4 min read

I believe in breadboards: cutting through the meaning of belief

A turn of phrase leads Andrew Steane to consider what we say and what we really mean when we say we believe in something.

Andrew Steane has been Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford since 2002, He is the author of Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion.

bread a piece of cutlery rest on a breadboard
Photo by Caio Pezzo on Unsplash.

On holiday with my family around Easter this year, we rented a small cottage and went self-catering. This is a lovely way to enjoy a week, heartily recommended by me, at least. 

As anyone who has done it will know, one of the standard experiences of the holiday house is the search of the kitchen for the items you need at mealtime. This year I was looking for a breadboard. You know: a flat wooden board on which to cut a loaf of bread. There did not appear to be one. But there were two marble boards which were plainly cutting boards. I then made a remark to my dear companion and wife Emma, I said, 

“I think maybe the owners don’t believe in breadboards”.  

This turn of phrase came quite naturally to me. It is a way of speaking that has been common in England for a long time, though it is less prevalent now. As I say, this way of speaking has a long history and it is not about abstract questions of existence. It is about practical questions of usefulness. If someone says:  

“I believe in breadboards”  

it does not mean  

“there is some doubt as to the reality of breadboards, but I think they are real.”  

What it means is:  

“I think breadboards are useful; I think they help; they are a Good Thing.”  

If someone says: 

“I don’t believe in breadboards”  

it means:  

“I don’t think we need breadboards; they don’t help; we can cut bread another way.”  

I am interested in this way of speaking because I am interested in what is going on when Christians recite, as many do, the summary statements called creeds, which mostly begin with the phrase “I (or we) believe in God, the Father almighty, creator …”. 

I’ll come back to that in a moment. Before I do, let’s note some other ways in which the phrase “believe in” can be used. Sometimes someone may ask “do you believe in ghosts?” The question arises because ghost stories are strange and hard to verify and the very notion of a ghost is questionable, so the question is asking “do you think there is in fact any such thing as a ghost?” It is asking, “are ghosts real?” 

And there are other contexts in which statements about belief might be made. Suppose a group of soldiers is cut off after an advance by opposing troops, and they are in doubt as to the way back to their own front line. Maybe the captain is advocating a choice which seems wrong to the private soldiers. They might debate among themselves. In this case, when putting into words his judgement on the matter, a soldier might find himself using the phrase, “I believe in the captain”, or, as the case may be, “I don’t believe in the captain.” Again, it is not a statement about whether there is a captain; it is a statement about whether trust in this particular captain is well-placed.  

Now imagine a more homely scenario which has played out in many a household over the years. A daughter is telling her parents about her boyfriend. Perhaps the parents are not quite sure about this young man. They do not know him as well as their daughter does. They want to trust her judgement, but they are hesitating. Is our dear child perhaps a little blinded by infatuation?  

What might the daughter say to explain how she feels? Having happily listed the boyfriend’s other good qualities, she might choose to add, “and he believes in me.” What does she mean by that? Is it that there is some doubt as to whether she exists, but the young man thinks she does? Of course not. What she means is that she feels that her friend knows her well enough to see her as she really is, and he affirms what he sees. He affirms that she has something to offer; she herself and not some other person or some other version who is not truly her.  

There is a related experience which I have had many times with Emma. When faced with a decision about raising small children (what time should they go to bed? When can they go out on their own? etc.)  I have often had the great boon of being able to say to myself “I believe in Emma.” What it means is, I think she has a lot of wisdom and good judgement on this issue, so I don’t need to agonise on it for too long; she has very likely already found a good answer.  

Belief is much talked about in life more generally of course. There is the notion (quite dubious I think) that if you “believe” then you can realise whatever hopes and dreams you may have. Sometimes people speak of “belief” when what they really mean is hope. I won’t go into all these usages. The main point of this article is to say that if, in the context of a Christian gathering, you are invited to join in and recite a creed beginning with the phrase “We believe in God” then you do not need to make it function as an abstract statement about reality and existence, the way the question about ghosts functions. This is because “We believe in God” can function much better as a statement about practical helpfulness, like the statement about breadboards.  

We Christians believe in God the way we believe in breadboards. We believe in God the way we believe in the good judgement of a close companion. It means we think our life as a community will go better if we pay the right kind of attention to our ultimate context, and the values and possibilities which are held there. We do not use the word “God” to refer to an airy being who might not exist. The word is, rather, a short (arguably too short) way to direct our attention. Our attention is drawn to those aspects of reality which can rightly and properly command the loyalty of a good and wise person. We don’t pretend to completely know what those aspects are.  But we want to learn. Our gatherings and our creeds help us to acknowledge and embrace this ultimate context more fully. 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.