Faith : a keyword to war (or peace)

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by Neil Godfrey

Language has been manipulated by leaders since 9/11 to instill a state of fear and war in our minds. A new book by academic Mary Zournazi, Keywords to War: reviving language in an age of terror, discusses many of the words manipulated today for this intent. In the process she looks at how the same words have reflected different cultural values since their inception. I outline here her discussion of the history of the word “faith”. Zournazi compares today’s manipulation of the word with reference to Simone Weil‘s criticism of how the word’s use and meaning in the Nazi era.

The meaning of faith has often evoked a sense of love and trust, involving a response to the world that involves a sense of ethical mutual responsibility. This meaning of trust is lost when the word comes instead to mean “certainty, obligation, or persuasion of beliefs”.

The word faith has historically evoked the idea of an inherent sense of trust, of having a sense of confidence in the safety and security of being in the world.

When the word is no longer associated with this kind of trust, and is replaced by “a set of belief systems or principles in reaction to a political climate of insecurity and retribution, the result is negation of the world and the rise of violence.” (Zournazi, p. 92)

13th century

Faith first appeared in the English language.

Derives from Old French feid; and from Latin meaning to trust, and Greek meaning to persuade

Faith included the idea of obligations imposed by trust, the promise to fulfill one’s duties — associated with allegiance to a superior (and in later centuries to a ruler, state of nation)

Belief was a synonym of faith in the sense of being akin to trust as confidence, love, and truth.

14th century

Faith was used in the sense of trust, reliance, confidence mostly in reference to religious belief and artefacts (like today)

The idea of faith as a system of religious belief began (Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith)

Mid-14th century

Enter the notion of “good faith” and “loyalty” — in terms of honesty or sincerity in professions or by authority

This was the beginning of our understanding of “good faith” in relation to the law, and in relation to leaders acting in good faith on behalf of the people

Mid-16th century

Faith as public belief in reliance on testimony or authority

17th century

Hobbes brought the word “faith” into the political realm in his studies of the functions of the state and government

18th century

Rousseau argued that citizens owed their state allegiance or faith (or promise) and in return the state owed fidelity and loyalty in upholding the rights of the citizens

Faith then and now

Generally the idea of faith has related to trust in a sovereign or state to fulfil expectations, of protecting citizens from real dangers and harm. It involved the idea also of individual virtue and trust and investment in the social fabric of society.

In recent years however faith has been linked rather to the idea of a “moral conviction that has been recast into the belief of the good and evil of cultures.” With little comprehension of obligations and responsibilities that all peoples may share globally, the word has come to be used as a sword to divide and conquer.

“Rather than faith as struggle between good and evil in a cultural and political sense, faith can require the confidence and trust in the world that facilitates grace and dignity. In the twentieth century, Simone Weil wrote in response to Nazism and the Second World War of how ‘the mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation'” (p.91).

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Neil Godfrey

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