Of Faith and "Symbol Systems"

A recent speaker was asked about the difference between faith and belief.

Drawing on Karl Rahner and Paul Tillich, he defined “faith” as “one’s positive sense of life, the way one manages this universe of ours, the positive way we are able to see the world or make sense out of it or find purpose in it”. He defined “belief” on the other hand as “a symbol system that makes sense to you, a symbol system that you accept, like the Christian faith or the Catholic heritage”.

To make clear what was meant by this, he related a conversation he had with Rahner. He asked Rahner: “”Why, Karl, are you a Catholic Christian?” According to the speaker, the answer Rahner gave was this: “Because I was born one, and I haven’t found anything better.”

And there were two criteria for what would be “better”: “One, it would help me to understand the deep questions of life better, questions of love, and freedom and actualisation, identity, purpose, etc. and secondly something that would help me to live more nobly and repsonsibly and effectively in the world. And I haven’t found anything better.” Summing up, the speaker said, “So the system either works for you or it doesn’t”.

In the field in which I work, there is a recurring discussion about the right use of the words “religion” and “faith”. For eg., should we talk about the Muslim “faith” or the Muslim “religion”?

The fact is, that I do not think there is really any practical or etymylogical difference between the words “faith” and “belief”. Is there really a difference between “credo” and “fido”? Greek just has the one word “pisteuo” which serves both purposes. So in reality, the verbs don’t tell us much. What is important is the object to which the verbs are attached and the preposition that is used to join them.

Here’s what I mean. When I first began to study theology, I was taught the difference between “fides quae” and “fides qua”, that is, “Faith THAT” and the “Faith IN WHICH”. As St James wrote (James 2:19), even the demons “believe” THAT “God is one”. But in the Catholic creed, we do not say “I believe/credo/pisteou THAT there is one God”, but “I believe/credo/pisteuo IN one God”. When we confess the creed, we are not saying that we believe THAT God created the heavens and the earth, nor are we even saying we believe THAT Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. We are professing our faith IN (ie. our trust IN) God who created the heavens and the earth, and our faith IN his Son who rose from the dead.

Now both kinds of faith – fides qua and fides quae are important. It is possible to have a fides qua which is misplaced – such as in “I believe in fairies”. That is as silly as a fides quae whose object is fairies (ie. I believe THAT there are fairies). The point here is that we cannot ascribe a separate value judgement to someone’s fides qua – what Rahner seems to have regarded as “faith” as opposed to “belief” – apart from their fides quae. For unless one’s “faith” is grounded in reality, unless it is built upon the solid foundation of things as they really are, unless it is based upon “belief” which, ultimately speaking and not to put too fine a point on it, is TRUE, then our faith is simply an illusory fantasy.

St Paul was trying to say something like this when he wrote to the Corinthians “If Christ is NOT raised from the dead, then your faith is in vain.” Now, Rudolf Bultmann may have been able to have some kind of existentialist faith regardless of whether Jesus of Nazareth really rose from the dead or not, but St Paul couldn’t. And neither, I would hold, can we as Catholic Christians.

Because ultimately, as I think I have said somewhere before, there is only one reason to be a Catholic Christian: because the Catholic Faith is TRUE. And if it is indeed TRUE as we claim, then it doesn’t matter two hoots if it does or does not “work for you”.

Practically speaking, a 24 hour day doesn’t really work for me. I have so often wished it could be just that little bit longer, especially at night. The fact that the sun comes up every day at around 6am in the morning really doesn’t work for me. But it isn’t going to help me explain why I arrive late for work if I decide to ignore this rather essential fact.

One of the things in our Catholic “symbolic system” is a belief in the Last Judgement. On this day, everyone’s faith (or lack of it) will be tested. The object of that faith and the kind of faith you had in that object will be crucial on that Day. Eventually, reality and truth will catch up with us. That is why it is so urgent that we proclaim the Gospel to all people.

