The emergence of belief—and unbelief

Ethan Shagan chronicles the expansion of these concepts since the Middle Ages.

Many Christians spend a great deal of time agonizing over belief and struggling against doubt. Yet they keep following Jesus, they keep being caring and compassionate, regardless of how their intellect views Chris­tianity at any given moment in time. If one’s self cannot be wholly separated from one’s actions, it seems these people do believe in Jesus. So I often wonder: Is belief overrated?

After reading Ethan Shagan’s history of belief, I’m not convinced I’ve been asking the right question. As it turns out, what I mean by belief is quite different from what Christians across the centuries have meant by it. Shagan’s book is disorienting, because it troubles assumptions about a word we think we know. That is precisely why the book is so compelling.

Shagan, who teaches history at the University of California at Berkeley, tracks belief from medieval Europe through modern Western culture. During the medieval period, belief was a category that negotiated between divine transcendence and human finitude. Because humans cannot fully know the divine, belief was a bridge between the eternal and the contingent. It was a wide category, Shagan says, since anyone could believe, “from the bishop to the ploughman.” The medieval notion of implicit faith meant that people could believe things they did not understand, even aspects of doctrine they had never heard of. At this point, belief remained closer to—if still distinct from—the Greek pistis, which connotes trust more than adherence to propositions.