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.
Marty Gilbert says
Another of your awesome gifts. wish I had digested this ages ago but then I would have missed the moments on the road.
David Anderson says
Yes, everything happens at the right time–Now–even when we wish it had happened sooner.
This really resonates with me. Thank you, David!
J Stark says
This is so interesting to me. I’m trying so hard to believe everything that I have believed most of my life. The struggle hurts me so much. What I don’t quite understand in this blog is your statement that God doesn’t care if we believe. John 3:16 seems to say he cares very much about our believing. Are you talking about believing everything we’re taught rather than believing in Jesus?
(I’m about down to I believe God created the world some how, some way and so loved it he gave his Son.)
David Anderson says
What I mean by saying that God doesn’t care if you “believe” is–in the sense of rational assent with your mind. The presence and power of God simply IS; whether you believe in it (in the rational sense) makes no difference. What does make a difference is–if you “belieben”–that is, if you cherish the presence of God and hold it dear. If you give your heart solely to that Presence. That is what God cares about–not whether you “believe” in him. Remember–the book of James says, “You believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe and shudder!” (2:19). James is making the same differentiation that I am making here–it’s one thing to “believe” something in your head–but that is not the kind of belief that transforms your life. Only the opening of the heart–“belieben” as I’ve used that term–can do that.
To not believe but to love heaven, the resurrection, and life after death is too much for me to wrap my head around. Believing doesn’t feel cognitive to me. I love my belief, ha! I think I need to read this 10 more times
David Anderson says
Hang on to your belief! It’s coming not from your head–but from your heart, man.
Gary's friend says
You said a version of this to my husband a decade ago. It echoes through our family still. Thank you.
I understand the message but I do not understand “I do not believe them either but I love them”. Help!
David Anderson says
Well, my reply to J Stark–above–may help you some.
All of those things the woman mentioned–heaven, resurrection, life after death–are all mysteries. They can’t be proven, they can only be lived. My point in this post is that these sacred mysteries were never presented to us by God as something like a True-False quiz: you have to circle one or the other…. No, they were presented as something so attractive (if slightly frightening in scope and depth!) that you couldn’t help giving yourself to them. Exactly the way we feel when we fall in love (which is exactly the language that contemplatives always use of God, who IS love).
Cathy H. says
I just read something by John Piper…he wrote that belief in God is not enough, that people should treasure God’s glory (paraphrasing). This does seem like a heart/love thing over purely intellectual.
Marilyn Topar says
For last couple days felt like I still had to digest Joseph Campbell – again – haven’t really thought this much since Jim Annand was here – my own beliefs, as you know, are pretty simplistic – open your front door, see nature, see your family – see God
Kay Anderson says
David, I really loved this post! It articulates and clarifies a lot of what I have “believe”, or maybe more accurately what I “doubt”.
These phrases particularly resonate with me:
“Sadly, spiritual life has been presented as a set of ‘beliefs.'”
“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.”
As you also say, it’s all about losing our “old lives” and finding “new ones” and Christians do not have a corner on that for sure! Check out the interview on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday with Zainab Salbi if you want to find an amazingly spiritually mature Muslim who I admire.
I do feel an inconsistency however in your claim that”The resurrection, for instance, was never a cognitive claim.” I actually think that, for the disciples and writers of the Bible, it definitely was such a claim, if I understand what you mean. So, for me, I disregard their literal claim and I take it all as a “mystery” as you say. Is it real? Did is really happen? I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean I cannot be the beneficiary of the story, the myth, or even the truth, if that’s what it is. And that leads me to something else I love about what you said: “God (who cares not if we believe or no)”. Bravo! I have been trying to say that for years. It sounds so simple. But my “god” or “universal power” is certainly not the type to be offended if I have trouble believing some literal claim, and instead live by the principles of love and “new life” that it lays out.
So thank you for a very provocative session!
David Anderson says
Whether the apostles and the writers of the Bible believed “literally”–I can’t say exactly. It’s a little tricky, because the writers of the Bible (the Gospels, at least–and we’re talking about the resurrection) were eye witnesses of the Risen Christ. So I imagine that they believed “literally,” in the sense that we believe something we’ve seen with our eyes. Even so, however, their message–kerygma–was that even those who had not been eye witnesses were invited to participate in the paschal mystery–the death and resurrection of the Lord. That is, they weren’t insisting that people ought to make some cognitive claim (in the terms I’ve been using) about the resurrection, but that they ought to experience it themselves.
Further–and this is more important for me–once an ancient experience is committed to a page and becomes sacred scripture, then a whole different level of interpretation comes into play, especially when it’s clear that there are multiple voices and multiple experiences (many in conflict with one another) contained in the text. What I know is that the long, long tradition of Christian interpretation has recognized that while there is a “literal” interpretation of the Bible, that is not the preferred one because it is just too flat–does not open the doors to the deeper, imaginative meanings of the story. (So there was, in addition to the literal meaning of the text, the allegorical, moral and anagogical.) We know that insistence on the literal-only interpretation arose late in the 19th C and then hardened into fundamentalism early in the last century (understandably, in response to rise of modernity and its challenge to religion). So–literalism is not ancient but a product of modernity.
Arden Anderson-Brorecking says
Dear David – Wow! I will always remember (Among many others) your sermon about “some people reciting the Creed with their fingers crossed!” I related to that, and relate to it now, but that doesn’t keep me from praying or praising. I will never forget, during my years as a Chrisitan Scientist, a beloved riend of mine who was a reader and a pracitioner. I admitted to her one day that I really could not believe every single word of the Bible. She said to me, “Remember, we believe the inspired word of the Bible,notthe baloney!!!” I came back to the Episcopal Church shortly thereafter.I plan to re-read your book. It loved it at first reading, but now, the
late autumn of my life, feel comfort in the thought that there are no table-pounding absolutes in “belieben” It’s a loving gift, and I thank you for pointing it outnce again. AAB
You are an inspiration, David, and also a great reliever of a lot of the guilt we carry around.
Thank you for the above essay!
Arden Anderson-Brorecking says
Postscript: I am a terrible typist!