I was not “born Catholic” (strictly speaking, none one ever has been, not even Karl Rahner). I found myself forced to become Catholic by simple fact that the TRUTH of the Catholic faith was impressed upon me. Honestly, Lutheranism “worked better for me”. I find being Catholic so much harder. I like to think it makes me a better person, but the jury may still be out on that. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep teaching and believing a “symbol system” that wasn’t true.

I am very happy for someone to call my Catholic Faith my personal “symbol system”. But as far as I am concerned, the ultimate value of it as a belief system by which I live my life, on which I hang my “faith” as it were, is the fact that it is true.

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21 Responses to Of Faith and "Symbol Systems"

  1. Anne says:

    “In the field in which I work, there is a recurring discussion about the right use of the words “religion” and “faith”. For eg., should we talk about the Muslim “faith” or the Muslim “religion”?
    David I understand “religion” to be the belief system, the tenets of a belief system, whilst
    “faith” is the internal assent to that belief system.
    Religion and Faith are like the sacrament. To a sacrament there is the external and internal. “Religion” is the external “faith” is the internal. One without the other cannot be.
    Does that make sense?

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, it does make sense, Anne. The sacramental paradigm of the relationship between the symbol and the symbolised could be useful, as long as it is understood that the symbol is not an arbitrary choice, that is, that (for eg.) the bread and wine (the outward forms) are as essential to the whole thing as the inward nature of the body and blood of Christ. So it isn’t just a matter of finding the external “symbol system” that best fits your internal “faith”. The two come together as a package deal.

      • Anne says:

        David no sacrament is complete without the external and internal present. I gave “sacrament” as a type of analogy for religion and faith. “Religion” are the words actions etc. (external) and faith is the internal assent to the words of the religion.
        Phenomenology possibly explains this best.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    I think you put your finger on something important, David, when you bracket faith with trust.

    I may believe very strongly that, e.g., the moon is made of green cheese (or, for that matter, that it’s made of rock). But it’s not a belief which has or is likely to have any bearing on how I live or how I act.

    I suggest that “belief” becomes “faith” when I act? in trust or reliance on the truth of my belief. In that sense, my belief doesn’t have to be a certainty for it to mature into faith. I may be dogged all my life by a nagging suspicion that God doesn’t really exist/doesn’t really love me, but if I choose to live trusting in the reality of a loving God then I have faith. (Which will, of course, turn out to be a vain faith if it transpires that Richard Dawkins was right all along. But the fact that I acknowledge that risk, and trust in God anyway, is an aspect of my faith.)

    The issue is, why would I choose to trust in the reality of God, if in fact I am not 100% convinced? And this is where “works for me” comes in.

    I think you may misunderstand the phrase as used in the discourse you quoted. You say that the 24-hour clock “doesn’t work for you”, but in fact it does. You don’t like it, it requires a bit of effort, especially on cold dark mornings, but if you respect the 24-hour clock you get to work on time and you can function as Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, which presumably is something you either want or need (or both). It’s rejecting the 24-hour clock that wouldn’t work for you, because you would be unemployed, and would be dropped by all your friend because they couldn’t stand the fact that you never kept dates with them. Irksome as it is, accepting the 24-hour clock gives you the result that you want. If you preferred being an unemployed recluse you would indeed reject the 24-hour clock.

    I don’t think “works for me” means “gratifies me” or “is easy for me”. But I think it does imply something subjective. In Rahner’s case he wanted to “understand the deep questions of life” and “to live nobly”, and given these desires he found nothing better for satisfying them than Catholic Christianity. If his deepest desire, however, had been to understand all that is in terms of a material essence, he would rapidly have abandoned Catholicism.

    Faith is ultimately a choice. I cannot prove, even to myself, with 100% irrefutable certainty, that the universe is sustained by an all-loving God so I must acknowledge the possibility that, objectively, it isn’t. But I choose to live as though the universe was sustained by an all-loving God ultimately because that is the universe I want to live in. I’ll take the risk of being wrong.

