How We Choose Beliefs (because we ALL do)

I've been talking with a friend, Cheryl, online about how we choose our beliefs.  It's really becoming an overarching theme for me: there are literally thousands of Christian sects and denominations in the world.  There are countless positions on the conservative-liberal spectrum.  There are dozens of legitimate theological traditions and approaches, all with impressive scholarly work behind them.  

Ultimately, which do you choose?  Few Christians study all of the options available (probably a lifetime of reading, in itself).  Few experiment with more than a couple of denominations - few very disparate (American Baptist or Southern Baptist?  Foursquare or Assemblies of God?) much less culturally unique.  

99% of the time our church or denominational affiliation (and therefore our personal theology) comes down to one of these two identifiers:
    ( A )  I was raised in this denomination (or a similar one)
    ( B )  I like the people/pastor/worship style/vibe here

And yet so many Christians are willing to wage war over the rightness of their theology, when theology typically has NOTHING to do with why an American Christian chooses a church.

You can tell me: "for the Bible tells me so" but let's be real.  You probably came from (A) or (B).

So I'd like to talk about theological choice: why do you believe what you believe?  And if we can come back to those reasons for attending a church: why can't you choose to believe something different if it sounds better?  The typical comeback is, "that's buffet-style Christianity, and I won't pick and choose..." but - again- we've already established the random way in which theology is chosen (as an after-the-fact of what church is chosen).  

Really want to hang your hat on that?  

How about your lifestyle?  

Your friendships?

The salvation of the cosmos?

You made a choice about your theology.  So did I.  All I want is for us to think a little bit about the reasons for our choices, and if the stakes are worth the outcome of our choices... and if they're not, I want us to be brave enough to change our minds.

24 comments: said...

I believe what I believe because what I believe is true. (-:

Okay... more humbly... because it is the best explanation I've found for things and more reasonable and more compelling than the alternatives.

Peter J Walker said...

Aha! Yes! And that's a very legitimate reason.

Cheryl Ensom said...

Personally, I do not align myself any longer with a church of any sort, nor do I adhere to a specific doctrine. Theology is out the window. Here's a bit of what I've dabbled in, though:

-Presbyterian - born into it
-Evangelical Free - my family went there most of my childhood
-Four-Square - the youth group I attended for all of high school/church I went to
-Presbyterian again - married into a family that has gone to not just ANY Pres. church but this particular one for four generations

All of those denominations say that one must have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"/i.e. accept salvation through Jesus so I didn't do a lot of belief-swapping when I moved from church to church. I really WANTED/Tried to believe in the more charismatic stuff in the Four Square church, but ultimately, I didn't "get the gifts of the Spirit" I was supposed to, but I used to worry a fair bit because my high school sweetheart and his family were thoroughly Four-Square and I wasn't sure how things were going to work if our beliefs were different. Ultimately I walked away from that relationship AND church at that time so it wasn't an issue.

The evangelical and presbyterian churches also agreed on something else besides the doctrine of salvation: they agreed there was no other way TO be saved and therefore people who believed differently or simply hadn't ever heard of Jesus/Christianity were going to hell. Period. I believed this, too, reluctantly, even though it never sat right with me. Looking back I KNEW I didn't believe in hell but I had to believe in it to be a "Christian."

Now there is nothing I *HAVE* to believe in. I am not afraid of eternal separation from God or conscious torment because I don't believe in hell. I think it does not exist and because of that, I have found a place I didn't know existed: life without black and white beliefs about God.

The only reason I can say I don't believe in any one thing is because hell is off the table. With hell off the table I don't need a theology/doctrine. I can and do believe certain things but those things can change and grow as I do...or not. Thinking isn't scary anymore. That's right. I can think freely about God and not feel afraid that my thoughts are a sign of doubt/disbelief, thereby disqualifying me from heaven or distancing me from God.

