(To see Parts 12345678 and 9 in this series, click on the links.)

A digression on ‘faith’

In this post I want to step aside from the business of analysing my great grandfather’s letters to say something about the nature of religious faith. I’ve said all along that I’m as interested in Charles Robb’s articulation of faith in his letters as in his ‘performance’ of fatherhood. Indeed, my original interest in the letters was prompted by a sense of how closely intertwined were these aspects of their author’s identity.

I’m aware that, in going off at this tangent, I’m stepping outside the usual business of this blog, which is mainly a repository for my thoughts on the topics that are the stuff of my academic work – that’s to say, children and families, with a particular focus on gender identities and relationships. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a developing interest in the subject of faith and identity and at some stage would like to carry out research on young people’s experience of losing or changing their faith, perhaps with a focus on the part played by (and impact on) family relationships.

But before exploring the role of faith in the experience of particular groups – whether fathers or young people – it’s important to say a few things about the nature of faith. I want to challenge some preconceptions that seem to me to dominate popular and political thinking, as well as academic analysis, around this issue. For example, in beginning to analyse my great grandfather’s letters, I found myself falling into the trap of treating his Christian faith as one of the ‘resources’ that he drew on to discursively produce his identity as a father. In other words, I was in danger of regarding that faith as something that already existed inside my great grandfather, and that he then brought ‘fully formed’ to his role as a father.

However, a discursive, and more broadly a social constructionist approach to social identities, needs to see faith, like other aspects of identity, as actively produced in discourse. My great grandfather’s Christian faith, just as much as his identities as a man and as a father, should be seen as ‘under construction’ in these letters.  I’ve sensed a resistance to treating religious faith in this way, in academic as well as in political and popular discourse. In recent academic writing on religion, I detect echoes of the way that culture was often written about in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back then, writers such as Avtar Brah criticised a ‘culturalism’ that viewed beliefs and practices, particularly of minority ethnic groups, as static, homogenous and hermetically sealed off from influences in the surrounding social context. British Asians, for example, were often seen – by academic analysts as much as by policy-makers and service providers – as shaped by a singular ‘Asian culture’, regardless of their age, class or gender, never mind their interaction with wider British and global cultural influences.

Something similar seems to have happened with regard to faith, since (post-9/11) it became a fashionable target for social research and analysis. Unfortunately, there isn’t a parallel word to culturalism to describe this tendency – ‘faithism’ doesn’t quite do it. But I’d argue that, just as once happened with culture, so there’s now a widespread habit of treating religious faith (again, particularly that of minoritised or racialised groups) as something fixed and immutable. The question, ‘How does so-and-so’s faith impact on their attitudes/politics/behaviour?’ tends to be asked by researchers more often than (for example) ‘How does so-and-so actively produce their faith in changing and diverse social contexts?’ or ‘How has this person or group’s faith changed as a result of transformed social circumstances?’

We can see the political ramifications of this reification of faith in the tendency of government (particular in the later years of New Labour) to treat individuals, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, primarily as members of ‘faith communities’ (often represented by self-appointed ‘community leaders’) in a way that privileges religious identity above other identities, and also overlooks the way it interacts with those gender, class and generational identities. Attempts to make the giving of religious ‘offence’ illegal can be seen as another consequence of this attitude: again, there’s an assumption that ‘faith’ is an integral feature of an individual’s or group’s identity, rather than something freely chosen and subject to change. In the same way that culturalist assumptions can lead to a cultural relativism, in which all cultural values and practices are held to be equally valid and immune from criticism because they are part of a group’s supposedly unchanging ‘culture’ – so the reification of faith produces a religious relativism which views a person’s beliefs as somehow part of their essential character and therefore valid as long as ‘it works for them’. (This is not to say that ‘culturalism’ has itself vanished from the scene: indeed, the new essentialising of ‘faith’ has in some ways reinforced it.)

I want to challenge these assumptions and argue that faith, like culture, is dynamic, diverse and constantly shaped and re-shaped by its interaction with changing contexts. Taking a discourse analytic approach, I also want to suggest that faith, like other aspects of identity, is constantly produced and reproduced in social discourse. One problem with such an approach is that it conflicts with our ‘common sense’ view of religious faith as being ‘already there’ in creeds, dogmas and sacred texts that individuals passively receive and are relatively powerless to influence. But the meaning and interpretation of those ‘givens’, I would suggest, is constantly changing as faith is re-formulated in the discourse of believers – whether formally in sermons and official declarations, or informally in the prayers, conversations, diaries (or letters) of believers.

