Sunday, May 14, 2006

I believe and trust in him

Well I said this blog is about other sad tales as well...

Today's entry is not about the damage done to hymn books but about baptism.

Baptism is the rite of initiation into the Church. It involves the believer making a commitment, the basic minimum commitment that counts for making you a Christian. To mark that commitment the person is baptised, with water, in the name of the three persons of the Trinity (which is what he or she has committed herself to), and thereby becomes a member of the Church. If the person is too little to utter her trust in God, someone else utters it on her behalf. At the font the priest asks the candidate "Do you believe and trust in God...?" He or she asks this three times, once for each person of the Trinity.

There are, it seems to me, roughly three clear uses of the verb "to believe". Unfortunately this can lead to confusion.

One use of the verb "believe" is in epistemic contexts, where the content of the belief can be expressed using a sentence introduced by "that...". I believe that the world is round. I believe that three is a prime number. I believe that God created the world. Some beliefs are false, and some beliefs are true. One can also know that three is a prime number, but not everyone who believes it knows it. One can think that three is a prime number, or be of the opinion that it is. "To believe" is very much like "to think" in this sense, when believe or think is followed by a clause beginning "that...". "I think that lunch is ready" means much the same as "I believe that lunch is ready".

Another use of the verb "believe" is followed by "in such and such" and is a bit like a belief that such and such exists. "I don't believe in fairies" or "I don't believe in Father Christmas" means (roughly) I don't believe that there are any fairies, or I don't believe that Father Christmas exists.

A third use of the verb "believe" is also followed by "in such and such" but it isn't about the existence of the object specified, but about whether that thing is something to which one assigns importance and value in one's life—whether one owes commitment, allegiance and trust to it; whether one fights valiantly on its behalf against all that threatens or opposes it. The grammatical construction of this expression (I don't believe in wasting energy) is exactly the same as the one about existence, but it doesn't mean the same.

I remember walking up Warwick Street in Oxford, accompanied by a small child called Sarah, one day in the early 1990s. The street was lined with parked cars either side. Sarah looked up at me and asked quizzically "Why don't you have a car?". "We don't believe in cars," said I. "You don't believe in cars? But look! There are cars over there, and there and there!" said Sarah. "Oh no," I said "I don't mean we don't believe they exist. I mean we don't believe they are a good thing." What I really meant was that we didn't put having a car as a priority in our lives: on the contrary we put not having a car as a high priority.

"I don't believe in God" can be used in either of these last two senses. It's quite commonly used in the sense that is about existence, because most of the people who don't believe that God exists never get as far as asking themselves whether they believe in him in the sense of owing allegiance to him. That's not accidental, perhaps, because if God exists he is important to you, but if he doesn't he isn't.

The result is that when you say you do believe in God, you might be meaning it in either of these two senses. You might be saying that you believe that God exists, or you might be saying that this God has a significant place in your life— the place that God occupies in the life of a believer. Anyone who says it in one sense will also, if asked, say it in the other sense. This means that it's very easy to confuse the two.

The Church is interested in all three of these senses of "to believe".

It is interested in the first sense when it is concerned about teaching and doctrine. In its more dogmatic moments the Church finds it necessary to formulate various facts and propositions about God and about other things, which it takes to be true and thinks that the believer should learn to affirm. It insists, for example, that the world was made by God the Father. This is one of the doctrines to which we are expected to assent if we are being tested for heresy (since some of the gnostic heretics used, plausibly enough, to suppose that the world was too grotty and uncomfortable to have been made by a good god, so the real god was not the creator). Another of these facts that we are required to believe is that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. This too we have to be prepared to assent to if necessary, since it is heretical to hold that Jesus merely appeared to die but was actually spirited away out of the body first. These are matters that had to be clarified in the early years of the Church, in order to decide which branches of the Church were thinking on the right lines. The creeds that we still recite today formulate a set of anti-heretical propositions designed to test a person for accurate doctrines should there be a challenge to that person's orthodoxy.

The Church is interested in the second sense of belief when it is dealing with philosophy of religion, and particularly in arguments against sceptics. The most obvious challenge is from the idea that there is no god at all, but there are other questions of existence: do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in the devil? Do you believe in the virgin birth? These are about whether the entities or the events exist or occurred as described. These are closely related to beliefs of the first sort, in that belief in the virgin birth might be described either as "belief in the virgin birth" or "believing that Jesus was born of a virgin". So belief in the existence of something can also be a mark of orthodoxy.

