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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Belief (2)

BELIEF.—Belief is the mental action, condition, or habit of trusting in or confiding in a person or a thing. Trust, confidence, reliance, dependence, faith are from this point of view aspects of belief. More narrowly considered, belief is the mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact on the testimony of another, or on the ground of authority. The fact may be beyond our observation, or the statement beyond our powers of verification, yet we may believe that Britain is an island though we may never have sailed round it, and we may believe in the law of gravitation though we may not be able to follow the reasoning which proves it.

This is not the place to deal with all the phases or aspects of belief, or to trace the history of opinion on the question. It is an interesting chapter in the history of human thought, and it is of the highest importance in its practical reference. But we may only indicate the main outline of it in both respects. The contributions towards the right understanding of the province and character of belief in more recent years have been of great value. Recent psychology has become aware of the magnitude and complexity of the problem, and in the hands of such writers as Bain, James, Stout, Baldwin, and others it has received a treatment which may be described as adequate. Nor should we omit the name of Dr. James Ward, whose work in this relation is of the highest merit. These have endeavoured to mark off the field of belief, and to distinguish it from other mental states. Is it active or passive? Is it a state of mind which belongs to the sphere of feeling? or is it a state of mind which belongs to intelligence? or is it something which belongs to the sphere of action? and is it a result of the ‘will to believe’? Weighty names may be adduced in favour of each of these views. But before the question is asked to what sphere of human nature belief is to be assigned, there is a previous question to be settled. Are we to give the name of belief to every mental state which relates to an object? Is every state of consciousness which arises in response to a stimulus and in relation to an object to be described as a state of belief? Can we say we believe in our sensations as we say we believe in our reasoned conclusions? The state of the question may be set forth most vividly in two characteristic descriptions of the nature of belief. Hume says: ‘A belief may be most accurately described as a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression.’ Professor Stout says: All belief involves objective control of subjective activity’ (Manual of Psychology, ii. 544).

According to Hume, ‘an opinion or belief is nothing but an idea that is different from a fiction, not in the nature or in the order of its parts, but in the manner of its being conceived. But when I would explain this manner, I scarce find any word that fully answers the case, but am obliged to have recourse to every one’s feeling, in order to give him a perfect notion of this operation of the mind. An idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea that the fancy presents to us; and this feeling I endeavour to explain by calling it a superior force, or vivacity, or solidity or firmness, or steadiness’ (Hume’s Works, i. 397 f., Green’s ed.). The description of belief given by Hume is distinguished by the absence of that ‘objective control of subjective activity’ which, according to Professor Stout, is the mark of all belief. A closer examination of Hume’s statement enables us to see that the superior force or vivacity of a belief is due not merely to the manner of conceiving it, but to a certain coerciveness which fact has and which a fancy has not. The feeling of belief is not a gratuitous addition made by the mind to the experience, it is dictated by the fact itself.

Without entering into the discussion in any detail, it is sufficient for the present purpose to say that all belief in the first place is teleological, that it is the tendency of the mind to make itself at home in the world in which it has to live. This general description includes the naïve uncritical belief of the child, and the reasoned critical belief of the mature man. In its simplicity it is a postulate. It may be almost called an instinct, an expectation that the world will afford to man a place in which to live and grow and work. Be the origin and character of instinct what they may, be they due to original endowment or to the accumulated and transmitted inheritance of the race, yet the instincts are there, and are of a kind to enable life to act before individual experience has had time to work. Our organic nature is related to its environment, and it postulates an environment with which it can interact. Thus all our organic instincts which find expression in appropriate acts, such as sucking, eating, moving our limbs in response to a stimulus, and so on, are called into action on the presentation of their appropriate objects. Action begets belief, and belief is again the mental situation which leads to further action. At the outset belief is dominated by our practical needs. In truth, the new school of Humanism holds that all activities whatsoever are in the interest of the practical needs of man, and by the emphasis it has laid on this aspect it has called attention to a factor of human experience which has been too much neglected. For there is no doubt that the character of belief is to be explained, in the first place at all events, from its function in relation to the practical needs of man. And all through the experience of man, belief is an expression of human need, and is the demand which a living creature makes on the Universe for a place to live in, to grow in, and to furnish itself with what shall satisfy its need. Thus the initial postulate of belief is that it is in a world in which it may make itself at home, and the final demand of belief in developed humanity is that it shall find itself in a rational, intelligible world, in which its ideals of unity, intelligibility, beauty, and worth may and will find their realization.