  3. Mr. Schütz,

    The Roman Catechism contains a helpful passage on the proper distinction between ‘believing in’ and ‘believing that’ (in the context of article nine of the Creed, but applicable to other ‘believing that’ contexts too):

    “We are, therefore, bound to believe that there is one Holy Catholic Church. With regard to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we not only believe them, but also believe in them. But here we make use of a different form of expression, professing to believe the holy, not in the holy Catholic Church. By this difference of expression we distinguish God, the author of all things, from His works, and acknowledge that all the exalted benefits bestowed on the Church are due to God’s bounty.”
    [my italics, added for clarity,

    So, contrary to what you wrote, it is not true that

    “When we confess the creed, we are not saying that we believe THAT God created the heavens and the earth
    [your emphasis]

    because we do confess that we believe that God created the Church–and the heavens and the earth–and that he forgives sins, raises the dead and gives everlasting life.

    Furthermore, you, and Peregrinus, seem to conflate the virtues of Faith and Hope in your respective notions of

    our faith IN (ie. our trust IN) God
    [your emphasis]


    “[Peregrinus] suggest[s] that “belief” becomes “faith” when [he] act?[s] in trust or reliance on the truth of [his] belief.”


    I am disturbed at some of the things which you have written here, and I hope that when you write in the first person (“I”, “my”) it is as a colloquial alternative for the formal third person (“one’s”). You write that

    “I suggest that “belief” becomes “faith” when I act? in trust or reliance on the truth of my belief. In that sense, my belief doesn’t have to be a certainty for it to mature into faith.”

    On the contrary, one’s natural reasoning must be elevated to the supernatural certainty that no compelling objection could ever be raised against the truths of the Faith in order for one to have the virtue of Faith. So to be blunt, for one to be “dogged all [one’s] life by a nagging suspicion that God doesn’t really exist” is to go through life without the virtue of Faith, without which it is impossible to please God (cf. St. Paul; I can’t remember chapter and verse).

    And to say that

    “I may be dogged all my life by a nagging suspicion that God doesn’t really exist/doesn’t really love me, but if I choose to live trusting in the reality of a loving God then I have faith”

    is to turn faith into wishful thinking and to commit the sins of infidelity (to say that “God doesn’t really exist”) and despair (to say that God “doesn’t really love me”). You add that

    “But the fact that I acknowledge that risk, and trust in God anyway, is an aspect of my faith.”

    But a neo-atheist would rightly say that if that’s faith then faith is a delusion; surely you can see the absurdity in what you have written–how does one trust in someone who might not even exist?!

    And your last paragraph is an astonishing mixture of fideism, voluntarism, agnosticism and outright wishful thinking. Why would anyone convert to something like that? How could that ever win over people like many of the commenters at the following website:


    • Schütz says:

      I should clarify, your Eminence, that I was not denying that the creed requires us to believe “THAT God created the heavens and the earth”, just that the verb “credo” is in reference to the act of believing “IN the God who created the heavens and the earth”. No denial of doctrine was intended.

      • “No denial of doctrine was intended.”

        Let me clarify too–I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you deny those doctrines, it’s just that in your post you seemed to say that they were at best only implicit in the Creed, whereas my comment was to show that they are explicit.

        • Schütz says:

          Of course they are. You and I are not in disagreement on this fact. I was simply pointing out that, at the base of it, the Rules of Faith are primarily statements of personal faith “IN” the Triune God of whom all these statements are true. My secondary point was precisely that you cannot have true faith without the essential content of the belief “THAT” the Triune God acts in these ways.

  4. Tom says:

    It is an interesting question, but I am inclined to answer it in this way (it may be far too simplistic though).

    Belief, in so far as humans believe (give credence to) anything is simply relating to what we are prepared to accept is true. One might say ‘I believe in God, but I hate him’. Or, one might say ‘I believe that Jesus Christ was a man who lived and walked and taught on this Earth 2000 years ago, but he was nothing more than a man.’

