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Reclaiming faith from the props of belief


Angel at the empty tomb from St Paul's Church, Dayton Ohio

David Tacey reflects on faith and belief. Andrew Hamilton replies.

I remember the moment well. I was 14, and attending church with my parents in my home town of Alice Springs.

We were reciting creeds and the priest was telling us about the Virgin Birth as if it were a literal, historical event, and suddenly I had the feeling that I was in the presence of wrong thinking. These miracles and wonders, I felt, were not historical facts, but literary metaphors invented by scripture writers.

My sister reached a similar conclusion at the same time, but we had different responses. She decided that religion was nonsense and threw it out, becoming 'atheist' and 'enlightened', and encouraged me to do likewise.

But I thought then, as now, that her response was far too extreme. We need to regard the miracles and wonders as metaphors of the life of the spirit, and of the spirit's ability to transform our lives. I was not willing to throw out Jesus or God once I realised that many of the stories were symbolic configurations.

I thought then, as now, that we were in desperate need of separating genuine faith from superstitious belief. The Church seemed to encourage us to believe faith and belief were synonymous. If one challenged the miracles, one was 'losing faith' and moving from God. I felt this was brainwashing conducted under the mantle of sanctity. Such thinking makes a mockery of our intelligence.

Imagine my delight when, years later, I discovered several traditions that explored the scriptures as a mixture of myth and history. These included scripture studies, anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy of religion, and progressive Protestant theology, such as that of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich.

But I hardly ever found any Catholic theology that saw the foundational 'events' of the Christian story as myths and symbols. Rather, most Catholics assumed that events such as the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection, walking on water and so on were historical. The more ancient Christian tradition is deeply entrenched in literal thinking and harder to turn around.

These miraculous 'events' were originally written as parables and understood as such in the early years of the fledgling Church. But when this Near Eastern religion was exported to the West, it was read with literal eyes, and its spiritual meaning was lost. The West did not understand Jewish sacred conventions, the importance of symbol, myth and midrash in narrating stories.

One can only understand Christianity in its Jewish context. As a rabbi said recently, Judaism has never interpreted its stories literally, unlike Christianity, which has lost millions of people throughout the educated world due to the fact that most of us cannot swallow its obtuse literalism.

We were told to 'believe' God could perform miracles and wonders that went beyond our understanding, but this was a false lead in terms of what we now know about sacred discourse in the holy lands.

We must remember that this literalism was used against other religions to prove the supremacy of Christianity in ancient and modern contexts. The Churches have said: our religion is unique, because our major events are historically true, whereas the contents of other religions are mythical. So a great deal hangs on the assumption, or assertion, that Christian miracles are factually true. It has been used as a trump card in the fight against other traditions.

The irony of this situation is that what boosted religion hundreds of years ago — the claim to being historical — is what has turned the majority of Europeans and Australians off religion in recent times. The boasts about literal truth 'worked' only when we were uneducated, but as soon as education swept through Western nations, Christians abandoned their religion in droves. The thinking was: If you can't believe half of it, why believe any of it?

The persuasiveness of this religion has backfired, and it will have to be rebuilt on a different basis. The new emphasis will have to be on faith rather than belief.

Instead of arguing that the miracles are facts, the new churches will have to try to explain that they are symbols that point to the life of the spirit. This will involve a massive about-face and much rethinking. 

Faith will have to stand alone, without the props of belief. We will need to discover that we can have a relationship with Jesus without the literal idea that his physical body lifted off into the heavens above. Somewhere in Palestine lay the bones of Jesus, and this cannot be allowed to destroy our faith in Jesus as redeemer or God as living reality. We now have to radically reshape our faith message.

David TaceyDavid Tacey is Emeritus Professor of Literature at La Trobe University and Research Professor of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Canberra. The latest of his 14 books on religion, myth, literature and spirituality is Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor.

Flickr image from user frted



A reply from Andrew Hamilton

Thank you, David, for this very clear exposition of your understanding of faith and of how we should see and communicate it today. I am grateful, too, for this opportunity to correct a misunderstanding that some took from my Eureka Street review of your book Beyond Literal Belief.