For me this is rather like the difference between marrying for love and marrying because you're supposed to and you are the property of your father and he said so. When I *had* to believe certain things about God to stay out of hell/enjoy relationship with God it was like I was "assigned" a marriage partner. I was "supposed" to love, honor and cherish that partner. I "had" to be faithful...or else. On the other hand not *having* to believe any one thing is rather like marrying for love: I can do what I want, think what I want, love who I like and I am CHOOSING to love this partner.

I know this is long. sorry. but here's just one more thought. Really a question. Is it even possible to have authentic belief/faith in something that you *have* to believe in order to avoid hell/eternal conscious torment? Does that fear of hell automatically make authentic belief impossible? In my experience, yes. I'm wondering what others think.

Ira said...

Peter, this is a great observation, but I think there's a lot more to it. You seem to be focusing on theological particulars, and you're right to suggest that we latch on to those particulars mostly because of church affiliation, which often happens for pretty mundane or pedestrian reasons: at one point, my faith journey was significantly impacted by the fact that a pretty girl went to Young Life.

One thing I think you're overlooking, however, is that often this affiliation is accompanied by a conversion experience or a deep insight that certainly feels very real: sure, there was the pretty girl, but there was also the call of the Lord on my life. Because this experience emerges in or is constructed by a particular cultural milieu, that milieu itself is then fraught with epistemological weight. It becomes part of our identity, and it does not let go easily.

We don't feel like we're choosing. In many cases we feel like we're responding to something outside of us. The attendant belief seems like it goes all the way down, and the idea that we could choose something different undermines our need for that belief to be genuine.

Moreover, much of what you describe is not how we consciously choose beliefs but how beliefs are essentially chosen for us. You're right to point out the arbitrary nature of those beliefs, but you're selling short the phenomenology of belief as it manifests in the religious subject.

Then, if we're honest, we have to recognize that beliefs we hold now which seem to go all the way down could be just as arbitrary, just as constructed, just as much of a choice whether we're aware of making a choice or not. We believe what we need to believe for reasons that may not be obvious to us and in many cases we have to hide from ourselves anyway -- especially since to recognize them as constructions is to deny them the epistemological privilege that they need in order to function as beliefs.

It's a dangerous game -- and I say that not as someone who thinks you shouldn't play it, but as someone who already has. In other words, I think you're right; I'm curious as to how you parse the ramifications of being right.

Peter J Walker said...

Cheryl and Ira, these are both such fantastic comments!

Cheryl, I love your comparison to an arranged marriage. Yes! It's hard to love someone because I'm told I have to. I'd like to get to know a person first - perhaps even be wooed a little?

I can really relate to your mention of hell. Hell is such a distraction - a time-sucker. It eats away at us through fear, obsession, focus, and ultimately gives us the wrong motivations for any sort of Gospel/good news. It's also the nuke, waiting it the silo while we politely sign peace treaties with God. He's very nice, and offers us some of his vodka to ease the cold, but no matter how nice he is, we're signing the damn treaty - in part - because of nuclear threat.

Peter J Walker said...

Ira, I think you're really right - especially about my post under-appreciating the weight of the conversion experience. I think I need to add that as a very important (C) - and probably the most troublesome of all (maybe I avoided it on purpose).

Part of it may also be that I never really had a conversion experience, being raised in the church. Or rather, I had dozens of conversion experiences in nearly as many churches (some of the conversions compulsory by overzealous pastors and Sunday school teachers). Being raised in the church, it's pretty hard to identify a point when I broke from my - what? - sinful toddlerhood, I guess.

All I can really say is that the onus is on us - all of us - to help our sisters and brothers and neighbors on the journey to understand that there are hundreds and hundreds of ways that faithful, reverent Christians interpret their adherence to Jesus Christ. Ecumenism is a huge culture shift for Evangelicals, but a necessary one that's worth the work.

Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy does a really nice job of honoring many different Christian traditions for their strengths. It's approachable language, fair-minded, and the underlying motive of the writing is to instill better understanding and friendship between sects, not to tow a "party line."