So when we analyse a text in which faith is on display – such as my great grandfather’s letters to his son – we should be less interested in describing the faith that he supposedly ‘brings to’ those letters, and more concerned with how he reproduces his faith – how he ‘does’ faith, if you like – in the process of writing, alongside other aspects of his identity such as his fathering.

In thinking about faith in this way, I’ve found Wittgenstein’s later writings particularly useful, with their emphasis on religion as a ‘form of life’ and as a ‘language-game’. This is not to trivialise religion, but to emphasise that it should be seen primarily as ‘language embedded in action’. For Wittgenstein, action precedes belief, not vice versa. He once wrote to a friend: ‘I believe it is right to try experiments in religion. To find out, by trying, what helps and what doesn’t’. He might have added: to find out, by trying, what you ‘believe’.

Here I’m straying into philosophical waters that I’m barely competent to navigate. So perhaps instead I can cite some real-life examples that have influenced my thinking on this issue.  I’ve long been fascinated by accounts of conversion – and even more so by stories of ‘de-conversion’, of people losing their religious faith. There may be a personal element to this: I’ve been through two or three changes of faith, and a loss of faith, in my own life. What has struck me in many of the narratives I’ve read is the important part played by deliberate actions and decisions in these major changes in belief.

For example, I remember reading an interview with Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who was a Catholic altar boy and even entertained ambitions to enter the priesthood – until he realised that he was gay and quite suddenly his youthful faith fell away. Then there was the female Labour politician, whose name I’ve forgotten, who was also raised a Catholic but then one day, on seeing a television broadcast by a Cardinal with which she violently disagreed for political reasons, said to herself, ‘That’s me finished with that lot then’.

I find it fascinating that a person can completely and wholeheartedly believe in something one day, and then the next day (or even the next moment) no longer believe in it, or believe something very different. It goes against our ‘common sense’ understanding of faith as something internal, unconscious, even involuntary, and highlights the role of conscious decision – deliberate action – in matters of belief. Of course, it’s possible that rumblings of doubt had been going on ‘under the surface’ for some time in these two cases, but the conscious decision not to believe was clearly the crucial factor.

Conversely, these accounts suggest that what we normally understand by ‘faith’ – that complex of opinions, feelings and attachments – tends to follow an external, willed act – rather than vice versa (shades of John Henry Newman’s ‘grammar of assent’, perhaps?). I came across an example of this in reverse in the story of Paul Moore, the HBOS whistleblower, who had been brought up a Catholic and attended Ampleforth school, but later lost his faith. After the crisis brought about by the enforced ending of his City career, he began to recover his faith. He took a job in the Yorkshire village of Wass, just down the road from Ampleforth:

When we moved back up to my alma mater I said to myself: ‘I’m going to try to have faith, to pretend that I’ve got faith.’ And as I pretended to have faith, I got faith.

This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s advice to ‘find out, by trying’ what one believes. Just as in my first two examples it was a decision not to believe that produced a loss of faith, so in Moore’s case the decision to believe appears to have produced faith. Again, there’s a danger of sounding as though one is mocking religious faith – as a pretence, or some kind of superficial game. I’m certainly not arguing that the content of religious faith is irrelevant, and I don’t think Wittgenstein was either: if you have an appetite for such things, I’d recommend Fergus Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein, which defends the philosopher against this charge of ‘fideism’. (Incidentally, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m in sympathy with contemporary ‘pro-faith’ commentators such as Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton, who appear to argue that ‘having faith’ is what matters, and precisely what one chooses to believe is of secondary importance. That way lies the kind of cultural relativism mentioned earlier, and in the case of those two writers, comes close to apologetics on behalf of religious extremism.)

What Wittgenstein is saying, as I read him, is simply that this is how belief works – because this is how the mind works. Action precedes cognition – and, I would add (with a nod to Bakhtin), that means action in a defined social and discursive context.

So, in approaching the ‘faith’ articulated in my great grandfather’s letters, I need to see it less as something that he brings to his writing, and rather as a product or an accomplishment of that writing, as something that is constantly created and re-created through deliberate action, and particularly through discourse.