Belief and Practice

April 24, 2005 | 7 comments
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I have been carrying on an argument with Nate on one of his posts (## 5 and 7) and in his responses to one of Blake’s posts ( #23) –sort of. I haven’t really laid out my position on the relation of belief and action, nor have I made an argument. I’ve only asked some questions. So I’m going to try briefly to say some things here about how I think about the issue, briefly because a full development of my ideas would take a much longer essay than this. I assume that you’ll excuse the shorthand of what follows and I’ll try to clarify that shorthand in my responses to your responses.

First, I think that the contrast between beliefs (or doctrines–I don’t think there is an important distinction between the two in this context) and practices is misleading. It is possible to have beliefs that do not issue in practices, but it is problematic, if not impossible, to assume that there are practices which do not involve beliefs: the same bodily movements that include different sets of beliefs are not the same practice. For example, suppose I am moving my hand in a way that puts something in the drink of another. If I believe that what I am putting in her drink is a sugar substitute, I am doing something very different than if I believe it is poison. These are two different practices because practice cannot be reduced to bodily movement, but must always include belief.

It may be tempting to think that the example shows that, since different beliefs yield different practices, belief is fundamental to practice rather than the reverse. I think that is a mistake. The difference between believing that X is poison and that it is a sugar substitute only cashes out meaningfully in a practice. Believing that X is poison and not putting it in my friend’s drink is a practice, an act. I cannot meaningfully believe that X is poison without that belief being made meaningful in practice; without instantiation in a practice, a belief is meaningless.

Since I think that practices include beliefs but beliefs do not necessarily include practices, I take it that practice rather than belief is fundamental to religion, though you do not have one without the other. If we talk about practice, we will be have to also talk about beliefs as they are part of the practice. This is complicated by the fact that certain practices–I have mostly in mind ordinances, our most important practices–remain the same regardless of the intent of the person performing them. A priest who blesses the bread but doesn’t believe in what he is doing has still blessed the bread. I don’t think, however, that complication undercuts the position I am taking here. Indeed, I think it strengthens it since it shows that the reality of the practice is not dependant on the actor’s beliefs. But since this isn’t the extended essay–or book–needed to discuss all of this fully, I’m going to pass over this complication.

That is the brief explanation of my claim that religious beliefs are inseparable from practices. It may turn out, as I think we would have to agree–given Mormon history–that our beliefs may vary to some degree without changing the practices in which they are manifest. For example, our beliefs about the sealings of couples have changed, but it makes sense to say that we still believe in the ordinance of sealing. Temple sealing of couples continues to be the same thing, though our beliefs about it have changed. However, if beliefs were fundamental, then anything more than a minimal change in beliefs would mean that the practice was no longer the same. However, if practices are fundamental, then beliefs can change (though not completely) without the practice changing.

As I have said in an unpublished essay:

The gospel is a divine activity, the saving activity of God. It is not the belief content associated with that activity, even though the activity of the gospel necessarily has belief content. To be a believer is to accept the gospel: it is to believe that God can save, but not merely to believe (since mere belief would not be religious belief). To be a believer is to respond to God’s saving activity with repentance and in rebirth and with tokens that testify of God’s saving power. One can do that and, at the same time, have false beliefs. However, if the exemplary pious person can have some false beliefs about his or her religion, as is true for Latter-day Saints (as well, I take it, as for most other religious people), then belief cannot define what it means to be religious.

In contrast, practice–when it is understood as necessarily involving belief rather than being contrastive to belief–does define what it means to be religious.

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7 Responses to Belief and Practice

  1. Russell Arben Fox on April 24, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    A provocative post, Jim. I’m not unsympathetic to your argument. Still, I see some obvious responses and qualifications:

    “The difference between believing that X is poison and that it is a sugar substitute only cashes out meaningfully in a practice. Believing that X is poison and not putting it in my friend’s drink is a practice, an act.”

