Faith is not an idea. It is not a proposition and it is not simply a weak form of knowledge. Indeed, it seems that the whole process of believing has more to do with our bodies than our thoughts, or at least as much to do with our bodies as anything else. Graham Ward has written a fascinating and eclectic book called 'Unbelievable' which explores the nature of belief which draws heavily on biological sciences to show that there is a process of 'tending' or 'disposition' that exists even at the level of a single cell. At the level of a whole human person, this sense of a tendency or orientation is a much better place to start when considering the matter of belief than the realm of ideas. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing had a lovely phrase for this - 'a naked intent reaching out towards God' - and I think this is close to what Ward is seeking to express in his rethinking of the nature of belief.
Belief inhabits an area of 'knowing' that is much 'lower' than that of rational thought. It is shaped not so much by argumentation as by somatic practices and ritual, by sensory awareness cultivated through repeated exposure to formative (probably communal) behaviours. This is why believing can be frustratingly persistent to those who would like to argue it out of existence. It also indicates how beliefs get changed - through willed repetition rather than through knock-down arguments. I wonder if that is also, then, how beliefs get lost - not by suddenly realising our past gullibility but by a gradual reshaping through contrary practices. Belief lives in the gut as much as in the head.
I generally agree with this picture though there is also room, as Ward suggests, for a complementary process of more sudden and uncultivated changes in perception. In Zen Buddhism, there is certainly a division between those who emphasise a gradual enlightenment which comes through regular, disciplined meditation over a long period, and those who emphasise a sudden enlightenment which may come as a flash of insight when a koan is 'solved'. In Christian terms, especially for those with a Reformation heritage, the infusion of grace is that which alters a person's fundamental disposition, though even in these traditions there is a recognition of the formation of a person into their new reality over time after this external event.
I can't hope to do more than scratch the surface of Ward's comprehensive and sophisticated explorations in a short post, and I want to do a lot more reflecting on his ideas, but I am glad that he has begun to shift the focus of our conisderation of belief and I am glad that he is doing so in dialogue with the latest scientific insights. One area I want to think more about is how this understanding of belief can shed light on the practice of meditation, which does not rely on rational thought but on a widening of our awareness. I think I know instinctively that sitting in awakened silence deepens faith, and I think that Graham Ward has given me a way of describing how that might be so.