    If someone were to say these things, I would be able to challenge what they say, because a belief is founded on something – a teaching, an historical fact, an interpretation. One can engage in a reasonable discourse, pointing to contradictions, or how idea’s that don’t really sit well together are being made bed-buddies.

    Alternatively, Faith is not so much a determined belief, but a disposition to hope in heaven. Thus, faced with a reality that I believe to be true, I respond not with despair (such as with loss etc.) but instead can respond, faced with this situation, with the virtue of faith. A disposition that, faced with a situation I cannot accept, I hope for heaven and stay on my Cross.

    The translation of the word habitus as disposition instead of habit, is because the word habit in modern English is a mindless task, like picking your nose or biting your fingernails. A disposition is an integrated choice made reasonably, as the result of an experience to reasonably choose in this way. Kind of a part-way between a potentiality and an actuality. Faith is a disposition because it is a virtue, and a virtue is a disposition to choose the good. it is a theological virtue, however, as opposed to natural.

    It is often described in terms of ‘trusting God’, and while this is a good description, it leaves a lot of gray area.

    It is true that I have couched this in distinctly Christian terms – it could be made Jewish by a disposition to hope in the Covenant.

    I do not, however, think that it can be made Muslim or Bhuddist etc. A Muslim belief is not about a disposition to hope for heaven, it is about obedience to an imposition (as far as I understand it). A Bhuddist does not hope for heaven, in fact he does not hope at all, rather he seeks discipline in the excellent eight-fold path.

    It is similar to the question of does every religion lead to Salvation? Well the answer (I think) is plainly no; not every religion wants salvation – it is the Jewish and Christian religions that seek salvation. Muslims seek obedience, Buddhists seek Nirvana (nothingness) and Hindu’s seek Reincarnation.

    Maybe that’s broadening the scope of the question too much, but it does seem that it is a question of the same vein.

    Back to the issue at hand though – what is the relationship between belief and faith? I think there is a very important relationship; one cannot be so disposed to hope in heaven, if one has not been taught (and thus believes) that heaven is to be hoped for. If someone is convinced that their life is good, they are happy as they are and don’t need salvation from sin, then their belief prevents faith before it has begun. This is a real problem for the Church today I think. Too many priests and Bishops are wary of standing in front of congregations and saying the truth – you are sinners. It is important to believe that one is a sinner, or salvation (and heaven) will never be hoped for.

    Of course, it is also my opinion that we actually ARE sinners, and as I said earlier, false beliefs can be tested against the facts. For someone who does not believe them self a sinner, it takes a (VERY VERY gentle) hand to introduce them to the commandments, the Law and the reality of their life. But, thankfully, the task is not wholly ours :) Only the saying, not the convincing is our job.

    That aside said and done; I do not think you can talk of the Muslim faith, but the Muslim belief. This is mostly because the term faith being used in regards to a religion is a Judeo-Christian term. Other religions do not seek faith in God, they seek a bargain, or a discipline, or a reward.

    Christianity thinks of faith in a very distinct way; the term belongs to the historical religion that came from Abraham and passed down through the people Israel, to the New Jerusalem, the new people of Israel, the Church.

  5. Kiran says:

    I think it is the Faith as a whole which is given. What is offered is a continual relationship with the Living God. Outside of this, the use of the word “faith” is a little equivocal in the scholastic sense.

  6. Louise says:

    Are you *certain* fairies don’t exist? I rather like the idea of them being in the bottom of my garden.

  7. Schütz says:

    Thanks for all that, guys. I agree with it for the most part. I think what I was really reacting against was the idea that seeemed to be implied:

    1) “Faith” = good. And everyone has faith of some kind or else they would be contemplating suicide.

    2) “Belief” (in the sense of doctrine to which one gives assent) = secondary, subjective, optional, relative, possibly negative, interchangable, not ultimate.

