The Meaning of 'Belief'

As part of my seminar course at the university this fall, I was given a great article to read: On Faith, by the German philosopher, Josef Pieper. The essay is a beautiful summary of what we should mean when we say ‘I believe.’ “To believe,” writes Pieper, “always means: to believe someone and to believe something… The believer—in the strict sense of the word—accepts a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else. That is, in essence, the concept of belief.”

In this simple diagram, a key distinction of belief is laid out, namely that faith requires belief in both someone and something. “These twin elements [however]…are not to be taken as a structureless parallel, a mere coordinate existence of the two elements side by side. It may very well happen that one person can accept as true something another says without necessarily believing the other.” For example, in a courtroom, the jury believes what a person says not because the witness has integrity, but because the report of the situation aligns with demonstrated evidence. This, however, is not ‘belief’ in the pure sense. Instead, it is a scientific knowledge based on facts that simply coincide with someone (i.e. the witness) attempting to persuade with mere words. “Thus this certainty has nothing to do with belief.”

Instead, if a believing person is asked to indicate what he believes, “he would not need to name the individual items of his creed; but if he wished to be perfectly precise, he would have to point to his authority and reply: ‘I believe what that person has said.’… If we pursue this consistently, it follows that belief itself is not yet ‘purely’ achieved when someone accepts as truth the statement of one whom he trusts, but only when he accepts it for the simple reason that the trusted person states it. That, of course, is an extreme position, which seems almost to verge upon unreality.”

In short, the basis for faith on the human level can be neither factual (since that is simply ‘knowledge’) nor completely blind (since that is not rational). However, I would venture to say that we all desire a pure belief in something, since it is a beautiful thing to believe whole-heartedly in a reality that we cannot prove; really, it seems to be an innate desire of the human person (viz. friendships, love, etc.).

It is precisely this intersection of something super-rational—pure belief—and something absolutely human—the desire for pure belief—that is reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ: God-made-man alone is sufficient in fulfilling both desires, which would otherwise oppose one another and frustrate us to no end. Even in strictly philosophical terms, the utter necessity of a Savior is demonstrated, precisely because of his ability to announce the Father’s will and subsequently uphold his own credibility: through his Passion, death and Resurrection, but also through his necessary, metaphysical reality as ‘mediator between God and man.’ If we desire belief—and truly passionate, human belief at that—we must look no further than the person of Jesus Christ.

[J. Pieper, “On Faith. A Philosophical Treatise,” in Faith, Hope, Love, San Francisco, 1997. Section II.]