Faith vs. belief (Pt. 1)

October 22, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 21
Troy Watson |

A curious lyric caught my attention as I was listening to “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a song by The National, a melancholic indie rock band: “I have faith but don’t believe it.”

What a strange concept: faith without beliefs. It sounds like nonsense on the surface, but could there be such a thing as faith beyond belief? I realize this type of postmodern “drivel” can be tiresome, even infuriating, for modern-minded believers. Yet, as the 21st century unfolds, I meet more and more people who share this kind of paradoxical faith unfettered by beliefs.

Why is this happening and what does it mean?

There is evidence that the decline of Christianity and church attendance in Canada is directly related to the rise in education levels over the past half-century. Education is one of the highest values of our society, and naturally this has affected how we view matters of faith and spirituality. We’ve been acculturated to question what we’ve been taught to believe, and this has clearly been a factor in the exodus of young people from the church. However, the people who most rigorously study church history, theology and the Bible struggle with their Christian beliefs as much as inquisitive teenagers.

Bart Ehrman, one of the leading New Testament scholars in the world, has been sharing his reasons for leaving the evangelical faith and becoming an atheist in most of his best-selling books over the past 15 years.

Another Bart made news recently by revealing he is no longer a Christian. The former pastor and son of Tony Campolo, the famous preacher, now serves as a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. His reasons for leaving Christianity were familiar; namely, the obstacles to belief increased exponentially the more he studied the evidence.

Bob Ripley, a retired United Church minister and faith columnist, came out as an atheist a few weeks ago. You can read all about it in his upcoming book, Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion.

The list goes on, but not all post-Christians lose their faith entirely. Some describe their “new” faith as an evolution beyond the conventional Christian belief system.

One of my friends left the ministry more than 10 years ago for a number of reasons, including his struggle with the narrowness of Christian doctrine. He told me if he had to wear a label now, it would be “agnostic mystic.” He explained, “I’m mystic because I’ve experienced the ‘divine presence’ so deeply it remains the greatest truth in my life. But I’m agnostic because I don’t know. I don’t who or what this presence is—because I can’t know. ‘G-d’ is infinite, mysterious, beyond human comprehension. None of us can know.”

John Suk, a former Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor, recently retired as editor of The Banner, the official magazine of the CRC, in the wake of publishing a book in 2011 entitled Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey From Faith to Doubt. In it, he chronicles his long transition from answers and certainty to a “faith that wavers, faith that questions, faith that is not sure.”

For years, Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, the famous 20th-century theologian, has been promoting a faith that simultaneously believes and doesn’t believe. The title of his most recent book says it all: Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God.

Two summers ago, I ran into a colleague and we decided to catch up over a coffee. When I asked him about his faith journey, he responded, “I’m in total free-fall.” He had read a few books that knocked the theological ground out from under his feet. Since then, he has opted out of ministry. I was disturbed by this news. He was a fantastic pastor whom I looked up to and admired. I can’t help but wonder if doubting pastors like my colleague might have an important place and voice in the 21st-century church.

I’m no longer surprised when I hear about a mature Christian struggling with or abandoning certain Christian beliefs. What I find interesting and inspiring is that so many of them still have faith.

This growing reality has caused me to ponder certain questions:

  • Can people have faith without knowing what they believe?
  • How can believers engage in mutual faith exploration with people who have “faith beyond belief”?
  • How can we “believ-ers” be hospitable and give voice to the “faith-ers” in our churches?

To be continued . . . .

Troy Watson ( is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

--Posted Oct. 22, 2014

See others in the series:

Part 2 

Part 3 

Part 4 

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so glad to see this important issue raised here. As one who concerns herself with early childhood spirituality I have found it helpful to separate faith and belief as follows: Young, pre-rational children have a sense of relational awareness of the divine, or faith, long before they think in terms of beliefs and doctrine. faith forms a bedrock for belief and stays with seniors who have dementia, even when beliefs fall away. Beliefs, including all our precious and beleaguered doctrines, intersect with and inform our faith during our rational years. However, it seems that, especially in the uncertainties of our current context, it is also important for us to value and uphold faith, which is deeper and more relational than belief, for rational adults. Even while uncertainty swirls around in our brains, we can worship, become still, and be known by
our mysterious God.

When I shared this article in our service, many people showed their deep interests in the topic. I think many (if not all) Christians are struggling more or less with their faith and what they think they believe. When a person finds that s/he is not the only one struggling with the similar question, the person gets relieved and encouraged to not give up. It also gives the person courage to share his/her status. I believe the half of the problem is already fixed when the problem is shared with brothers and sisters in the church. This is one of the best articles. Big thanks to Troy. I'm looking forward to part 2.

Doubt. What is it? Doubt in what? Satan said to Eve, "Did God really say...?" and she began to doubt what God had said. Charles Templeton looked at the world, and at the opinions of men (particularly about evolution) and began to doubt God. We should understand that many of us doubt, perhaps all have some doubts about some things from time to time. Will God really heal us? Will he always do what is best for us? Will God really forgive us? Is God too mysterious for us to understand? Is scripture really as perfect as we say it is? And many other questions.

But one of the recent problems we have is the opinions of men who promote doubting. Jesus clearly said to Thomas, "You have seen and touched and now believe. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Doubting is not an unforgiveable sin. But neither is doubting a mark of sincerity, nor is it a new virtue. Asking questions in faith is different than asking questions to test God, or to challenge God. Rather, pray in faith, for a steadfast faith, a trusting faith, a strong faith. God is greater than our doubts and is always victorious. Do not be satisfied with a doubting faith... you may get what you ask for.

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