In the review I spoke of the foundations in which my own faith in God and in Christ is grounded. Those lines led some to believe and say that in my judgment you deny the existence of God — are an atheist — and do not write as a Christian.

I was horrified by that misunderstanding. Indeed, I totally repudiate that description of your book and your own beliefs. If we differ in the account we give of Christian faith, as we do, the difference is between two people who are both theists and Christians, and can be courteously discussed.

I deplore the desire in many circles to simplify people's opinions by putting a single-word label on them, such as atheist, gnostic, feminist, homophobic, communist, and so on, and then to set them against other labels such as orthodoxy, the Gospel, evangelical truth. From there it is a short step, without reading or reflection, to declare them pernicious and to exclude those labelled from being heard.

This is neither just nor charitable, nor does it respect the splendour of the truth. Truth needs to shine out, and does so in conversation, not by being put in the safe and the key thrown away.

So, I want to acknowledge again the contribution you have made to faith in Australia by engaging with the currents in our culture, including an aggressive atheism, that lead so many young people to reject religion and a spiritual dimension in life. Your seminars and talks have helped many people to appreciate the deep meanings of the Christian message that would otherwise be hidden from them.

I value this contribution and hope you will continue to make it.

Of course, in our interpretation of Christian faith, we differ on many points. And so in your exposition these are the points at which I think we diverge and would merit further discussion. I shall simply list them without arguing a case. Because language is elusive and slippery when speaking of faith, I shall state them tentatively. To what extent we differ and to what extent we are emphasising different aspects of the same reality would need much more discussion.

I would emphasise much more strongly the continuity within the New Testament, between Eastern and Western tradition, and between the faith and beliefs of the early Church communities and those today than you do, whereas you would emphasise the discontinuity. There are, of course, elements of both.

I would emphasise the mutual interdependence of faith and belief, where you emphasise the difference between them. Again, both aspects need to be recognised.

I would emphasise the unique reality of Christ's Resurrection as an act of God that affected Jesus, whereas you would rule out in principle the idea of God intervening in our world. Both of us, however, would want to describe the Resurrection symbolically.

Finally, I would locate faith and belief as held and handed on within the continuing structured Christian community, with all its faults. I think you would locate faith more strongly within the individual believer.

These are differences. To what extent these differences make a difference, and which judgments are best supported by the available evidence, of course, would be a matter for further conversation.  

But for the moment let me conclude by emphasising again what we share in common, and reasserting the common challenge we have both accepted: to share the riches of Christian faith to our generation in a way that is Good News for the mind and heart.

Topic tags: David Tacey, religion, theology, Christianity, literature



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Existing comments

While I appreciate the non-combative, generous, way in which you, Andrew, have responded to David, (a style that many respondents including myself might well emulate), I fear, with respect, that you have side-stepped the main point that David is making. Miracles don't happen, but until one accepts that one will never find truth in the myth.

Ginger Meggs | 05 June 2015  

I've no aversion to using "labels" that have a foundation in reality and are fittingly applied- for instance, the word "gnostic" that mind-set that disconnects the incarnation of Christ (the basis of Christian revelation) and, by implication, its manifestation in the powerful signs and wonders that announce and effect the arrival of the kingdom of God in history - i.e., miracles. These primal epiphanies of God's presence and power recorded in the gospels both elicit and confirm Christian faith and should not be confused with dispensable "props" or "superstition" (false belief-claims) - at least, if the Church;s apostolic and patristic tradition is to be upheld. Nor is belief in miracles irrational or at odds with human intelligence - there is much in life that exceeds reason's powers, but it is more accurate to say, it seems to me, that such phenomena transcend reason's full grasp than to pronounce them irrational. Does David Tacey really think that in the interests of reaching and convincing a modern audience essential works of Christ can be dispensed with or 'de-mythologised' in the Bultmannian sense and still proclaim the received truth about Christ and his message with integrity and authenticity? I would also question the assumption that contemporary unbelief in Australia rests mainly on opposition to a traditional understanding of miracles - apathy, indifference, materialism, ignorance and much publicised hypocrisy connected with clerical paedophilia would rate ahead of disbelief in miracles in my estimation.

