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.

8 Responses to Letting Beliefs Go
  1. Blake Robinson
    April 21, 2015 | 8:58 am

    I like what Martin Borg says in “The Heart of Christianity.” The word believe derives from the Latin word credo, which (according to Borg) doesn’t mean agree to the factual truth of something, but rather “I give my heart to” or “I commit my loyalty to.”

    • David Anderson
      April 21, 2015 | 1:55 pm

      Yes, I was going to reference Bog on this topic, so–thanks.

  2. Matt
    April 21, 2015 | 10:58 am

    I believe because something helped me out when I thought there was no escape – I don’t know what I call that and to me it kinda doesn’t matter. But I still feel “it.”

  3. Michael Anderson
    April 21, 2015 | 11:39 am

    Good thoughtful post, David. This is good for me; makes me scratch my head. I’ve always seen believing and knowing as synonyms not antonyms. They’re not identical but neither are they antithetical. In my reading of it, the early Christians saw it that way too.

    Thomas knew Jesus was alive because he saw his wounded hands and feet. The Gospel writers go out of their way to tell us that their faith was confirmed by sight, their belief ratified by reality.

    Now, I think they were wrong, but I don’t think they were confused by these two terms. The disciples went all over the world preaching that the same Jesus who had really been crucified was now really alive. They used the word “really” to make it clear they rejected the dualism, the false dichotomy believing vs knowing suggests.

    They had both. They held both. It was, for them, the heart of the Gospel and you can’t cut that heart in two.

    • David Anderson
      April 21, 2015 | 2:00 pm

      There are several responses that could be made here (as in the sense of what “belief” actually means, in the reference to Borg, above). I don’t doubt that those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection would have a different perspective than someone like me, thousands of years later. I’m just trying to figure out what it means for people like us to participate in a timeless mystery, and I don’t think it’s through belief.

  4. Andrew Ranson
    April 22, 2015 | 7:20 am

    Intriguing post, David. I will be leading a Sunday school lesson this week that ties closely to this topic. This will certainly be a good conversation starter.

  5. Jennifer Windham
    April 22, 2015 | 3:39 pm

    Hi David,

    I love this post. Thank you so much. I have struggled my entire life with understanding how people could take the Bible literally, and frankly, I thought that was a requirement for Christians for the longest time. I am, quite honestly, not a “believer” in the virgin birth or the resurrection as historical facts. But I find intriguing things in these stories that help me to “know” something about God. In the incarnation stories, God entrusted his incarnation to an unwed mother in an occupied territory (borrowing from Susan Russell’s Christmas Eve sermon at All Saint’s Church in Pasadena). So God came to and for the little people. In the one of the resurrection stories, Jesus came back and showed his wounds to his friends and asked for food. Even Jesus wanted his wounds acknowledged and his belly full. Perhaps we are to understand that God is there in the real physical needs of those in front of us (borrowing from Janine Schenone’s sermon this past Sunday).

    So, I can find truth and instruction in these stories, but not fact. I have also enjoyed reading Borg, and the understanding of the Latin word “credo” was tremendously illuminating for me.

    Finally, I have had a few moments in my life when I have had a profound experience of the Divine. The “knowing” I gained from those moments is my treasure. Now, even when I feel a disconnect, those moments compel me to continue to seek. My favorite hymn may just be George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”… “I really want to know you, Lord.”

    Thanks again. I love your blog, especially since I can’t sit in the pews at St. Luke’s! I’m going to share this one with my EfM group… it’s right on topic for our current unit on integrating belief, behavior, and doctrine in a multicultural world.

    🙂 Jennifer

  6. Johnna
    April 23, 2015 | 4:48 pm

    As I get older, I think “belief” can be the word used when brilliance or powers of persuasion might be involved. Am I trying to talk myself or someone else into taking a certain stance in agreement or disagreement? If so, why? Brilliance isn’t enough of a foundation for a blessed life.

    Knowing for me is not claiming to understand the whole thing, but being part of it and it a part of me. It isn’t taking it for granted, but trusting a foundation I didn’t build.

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