to an intellectual acceptance of a set of propositions.

By the 19th century the apostasy was complete: people started considering “what do you believe?” as an actually important question.


Fowler suggests that much more significant questions would be “On what or whom do you set your heart? To what vision of right-rightedness between humans, nature and the transcendent are you loyal? What hope and what ground of hope animate you and give shape to the force field of your life and to how you move into it?” This idea of belief and faith somehow being two different things is a “modern divorce” caused by a secular re-defining of the word.

While the Latin term “credo” might be translated as “I believe,” it actually means something closer to what faith actually means: to “set one’s heart upon” or to “align one’s heart or will,” or “to commit oneself.”

“Literally and originally, ‘to believe’ means ‘to hold dear’: virtually, to love… What you have faith in or believe: What values have centering power in your life.”

“If faith is reduced to belief in credal statements and doctrinal formulations, then sensitive and responsible persons are likely to judge that they must live “without faith.” But if faith is understood as trust in another and as loyalty to a transcendent center of value and power, then the issue of faith—and the possibility of religious faith—becomes lively and open again.”

Idolatry, according to Fowler, has nothing to do with statues or paganism. It is to break the first commandment – to set one’s heart on something finite… perhaps, like a set of propositions that one might hold as furniture in the mind?

As an exercise, how might the first three temple recommend questions look through the secular vs. the sacred definitions of faith and belief (let’s throw “testimony” in there for good measure):

Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

  • Secular: Do you have a knowledge that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost exist in reality? If you don’t have that knowledge, do you at least accept that proposition?
  • Sacred: Do you trust in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?

  • Secular: Do you have a knowledge that the Atonement of Christ is real, and that Christ is actually the Savior and Redeemer?
  • Sacred: Is your heart set upon Christ as the center of your ultimate concern?

Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?

  • Secular: Do you know that the restoration of the gospel has actually happened?
  • Sacred: Are you loyal to the restored gospel as the vision in your life of right-rightedness between human beings and the transcendent?

Accepting propositions as literal maps of reality never sat well with me. Now I know why. Of course “I believe” could be seen as a “delusion” (or at least an “illusion”) when one uses the twisted secular definition. The original intention was so much more meaningful:

“There was a time when ‘I believe’ as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: ‘Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.’ A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: ‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.’”

So what will it be? Do you need to accept doctrine as the furniture of your mind? Or can it be the language you use to describe the Transcendent vision on which you set your heart?

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17 Responses to “Believe” –> You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means

  1. hawkgrrrl on February 13, 2013 at 3:44 AM

    Interesting contrast between secular and sacred phrasing. What really works for me is that I see one’s actions as more important than one’s professed beliefs. For example, I’m more comfortable living as though the gospel is true than professing I know or believe it to be literally true. I trust it enough to act accordingly.

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  2. Glenn on February 13, 2013 at 6:55 AM

    First, in the BOM Musical nod (a mormon just believes), I think you are placing the emPHAsis on the wrong word. What jumps out to me is “just.” As in acceptance without question. As in conviction without evidence. As in hope without the wishy-washiness and uncertainty of hope.

    I find it interesting that your secular questions are mainly compound questions whereas your sacred questions are much simpler. Why is that, oh fishenpa of men?

    (don’t worry, your secret identity is safe with me)

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  3. shenpa warrior on February 13, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    Lol, I was going for the last phrase in the chorus, “a Mormon just… BELIEVES…”

    Regardless, the song is using the word incorrectly just like a lot of religious and non-religious folk are.

    Re: compound vs. more simple questions – Occam’s razor? :)

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  4. shenpa warrior on February 13, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    @hawkgrrrl – Totally agree – professing to believe or accept something to be “literal” almost doesn’t make sense to me – at least not the importance of that, in a religious context.

    It makes sense to use belief in the “secular” way when one is talking about secular things, such as “based on this evidence in their relationship, I ‘believe’ they will get divorced.” That form of “belief” though has nothing to do with where you set your heart, what vision of the transcendent is the center of your life, etc., i.e. what I think is the more accurate and useful sacred definition.

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  5. Paolo on February 13, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    This is a great post. Do you have an etymology that can walk through this a little more? What writings do you have that show this transformation of the definition of belief in the 16-18th century?

    I really do like the more beautiful, simple approach to this word. Like Hawk says, Belief really is shown more in the lives of said believers than in any other outward profession. It is a wonderful indicator of where their hearts truly are.

