Letting Beliefs Go


This morning I read this:

A broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures.

First of all, they have noticed that the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety.               -T.M. Luhrman, New York Times April 18, 2015

I used to use “belief” language like that (I still do, but only because I’ve used it that way for about fifty years and there is a rut in my soul). But I want to do something better, more real. It does no good to believe in God or Jesus or heaven or angels or devils if all it means is that a box has been checked in my brain: these are the things I “believe in.”

I was taught to believe in certain religious things—like the existence of God—because, I was told, it was true. I learned early on that most people did not really believe these things, even flatly denied them, which made it all the more important that we profess our unwavering faith in them. Doubt was not an option.

In graduate school years ago I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. These words made me pause.

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

I used to believe in order to counteract whatever was in doubt. I guess I thought the only alternative to belief was unbelief, and I didn’t want to be an unbeliever. I didn’t realize there was another alternative.

I don’t want to believe anymore. I want to know. I don’t want to believe in God, I want to know God—whatever there really is to know for sure. I don’t want to believe in the Incarnation, I want to experience the earth and my own flesh as the body of God. I don’t want to believe in the Virgin Birth, I want to know the miracle of a life within me that I cannot explain. I don’t want to believe in the Resurrection, I want to know what it feels like to let my preferred version of life die (since it’s already dead anyway), and have that matchless feeling: I’m still here. I’m still alive. This is OK.

While I am a natural believer, I am not a very good knower. This means that what I can know will be paltry and plain compared to the sweeping glories of all I once believed. But I am happier each day with the small things I can know in my own experience.

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