What is "BELIEF?"

In continuing the discussion from last night about belief, and in particular folks who don't believe, I'm sometimes baffled by the way Christians (myself included) have tended to address disbelief:  When someone disbelieves, what do we do?  We try to convince!

It's sort of like finding someone who doesn't speak English in the United States: to convince them of the importance of learning the dominant language here, we explain - in English - how fluency will benefit them.   "Alkadfa;dska dflakdfka adkfadlk;lka asdlksdfljkad."  Got it?
It's like making womp rat jokes at a Star Trek convention...

...or talking to me about sports.

When we talk to friends and neighbors about spirituality, we need to start exactly there: spirituality.  We have to vacate the particulars of Christendom, and participate in a much broader mystical world.  In that mystical world, we interact - human to human - in transcendent questions about the nature of reality, the nature of creation, of humankind, of God (or GODS), sin, goodness, eternity and the soul.  To do this honestly, we have to give up CONTROL.  We have to learn how to be "seekers" all over again (or, perhaps, for the first time).

If a person engages those questions and concludes, "nope.  The only reality I believe in is the natural world I can observe," then the conversation is effectively over and we should love and enjoy friendship with our atheist neighbor.  But if that person recognizes and affirms a mystical, supernatural system that we are all a part of, then things get even more dicey, because our friends may not reach our conclusions: Buddhism or Wicca may seem a whole lot nicer.  Did our spiritual encouragement lead them elsewhere?  Away from Jesus?  That idea scares the hell out of anyone who is certain of their own answers, and it keeps a lot of well-intentioned Christians from letting conversations go past canned Evangelism bullet points.  That can keep us from having deep, meaningful relationships with spiritually open people, because our agendas prevent us from taking the risk of allowing them freedom to choose.

If our definition of "belief" or "faith" involves the idea of something that can be argued or convinced, then I'm afraid most contemporary, postmodern people on the fringes of traditional organized religion won't have much patience with us.

If we are able to see faith as something that is experienced empathically and existentially, in addition to intellectually, then we will value the process of joining others in their personal journey.  We're all seekers.

I'd like to join you in seeking.


Ted said...

Pete --

I like this, and I think this kind of work really needs to be done. I'm glad you're doing it. But I'm going to push back on a couple of things, because I know you can take it. :)

I think I see an underlying presup here, that there is some kind of core orientation toward belief or unbelief that is more basic than our cultural conditioning. "What do you feel when you close your eyes," or "the conversation is effectively over and we should love and enjoy friendship with our atheist neighbor."

Why is the conversation over? What if the presence we feel in the dark is yet a contingent part of the rest of our experience, no more (and no less) fundamental than whatever the atheist/naturalist/agnostic feels or doesn't feel? Why is the conversation over? What if the atheist (etc.) affirms things we believe in deeply but narrates them differently? What if their very atheism is a way of giving voice to things that we articulate through faith, and vice-versa?

Just being a push. :)

Ted said...

And I used "why is the conversation over?" twice. That must be important to me. :)

Peter J Walker said...

Ted, REALLY good points here. I actually thought about that after I re-read the post last night, but I was too tired to go back in and make changes. YES: the conversation is not necessarily over because of unbelief.

I pacified myself regarding the post by focusing on the actual example-response I used for an atheist person: "nope..."

I definitely know atheist folks who are VERY interested in discussing these things, and who have broader views of nature and reality than rigid Newtonian physics or 19th century rationalism. Their response isn't going to be "nope," it's going to be more like "but what about...?"

This is more than a dualistic paradigm of belief and unbelief, to be sure, which is what happens when we open up the conversation to the spiritual world in general - that's going to be inclusive of agnostics, and perhaps even some atheists.

The problem I really wanted to highlight here is that when someone ends the conversation about belief, too many Christians keep forcing forward (because it's all about "winning souls") OR, worse, we walk away from the relationship, because it was really about "witnessing" to begin with.

A relationship is precious for its own sake, and we - as Christians - don't have the right to dictate all of the parameters. This is, if we really care about real friendship.

"What if their very atheism is a way of giving voice to things that we articulate through faith, and vice-versa?"

Absolutely, Ted. I'm glad for this pushback because I probably sped through this post a bit.


Ted said...


I see where you're coming from. Yeah, on a certain level, the "evangelism" conversation is over, so to speak. But isn't it just as over when we encounter someone open to spirituality but it's because their own spirituality is doing the work it needs to do? It's helping them be more loving and compassionate and be about the work God is doing in the world?

I'm liberal enough to make you look like Jimmy Swaggart (not really, and no, it's not a contest!) and the evangelism question is thorny for me. But if we conceive evangelism as what I just described -- coming alongside people in being about the things that God is about, in incarnating Jesus, then I think someone who is an atheist or agnostic or Wiccan or any number of things could get on board. They'd narrate things to themselves differently than we do, but I think that's okay.

Peter J Walker said...

Ted, I hear you. While I think I'm more liberal than you think ;) all right, all right, you win... but I'm trying to keep as many folks involved in this conversation as possible. We have to talk about evangelism if we want to be inclusive of Evangelicals, and I do want to be inclusive of Evangelicals.

I'm not personally interested in Evangelism in any way that posits conversion as its goal, but I do believe good news should be shared, and there are a lot of people with a lot of news that should be shared. I think we can actually make the world a better place. If Evangelism can be reoriented and broadened to be about the sort of business Jesus Christ occupied himself with, rather than the business of modern religious conversion, then we can find space for genuine "fellowship" between folks of completely divergent spiritual/religious systems. I think you're right: incarnating Christ is an ecumenical, pluralist, universal endeavor - and most of the atheists and agnostics I know would show up for that party.

Ted said...

Amen, brother.

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