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? 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...

Chad's Venture Into Muslim Territory...

My friend Chad Holtz recently wrote a post about his trip to a Muslim community center.  It's tongue-in-cheek, playing up on the worst of American fears about Islam, but he simultaneously models the sort of behavior I wish more of us were willing to engage in: being neighbors; experiencing "the other" firsthand; engaging our families and children in crossing boundaries.  Cheers, Chad!

Face to Face with Evil: My Family Visits an Islamic Community Center

With all the news and fear surrounding the planned Islamic Community Center at Ground Zero in NYC I determined to do something.   Deciding that the best offense is a good offense, I went on the offense, and called the Islamic community center near me with a plan of my own.   I would invite a Muslim family over for dinner on Sept. 11th, sending their people and their sinister planning committees into a tail spin as they try to decipher the meaning of my good gesture.   Perhaps news of this would reach New York City, putting a cog in the wheels of their community organizing.    Perhaps not.   But I have a dream.   

My phone call was intercepted by a man identifying himself as Roman Shareef and he claimed to have just finished praying.  He listened to my story with what I assumed to be feigned interest, acting delighted, even touched, that I would suggest such a meal.   I had him right where I wanted him.   Just give me the names and numbers of a family or two with young children, Roman, because I have 5 kids of my own and it would be nice if they could  make some new friends, too.    This was going to be easier than I thought.  But Roman was obviously well trained.
“It just so happens,” he countered, “that I will be with a whole bunch of Muslim families tonight at our recreation center for our 6th annual community dinner.   It’s open to the public.   Why don’t you and your family come join us?”   
Well played, sir.  Well played.  
What Roman did not know is that I was well trained myself.  I watch Fox News.   Without skipping a beat I accepted his offer, not wishing for him to think that I thought that he thought that my thoughts were, well, working.    I was prepared to take the game to his home court if that is what needed to be done to restore honor to our land.   
We drove into the heart of Durham, following the directions of Mr. Roman Shareef.   Our trip took us into an area I have rarely ventured, the other side of the tracks, as they say, and into a neighborhood that seemed every bit as threatening as the Muslims I was about to be eating with.   As I parked my mini-van in what I hoped was a safe lot I was struck by the sheer brilliance of these people.   What better place to conduct your sinister community dealings then in the heart of the projects, a place where white Christians won’t bother you?   As the 7 of us got out of the car I told the kids to be on their best behavior.   Not wanting to scare them, I said only to myself,  ”Self, these are professionals we’re dealing with.”   
The moment we entered the center they surrounded us.  I didn’t pay any attention to their words of welcome nor their smiling faces because I was zeroed in on the sign-in sheet asking for not just my name, but the name of every person in my family attending.   Although the lady asking for this information did not look like your average Muslim spy, I wasn’t taking any chances.   I gave them the names they requested, but for each of my children I misspelled their name by one letter.   You can have my wife and I, but not my children!   
We were seated at a table in a gymnasium and handed a program (what I’ll call evidence) full of information about tonight’s event.   
It was hard to concentrate as there was so much commotion around us.   Kids were playing and socializing, a jazz band was getting ready to play and people kept taking turns at a microphone spouting off various kinds of information, or propaganda.   They directed people to a room where free blood pressure screens were being done and another where you could get free HIV testing.   A long table off to the side seated many volunteers from all sorts of organizations in Durham, such as the fire department, the police force, soup kitchens, churches, child care services, and employment agencies.  

My God, I thought, their reach is further and deeper than I ever thought possible!  It was exactly how I would plan a community take-over.
My fear-driven thoughts were interrupted by my cell phone ringing.   It was Roman Shareef.   My God, I thought, how have they gotten my number so quickly??  And then I remembered.   I gave it to him.    
Roman was looking for me.   My eyes scanned the gymnasium hoping to spot him first as he chatted away, saying how glad he was we made it down.   Luck was not on my side, however.   We saw each other at the same time, his face lighting up in a smile that said, “Fatwa.”  
Click here to read more!

The Girl Effect

I know this has been around for awhile, but sometimes we see things at different times, and for whatever reasons, remain numb, only to come back, watch again, and be totally devastated. This video devastates me, inspires me, gives me hope, and brings tears.


 It would be nice to make the world a better place. There are ways.

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.

Prophetic Words for Dr. Laura...

My new friend Deanna posted this video, along with a great little piece on Anne Rice and Dr. Laura.  Thought you might enjoy...

 Real life rarely gives us opportunities for such platform speeches (unless one is president) and I can't imagine folks like Dr. Laura or Glenn Beck would have the humility to listen while the president ranted, but I'm a sucker for speeches.

Evangelicals: Don't Be Afraid of the "L" Word...

And I'm not talking about that cable series about lesbians.


I've said it before: one of the chief reasons I can continue to call myself an Evangelical is not because I'm consumed with the need to save souls from hell, but because the God I knew intimately and personally as a conservative is the God I still know and love today.

It's a funny, sort of sad thing that liberal Christianity hasn't been given permission to passionately know a personal God, converse to the way that Evangelical Christianity hasn't been given permission to accommodate science or to acknowledge the relativity of truth in experience (these are wild generalities, so try not to jump too quickly).