John Kelly | 05 June 2015  

A friend of mine, a former Catholic nun, could not accept her superiors teaching only selected Church truths. She left the Church. David Tacey says his sister too left the Church but, “I was not willing to throw out Jesus or God”. He teaches and writes on religion. I had greater respect for my friend’s moral reasoning than that of her superiors. If the Church was wrong, she said, either the Holy Spirit erred, or Christ had been untruthful and had not sent the Holy Spirit. Both propositions she found untenable. In addition, if Church teachings were not divinely preserved, then all were subject to human fallibility and none could be trusted. So too any “massive about-face” in Church teaching, as suggested by David Tacey, must be man-made and fallible. The “educated world” now accepts contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, is debt-ridden, and faces a demographic winter and a rising Islam. “They made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened”. (Romans, 1:21-23) The ex-nun, Karen Armstrong, has spent a lifetime writing on religion. The atheist Richard Dawkins recently suggested that she was actually an atheist but didn’t know it. The theologian Albert Mohler agreed with Dawkins.

Ross Howard | 06 June 2015  

I think the great Flannery O'Connor ("The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor") might have wanted to say something to Prof. Tacey ... "I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it." That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

HH | 08 June 2015  

Mmmm interesting debate my belief is that our faith is heavily symbolic but the committing of miracles is a core reality having personally seen two myself. There are those that have faith or no faith in Christs existence I just know He exists as a fact. Regards Paul

Paul Camilleri | 08 June 2015  

First we think it's all parables; then we think it's all true; then we think it's all myths; then we think some of it's OK; now? The world of hardware doesn't seem to provide the certainty we want. God provides us with relational answers. Looking at many people's beliefs in the West right now looks like they are diving back into "myth" and "symbol" thinking. Christianity looks like it's about trusting those with whom one has a relationship with not "real" or "mythical" stuff.

Rose | 08 June 2015  

Imagination and sympathy are essential tools for me when reading the Bible. We approach our faith as individuals but live it out in community. The importance of mystery in the biblical narratives shouldn't be underestimated. To me, David shows a deep appreciation of the power of faith. Andy's reply is courteous and thoughtful, appreciative of another person's view. This sort of dialogue will help in the battle for hearts and minds.

Pam | 08 June 2015  

I think the pressing problem here concerns our understanding of what religious langauage is for. Is it about relaying some facts, or is it concerned with more than that? (Which is not to exclude factuality, but not to let it become an unhealthy fettish, either). There is more to the truth than facts: things like love, hope, healing, reconciliation etc., Perhaps our texts are not so much about recording a history, as to sign-posting a future: a guide, or map, designed to lead us into genuine, historical experiences, as we step into the imaginative world the language unfolds. As we engage, explore, play, and pray together in that langauge, in that imaginative world, the point is not so much to encounter historical facts but to begin to discover and embody transformational possibilities for ourselves and our world. It seems to me metaphor is the most appropriate language for that kind of dynamic in language.