The OTHER component that I think is helpful is for us - all of us - to practice giving our testimonies. Testimonies don't always have to be about how "I gave up drugs and fornication," but the power of intimate, transparent stories of faith is common ground that we can all connect on at an emotional level. I think some of us have given up on sharing testimony because of the cultural entanglements and religious baggage it entails. But if we can't explain how our lives have been impacted by the awareness and presence of God, how in the world do we expect to influence normative, militant, exclusionary evangelism?

Finally, I don't have any problem acknowledging that the choices I (we) make are arbitrary. The key differentiator is self-awareness and intellectual honesty.

As for the ramifications of being right: some of those ramifications would inevitably scores of people "falling away" from adherence to the Christian religion. And per Cheryl's comment above, I'm not incredibly worried about that. Leaving Christianity because one discover's there are other options is - at the very least - a self-aware decision. Should one return to Christianity at a later time, it would hopefully be non-compulsory.

Thoughts? I appreciate the exercise in working this out more...

Gavin said...

Stanley Hauerwas has written that "the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy."

I only mention this because it's easy for us to think that we actually make free rational choices when in fact even the notion of "freedom of choice" is in some ways a story that was given to us. Choice is hardly arbitrary but is deeply informed by the communities and stories that form us (for good or ill). Where did we come up with the idea that it was good to be a free thinker? And where did we come up with the idea that we have the individual capacity to make good, moral choices? We have the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to thank for these stories. You can embrace them, just don't think you chose them in a vacuum.

Regarding the church/denominational affiliation, my reasons are a bit different that the two reasons you list. I was baptized Episcopalian, raised in fundy/charismatic churches, and went to a Catholic university. I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church as an adult after attending a local Covenant church. I did indeed "like the people/pastor/worship style vibe" there, but that is not what keeps me in the denomination now. It's the relationships I have with the many different people I've met in my 10+ years as a Covenanter.

Some of this is likely due that I'm also an ordained Covenant pastor. If I hadn't gotten connected with the Covenant, I would probably be Catholic or Episcopal by now. But I will argue that Covenant Theology is one of the more generous theologies out there in the evangelical wasteland. To boil it down: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

Ira said...

Conversion experiences aside, one thing I was trying to get at is that not everyone holds beliefs with the level of self-consciousness your question assumes. Good, solid, genuine belief, it seems to me, feels like having your eyes opened to the truth; it doesn't feel like a choice.

The problem comes when you've had a few of those, and they're mutually exclusive in content, and you begin do doubt the experience of belief itself. I think you've had a taste of that. I'm not sure you've completely internalized it yet, and maybe you don't need to.

But for people who haven't faced that, or people who can continue to think their latest epiphany is true no matter what it means for their conviction that the last epiphany was true, the idea that belief is a choice can be baffling, which is why I invoked the idea of beliefs being chosen for us.

This, I think, is what Gavin is insightfully getting at: the idea that belief is a choice is part of a belief that has been chosen for us. I imagine we parse things differently from there (and I'm not a Hauerwas fan) but the insight is apt.

Ira said...

This is just me remembering to click to get email updates. :)

Marnie said...

Just a comment on the forced marriage idea...

I have been struggling with that stuff for a while and it was quite seriously keeping me away from God. I finally realized that the whole hell thing felt like having a boyfriend who told me that he loved me and that he wanted me to love him and that if I didn't love him that he would lock me in a room in my house and burn me alive... it really doesn't leave much room for love, you know? :) In 'real life' if I told people that that was the situation and that I still 'freely' loved this man people would be worried for my mental state.

I think I can only really love God if that isn't the situation. It isn't about me picking an choosing what things sound fun, but about the facts about love. I cannot love someone who would burn me alive (or torment me or whatever) if I don't.

Peter J Walker said...

Great stuff. Gavin, that's a helpful quotation from Hauerwas, and I guess I should be cautious about outright asserting that "choice is good."

