How We Choose Beliefs - Processing the Dialogue...

A few days ago I posted on the concept of belief and theology as choice:
There are countless positions on the conservative-liberal spectrum; dozens of legitimate theological traditions, all with impressive scholarly work behind them; which do you choose?  Few Christians study all of the options available; few experiment with more than a couple of denominations - few very disparate from one another, 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).




The post instigated some really interesting dialogue (in my opinion) that I'm still processing - turning over in my head.  I have highlighted some of the key statements (and a little bit more) from various comments, and wanted to see if it would fuel any further discussion.  I hope my hack-and-slash approach (below) doesn't cause any of the commenters too much grief.  Any other thoughts?  

asthedeer.com said...
[I hold my particular theology] because it is the best explanation I've found for things and more reasonable and more compelling than the alternatives.


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...  All of [the] denominations [I have attended] 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... 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? 
Ira said...
...Often this affiliation is accompanied by a conversion experience or a deep insight that certainly feels very real... 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... 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... 


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



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."  ...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)...  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...
Ira said...
... Not 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... 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...
Marnie said...
... 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... 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...


Peter J Walker said...
My argument is that choice, for better and for worse, is reality. We all do it... 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... 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

Ira said...
... [Gavin's] 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.  ...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.

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...  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... 



Peter J Walker said...
Ira... Your point on cognitive dissonance is well-taken. If that dissonance hasn't yet occurred there's little point in talking about choice...
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."
...  Ira, yes, choosing to believe belief is a choice is a choice...
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.
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...
2) That belief is a choice is a deep belief of yours... 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... 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...  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...


Peter J Walker said...
Ira, it's been helpful to have you push me to refine this language and thinking in terms of choice... 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?
...
Ira said...
...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...
...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.


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.


          *           *           *

I know, I hacked all that up a bit.  As I've said, I'm really enjoying reading and re-reading the comments here.  Let me know what you think about the idea of BELIEF-AS-DELIBERATE-CHOICE...
Peter

5 comments:

Ira said...

Nice done, Peter. What I see is you being willing to take responsibility for your own theology, without recourse to "well, that's just the way it is" or "that's what the Bible says" as a means of propping up your own prejudices. I think that's healthy.

Thanks for the dialog.

Ira said...

NiceLY done, I should say. :)

Nate said...

Interesting discussion...to some extent I relate with "asthedeer"

In approaching theology and belief/truth I take on the Radiohead concept: "just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there." In a sense, just because I do or don't WANT to believe something doesn't mean it's true or not.

Thus about 8 years ago I decided to throw away what I wanted to believe and decided no matter how uncomfortable or weird a tenet of belief may sound, if it made sense (based on a logical grid) then I would try to accept it. Took me to a strange place, but I'm enjoying it.

Peter J Walker said...

I appreciate that Ira, thanks. And I do appreciate your feedback and challenge. Few ideas - especially mine - are anything near "pragmatic" in such nascent stages. Takes time to develop something really worth promoting or subscribing to.

Nate, I hear you. I do agree that what I want or don't want does not - and SHOULD not - validate it's truthfulness. Where it gets tricky is, there are faithful people who have experienced radicaly spiritual conversion or insight in every single camp. And they all have theological models to explain, support and justify those camps.

For me, I'm choosing choice because I don't see it as any more perilous than adherence to denomination or doctrine.

At the very least, I'll find myself aligned with faithful Christians, beautiful people, hacks and phonies, and I'll be aligned with the values I'm convicted of and passionate about.

The alternative would be to find myself aligned with faithful Christians, beautiful people, hacks and phonies, and be aligned in opposition to the values I'm convicted of and passionate about.

Good to see your name here, bro.
Peter

Peter J Walker said...

Radical. Not radicaly.

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