Archive for the Thoughts Category

Belief v. Faith

Posted in Quotations, Thoughts with tags , , on November 2, 2017 by James Munro

(as promised in my previous post)

In the western world, notions of Faith and Belief are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition preserved for us in the Bible, especially the writings of St Paul.  St Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote in Greek, the lingua franca of the 1st-century world, and Greek has only one word pistis for our two words “faith” and “belief”. Faith in Greek is pistis. Belief in Greek is pistis.

Let’s start with the English words and come back to the Greek later.

Belief means believing that something is so or believing somebody or believing some source of information: “I believe that the world is round.” “I believe you / I believe what you said to me.” “You can’t always believe what you read in the papers.

Much the same is believe in: “I believe/don’t believe in Father Christmas/unicorns, the Greek gods, mermaids.”

It is what we mean when we say “An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.”

Now, is there any real difference between believing in God and having faith in God?

I contend that there is.

Yet according to John Hick:

The majority of recent philosophical critics of religion have in mind a definition of faith as the believing of propositions upon insufficient evidence.

He goes on:

Many philosophical defenders of religion share the same assumption …

In other words they do not see any difference between “believing in God” and “having faith in God”. For them, having faith in God means believing that God exists.

But wait a moment. “I have faith in my daughter” means I trust her, I know she will do the right thing.

And curiously, “I believe in my daughter” means more or less the same.

How can this be?

The existence of my daughter is not in doubt. When the existence is in doubt, as in the case of Father Christmas, God and mermaids, then believe in means believe that they exist; have faith in never means that.

Having faith in implies knowing. Not knowing of/knowing about (that would be believing in the existence of) but knowing, as in “I know myself,” or “I know my wife”. We cannot have faith in a person we do not know.

So someone who has faith in God is not identical with someone who believes in God. You may believe in God because you were brought up to believe in God (very, very often the case!) or because one of the philosophical proofs of the existence of God has convinced you (rarely now the case, I imagine). But then you are in much the same position as the person who says “I believe there is someone living in that apartment on the 4th floor.” The use of the verb believe implies insufficient evidence. If, on the other hand, you have met the new tenant (or the squatter) living in that apartment, then you know there is someone living there. And if you have spent time becoming acquainted with this tenant/squatter, then you know him/her. The statement “There is no one living in the apartment on the 4th floor” will be, to you, simply absurd.

Likewise, you have met God and have got to know Him. He has become part of your life. And knowing Him, you have come to have faith in Him The idea that He doesn’t exist is, to you, as absurd as the idea that you yourself do not exist.

All that, of course, is equally absurd, indeed much more absurd, to atheists and agnostics, and to those who simply believe in God for one reason or another without really knowing Him. However, their incomprehension and derision does not mean that it is an illusion, that “the man of faith” is kidding himself. Try explaining music to the deaf, or even the tone-deaf, or art to the blind, or the simply colour-blind. Try explaining love to one who has never known love …

In my next post I will return to the Greek word pistis, to St Paul and Emily Brontë, and to the knowing without which there can be no faith.

Elie Wiesel quote

Elie Wiesel was a Romanian-born Jew who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.





Tw Poems by Emily Brontë

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Quotations, Thoughts with tags , on October 28, 2017 by James Munro


Emily Bronte – the writer whom of all writers I would most like to meet and talk to, get to know, even perhaps become her friend:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As I—undying Life—have power in thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The stedfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou—THOU art Being and Breath,
And what THOU art may never be destroyed.

“Vain are the thousand creeds” she says – creeds – what we believe (from credo, I believe) – so what does she mean by “faith” as she uses that word in the first stanza?

This (from Ram Dass) made me think:

not a belief

A more philosophical discussion of the concept of “faith” coming up in the next post.

But I said TWO Emily Bronte poems, so here’s a second one. As you read it, savour the structure and rhythm; it is exactly the same as that of F W H Myers’ long poem St Paul, which I shall also come to in a future post.


Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along:
Sterner desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven;
No second morn has ever shone for me:
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy;

Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And even yet I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in Memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

What she says becomes ever more topical and relevant …

Posted in Quotations, Thoughts with tags on November 18, 2015 by James Munro



God Can’t

Posted in Favourite Poems, Thoughts with tags , , , on September 1, 2015 by James Munro

Why?” is a poem written many years ago by my sister Margaret – who died soon afterwards when a driver came out of a side-road without looking and hit her and killed her. She was twenty-five.