My argument is that choice, for better and for worse, is reality. We all do it. And I think some of your differentiation of your reasons for being Covenant are semantics. Relationships - in my opinion - could be included as part of Option (B).

BTW, I dig Covenant, too. Had great experiences there.

What I'm really trying to advocate for is exactly what the problem seems to inherently be with my argument in the first place: people are not aware of the choices they have made. They see them as inevitabilities - often inevitabilities resulting from Absolute Truth. Ira, exactly as you say!

It's interesting that you see "choice" as a choice chosen for us. Because I see theological choice as profoundly counter-cultural, in the midst of a mindset that sees "right belief" as an inevitability of ones conversion or church-of-origin.

I'm not really disagreeing with anyone here. I think your approaches to this are really helpful to me as I try to flush this thing out. Thank you, and keep pushing back.

Peter J Walker said...

Marnie, well said.

Oh, also, I was going to share a little of what helped initiate some of my thoughts on this, from a couple of years ago. In one of my seminary classes, our professor was talking about the problematic role of women in regard to the Apostle Paul’s comments throughout his New Testament letters. He said, “You can lay all of Paul’s teachings on women side by side, and you’ll find that they are not reconcilable. You can try to parse which texts were actually written by Paul, and which ones were redacted by later writers. You can talk about context, and why some things were appropriate at some times, but not at others. But the fact will remain: Paul is not consistent.” I remember: he took a pause, lifted his head toward the ceiling and dramatically squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. He sighed. “That means you have to make a choice. As Christians, you don’t get to support Paul on both sides. You either choose to believe that Paul is right when he says, ‘Women should remain silent,’ as in 1 Corinthians, or you choose to believe that Paul is correct in saying ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.’ Or when Paul recognizes women as both deacons and apostles in Romans 16? You have a choice.” He smiled wryly, and then the smile disappeared just as quickly. Seriously then, he said, “You are free to choose which you will believe. And what you will do with that belief. And one of those choices is wrong.”

I loved it! And I'm not so interested in which choice is wrong, but that the choice exists at all. The reality of church disparity on the issue (among thousands of others) is proof of the choice.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful stuff Peter and commenters. Nice to stumble upon you through our Facebook friendship.

Ira said...

I certainly don't want to dissuade you from pushing for self-conscious ownership of our theological constructions. I'm all about that. I'd guess Gavin was making a more strident point, but for me, his comment speaks to the contingency of our own belief, including (or especially) our beliefs about belief.

You want people to recognize the choices inherent in their theological constructions, the arbitrariness of the theological particulars they seem ready to die for. I think this is especially key for those in a place where they're experiencing some serious cognitive dissonance. To the person who says "I love gay people, and I want to be able to support same-sex marriage but I just can't, because the Bible says..." and so forth, I'm always tempted to say that if they really want to be able to support it, there are ways to get there. But this breaks the rules. It's asking them to step outside their own language game and adjust it consciously, and this probably seems cynical to them.

We're left trying to either get them to see they've always already been making choices, as you are doing, or helping them get there within the rules of the existing language game, as others are doing. Both are difficult.

I'm trying to turn your argument back toward your own beliefs, not to convince you otherwise, but to negate the negation: against the idea that belief is inevitability, you're putting up the antithesis that belief is a choice. I'm negating that, not to get back to the affirmation of belief as inevitability, but to point out that belief-as-choice is also a choice, and one that might not have been made consciously. This is where Gavin's point came in handy.

I would phrase things a bit differently to begin with: that all belief is contingent, which covers choice but also those choices made for us. And I mean this of all belief, including my belief that belief is contingent. (This, I submit, is a lot closer to deconstruction than the way the word gets casually tossed around by emergent types, yourself included -- if I may scold a bit. :) )

Rick and Monique Elgersma said...