One of the problems is that traditionally, for one to claim to intimately "know" God consistently translates into a certainty that demands evangelism and conversion.  "If I know the truth, then any disagreement is wrong and I have to convince you of it."  Liberals don't want to convert people against their will, especially not in ways that undermine the tradition and ethos of a culture-of-origin, or downplays/denigrates the personal experience of the other.  Because "the world don't move to the beat of just one drum..."

Conservatives are afraid that if they open the door to the validity of the experience of the other, it undermines their own experience.  "If she's right, how can I be right too?  And what if I'm not right, after all?"  Which is what often happens in college when young Evangelicals take their first Intro To Religion class, or make friends with a Buddhist.

We have choices in life - both corporeal and ethereal choices.  Most folks don't make a choice at all - non-choice is their choice.  Which is a default to the religious worldview of their parents/family-of-origin.  And sometimes that non-choice remains throughout life, but more and more commonly, that posture disintegrates into casual agnosticism or cultural identification.  None of those outcomes is necessarily bad, but I would argue (as a person of faith) that both miss the richness of the spiritual life, and the beauty of religion at its best.

Emerging/Emergent/Emergence Christianity (that's too many damn forms of the same word) continues to be criticized as a slippery slope into liberalism.  I have confessed before: this was for me.  And liberalism is often accused of being a slippery slope into secularism, which it may be.  But what has allowed me to retain my personal relationship with Jesus Christ (my goodness, isn't that an Evangelical statement!) is that I have chosen to reject the false paradigm that to know and love God in my religious context means to reject all other paths to God, all other names for God, or any worldviews/godviews that conflict with my own.  To say that demands I avoid invalidating a fundamentalist mentality, to avoid becoming a fundamentalist myself.  It's a tenuous position, and one I often fail to successfully hold.  But my words aren't for those interested in self-validation.  I'm writing this post for so many conservative Evangelicals who aren't happy with the religion they have inherited, and simply don't know where to go from here - or are scared of losing the GOOD PARTS of the spiritual life they have.  These are folks like me.

For thousands of years, mystics from various traditions (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh) have been writing about their experiences in the presence of the Divine.  They may not acknowledge the commonality with their sister-religions (some have, like Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh) but the spiritual experience they write about is very consistent across religious party lines.

You can love and experience God in powerfully personal, intimate ways, and still choose not to force your conceptions of God on others.  You have a choice.  There are countless methods and traditions for interpreting the Bible, and while you may not have experience with them all, you have a choice: you can continue as you were raised, which may or may not be a "non-choice," or you can explore and ask questions and determine if the path you are on really makes your heart sing.  Does your Christianity help you love people more, or does it actually create barriers to love?  If your answer is the latter, then it cannot be Christianity at all.

Too often we Evangelicals have confused the power and presence of God in our lives with the absolute correctness of our theology.  Our theologies are merely tools and gauges, helping us to understand the truth that we know that we know.  When theology gets in the way of knowing God, or of loving people, we have to make a deliberate choice.  I've been discussing this with two friends recently: George Elerick and Chad Holtz.  In truth, I think all three of us agreed on more than we disagreed on.  Our greatest variance had to do with how much effort we wanted to put into maintaining solidarity with the corporate structures of organized Christianity.  And I don't fault either for their positions.  I think I'm still unsure about how important that is to me, personally.

I'll close with this quotation:

The measure of [mental] health is flexibility [not comparison to some 'norm'], the freedom to learn from experience... to be influenced by reasonable arguments... and the appeal to emotions... and especially the freedom to cease when sated.  The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.
--Dr. Lawrence Kubie

Are we healthy or ill?  I think the same paradigm can be constructed for spiritual health and illness.

Friends, try to remember: you have a choice.

Rohr on Paradox

From Fr. Richard Rohr's daily devotional today:


I don’t think the important thing is to be certain about answers nearly as much as being serious about the questions.
When we hold the questions, we meet and reckon with our contradictions, with our own dilemmas, and we invariably arrive at a turning point where we either evade God or meet God.
When we hang on the horns of the dilemma with Christ—between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human realms—it creates liminal space.  All transformation takes place when we’re somehow in between, inside of liminal space. 

Iraq War: What Cost of Life is Justifiable?

I have a friend who continues to maintain that the Iraq War was one of George W. Bush's few "genius" maneuvers.  And he's not being tongue-in-cheek.  He sees the endeavor as a success, and with Wednesday's news of "Final US Combat Troops Withdrawing" he'd proudly affirm: "mission accomplished."

My retort now is the same as it was 5 years ago when we first started arguing: how many lives make that "success" worthwhile?  Is it a fair trade?

Here are some statistics from a source ( you may find dubious, but they document their sources, which appear credible:

American Military Casualties in Iraq 
In Combat
American Deaths
Since war began (3/19/03):44153493
Since "Mission Accomplished" (5/1/03) (the list)


Since Capture of Saddam (12/13/03):39543187
Since Handover (6/29/04):35562860
Since Obama Inauguration (1/20/09):18788

Iraqi Casualties
Iraq Deaths Estimator 

 Is American military "mission accomplished" worth the cost?

I would argue without hesitation: absolutely not.

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