Our beliefs, then, in their generality are our postulates. They set forth our expectations, our desires, our wishes. They proceed on the assumption that our needs are related to reality, and that reality has a way of satisfying our needs. In all belief there is, of course, a certain risk. We may mistake our real needs, and we may make mistakes as to the nature of reality. But the postulate is there notwithstanding. In fact, to believe that a thing exists is to act as if it existed. To believe that the properties of a thing are so and so, is to act on that supposition. Thus, apart from any theory, we all postulate a kind of uniformity of nature.

From this point of view all axioms are postulates. They are unavoidable assumptions. Students of science are familiar with these. We do not at present raise the question whether the universal formulae of science are more than postulates. They are postulates, and are demands which our nature makes on the Universe.

Our postulates, however, may mislead; they may be unwarrantable, and not unavoidable. Along, therefore, with the predisposition to believe in the reality and modes of being of the objects of experience, there goes the necessity of verification, criticism, and investigation. For postulates may be too readily made. Passing needs may be taken for permanent, and beliefs may be based on wrong impressions. Subjective hopes or fears may objectify their objects, and attribute reality to objects which have none. Thus we have beliefs which are irresistible and unavoidable. They are absolutely based in the constitution of the mind itself, and are the assumptions without which experience is impossible. Students of Kant will readily recognize them. They lie at the basis of our life and activity, they are acted on before we are conscious of them, and when they arise into clear consciousness we recognize that they are unavoidable and inevitable. In like manner there are other principles arising out of our intercourse with the external world which strike us as inevitable and unavoidable. To enumerate these would lead us too far afield.

Between the necessary and universal beliefs on the one hand, and the practical necessity which coerces our beliefs on the other hand, there lies a wide field of beliefs, the validity of which depends on our ability to sift, examine, and criticise them. The process of sifting and criticism is coextensive with experience. Man is ever sifting his beliefs, is ever criticising them, and is, more or less, successfully active in the endeavour to make them correspond with reality as he is able to apprehend and conceive reality. He ventures in the belief that there is a correspondence between his inward nature and the world in which he lives; he believes that there is a constancy in things, that the qualities of things will remain constant. He makes the venture, and the venture is justified, and his faith increases as his expectation is verified. Beginning with the need to live and to make himself at home in the world, going on to satisfy his dominant and controlling need to obtain some mastery of the world, he reaches the time when he pursues knowledge for its own sake, and, in a disinterested manner, seeks to obtain a consistent and complete view of the scheme of things. So the sciences, the philosophies, the poesies of the world arise, and all the manifold works of the human spirit.

The beliefs of man can, as we see, be looked at as movements of the human spirit arising out of his intercourse with the world in which he lives. Our account of the matter would be most imperfect were we to confine our attention to man considered only as an individual. Belief is largely a social product. The working beliefs of the civilized man are largely due to inheritance. Without entering on the mysterious question of heredity, and without inquiry into the amount or quality of our organic inheritance, there is no doubt that a large proportion of our working beliefs arise out of our social environment, and out of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual atmosphere of the society around us. The language we learn to speak is the registration of the beliefs of those who made and used it; it tells the meaning which men found in the world and in their own life. It throbs with the life of all the past, is directive of the life of the present and the future. We learn the meanings as we learn to speak, and the meanings of those who speak to us become our meanings. Our beliefs and our meanings belong together. And ere we know it, we are furnished with a working body of beliefs which mainly represent the experience of our ancestors. As we speak with the accent of the family and the district, as our voices repeat the swing and cadence of the sentence, so we take over also the beliefs which sway the minds of those with whom we live. It is a mixed inheritance which we receive and actively appropriate. Beliefs unsifted, uncriticized, results of prejudice often, often of superstition, form part of the inheritance we receive. And the mind assents readily enough to the strange amalgam. For behind the beliefs are the trust which the young have in the old, and the natural homage which they yield to experience.

The persistence of beliefs from age to age is itself a proof that they have a certain correspondence with reality. As all belief is a venture and a risk, failure to realize an expectation is a questioning of its validity, and gives occasion for inquiry. Thus belief is always under the criticism of reality, and the stress of circumstance and the strain of living compel us to revise our beliefs and strive to make them correspond with the facts. It is a process that never ends; and as experience widens and knowledge grows, the circle of our beliefs may contract in one direction and expand in another. Beliefs may take the rank of universal and necessary convictions, or they may be classed as merely probable, or may sink to the level of bare possibility. Our postulates may pass into the region of certainty, or may have to be abandoned as mere possibilities.