But it is the third sense of belief that is at issue in the baptism service. We are asked whether we turn to Christ, whether we renounce evil, whether we believe and trust in the three persons of the Trinity. These are questions about the allegiance we owe, the trust we place. After we make the declaration of allegiance, we are greeted by other members whose values and commitments are the same: they greet us and encourage us to hold fast, to fight valiantly against sin the world and the devil. These commitments are about placing God as a person with over-riding significance in one's life. They are not about what doctrinal statements one affirms.

Consider this conversation:

John: Do you believe and trust in Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury?

Mary: I believe that he was born in Wales, graduated from Cambridge, took his PhD from Oxford, was for some time at Mirfield and then in Cambridge, became Professor in Oxford in 1987 and Bishop of Monmouth in 1991, and was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury a few years ago.

John: Yes, I know all that. But do you believe in him?

Mary doesn't answer John's question. His question is about Mary's attitude to the Archbishop, and she never offers any account of that. She talks past John.

Doesn't something rather similar happen when (in the new rite that passes as a baptismal rite in the C of E) the priest holds this conversation with the candidate and her godparents:

Priest: Do you believe and trust in God the Father who made the world?

Candidate: I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?

Candidate: I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

"Well," you might say, "the candidate is just defining who it is she believes in, just to make quite sure that we're talking about the same person." After all presumably that was why the Priest asked about "God the Father who made the world" just to make sure that we're clear who he's asking about. So the candidate says "yes, if this is who you mean, that's who I'm committing my trust to".

But I don't think that defence will work.

First because the candidate omits the crucial word "trust". Her reply bypasses the priest's question, just as Mary's answer bypassed John's question about belief in the Archbishop. The priest should say to the candidate: "Yes, I know who you mean, but do you believe and trust in him? You've only told me what I already know about the facts of his life."

And second, because the next exchange shows clearly that the candidate has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Priest: Do you believe and trust in the Holy Ghost?

Candidate: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

This is a list of completely irrelevant items. Mary might as well have said to John: "And I believe in Father Christmas and the day after tomorrow" when asked whether she trusts the Archbishop.

Aside from the fact that these items have no place in a baptismal rite, it looks as though at least some of these claims to "believe in" certain items are statements of the second sort of belief, that is belief in the existence of things that might be in doubt. Although a belief in the holy catholic Church looks plausibly like a statement of trust or allegiance, the others look more like intellectual affirmations of the truth of certain doctrines or the occurrence of certain events.

So the priest asks for an utterance that expresses allegiance to the Trinity. He gets a series of disconnected utterances that describe the items about which he asked, and a few others about which he did not ask. He doesn't get an expression of trust, which is what he asked for.

Why does he need to ask? One feature of the third sort of belief is that you don't need to ask a person, and the person doesn't need to utter their belief, because "belief in" someone is manifested in one's way of life, in one's behaviour towards the person whom one trusts (in the fact that one turns to Christ, in the fact that one fights valiantly, in the fact that one renounces evil). When Peter says "You know that I love you" to the risen Lord, he doesn't mean that he had told him before. He means that Jesus already understands that even though Peter had uttered a denial, that denial was not after all a true expression of his level of commitment —and Jesus knows that not just because Jesus can see into Peter's heart in a way we can't. Jesus knows that Peter loves him because of how Peter behaves.

So this sort of belief in someone is open to children and animals: you don't need to be able to talk; you don't need to be able to think that x or y is true. It is not an intellectual assent to doctrines: it is an attitude to something or someone in whom one trusts. When the candidate is asked to utter an expression of it, the point of that is to affirm it openly before the congregation, but the utterance isn't in itself the belief, nor is it necessarily the best way to express the belief. Far from it: the belief is best expressed in the act of turning to Christ, in the process of growing up to be one of his. The utterance is a bit of evidence that one is a believer, but the real evidence of that kind of trust is in one's way of life.

It seems to me, therefore, that it is crucially important to keep the baptism service clear of any formulae that look like credal statements of doctrine, and keep it as a service that asks for a simple expression of trust. We need to realise that when the Priest names the three persons of the Trinity he is pointing, each time, to a person and asking "Do you place your trust in that person?". The only answer required is "yes". Nothing more. Baptism marks that act of faith.

So when I am asked to "renew my baptismal vows" I'm afraid I repeat just the words that were said for me at my baptism: "I believe and trust in him". Since I didn't make any other vows then, I don't see how, logically, I can renew them now.

Bring back trust I say: the simple trust of little children.
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