    In one sense it is the result of Rahner’s apophatic spirituality with Von Balthasar’s kataphatic faith: one emphasises that you can’t ultimately say anything certain about God and so anything you might say is ultimately relative, the other emphasises that God became a particular human being at a particular time in history with a particular name and – in particular – died on a cross and rose again and lives and reigns as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

    There is, I think, a difference. Certainly for whether or not you ought to be engaged in evangelisation.

    • Tom says:

      “one emphasises that you can’t ultimately say anything certain about God and so anything you might say is ultimately relative.”

      I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Things are only ultimately relative (and i emphasise ultimately) if we permit the oblique and eternal asking of ‘why’. Unless we arrive at a certain point where we accept some indemonstrable and self-evident principles then EVERYTHING is ultimately relative. The thing is, those self-evident principles can be reasonably well established, and infact all people do hold to a few of them. To be and not be simultaneously is impossible; To do and pursue good and avoid evil are two very good examples.

      These are often called the First Principle of Theoretical Reason (or principle of non-contradiction) and the First Principle of Practical Reason. I bring these up because their ultimate intelligibility is God; now i’m stepping into rational knowledge of God (that is still in pure reason, sans revelation) at this point but it is worth saying.

      In so far as i can know the FPPR & FPTR, their intelligibility requires a principle which we call God. If we choose to obliquely reject this and say well, no i don’t KNOW that it is impossible to both be and not be simultaneously, then yes that’s true. Only in so far as utterly NOTHING at all, in any subject, in regards to any object can be known, ever.

      This is the difficulty: i will only concede ultimate relativism once ultimate relativism has conceded that it is impossible; because ultimately (i’m using the word a lot), relativism must be a form of knowledge.

      Given that, it is possible to say some things about God, that all people should be able to agree on, if they are willing to approach the subject reasonably. Saying ‘i don’t like the analogia entis because it’s wierd’ (yes, i have been given that criticism) or because it’s negative knowledge or whatever else is simply not sufficient. There is no way to say I am unable to say God exists, without either throwing out all the rest of knowledge, or without drawing an arbitrary line as to what is known and not known.

      It is something that the world really needs to come to terms with – if we have an accident in our knowing and thinking, rather than just pretend therefore that nothing is knowable or thinkable, why not acknowledge our mistake. What kills me, more than ANYTHING else, is people say ‘yeah evolution exists,’ but in the same breath they also say ‘i can’t know God exists’ not realising that they have accepted inductive evidence on one hand and then arbitrarily rejected it on the other. (Evolution here is understood to mean the principle of change in living things)

      Our society MUST escape relativism, even if through ordinary language philosophy where we say ‘fine, maybe we can’t ultimately know, but now how are you going to act?’

      It’s like people who can, if they really try, doubt they have a body. I wonder though, if i stab a knife in their chest, whether their doubted body will still be doubtable – and more to the point whether they would continue to act as thought they had no body.

      I really, really, REALLY hate Descartes.

      NB: re-reading your comment, i’m not sure if the part i quoted at the start was your statement, or your quote of Balthasar. I choose to still post because I just went to the effort of typing this up :)

      • Kiran says:

        Tom, yes. As usual, I agree with your analysis, with one minor caveat. As far as I can see, one can self-consistently be a relativist and a solipsist, but only in a Nietzschean “Anything goes” kind of a universe. Relativism doesn’t claim to be a kind of knowledge, only a kind of activity. In a sense, I can appreciate it because it is an attack on the enlightenment, the twilight of the great god of science.

        But ultimately, yes, without God, there is no ontology. But denial of ontology, however accepted, is really unacceptable.

  8. Kiran says:

    I think that belief in the incarnation implies a belief in the ability of our words to communicate the Word.

  9. Peregrinus says:

    “Symbol system” is a bit scary if it implies that “symbol” = “not real”.

    The resurrection, for example, is not a just symbol for something which is beyond our expression or understanding; it is a reality. My faith in the resurrection is not simply faith a metaphor for a supernatural, but inexpressible, transformation of reality; it’s faith in the resurrection as a real event.

    And yet what I believe about the resurrection, what I understand of it, may not be correct. There is a sense in which my belief may be false.