    In a discussion with my Bishop last Sunday, he asked about my belief in the Book of Mormon, and I replied that I couldn’t say for certain that it was an actual, historical document of real people, but that it contains many “truths” that are both sublime and practical. The same with the church. I expressed that to me, I am perhaps more like JS who focuses on Christ and the Atonement, and everything else is an appendage. I pretty much try and put the “corporate church” in its box, and the sweet hope in Christ as the focus of my religiosity. He seemed OK with all this, and at least he knows kind of where I am coming from.


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  6. jmb275 on February 13, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    Great post Shenpa! I love Fowler’s stuff. Really well done. I love how he describes that belief is a manifestation of faith (which I think underscores Hawk’s sentiment).

    I’m afraid I don’t accept the doctrine as furniture in my mind. Perhaps for some they can have both kinds of belief. For me, it’s the latter, the old definition of faith and belief that I embrace. Mormonism is how I experience the transcendent (with a bit of Buddhism thrown in there) and how I interact with the world.

    In adding to what Hawk said, when I hear the question about Christ, what I answer is more like “am I trying my best to emulate the example of love and compassion that Christ set for us.”

    Thanks for the great post Shenpa!

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  7. shenpa warrior on February 13, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    Paolo – Thanks for the comment – I’m curious – how did your bishop bring up the question re: belief in the Book of Mormon? I don’t think I’ve ever been asked personal questions about belief outside of the temple recommend type questions.

    jmb275 – Glad you enjoyed it! “trying my best to emulate the example of love and compassion that Christ set for us” – Exactly – that is a SO much more meaningful way to express having a “testimony” of Christ in the spiritual/religious sense. Cognitive acceptance of propositions just seems so meaningless to me.

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  8. IDIAT on February 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    Maybe many (baptized and have a testimony) are called, but few (truly converted) are chosen. The post is interesting but probably a little too deep for me. Perhaps the definition of “believe” had changed before the King James version of the bible, but I don’t interpret “believe” the way it was presented in the OP. In the scriptures, the word “believe” and its derivations seem to mean then what they mean today. FWIW, I used “credere” all the time in Italian, and in my experience, it was used to same way most of us use “believe” today.

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  9. Andrew S. on February 13, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries, secular culture transformed the meaning of “believe.”

    [citation needed]

    I guess I have heard the narrative that the definition of “believe” has changed, but I haven’t seen much that points that it was secular culture that did this. I see some suggestions that religious fundamentalism was a reaction to religious modernism…but religious modernists didn’t really make belief about propositions…and that’s what the fundamentalists were opposing.

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  10. Hedgehog on February 13, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Since we talking about words can I ask what is meant by “right-rightedness”, particularly in this context? Not a word I’ve encountered previously (or in the OED).

    I do like the definition of believe as holding dear, and agree with those who’ve indicated that it is from this that our actions stem. It seems to be much more a state of being and becoming, than of intellectual knowledge. It certainly puts the temple recommend interview in a new light, and one which I prefer.

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  11. jmb275 on February 13, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    Re Hedgehog (#10)-

    It seems to be much more a state of being and becoming, than of intellectual knowledge.

    Brilliant! It does reach to our being rather than our knowledge…which is why I like it so much more.

    Re Andrew-
    I don’t see that exact language, but this all comes from Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.” The quote I find is:

    Gradually after the sixteenth century (especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), secular usage of the words belief and believe began to change…

    - Fowler “Stage of Faith” page 12
    I’m not qualified to argue whether or not it was secular culture that did this though. Incidentally, in “Stages of Faith” this particular topic is discussed in length in all of Chapter 2. I’ll opine though that it seems to me from my reading that belief and faith transitioned from words associated with ONLY religion to being used in secular life as well which eventually diluted the meaning.

    Re IDIAT (#8)
    As I said to Andrew, this stems from Fowler who is recapitulizing the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in “The Meaning and End of Religion.” He was a historical religionist and a linguist and was Fowler’s adviser at Harvard. It would appear there are myriad citations from both Smith and Fowler on the topic. I think the whole point is that culturally (obviously including Italian) the meaning of the word has changed. That implies that people in Italy haven’t retained the original Latin meaning behind the word.

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  12. shenpa warrior on February 13, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    Thanks jmb – I’ve been teaching today and haven’t had a chance to respond, but your responses are very helpful.