I'm back. And I think being saved doesn't require God's people to choose the theology--although I wish they'd think through what they say. Either way, when we're in heaven the question of our earthly theological presuppositions might come up, but I'm guessing we won't worry so much about what we only partly knew and be happier with fully knowing (I Corinthians 13, Mark 8:22-26).

The better question is why do we refuse to listen and change by someone else's opinion? Instead of grappling with points of view, men hold their own to the death. Afraid of vulnerability I'd assume.

Peter J Walker said...

Rick! Of Rickneiklikesbikes or something like that? Cool dude, welcome back. Good points (re: knowing in part). And your concluding questions are great: why are we so afraid? Why is vulnerability or (horrors) the possibility of being WRONG so terrible? It's called being human.

Peter J Walker said...

Ira, yes, there is more nuance in acknowledging the contingency of... well, EVERY belief. But that may be even harder for some to swallow than the notion of deliberate choice - at least to begin with.

Your point on cognitive dissonance is well-taken. If that dissonance hasn't yet occurred (if it ever does) there's little point in talking about choice. Which leads to this question: HOW CAN WE SOW DISSONANCE in a healthy, challenging way among believers, without DESTROYING their faith? And should we have to worry about the possibility of destroying faith through dissonance? And if so, was it ever faith to begin with?

You said: "against the idea that belief is inevitability, you're putting up the antithesis that belief is a choice. I'm negating that, not to get back to the affirmation of belief as inevitability, but to point out that belief-as-choice is also a choice, and one that might not have been made consciously."

This is getting heady. So, Gavin's point was that our choices do not define us so much as we think. Our history and context defines us just as much, if not more, and we cannot choose to be other than we are. I get that, from a standpoint of identity. Gavin, is that right? I'm not sure I believe that it's any better to be a free thinker than to not be a free thinker - in the way that term is typically intended. But I don't see how it can be good to be an imprisoned thinker - one who is trapped in thoughts or beliefism that one finds abhorrent.

Ira, yes, choosing to believe belief is a choice is a choice. I'm glad I'm sober right now. Is this coming down to an ultimate question about free will? Whoa. That sort of snuck up on me. Are we in control of our lives and choices, or is God guiding everything we do?

So I guess I'm choosing to believe I have the power to choose. And I'm choosing to believe that you have that power too. And that whether you know it or not, or make use of it or not, that power remains.

And my central argument (at the risk of sounding ridiculously redundant) is that IF people can be invited to step outside of their immediate vantage and see the commonalities between their own faith experience (upbringing, conversion, membership, community) and those of others, they may be naturally more inclined to value the positions of others, and less inhibited to explore and adopt those positions that seem more... authentic? Consistent? Organic to their own gut-level values.

Am I missing your negation? If so, help!

Ira said...

Your basic argument, as stated, is something I agree with. I would just nuance it in two directions:

1) Beliefs you recognize as choice are not recognized as such for people who feel them as deep beliefs. They might get there, and your questions about cultivating cognitive dissonance are apt. It's called teaching. :) At any rate, I think you get that.

2) That belief is a choice is a deep belief of yours
(among others -- like, all of them) that you don't recognize as choice. You're smart enough to concede it intellectually, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't feel like a choice. Likewise, my belief that belief is contingent is, itself, contingent, but it feels to me like a belief of a different order.

"Are we in control of our lives and choices, or is God guiding everything we do?"

Are those our only choices? Isn't your belief in God a choice -- which is to say, something contingent? If we lack free will, it might be because God is in control, or it might be because the result of materialistic determinism. Or perhaps free will is genuine, but even here we have many, many choices that could be made. Do your choices touch bottom in a way that mine don't, or that Gavin's don't, or that Cheryl's don't?

At any rate, I'm trying to get you to grasp -- not just intellectually, but in to really feel it -- how slippery all of our constructs of belief and knowledge really are. If I can get you to see that others might not be prepared to accept belief as choice, I might be able to get you to see that there are things you are likewise not prepared for, or at least haven't been previously.

