Yesterday a woman came to see me about coming back to the church. She had been a member years ago and drifted away. Now she sensed an urgency about coming back to faith, but she had serious reservations.
“I’m not sure I can believe it all,” she said.
“Believe what?” I asked.
“Oh, you know—heaven, the resurrection, life after death.”
“I don’t believe those things either,” I said, “but I love them.”
I went on to tell her what I often tell seekers.
The beauty and power of the gospel story is not found in a group of disciples who believed a set of propositions about God (which the average non-disciple found untrue), but in a circle of people who lost their old lives and found new ones. It wasn’t about what they ‘believed’ with their little brains, but what they loved with all their hearts. What blew them clean out of one existence and into another was not what they could swear they believed but what they swore they’d experienced.
Sadly, spiritual life has been presented as a set of “beliefs.” Someone in authority presents you with a list of required assents—the creed or some contemporary version which adds the must-haves of this denomination or that—and your job is to swear on a stack of Bibles that all these things are objectively true.
There’s nothing wrong with belief. The word is used often in the Bible, and it is the star of every creed. The problem lies in how the meaning of that term has shifted over the last 400 years. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the last century’s great professor of comparative religion, explained that the word believe, like its German cognate belieben, means “to cherish” or “to hold dear.” That was its essential meaning until the Enlightenment, when rationality came to dominate—suddenly belief came to be associated with cognitive claims, especially those that could not be proven.
The resurrection, for instance, was never a cognitive claim. It was an awesome mystery. It was not a box to check in your brain. It was a counterclaim against the tyranny of death. Life was stronger, love was stronger than death, and no one need live in its shadow a minute longer. It is ludicrous to imagine that we are called to ‘believe’ this as a rational proposition. It is a mystery that can only be loved, cherished. To believe—belieben—the resurrection is to give your heart to its beauty, its power, its very unbelievability. Perhaps you have glimpsed its reality and power in the lives of ordinary people who chose to love in the face of death, but you are not sure you have the courage to do so. Belieben anyway. Give your heart to it, and your life will follow. That is what it means to believe.
We all know people who believe perfectly, all up and down the line, but who have no peace, no joy and little apparent compassion. That tells you everything you need to know about the certainty of cognitive claims
That is what I was trying to tell the woman who sat in my office: you are struggling to believe, when that is not even the point! (Would that it were—just grit your metaphysical teeth, bear down and declare that every shard of the creed is objectively true. Phew! That’s taken care of.) The harder work is to go deep within yourself and know what it is you cherish, what it is you hold dear, and then to have the courage to give your heart to those truths.
That is the daily work of a lifetime. Thankfully—and paradoxically—it is not even a work you and I are capable of doing. Belieben is a gift. All we can do is open ourselves, empty ourselves of all that is not-love, so that God (who cares not if we believe or no) can begin to change our lives from the way of death into the way of life.