Looking at the matter from a historical point of view, perhaps the most striking factor in the genesis and growth of belief is that of trust in a person. Into this state of mind many elements enter. The earliest manifestation of belief among human beings is that which we call Animism, or the belief that all things have an inward life, and have their own nature and activity. A spirit dwells in all objects, whether it is in them originally, or has been put into them by some process or act. Crude as this belief is, it yet has in it the germs of growth, and by refinement of its terms and by the removal of its grosser elements it has become the spirit and the meaning of the higher philosophy of to-day. What is the Hegelian conception of the final correspondence of thought and reality, but a higher form of the original belief of man that the world around him, and the objects with which he came into contact, had a thought and meaning in them akin to those which he found in himself? It were an easy task to extend this observation to other philosophies, but space forbids.

Animism itself was a form of belief which came to higher issues in the social intercourse of man with man. The belief which man came to hold as to the animistic character of all objects whatsoever attained to vividness and certainty when applied to his fellow-men. In this sphere there was certainty, for was there not the interchange of influence, of feeling and thought, between himself and his fellows? Mutual help, power of working together, concerted action with friends and against enemies, the need of increased adaptation to the conditions of life, all conspired to raise belief in one’s fellow-men to a dominant height. Out of this social co-operation have arisen the sciences, the arts, the philosophies, and especially the institutions of civilized life. But in considering the rise and growth of these achievements of human life, we must always remember that they are the outcome of the striving of conscious beings. This has been so well put by Professor Villa that we quote his statement.

‘The mainspring of the mental development of the individual and the species thus consists in two contrary forces, on whose equilibrium both individual and social progress depend. One—namely, “imitation”—is a conservative, the other—“invention”—is a progressive force. The former corresponds to biological heredity, and is responsible for social and individual habits and instincts; the latter corresponds to the biological law of variations, and finds its highest expression in “genius.” The naturalistic and positive schools of the nineteenth century were too much inclined to consider social development as a purely natural and unconscious evolution, and omitted accordingly to take these two forces into consideration. Instead of considering social institutions, ideas, and phenomena as spontaneous products of the nameless multitude, modern Psychology rightly considers them the outcome of individual genius, subsequently consolidated, diffused, and preserved for the whole species by imitation. This idea, admirably developed by Tarde, on which Baldwin founds his studies of social Psychology, has transformed the theories which were current with regard to the evolution of the collective mind, which is thus presented in the light of a conscious, and not of an unconscious evolution like that of geological phenomena. Genius, therefore, is not to be understood as a degeneration, a violation of the natural and conservative law of heredity, but as the integrating factor of the latter, expressive of variation, impulse, and motion, as a dynamic force, without which evolution itself would be impossible’ (Contemporary Psychology, by Guido Villa, English translation p. 256).

Thus the whirligig of time brings about its revenges, and the uniform tradition of history as to the influence of great personalities on the race is being justified by modern Psychology. In this tradition every movement of advance was ascribed to great men. Advances in the practical control of nature, the making of tools, the use of fire, the sowing of grain, and so on, are in the tradition of the race ascribed to individual men. More particularly is this the case with regard to the founders of cities, the makers of laws, the founders or the reformers of religions, and the framers of institutions. The 19th cent. was celebrated for its endeavours to disintegrate great men, to minimize their influence, and to trace great historic movements to a process and not to a person. How much influence this predilection has had on historic criticism we shall not here inquire. But in the light of modern Psychology, perhaps, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Solon, Lycurgus, and many others may be looked at as real persons, benefactors of the race, whose names represent real forces in the development of humanity. Perhaps modern Psychology may help men to have some real apprehension of Moses, as ancient Psychology had so much to do with his disintegration.

In the sphere of religions belief we have clear and overwhelming evidence of the weight and influence of personality in the shaping of belief, and in the advance of men to clearer thought and purer embodiment of the religious ideals. It has been through the striving, the toil, the agony of great men that the ideals of religion have attained to form and reality. To them it was given to toil for the race, and the vision they saw and the moral and spiritual truth they won became the inheritance of other men, and through them were conserved for the good of the race. Nor is it the fact that the work and influence of great personalities on other persons have been of a narrow and cramping kind. On the contrary, all the religious truth we possess may be traced back to the moral, spiritual, and intellectual insight of great men, just as every great discovery of science is associated with some great historic name. This personal element in our belief is of universal validity. As a matter of fact, only those religions which have had a personal founder have become universal, or at least international. For, after all, personality is our highest category of thought and life.

Belief in great personalities may be historically and scientifically vindicated. They were needed to make the new departure, they were the first to see the vision, they made the discovery, or thought out the truth; but those unfitted to be pioneers may be quite able to think over again what is made plain to them by him who was the first to think out that truth. The insight of a great man may be verified by the experience of other men. In fact, we have daily illustrations of this in our own experience. We use telephones, we drive by means of steam or electricity, we command nature by using the means which others have placed at our disposal, though we may not have the power of making these discoveries. Plato, Aristotle, Kant opened out paths on which the feet of others may safely tread, and we may rise to the height of the vision of Dante, and rejoice in the universality of Shakespeare, though these would have remained undiscovered countries had not those great personalities opened the gates of entrance to us.

