The Ultimate Difference: Belief and Faith according to Paul Tillich
(This article is an adaptation of a discussion post from an introduction to theology course I took in the fall of 2017. This was my first formal exposure to Paul Tillich and it blew my socks off. Tillich revealed my idolatry I had no idea existed. Believe me when I say, I have faith this article could also reveal your own idolatry.)
Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith, defines belief as an act of knowledge based on some degree of evidence. Regardless if there is a low or high degree of evidence, the act of knowing based on whatever degree of evidence is belief, according to Tillich. For example, one may believe, based on a high degree of evidence, that evolution by natural selection is the process that explains best for the great diversity we see in the natural living world. However, one may also believe, despite its low degree of evidence, that the natural world was created in six literal days by God. Each one of these examples is a demonstration of belief, not faith.
Tillich defines faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. Therefore, the difference between the two terms is that faith is a state of being and not an act of knowledge. Because faith is a state of being, it participates “in the subject of one’s ultimate concern with one’s whole being.” Because faith is contingent on the ways in which we live in the world, symbols are created to express faith. The symbols (which are a sign that a participates in what they are pointing to) of faith may include prayer, reading, or a ritual. These symbols are not acts of belief based on knowledge, but are expressive participation in one’s ultimate concern. According to Tillich, faith is not necessarily religious (in its technical sense). An atheist expresses faith just as the fundamentalist Christian does. Both are ultimately concerned, expressing it in different yet just as faithful and religious symbolic ways. For example, the successful businessperson offers their ultimate concern to pursuit of obtaining another dollar. They may regularly meet in business meetings, share coffee with colleagues to draw out the late night of work, and read up on the latest sacred scriptures by mega-wealthy persons. While the fundamentalist Christian meets regularly in church, shares bread and wine with fellow parishioners, and intensely studies the Bible. Both have offered themselves to their ultimate concerns, which are expressed in different yet just as faithful and religious symbolic ways.
The more important difference between the two is their social implications. A poor understanding of faith and knowledge has led to poor understandings as to how we understanding biblical authority. While many fundamentalist Christians suggest they "believe in the Bible," I suggest they actually mean they place their faith, their ultimate concern, in their biblical interpretation. They have offered their faith into the symbol (the Bible in this instance) rather than the symbol being the means in which they participated in their faith.
A poor understanding between belief and faith has also led to division between the scientific and religious communities. Understanding the proper difference between these two terms may contribute to bettering harmful understandings of the Bible and help create better dialogue between the science and religion communities. Both secular and religious fundamentalists (in its technical sense) have misunderstood the two terms. Secular fundamentalists suggest they have a lack of belief or faith, when rather they believe and have faith just as fundamentally as their religious foes. Religious fundamentalists have also misunderstood the two terms by essentially making both terms synonymous. For example, "belief in Jesus" and "faith in Jesus" mean the same to this group of people.
In conclusion, a proper understanding of both terms has three socially important implications. First, it may build a bridge between the faith and science communities by providing clear definitions between both terms, which eliminates a desired hierarchy created between the faith and science communities when belief and faith are diluted into the same meaning. Second, it may expose the idolatry of those who attempt to place their faith in a symbol. Third, it may more clearly reveal what it is that ultimately concerns us and if what is revealed is not what we desire to be our ultimate concern (pursuit of success, security, etc.), then we potentially could alter that which ultimately concerns us.