Why did our God make a world full of hate?
Was it because he discovered too late
The power of the devil to order our fate
And gave the world to him?
No. This can’t be so.

Why did our God let His only Son die?
Was it that men might pass coldly by?
Or historical warning that man should not try
Loving his enemies?
This cannot be so.

Why did He promise the Church His own power?
Was it to last just until that dread hour
When in Satan’s weapons man’s new strength did tower
To destroy his brother?
No. This was not so.

Why does He bless us with bountiful store?
Why does he then show the millions more
Who starving collapse in relief at death’s door?
That we turn then away?
No, this can’t be so.

Does God then bid us to live for the day?
Is His love temporarily under the sway
Of the world? And its hatred, its standards, our way,
Our protection?
This can ne’er be so.

Must we still learn to hate people unseen?
Must we not learn from our evil routine
Of destruction and want and the suffering these mean?
Must we not care?
This we must do.

Can we then trust in our God’s power alone?
Do we believe He is still on the throne?
That love conquers all, and that victory is won
When secure in His keeping we follow the Son
Love our one weapon until life is done,
And till His kingdom come? –
This will be so.

So far as I know, none of us ever “blamed” God for her death. Should we have? Listen to Stephen Fry:

Hm. And now read an “answer” to Stephen that was published in the Guardian. It was written by Giles Frazer and you can find the full article HERE.

  • What greater example of speaking truth to power could there be than this? And for absolutely no reward. For if Fry is right about God being an omnipotent bastard, then he could hardly expect to be rewarded for his honest observations. He tells the truth then burns in eternity. In this scenario, Fry is entirely heroic in his truth telling.
  • Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.
  • This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

This is no answer. In fact it is nonsense. It is nonsense because the man Jesus was not God, whom he normally refers to as “the Father” or “my Father”: at most Jesus is called the Son of God, more usually the Son of Man; what we mean by the word “God” is not “someone” whether a baby or a grown-up, poor or rich, helpless or powerful, mocked or mocker.

The truth is that the answer both to the questions Margaret asked in her poem and to the point being made by Stephen is:


If He could, He would.

Let’s go back to the nitty-gritty, the heart of Christianity: not “God helpless on a cross” as Giles Frazer would have us understand it, but the crucifixion of a man who had prayed “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me,” and on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, and who, at the end, cried out “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit!”


If God is good, He would have prevented the Crucifixion from ever happening. But He didn’t. Which means either He didn’t want to prevent it, or He couldn’t prevent it – it had to happen. In other words, either God is not omnibenevolent (wholly good) or He is not omnipotent (all-powerful).

What do I mean by “it had to happen”?

If you keep tossing a coin, it won’t keep coming down “heads”. It will eventually come down “tails”. It has to happen. And if you toss it often enough, it will eventually average 50% “heads” and 50% “tails”. It has to happen.

Now suppose that “heads” is Good and “tails” is Evil.

2 sides

That is how the universe is. There is nothing God can do about it.

One day, the sun will grow cold and that will be the end of the solar system as we know it. Energy cannot be given out without the source eventually becoming exhausted. It has to happen.

That, as I said above, is how the universe is. There is nothing God can do about it.

Don’t say He could have created a different universe. It is how any universe would be. Light without dark is impossible. As is heat without cold. Likewise, though more subjectively, joy without sorrow. And even more subjectively, beauty without ugliness. And how about intelligence without stupidity? Oh, that’s not the same! No? “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

This is the only possible universe. No doubt there are hotter worlds and colder worlds, worlds that are all desert with a few oases or none at all, or all sea with a few islands or none at all; and worlds that are all ice or all molten lava (and each of them no doubt a “best possible world” in its own way: imagine a seal in a desert or a desert fox in the Artctic). That is part and parcel of the universe. If there are other universes – a multiverse – the same applies, but on a larger scale: that will be the only possible multiverse. What happens there will be what has to happen: there will be nothing God can do about it.


No, I’m afraid He isn’t.