Yet the man in the street has something in common with the greatest and the highest. If he cannot initiate he may imitate, and if he cannot make the discovery he may appreciate and act on it when it has been made. For in the long-run the achievements of great men in any sphere, just in proportion to their truth and value, turn out to have elements of permanent value. Though the discoveries of a person, they have no mere personal value. They are objective, and because objective they may become the possession of every man. We have spoken up to this point of the work of great personalities only so far as that work was a help towards the discovery of truth and a help to life. Belief in them, trust in them, is thus far justified. But no great personality answers to the ideal of greatness in all the aspects of greatness. Great men have had their limitations, and greatness from one point of view has been accompanied with littleness in other respects. The leaders of men have had their limitations. Some have been great in action, some in thought, some in invention, some in power of poetic or prophetic vision, and some in other ways. Others have been great in gathering into a system the results of the work of former generations, and have thus marked out the stage to which humanity has come. But the limitations of great men have had their effect, and their achievements may come to hinder and not to help progress. In all spheres of human thought and action this has been true, and the imitative mind of man has striven to live in formulae which have become outworn and effete. There has been also imitation of great men in those aspects of their activity in which they were not good or great. Illustrations of these facts abound, and need not be dwelt on at length.

But trust in personality as one of the greatest forces of human progress and one of the strongest elements in belief is justified notwithstanding. It alone can give the enthusiasm which confronts difficulties, the personal devotion and love which make men willing to live and die for a great cause. The great epochs of human life, the times which stand out in history as full of heroic endeavour, of far-reaching aspiration, and of substantial gain for other ages, have been pre-eminently periods of abounding trust in great ideals; and these ideals appear in all their grandeur as embodied in some great personality. The imitative mind found its ideal embodied in the great man of its time; and was touched as with a flame, and followed on and became greater than it knew. The great personality became for the lesser men the embodiment of the highest ideal they had ever known; and they, so far as they saw it, embodied it in their own action and character, and wrought it so far into the very constitution of humanity. So the vision grew; and as one personality after another revealed to men the possible synthesis of the ideal greatness of a perfect personality, men were educated to perceive what they ought to demand in the ideal of a perfect personality in whom they might completely and absolutely trust.

In the perfect personality in whom man may absolutely trust all kinds of ideals must meet, and be harmonized in a perfect unity. That is the postulate of the nature of man. And each part of man’s complex nature makes its own demand and contributes its own share towards the realization of the ideal. Our intelligent nature demands unity and intelligibility in the Universe, and in Him in whom the Universe lives and moves and has its being. Our moral nature demands its ideal of perfect goodness, righteousness, and holiness in order to meet the needs of our moral nature, and to give us scope for the exercise of reverence towards that which is above us, love towards all that helps and sustains us, and benevolence towards all that needs our help. The aesthetic nature furnishes its ideal of perfect beauty and harmony, and demands that reality shall meet this as it meets every other demand. The heart demands goodness and love, and furnishes in its own action the type of what it demands. The Christian belief is that all these ideals meet and are realized in God. It is the business of Theism to show how these ideals are realized in God, and it is the business of the metaphysician, the ethicist, the aestheticist, and the poet to show how the various ideals converge to the one great ideal whom we reverently call God. Our intellectual, ethical, spiritual, artistic, and emotional ideals agree, must agree, if we are to attain to harmony of life and fulness of being. We repeat again that these are our needs, and our needs have their roots in reality, and reality does not disappoint us.

Is there a Personality who can be to all men what some personalities have been to some men and to some nations? Is there one who can be to all nations what the national heroes have been to particular peoples, one who can embody their highest ideals, and who can so react on them as to make them work out these ideals in themselves? That is the claim which history makes for Christ, which Christians make for Him, and which they believe has been verified in human experience by all who have trusted and followed Him. He Himself makes the claim: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). St. Paul makes it for Him: ‘in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden’ (Colossians 2:2). This is not the place to unfold the meaning of the claim of Christ to the reverence and trust of all men, nor to set forth His ability to meet all the needs of our nature and to satisfy all our ideals. It would take many treatises to do that work, instead of one brief article. But the scope of the proof may be indicated. First, as to the demands which our needs make on Christ; and, second, as to His ability to meet them. The main demands of our nature may be summed up in the ideals we have noted above: the demand for unity, the demand for purity, the longing for beauty and harmony, the thirst for love and goodness and fulness of life. The demand for unity, and the belief that unity is there, have led men on towards the conquest of the world,—which conquest has embodied itself, so far as it has gone, in the sciences and their practical applications and in the philosophies of the world. The demand for beauty and harmony, and its result in the poetries, arts, and beautiful human constructions, and in increasing appreciations of the beauty of the Universe; the demand for goodness, righteousness, love, which has embodied itself in the ethical and spiritual life of the world, are illustrations of the faith of man in the unity, beauty, goodness, and worth of reality, and his own achievements are tributes to the validity of his faith.