    Say I put sugar in my friend’s drink. He drinks it and is fine. I am inwardly surprised: I thought he was diabetic, and I intended the sugar to be poison. Another time, I put sugar in another friend’s drink. He drinks it and dies. I am shocked; I did not know he was diabetic and hence had no intention of my putting sugar in his drink to constitute an act of poisoning. The law gets involved. I am accused of trying to murder my first friend, as a witness exists as to my stated intention to kill the person I suspected to be a diabetic, and my friend can testify that I did indeed sugar his drink. While the family of my second friend, whom I did murder, have no ability to bring me to trial, because despite the fact that I killed him, the concurrent fact that he had his his condition from the world, preventing me from having any belief that he was a diabetic, means that my action cannot be constituted as an intentional act of poisoning.

    Of course, religion is not a legal system. Nonetheless, its example suggests that you are incorrect: the meaning of my acts is overwhelmingly tied up in my knowledge, beliefs, and intentions. Given this way in which we take the will of the individual to be a more or less independent variable in determining the meaning of an act, it probably behooves one who wishes to defend an alternative thesis to account for why religion need not attach a similar priority to beliefs.

    “A priest who blesses the bread but doesn’t believe in what he is doing has still blessed the bread. I don’t think, however, that complication undercuts the position I am taking here. Indeed, I think it strengthens it since it shows that the reality of the practice is not dependant on the actor’s beliefs.”

    This turns entirely upon one’s ontological account of the modality of ordinances. Are ordinances “magical” acts which introduce a change in the condition of persons through their performance alone? Or are they forms of signaling to/communicating with/making covenants with God, in regards to repentance and so forth, which God then accepts as He judges us? If ordinances are the latter, or ever just significantly partake of the latter model, then the fact that a disbelieving or falsely believeing priest can bless the bread and it will still, in fact, be blessed, does not mean the priest’s beliefs are irrelevant. Rather, it means that God wills that those who partake of the bread with the intent of recollecting their baptismal covenants will, in fact, receive the blessing and renewal which comes with such recollection. All that’s going on, in other words, isn’t a demonstration of the priority of action over the ordinance performer’s belief, but rather a demonstration of the supremacy of God’s willed response to the recipients’ beliefs.

  2. Nate Oman on April 24, 2005 at 8:31 pm

    I would like to respond to this, but I am affraid that I am up to my gills in trial preperation at the moment. I can, however, hereby consider my previous posts as worthwhile in that they have provoked Jim into this post.

  3. Jed on April 24, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

    Jim: “without instantiation in a practice, a belief is meaningless.”

    I take this to mean that the instantiation can be either literal or symbolic. Here I am thinking of sinful thoughts. Jesus speaks of committing adultery in one’s heart. Benjamin speaks of thoughts condemning us, putatively a thought about some evil practice. Is symbolic practice still a practice? Is the act of thinking a practice?

    Jim: “This is complicated by the fact that certain practices–I have mostly in mind ordinances, our most important practices–remain the same regardless of the intent of the person performing them.”

    What about religious practices performed without real intent. Mormon speaks of gifts not given “with real intent” profiting nothing, not counted as righteousness. The practice is changed, indeed, nulified in the heavens. The bodily motion remains the same but the practice as practice changes depending on belief or heart. Is belief equivalent to intention?

  4. Jim F on April 24, 2005 at 11:49 pm

    Russell Arben Fox: Say I put sugar in my friend’s drink. He drinks it and is fine. I am inwardly surprised: I thought he was diabetic, and I intended the sugar to be poison. Another time, I put sugar in another friend’s drink. He drinks it and dies. I am shocked; I did not know he was diabetic and hence had no intention of my putting sugar in his drink to constitute an act of poisoning. [. . .] Of course, religion is not a legal system. Nonetheless, its example suggests that you are incorrect: the meaning of my acts is overwhelmingly tied up in my knowledge, beliefs, and intentions.

    As you say, the legal question is irrelevant, so I will ignore it. However, I did not deny that “the meaning of my acts is tied up in my knowledge, beliefs, and intentions.” I used the example to show that practices cannot be reduced to bodily movements, in other words, that they cannot be understood apart from the beliefs that are a part of them. As a result, it seems to me that you are agreeing with me rather than disagreeing. In turn, that suggests that I don’t understand the point you are making.

