Belief is a hot issue in literary criticism. In the last few years literary critics have explored postmodern belief, lamented the disappearance of the novel of belief, and attempted to sharpen the distinction between religious and literary belief.
An example of the last can be seen in critic James Wood’s recent New Yorker essay on fiction and death. Wood draws a sharp distinction between the belief that fiction asks of us and the belief that religion requires. Fiction depends upon the belief of the reader to grant its fictional world a kind of reality, if only for a time. Literary belief is always belief “as if.” It is metaphorical, not actual. This is fine for fiction, but for religion, Wood insists, such belief is a danger. Believing “as if” a religion’s claims are true either signals an impending loss of belief or is simply “bad faith.”
But does believing “as if” really pose a danger to religion? Does religious belief truly have no metaphorical quality to it? Does believing “as if” religious ideas were true inevitably lead us away from faith?