Your post indicated to me that you're experiencing some cognitive dissonance of your own, or at least you need to. :)

Ira said...

Peter -- I think I'm starting to sound overly pedantic. I don't really mean that. Let's put it this way: the line of thinking that belief-as-choice puts you on goes some interesting places, and I think you'll enjoy them. That's all.

Peter J Walker said...

Ira, it's been helpful to have you push me to refine this language and thinking in terms of choice. I appreciate what you've written here. No worries.

You said, "If I can get you to see that others might not be prepared to accept belief as choice, I might be able to get you to see that there are things you are likewise not prepared for, or at least haven't been previously."

My recognition that many aren't prepared to accept this belief is why I'm so interested in flushing out what - exactly - it means in the first place. And whether or not it's an area worth exploring for that very reason. Are there ways to help others become more self-aware?

You're right: there's plenty I'm not prepared for or aware of yet. That's why I'm glad to have commenters who can thoughtfully push back, challenge, or hone whatever argument is here.

Thanks bro,

Ira said...


It's possible to help foster the conditions in which people become more aware, and prod along the process when it seems to manifest, but there's a lot that is simply (and appropriately) beyond our control. There are various developmental models -- Fowler's "stages of faith" among them -- that can help us understand but we have to resist the temptation to assume that our own winding, circuitous, idiosyncratic path is somehow normative.

If you follow the belief-as-choice line, and accept the idea that some of those beliefs are chosen for us, and you really internalize that, then you have to face the possibility that any or all of our beliefs are similarly contingent, or constructed, and even if we assume (or insist) that some of them aren't, there's no calculus by which we can arrive at which ones.

This applies even (or especially) to the beliefs we hold most dear.

Kelly said...

Hi Pete :)

Hopefully you remember me from long ago at First Assembly. Though I have read your blog for a couple years now, I have never commented. I just started at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and am now finding the necessity of joining this ongoing theological conversation. None of us have it figured out, especially me.

It is funny to me that some people think these “emerging” questions are new. The discussion of what Christians believe and why has been going on since the first and second century church.

Healthy debate is not only allowed, it is vital for the life and continuation of the church. But the overarching necessity is unity.

In regards to how we choose what we believe, of course our background plays a huge part in that. But if we limit ourselves to that, we are totally ignorant and basically robots. At the same time if we are just constantly exploring our options, we can never really move forward. At some point, we have to determine what we believe. Being a part of a denomination is about affirming beliefs that resonate with a majority, but that definitely doesn't mean everyone agrees on everything. And that is okay.

Thanks for always making me think.


Peter J Walker said...

Ira, I believe that on some level ALL of our beliefs are contingent. I'm not afraid of saying that, and simultaneously choosing to affirm those beliefs that seem most constructive, good, helpful, transcendent, etc... I don't believe any of them aren't. Which is the whole point about choices. No non-negotiables. Only faithful choices. And my belief that my choices are faithful is, itself, a choice.

I agree: no objective calculus. If "certainty is the opposite of faith," then it's faith through which I choose to move forward as a spiritual/religious being.

As Kelly said (below) "if we are just constantly exploring our options, we can never really move forward. At some point, we have to determine what we believe." I think there's a way to determine or choose what one is going to believe, but remain open-handed, so that if no experiences, studies or evidence leads us to change/evolve, we're open to that. In that way, in response to Kelly, I think it can be both/and: we can believe and move forward without building walls around those beliefs. We will always change.

Lovely dialogue!

Peter J Walker said...

And KELLY! Of COURSE I remember you :) It was not so long ago for an old guy like me.

Lovely that you're attending seminary! Congratulations, and I expect to have many more conversations about what you're learning there. Make sure to keep in touch. Seminary has been a WONDERFUL experience for me.

And I agree, if we aren't discussing, debating, pushing at the boundaries, and recalibrating at the core(s), the organism dies.

Great to hear from you!

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