Lisa | 08 June 2015  

From a young age in the midst of a Catholic school education I found the stories coming from an ancient culture (the Old Testament) similar to those in the large books of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, along with the magical stuff from the Arabian culture like flying carpets, genies in bottles and fabulous treasure troves that opened in response to a magical instruction from a band of brigands. It was difficult to believe in a talking snake that damned me forever in original sin, bread falling from heaven, bushes bursting into spontaneous flame (although I did come to discover that such bushes producing an inflammable resin did in certain climatic conditions spontaneously combust). I didn't have the same problem with belief when it came to the New Testament in that the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth did claim to be God and pulled off some very impressive demonstrations in the matter of life and death and the cures of illness to prove his point. The world of Medicine in which I have lived since leaving school is intimately entwined with life, death and belief, and the interactions between the three. Medicine has been witness to some stunning cures of illness beyond its capabilities and understanding, well- recorded in the literature. Often such cures seem to occur in response to a concerted effort to enlist God's help at shrines of religious significance such as Lourdes. Some are stunning, such as deformities disappearing within minutes, terminal disease cured in the face of impending death without any medical treatment and often with conversion of many witnessing non-believers to a belief in God. It is very difficult indeed to say that some of these events are mere delusions in the minds of those who witness them. (One might recall the doubt of the apostle Thomas), I reckon the biggest mistake the Catholic Church has ever made is in putting all the old stories together with the earthly life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and calling the whole thing, The Bible, the word of God. This has caused more human distress and conflict than it is worth. Should stick with the New Testament. And for those who don't believe in miracles every now and then, it would be greatly helpful to modern Medicine and mankind if they would please explain the inexplicable cures we see in Medicine thereby increasing our understanding and thus enabling the cure of the sick and untreatable for whom no known cure currently exists. Incidentally, I have never relied on miracles to cure my patients. I don't believe we humans have any purchase over miracles, not through prayer, devotion or any other attachment to God. I reckon miracles fall into his domain not ours and for reasons over which we have no control nor understanding.. But they do happen.

john frawley | 08 June 2015  

I read both statements - very academic observances and hard for someone with a simple faith to take in. For me, Jesus lived; I can understand the symbolism in the parables but what symbolism is there in the miracles? They either happened or they didn't. You believe in them or you discount them. The Resurrection is the core belief of a Christian - if you don't believe it happened what is the point of calling yourself a Christian? Questioning of what is written in the bible and trying to put an 'educated' slant on it only confuses people. Thank God my faith is simple: Reciting the Creed at Mass is my commitment to being a follower of Jesus.

Pat | 08 June 2015  

I loved Re-enchantment. A great book. Now this one: The problem with academics of disciplines other than theology studying Christianity and Scripture at a high level is that they are not theologically literate. David needs to study Theology to correct many of the simple errors in this book. The Bible is a faith document and a library. It is neither just poetry or just history. It was meant to be read in worship by the faithful, and it contains history, faith history, poetry, wisdom sayings, direct speech, redacted passages, theology, prophesy, psalms, songs, parables, stories, remembrances, illustrations, accounts of miraculous healings, mythological passages, visions and dreams. There are more categories, but I have insufficient space. I like David Tacey. I like the way he thinks and writes. I like that he is keeping the rumour of God alive in Australia. But his latest book is so very flawed.

Chris | 08 June 2015  

A lot more work is needed on the Limits of human intelligence. With the advances in science and technology we tend to exaggerate its power. When we consider really profound matters in both science and religion, we can 'see' things only by way of analogy, be it as myth, parable, metaphor or symbol. St Thomas Aquinas pointed this out regarding any concept we have of God. Science deals the same way with sub-atomic 'particles' which are also sometimes regarded as 'waves'. Because they seem to have attributes of both some want to say they are both. But they cannot be both, because waves and particles have mutually exclusive properties. They are something else in their own right that we do not (yet?) understand. The use of those analogies is useful so long as they are not taken literally. 'Weird' quantum theory is more so. As an eminent physicist said, 'Quantum mechanics is just an algorithm. Use it. It works, don't worry.' The same can be said of religions. They work within their communities. But if they claim literal interpretations, they cause disputes, wars and genocides. We need to examine the Anatomy of Faith, Belief, and Religion.

Robert Liddy | 09 June 2015  

The sort of faith David seems to advocate is very much that of someone with a tertiary education and an interest in academic theology of which he is a distinguished example. I don't think the average befuddled Christian would be aware of who Rudolph Bultmann or Paul Tillich were or what they thought. The big problem for these people is when they face the great void of death without any real understanding and considerable fear. I think a simple French peasant of former times, someone uneducated in our modern sense but highly intelligent and with a wide experience of real life, who sat in silent contemplation in church for long periods, being "in the presence of God" as he or she would say, might be able to tell the aforesaid wonderers a thing or two. Much Christian, or Jewish or Muslim, religious life is not intellectual per se but an attempt to feel the reality of God. This does not make it unintelligent. I think many people are looking for a connection with God. The recognised mystics of the Western Christian tradition, such as St Theresa of Avila or St John of the Cross, were often highly intelligent but did not get their religious experience just from books. I think Christianity is a way which needs to be discovered.