    As a ten-year-old, I understood the resurrection as the corpse of Jesus reviving, rising from the tomb, walking about and being seen by people, and eventually ascending into heaven by physically rising into the air until it disappeared from the sight of those left on the ground.

    Where did it go after that? I didn’t ask myself that question, that I can recall. If I did, I would have answered it “to Heaven”, without thinking too much about the physicality of that. I didn’t think of heaven as a particularly high region of the sky; like any ten-year-old boy I knew all about space rockets, and the moon, and the solar system, and I knew that however far you went in a spaceship you wouldn’t get to heaven that way.

    Now I have to admit that I know rather less about the resurrection. I still affirm that it was a real event – a real, material event. There really was an empty tomb. The followers of Jesus really did encounter him, in his real, material body, with a head and torso and arms and legs and so forth. This was not an illusion, still less a metaphor.

    But I also affirm that the resurrection is a continuing reality. Jesus is still risen, still alive, still incarnate. And yet nowadays we don’t encounter Jesus in a material body (in the head-and-torso-and-arms-and-legs sense; we certainly encounter him bodily in the Eucharist). Nor do I imagine that the head/torso/arms/legs body of Jesus is somewhere in outer space, on the same trajectory away from the earth that it began on Ascension Thursday two thousand years ago.

    So the reality of the risen Jesus is not (and, I think, never was) limited to his resurrection within the identifiable unique human body of Jesus. And an understanding of the resurrection framed only in my ten-year-old terms is wrong, because incomplete and inappropriately limited; it’s correct as far as it goes, but it denies the present reality of the resurrection. Yet there are undoubtedly Christians today – including, of course, ten-year-old Christians – who have this belief in the resurrection.

    In other words, I can have faith, real faith, in a belief which is in fact wrong. In that sense my belief may well be a “symbol”; it approaches the truth, or points to the truth, without actually being the truth itself. And while my 47-year-old belief has developed some way beyond my 10-year-old belief, I do not delude myself that it has achieved a final, objective truth. It is still a symbol.

  10. Mark Samuel-King says:

    The point here is that we cannot ascribe a separate value judgement to someone’s fides qua – what Rahner seems to have regarded as “faith” as opposed to “belief” – apart from their fides quae. For unless one’s “faith” is grounded in reality, unless it is built upon the solid foundation of things as they really are,…”

    I think that the above might be a misunderstanding of Rahner, he would say:”It is not difficult to see why the act of faith includes acceptance of the content of revelation as true. Man can only be saved by participation in the saving event of Christ (Acts 4:2; Rom 1:16; 3:22-28; 6:1-9; 10:9, 10; Jn 3:14, 16 36; 20:31); but it is impossible to share in this event without believing in its reality. The cognitive character of faith is an expression of the reality of the mystery of Christ; one cannot be main¬tained without the other. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (i Cor 15:14, 17); which means that faith apprehends the death and resurrection of Christ as real. Faith lives by the reality of its object, which is God’s saving intervention in Christ. But for this reality the act of faith would have no content; it would be reduced to a purely subjective act. ” p 501 Encyclopedia of Theology

    • Schütz says:

      Dear Mark,

      Thank you for this reference – but I think you are quoting the wrong author.

      Karl Rahner edited the “Encyclopedia of Theology”. It can be found here on google books:


      If you go to the entry on “Faith” you will find that it has four parts. The first part IS written by Rahner, and appears basically to be the approach as the speaker in my post described it.

      The second, third and fourth parts are written by one Juan Alfaro, and appears to be at odds with the section that Rahner wrote.

      Your quotation comes from Alfaro, not Rahner. And for the record, I agree entirely with Alfaro’s analysis, especially his starting point at II:1 on page 501:

      “1. Dimensions of faith. God has revealed himself to man in his Son made man…”

      and his assertion on page 502 at II:3:

      “3. Faith as Christocentric. At the heart of faith we find Christ the Son of God made man and the saviour of the world.”

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