But the needs of man make this claim on the perfect human personality. We need One who can reveal to us what human life ought to be and what it may become. We need One who gathers into Himself all the types of greatness that have ever entered into the thoughts of men; and One who has realized them in His own life and action. But we need to be educated and trained to appreciate the ideal, for it may be, nay, it is, the reversal of many human ideals. Man has often mistaken his real needs, and has also mistaken the ideals which alone can satisfy them. The first must become last and the last first. The intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and religious needs of man have sought satisfaction in the pursuit of false ideals, and have not found it. Yet the needs are real and the search was good, and the satisfaction is attainable. The perfect human Personality reveals to man how to show reverence to what is above man, love to all his equals, and benevolence to all that is subject to him. He has shown it in His own action, and inspires it in those who trust Him.

Belief in Christ is thus the outcome of the deepest needs of man’s manifold nature, and the prophecy of their complete satisfaction. It means also that there is a revelation to man of what his real needs are. It means instruction, education, training into a true and adequate apprehension of his own nature and calling. He learns from Christ his own value and worth, and the sphere in which these may be realized. He learns how this supreme Personality has thought about him, cared for him, suffered for him, lives for him, and is ever working and striving in him and for him. Then, too, he learns, as he trusts Christ, what life and conduct ought to be, and he learns that it is possible through union with Christ to live that life and imitate that conduct. For the further development of this part of our theme we have to refer to Christian dogmatics, and specially to the NT documents. We may also refer to the practical experience of the Christian through the Christian centuries, and to what it has felt and accomplished.

As to the ability of Christ to satisfy our needs and meet our ideals, we have just to make the same reference. We are beginning to understand the cosmical significance of Christ. As our knowledge of the primary revelation of God is widened by the patient and triumphant labours of scientific workers through the ages, we find increased validity in the process when we reflect that we are following in the footsteps of Him by whom every thing was made that was made. ‘In Him all things consist,’ and our faith in the Eternal Logos is confirmed as we trace out the logos of things. Then in the sphere of history we desire a meaning and a unity, we need the belief that a purpose runs through the ages, and we find that of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things; that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,’ and that there is a ministry of reconciliation in history. Then comes the personal knowledge of Him, in His perfect grace, love, wisdom, power; and the union with Him, till He becomes the atmosphere we breathe, our outlook on life and its possibilities, the source of all our strivings, the goal of all our efforts; and the only true description of it all is that we are ‘in Christ Jesus.’

The correspondence is perfect between our needs and their satisfaction in Jesus Christ. Here the subjective is controlled by the objective, and the coercive power of Christ over the belief of those who trust Him is perfect. Much might be said on the educative power of Christ on man as to the true needs of man, and much might be said on the reasonableness of trust in this perfect Personality; but enough has been said to indicate the congruity of this belief with the whole nature of belief in general, and to show that it is the outcome of all the factors which enter into and justify that attitude of the human mind which we call belief. See, further, art. Faith.

Literature.—The articles ‘Belief’ and ‘Psychology’ in the Encyc. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ; James, Principles of Psychology; Turner, Knowledge, Belief, and Certitude; Flint, Agnosticism; Royce, The Religious Aspect of Modern. Philosophy; Newman, Grammar of Assent; Bain, Emotions and the Will, and Mental and Moral Science; Villa, Contemporary Psychology. It may be well to refer to Kant in his three great Critiques, and specially to his treatment of ‘Glaube’ in the Critique of the. Practical Reason. In the works of Sir William Hamilton, Mansel, and Herbert Spencer the reader will find discussions of some value. In truth, the literature which in one form or other deals with the nature and validity of belief is so enormous, that an exhaustive reference is out of the question. But reference ought to be made to Balfour’s Foundations of Belief and to Kidd’s Social Evolution, as these books present a somewhat peculiar view of the nature and validity of belief, specially in its relation to knowledge.

As to belief in Christ we need not give any reference, for all the literature of Christianity would be relevant here.

J. Iverach.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Belief (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/b/belief-2.html. 1906-1918.

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