Edward Fido | 09 June 2015  

Edward Fido:" religious life is not intellectual per se but an attempt to feel the reality of God." The Followers of the Way felt the Presence of God in the Universal Love generated by their practice of The Way, and inspired millions to embrace it. . "I think many people are looking for a connection with God." Unfortunately too many are, as it were, seeking to 'Use' God for their own benefit, either individually or as a religion. Whenever ungodly actions are used to promote or protect a religion, it is a sure sign that the Presence of God has been lost. ." I think Christianity is a way which needs to be discovered." It seems it will only be discovered when the self-seeking element is eliminated, and no reward is sought except to promote the Greater Glory of God.

Robert Liddy | 09 June 2015  

With respect to Dr Tacey: if he is correctly termed a Christian, then I'm manifestly not a Christian! For I hope and pray I would die in defence of the historical resurrection of Our Lord, and, with Flannery O'Connor above, the doctrine of the Real Presence. What's to be gained by saying that our two religions are the same, when Dr Tacey sincerely abhors my position as I do his?

HH | 09 June 2015  

The resurrection of Christ is not an historical event. It is an eschatological event and therefore out side of history. The empty tomb and the various reactions of the disciples to the empty tomb lie within history. Poor scholarship is a dodgy peg on which to pin one's 'Christianity,'

David Timbs | 09 June 2015  

"On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures".

HH | 09 June 2015  

We must remember that in Greek "faith" and"belief" are the same word (pistis- noun) As we read the New Testament we are soon made aware that the early churches belief system emerged from the tensions that occured between Semitic,Greek and Persian and later Roman cultures.

john ozanne | 09 June 2015  

Creedal proclamations that, namely faith statements not commentary on history. The resurrection of Christ was of the Eschaton, not history. The empty tomb belongs to history and their statements of faith were made in history. are not

David Timbs | 10 June 2015  

One day, hopefully soon, the atheistic-materialistic paradigm that has dominated Western thought for nearly two centuries will collapse when a scientific consensus is finally reached that we live are spiritual beings who live in a spiritual universe. Establishment science, despite some vicious rear-guard actions by intellectual dinosaurs such as career-atheists like Richard Dawkins, will grudgingly accept that such phenomena as out-of-the-body-experiences, reincarnation, encounters with spectral beings such as ghosts and a host of lower-level psychic phenomena (telepathy, ESP, telekinisis etc) are true, not merely due to fraud or delusions etc. This will occur as the weight of evidence for such phenomena continues to accumulate and the defenders of the old atheistic paradigm die off and are replaced by scientists more ready to accept spiritual realities. Paradigms usually change when the defenders of the old ones die, not change their minds. When the prevailing AM paradigm changes the miracles described in the Bible will be seen in a new light - as events which may have occurred (allowing for embellishments and distortions over the millennia). And when this takes place one hopes that the rather sad and sometimes pathetic compromises that established religion has been making in modern times to accommodate the findings of established science will fade away. No more will there be calls by Christians such as David Tacey for “the new faith [having] to be based on faith rather than belief [or reason]” or for the miracles to be seen in merely “symbolic” terms. But the re-emergence of a spiritual paradigm won’t mean plain sailing for mainstream religion. The latter’s challenge will be to explain why so much pointless and destructive human suffering is allowed to occur in a spiritual universe where so many powerful spiritual beings exist that could ameliorate it. The shop-worn doctrines of original sin, karma or the New Age ones about suffering being a “learning experience” won’t cut it.

