In English, we routinely use the word “faiths” to mean “religions.” No need to feel bad if you do this – I use it sometimes even though I am aware of the problems I will share below – but I want to explain the term reflects a larger distortion in how we understand religions. We are aiming at more than our word choice here – we’re hoping to improve our understanding of the diverse spiritual communities that populate our earth, our workplaces and our neighbourhood. Have some faith we can learn a little together and let’s go!
Photo credit: Canva.com
Do You Believe?
At every Catholic mass, attendees recite the Apostles’ Creed saying “I believe in God the Father….I believe in Jesus Christ, his Son….I believe in the Holy Spirit” followed by many other things one affirms belief in including the Catholic church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, etc. (the italics are mine). Having been raised in the Catholic Church, these words come to my lips effortlessly to this day. Only in studying other religions have I realized how unusual this declaration of beliefs is.
Now it is not that unusual for other Christians. Orthodox Christians also recite creeds and while most Protestants do not recite the Apostles’ Creed, Protestantism shares the enormous emphasis on belief. One of Luther’s slogans when he launched Protestantism was sola fide or faith alone, meaning you are not saved by good deeds but specifically by your belief! Eventually, Lutherans wrote down all the correct things to believe in their founding document, the Augsburg Confession. Other Protestants, like Jean Calvin, broke from Luther because he didn’t quite believe enough of the right things. A famous key belief in Calvinism is double predestination which states that God preordains who will go to heaven and who to hell. To this day, most Protestant churches state their beliefs clearly on their webpages (which you typically do not find on webpages for synagogues or Hindu temples). I am always particularly fascinated by Joel Osteen who has his congregation start every service with a kind of Biblical pledge of allegiance of what they believe (a practice he inherited from his father).
Joel Osteen, America’s most watched minister, has his audience recite their faith in their Bibles to open every service. Indeed, the prosperity gospel he and others teach suggests if you believe you will be successful, wealthy and healthy, that these beliefs too will manifest. It’s all about believing. Photo credit: Wikipedia.org, by RobertMWorsham, CC BY-SA 4.0.
So what? Doesn’t this make sense? Shouldn’t a religious community state what it believes?
I offer no critique here. But my friends, I want you to understand that this is uncommon.
The Buddha, near as we can tell, did not tell people they needed to have faith in him. He hoped people would believe what he said was accurate but salvation (or in this case, liberation) would come from following his example to achieve one’s own enlightenment. In my travels to southeast Asia, I was repeatedly struck by how Buddhist temples do not have podiums or places for teaching sermons because instructing on proper beliefs is simply less central. They have shrines for the practice of devotion.
Similarly, First Nations communities do not typically sit down and recite creeds. They engage in practices. They offer tobacco, they give prayers, they dance, drum, enter sweat lodges, go on vision quests and might interpret dreams. It’s a series of practices. There is no singular belief that will save you.
First Nations do not typically recite creeds. Photo credit: Canva.com
But surely these folks believe in some things? Yes, they do. Philosopher Kevin Schilbrack highlights the difference as “belief in” versus “belief that.” We constantly act in certain ways because we believe that the world is flat, or that you should eat healthy, or that Shiva is real. Christianity however has a very strong emphasis on belief in. One must believe in Jesus including that he is the Son of God and that he died for your sins. At a church, notice how many Christian hymns have congregants stand and belt out this very belief to emotionally powerful music (here’s one from Hillsong, the largest Christian music creator on earth. And here’s their musical version of the creed. Notice how all-pervading the word “believe” is.)
Islam and Judaism are a bit closer to the Christian worldview than Buddhism but not that much closer on this specific issue. They have things one should believe but scholars often describe them as traditions of orthopraxy (meaning correct practice) whereas scholars describe Christianity as grounded in orthodoxy (meaning correct belief). The Qur’an is revealed to a nascent Muslim community that lives in a world surrounded by Christians and hence, in the text, God says “say not we believe. Say we have submitted” (49.14). Submission here is about practice. In comparison, Christianity is, I think, the most belief-centric tradition on earth.
Islam is often described as a tradition of orthopraxy (correct practice). Photo credit: Canva.com
The situation is a bit more complex as some traditions (like Buddhism) have developed branches that are more belief in oriented. But suffice to say, if you think of religion as a series of statements that need to be believed in, you will miss how many religions are often about engaging in communal or devotional practices. Often, the rituals and practices around dress, food, and ceremony are as much about maintaining tradition as about a specific belief. Indeed, many Jews who do not believe may still have their kid do a bat or bar mitzvah. Sometimes the practice is the point.
So, in your school or workplace or in casual conversation, when possible, speak of religions rather than faiths. Without meaning to, the latter word forces other religions into a Christian frame. And I believe that may not be your intention.