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“The university respects the rights and religious views of its students” declares a sign in the departmental corridor.  This isn’t a general declaration of the institution’s thoughts about faith in the abstract, nor indeed the result of having taken surveys of the views in question and decided that, on the whole, they’re not wrong. It’s part of the wall display about university assessments, which can tell you everything from how to time-stamp a coursework essay to how to go about applying for extenuating circumstances on medical grounds.  The sign outlines the arrangements which can be made if (amongst other things) a student finds that their “religious views” meet a timetabling snag.  This is clearly a good thing, and I’m not criticising the university for making such arrangements, or for declaring publicly that they do so out of respect.  Quite the reverse.  But the phrase does seem to point towards some ways which religious belief can be misunderstood in public life.

“Religious views”, after all, appears to put belief in a category of unusual opinions, a sort of legally protected “I reckon” which takes the same grammatical and logical shape as other views but shouldn’t be contradicted.  Because REASONS, as they say on the internet.  Or indeed because LACK OF REASON (THE CORRECT APPLICATION THEREOF), as sceptics might counter.  It seems to suggest that religious people say certain things are the case which other people think are manifestly not the case, but the university doesn’t want anyone to point that out.

However, it’s not clear that the university does respect religious “views” in this sense during exams, nor that it should.  If we class a religious belief as an opinion on a particular topic, which has been somehow subject to religious interference, knocking it off-course in a way which leaves traces of the contact, then those marking exam papers are not required to respect belief.  If, in answer to a question on textual transmission, a student wrote that the form of Shakespeare’s plays as found in the 1623 Folio collection were the result of inspiration by the immortal gods, it would be marked as incorrect.  That is either wrong according to the historical scholarship and available texts, or not an answer about transmission.  On a more realistic note (though believe me I could find you books which asserted something similar to that), I’ve marked essays on Genesis in the past which provided a perfectly coherent reading based on the issue of theodicy, but in the process managed to avoid answering the question about structure and repetition.  It may be a student’s religious “view” that the text means this when properly understood, but someone marking their work is not required to respect it as a valid answer to the question – indeed, they’re required not to.

Of course, the situation the assessment sign covers is more likely to be a clash of dates, or the timing of an exam.  This is difficult to classify as a religious “view”; it’s more a question of practices or activities.  Doing – or not doing – particular things on particular days is difficult to explain as an assertion of fact  If someone tries to avoid working on one day of the week, it might be accounted for by referring to a passage in Scripture about the Creation or the Exodus, but there’s not a one-to-one relationship between believing and acting.  (After all, other people might agree the world was created by God, or that there was a movement of people in that historical and geographical area, without undertaking the same practice.)  Within Christianity there is a robust tradition of arguing fiercely over how religious practices such as Communion or Baptism should be explained verbally, whilst still continuing to do them.  From one angle, the Reformation and its aftermath is an extended and dramatic demonstration that religious “views” can differ widely and vehemently whilst still being expressed in practices which look quite similar (certainly when compared to the practices of people who aren’t part of the religion.)

All of which suggests the importance of a broader understanding of belief, which doesn’t limit it to having a religious “view” on a particular topic.  This is nothing new: Nicholas Lash’s reflections upon the Creed provide a host of meanings which “I believe” might signify.  Many of them, incidentally, are meanings which we’re used to navigating in other situations without confusion.  A doctor might say “I don’t believe in those Anglo-Saxon cures”, “I don’t believe in homeopathy” and “I don’t believe in resuscitating a patient when they’ve made an explicit DNR request”.  In each case we would probably be able to understand that she meant different kinds of “unbelief”: “I don’t believe people actually did those things”, “I believe people do those things, but I don’t believe they work” and “I believe people do those things, and they have the effect they intend, but I don’t think they’re right to do so”, respectively.

Lash stresses another sense of the verb: the fact that “I believe” is a performative verb when used in Christian worship, perhaps closer to “I swear”, or “I vow”, enacting a particular responsibility rather than making a statement of fact about something out there in the world:

‘I believe’ does not express an opinion, however well founded or firmly held, concerning God’s existence.  It promises that life and love, mind, heart and all my actions, are set henceforth steadfastly on God, and on God alone.

He cites Aquinas’ reading of Augustine to develop the senses of “I believe”, of which believing facts about God (e.g. that God exists, that God is God) is the least significant, since the Christian tradition contains accounts of criminals – and even demons – as having a perfectly clear grasp of these facts, holding an entirely correct religious “view”.  To “believe” is also to trust someone, to respond in a heartfelt way to who they are and what they tell you.  The radical potential of “believing” people who are usually doubted has been repeatedly explored (in the face of backlash and ridicule) by feminist writers and activists, most recently in the hashtag #IBelieveHer.  There is also a sense translated (in Lash’s opinion a bit clunkily) as “believing unto”: belief as orientation of the person towards something as a desire and a future.

What is it, therefore to believe in him [credere in eum]?  It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body.

This seems to bring us closer to an appreciation of what the university might be respecting around exam time, and why it isn’t reducible to a “view” or an unusual class of proposition.  It’s also the point at which my interest in performance and performance theory rears its head, since this is a conception of belief which assumes that physical action does not simply “act out” something which could be paraphrased verbally.  (This is emphasized in the recent special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Religion entitled ‘Belief as Cultural Performance’).   It draws on texts, but cannot be replaced or explained away by words.  Meaning is created in the act of performing certain actions, according to this view, but that activity also points beyond itself to a desire or a fulfilment.  The acts of belief draw on the past by quoting and re-membering, and orient themselves towards the future, making hope into a physical presence.  (This last idea emerges strongly in several essays in the new Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology.)  Though this may sound obscure – or even meaninglessly wishy-washy – it goes some way to explaining why the university will arrange for students to sit exams on another day without claiming that this is because they have a different opinion.  If we’re to have a conversation about belief which makes sense to everyone in the public sphere (even if the beliefs involved may not), then enriching the sense in which we understand that term might help.