Dennis | 10 June 2015  

The following post mistakenly appears on another thread: If, as David Timbs suggests, there is a disconnect between eschatology and history, what are we to make of Jesus's post-resurrection appearances and the hope these manifestations engender in the early Church and God's pilgrim people throughout history? Perhaps there are possibilities for the use of CH Dodd's "realised eschatology" in a theological description of the resurrection?

John Kelly | 10 June 2015  

The CCC discusses the Resurrection under the heading "The historical *and* transcendent event" at n.639 (my emphasis). It's a false dichotomy to oppose faith statements of the Church to any historical event. When I profess every Sunday that Jesus was born, or suffered under Pontius Pilate, or was crucified, died and buried, my faith statement's content is precisely that these are historical events, which nevertheless have a significance transcending history that I can perceive only with the assistance of divine revelation. If I find out that they didn't happen as a matter of history, then with Flannery O'Connor, I will say "to hell with it". And if that makes me not a Christian, so be it - I'll happily go off with the Catechism, and the saints, doctors and councils of the Church down the ages.

HH | 10 June 2015  

You'll be in reliable and plentiful company, HH.

John Kelly | 10 June 2015  

There was no doubt among Jesus' contemporary Jews[eg Josephus] and pagans Tacitus Suetonius Julius Africanus Pliny the Younger that Jesus had a belief system. The proliferation of Christian churches bespeaks repudiation or "bettering" of His system. The notion of a purist non credal Jesus movement is unsustainable. Ironically a non credal 'jesus -belief-system' would itself constitute an unsustainable credal article in its own right! And today Jesus's belief system, stands authoritatively sustained by His Church [Mt 16: 17-19]

Father John George | 11 June 2015  

Do you really mean Double H, ithat David Tacey can't be a Christian because he doesn't share your beliefs? Oh for such infallible insight.

Ginger Meggs | 11 June 2015  

Less than a week since the feast of Corpus Christi, I continue to reflect on the miracle of the Eucharistic bread and wine, not for me what the literalist celebrating priest told us, that on some occasions the wine becomes real blood, and the bread real flesh, but the miracle that the Christ can satisfy our heart's hungers, thirsts and longings through the Spirit's presence with us. To me that is miracle indeed.

Anna Summerfield | 11 June 2015  

HH is spot on. I posted earlier that a friend of mine had left the Church because of what she perceived to be the “Cafeteria Catholicism” of her superiors. She has never set foot inside the Church since. And while I agreed with her moral reasoning at the time, I disagreed with her decision, because it was her superiors, not the Church that were teaching falsehoods. It is also unremarkable that those teaching falsehoods refuse to recant. Blaise Pascal rightly pointed out that Pride (basically a hatred of God) prevents people from examining themselves: “For he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.” And hatred of Truth is also hatred of God: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” said Christ. So it is also unremarkable that “Christians” or “Catholics” are, Madame Defarge-like, salivating at the prospect of the crucifixion of Cardinal George Pell who preaches orthodox Catholicism. St John Chrysostom said: “The road to Hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, and bishops are the signposts.”

Ross Howard | 11 June 2015  

Ginger Meggs: Though it is professed by them, the Creed is not the invention of individuals.

John kelly | 11 June 2015  

How so John Kelly? The creed(s) is/are surely nothing more than the minutes, or agreed outcomes, of councils of bishops and/or theologians. They didn't exist before they were formulated, did they?

Ginger Meggs | 12 June 2015  

Ginger Meggs: Catholics hold that the Creed expresses the essential content of the Church's faith maintained in its integrity through the living Apostolic tradition and the Holy Spirit which guides the community of the faithful in history.

John Kelly | 12 June 2015  

GM, I didn't pronounce that Tacey wasn't a Christian. This is what I said: "If [Tacey] is correctly termed a Christian, then I'm manifestly not a Christian!"

HH | 12 June 2015  

when you find the bones of Jesus. I will take your argument into consideration. but until them, if Christ the incarnated God and Man has not come down from heaven then there is no use of christianly in any context

just a friend | 21 June 2015