    Are ordinances “magical” acts which introduce a change in the condition of persons through their performance alone? Or are they forms of signaling to/communicating with/making covenants with God, in regards to repentance and so forth, which God then accepts as He judges us? If ordinances are the latter, or ever just significantly partake of the latter model, then the fact that a disbelieving or falsely believing priest can bless the bread and it will still, in fact, be blessed, does not mean the priest’s beliefs are irrelevant. Rather, it means that God wills that those who partake of the bread with the intent of recollecting their baptismal covenants will, in fact, receive the blessing and renewal which comes with such recollection. All that’s going on, in other words, isn’t a demonstration of the priority of action over the ordinance performer’s belief, but rather a demonstration of the supremacy of God’s willed response to the recipients’ beliefs.

    I don’t believe that ordinances are magical acts that introduce a change merely through their performance. Like Nate’s account, such a belief requires the separation of beliefs and actions that I am denying. And I didn’t assert anything about what makes the ordinance effective for the person who partakes of it. I only said that the bread has been blessed even if the priest is an unbeliever.

    However, on your alternative account, it is not necessary that the priest hold the priesthood in order for the ordinance of the Sacrament to have been performed. If I intend to partake of the bread recollecting my baptismal covenant, then God wills that I have, in fact, renewed my covenant. But that doesn’t fit with the demand that the priest both have the priesthood and perform the ordinance properly. If you wed your explanation here with my understanding of symbolic orders and understand that the blessing and renewal can only occur as part of a symbolic order in which authority and proper performance are part, I think you have a reasonably accurate understanding of how the blessing can work even if the priest doesn’t believe.

    Jed: Is symbolic practice still a practice? Is the act of thinking a practice?

    I’m not sure that I know what you mean by “symbolic practice,” but if you are referring to practices such as baptism, the sacrament, the endowment, etc., then the answer is yes.

    Is the act of thinking a practice?

    Yes. A belief is not an act of thinking. It is the content of that act.

    What about religious practices performed without real intent? [. . .] The bodily motion remains the same but the practice as practice changes depending on belief or heart. Is belief equivalent to intention?

    Belief is not the same as intention, though the two are related. But to perform something without real intent is to do so with different beliefs than would be part of performing with real intent, so the two acts are different.

    Nate: Enjoy your trial prep.

  5. Jan Anderson on April 25, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    This is an interesting topic. It seems related to the paper you (Jim F.) presented at Yale (Drinking Coke But Not Coffee), doesn’t it? Today I started reading a paper on Adam-God and it has some provacative quotes that seems to relate to what Jim is saying (I hope…otherwise, disregard this post!).

    The paper was written by Andrew Miller is found here:
    http://www.geocities.com/Drewm777/Adam-God.doc

    Miller provides these two quotes of Joseph Smith:

    I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time. (History of the Church 5:215, hereafter HC).

    and

    I did not like [Elder Pelatiah Brown] being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine. (HC 5:340)

    and this by Brigham Young:

    I wish you to pay particular attention to this, and practice the principle throughout your lives. You can teach things which you believe, but teach them as matters of your individual belief, and not as things acknowledge by this people as a Church and forming a part of their religious faith. Every man must be responsible for his own belief, inasmuch as it cannot be substantiated by the principles and doctrines of the Church of God. A belief in a certain principle is one thing, and to know it is true, is another (The Teachings of President Brigham Young 3:251).

    (Sorry, I don’t know the formatting conventions here).

    Jan

  6. Clark Goble on April 26, 2005 at 3:10 pm

    I’ve been so busy the last week that I’ve just not had time to post on my own blog, let alone some of the very interesting threads here and elsewhere.

    Anyway, I wished to make mention of Peirce’s sense of belief. Following the medieval approach, he defined it as readiness to act and tied it explicitly to habit. Because of that connection to habit one can’t separate belief out from the practices that become habitual and generate it.

  7. Ben H on April 26, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Nice quotes, Jan; thanks!