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  13. Trevor on February 13, 2013 at 8:50 PM

    For those wanting more info on the evolution of the terms “faith” and “belief”, I’ll paste this from Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”:

    Yet did not Jesus constantly insist that his followers acknowledge his divine status-almost as a condition of discipleship? In the gospels we continually hear him berating his disciples for their lack of “faith” and praising the “faith” of gentiles, who seem to understand him better than his fellow Jews. Those who beg him for healing are required to have “faith” before he can work a miracle, and some pray: “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” We do not find this preoccupation with “belief” in the other major traditions. Why did Jesus set such store by it? The simple answer is that he did not. The word translated as “faith” in the New Testament is the Greek pistis (verbal form: pisteuo), which means “trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment.” Jesus was not asking people to “believe” in his divinity, because he was making no such claim. He was asking for commitment. He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and trust in the God who was their father. They must spread the good news of the Kingdom to everyone in Israel-even the prostitutes and tax collectors-and live compassionate lives, not confining their benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous. Such pistis could move mountains and unleash unsuspected human potential.

    When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome (c. 342-420), pistis became fides (“loyalty”). Fides had no verbal form, so for pisteuo Jerome used the Latin verb credo, a word that derived from cor do, “I give my heart.” He did not think of using opinor (“I hold an opinion”). When the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe” in the King James version (1611). But the word “belief” has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant “to prize; to value; to hold dear.” It was related to the German belieben (“to love”), liebe (“beloved”), and the Latin libido. So “belief” originally meant “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.” When Chaucer’s knight begged his patron to “accepte my bileve,” he meant “accept my fealty, my loyalty.” In Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which was probably written around 1603, shortly before the publication of the King James Bible, the young nobleman Bertram is urged to “believe not thy disdain”: he must not entertain his contempt for lowborn Helena and allow it to take deep root in his heart. During the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical-and often dubious- proposition. Scientists and philosophers were the first to use it in this sense, but in religious contexts the Latin credere and the English “belief” both retained their original connotations well into the nineteenth century.

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  14. Trevor on February 13, 2013 at 8:53 PM

    Also, a relevant statement from Phillip Gulley’s Evolution of Faith – How God is Creating a Better Christianity:

    “…what if exploration were the theme of one’s spiritual journey? What if “rightness” were of secondary importance and what was paramount was the freedom to investigate uncharted spiritual ground? What if God were not honored by our commitment to orthodoxy, but by our willingness to traverse the difficult terrain of wisdom and discernment? If that were the case, God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions. True blasphemy would be ignoring our responsibility to engage the world and reality at the deepest level of which we are capable. It would be to meet creation with apathy, with no appetite for inquiry, knowledge, or enlightenment.”

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  15. shenpa warrior on February 13, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    Thank you for those great additions Trevor!

    I love this quote: “the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical-and often dubious- proposition”

    Or rather, it makes me angry. I suppose we can never know otherwise, but I wonder what religion would look like now if the word hadn’t changed to the point of uselessness – seriously, what is the purpose of intellectual assent in religious matters, beyond, say, that God exists? Beyond that, I don’t see the purpose of “intellectually assenting” to MOST of the “beliefs,” e.g. whether or not there was death before the fall, if Adam & Eve were real people or not, if Kolob is a real place, if the Book of Mormon is “historically factual” etc. I’m fine with other people intellectually assenting to those things, as they have the freedom to do so, or they may not care either way, but I don’t understand the purpose of NEEDING others to assent to these propositions, other than to feel better about one’s own dubious intellectual assents, and perhaps unwittingly setting up people for future crises of faith…

    On that note, it seems to me that in this regard, Mormonism sets up some key ingredients for a faith crisis in its followers, if they’re not careful. If “a Mormon just believes” (intellectually assents) to all sorts of things that should be left to the spiritual/narrative/transcendent realm, it seems like only a matter of time before that shelf comes crashing down under the weight of all that assent that is no longer supportable. On the other hand, if they would minimize what they intellectually assent to, and focus more on things like true conversion, faith, loyalty, etc. their religious identity would be much more stable, more families intact, etc. etc. I don’t blame people for having the crisis – people seem to be getting set up to begin with.

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  16. hawkgrrrl on February 14, 2013 at 12:39 AM

    Trevor: “God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions.” LOVE this.

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  17. Faith | Deconstructing Gospel Principles on March 3, 2013 at 4:37 AM

    [...] One of the reasons that faith was so difficult for me was that I had my definitions all mixed up. As another blogger has helpfully pointed out, the secular and sacred meanings of terms like belief have become muddled in our post-enlightenment [...]

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