BELIEF: Can You CHOOSE, or Are You REQUIRED?


As you can see from the prominent ad on this website, or on facebook if you’ve friended me, a book I’ve contributed to is coming out in June. 

The book explores a series of questions, most of them disconnected, except for the fact that they are all “hot-button,” ones many folks feel afraid to ask Christians about directly (for fear of judgment, condescension, or other negative responses).  A group of writers, academics, and theologians (a dozen of us, or so) took turns responding to these questions, and this book is the edited collection of those responses in all their variance, harmony and dissonance.  I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product.

The role I found myself taking seemed to consistently gravitate toward this conclusion, regardless of the question: I believe because I choose to believe, but I do not have to believe, and neither do you, and we are probably wrong about a lot, and it is the act of choosing to believe in what is unknown that is fundamentally an act of faith.  Otherwise, it’s beliefism…

Perhaps it would be fair to articulate this: The correctness of one’s theology is less important than the humility of one’s spirituality.  That is not to suggest that I am a particularly humble person (yes, go ahead, you can call bullshit).

In terms of the supernatural, I carry a lot of cynicism.  In terms of Orthodoxy, it’s the same.  It’s not that I don’t choose to believe in a robust Christian faith, replete with supernatural wonders, miraculous events and godly intervention.  It’s not that I want to see religion stripped of everything extraordinary…

I just don’t want to be told that I HAVE to believe something to be a Christian.  I don’t like requirements on this journey.  Hmmm… that doesn’t sound very humble, now, does it?  How about this:  I’m willing to CHOOSE to believe something, acknowledging it is possible that it might not be true.  I believe that is faith.  I am not willing to FORCE myself to believe something, hinging my salvation or religious system on its inherent truth.  I won’t do that with the literal resurrection.  I won’t do that with the virgin birth.  I won’t do that with the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union or any other fundamental Christian doctrine.  I affirm these.  I choose to believe them.  But my faith in God does not rely on them.

I am convinced that an emergent, postmodern, existential faith must honestly acknowledge this deliberate, cognitive paradigm of affirmative belief if it is to reach the emerging culture-at-large.

Strangely, I’m not seeing this articulated clearly anywhere.  Are you?
(please point me in the right direction if I’m missing it!) 


Most liberals, like Marcus Borg, or perhaps Rudolf Bultmann, for example, would not likely claim to choose “belief in” the miraculous nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  They would ascribe supernatural, spiritual “meaning” to it, and find value in it.  But this is something different. 

Isn’t it even possible that the supernatural occurs?  I argue that if it’s possible, I can be humble enough to choose to believe it’s possible.  That’s not certainty.  It’s not supposed to be.

What do you make of this conversation?  What do you make of faith, of the nature of certainty and doubt?  Do you need to feel certain of anything?  Do you have non-negotiables?  

8 comments:

matt gallion said...

I really resonate with what you've identified here. I think certainty is the death of faith, whether that be on the side of literal, mindless acceptance of whatever doctrine because it is prescribed or figurative reconfiguration of whatever doctrine on the basis of being reasonable. They're two sides of the same silly coin.

Nice post.

kate said...

I have been thinking of this a lot myself. I think focusing on cognitive function itself might lead to some interesting conclusions. Considering the frontal lobe of the brain allows for our decision making... how much "control" do we have? Well, for people with undamaged brains- that's great! They can DECIDE to believe in God. The can DECIDE Jesus is their personal Savior. They can DECIDE to follow the law (like not murder and steal, etc.). But for those who have brain injuries, life is not so easy. They do not have control of a lot of decisions they make. I worked in a post-traumatic brain injury clinic for a year or so, and now through working with dementia patients... people would be surprised at the differences in personality and decisions and other cognitive functions a deficit can make.
That being said... how much of "being a Christian" exists in our frontal lobe? Our limbic system, which controls our emotions? Our "heart".. which is a just a muscle.. If "being a Christian" is a decision... what about the people who cannot make the decision? God sees their suffering right? Does that make them "innocent" or automatically forgiven? If it makes THEM automatically forgiven... why not us too?
If Jesus came to save the world... maybe he did and we are all already saved (without even deciding). I realize how scary this idea would be... making it sound like our earthly life doesn't matter in order to get to heaven (which I think it does matter for a different reason). Then, why should people be good?

~Katelyn

Like a Child said...

Your post reminded me of this one by Cliff at outsidethebox.com:

http://cliff-martin.blogspot.com/2010/05/approaching-belief-naturally-part-ii.html

Peter said...

Great link Like a Child! Thank you! I really enjoyed reading that ;)

David Manning said...

Peter,

I have some issues with what you've described.

On the one hand, I certainly don't want to reduce faith a matter of cognitive affirmations of fixed set of truths. That would be like trying to argue that sex is "really" just a physiological process or a series of biochemical interactions. I agree that faith is more than affirmation of truth. I agree that there's very little point in claiming to have a sort of certainty about supernatural truths that isn't really available to our mortal perspective.

On the other hand, it worries me that you describe faith as so purely an act of individual determination. You decide what you will believe… just because you do? Do you wake up every morning with the option to be a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, etc. and just decide to choose one over the other as a fiat of sheer will? Could you really choose in a single instant to stop believing in the resurrection, the Virgin Birth and the Hypostatic Union?

But I don't really think you meant to make such a point of your ability to choose. I think you were talking about having the humility to admit there are limits to our certainty. I would only add that there are also bounds on the sort of person one can choose to be from one moment to the next. Habit and personal regulation play a huge part in determining the small range in which my character might vary from one day to the next.

That brings me to my real problem with what you said: you don't want to be told what it means to be a Christian. Okay, I get it. I don't like authority much either. I've also be an asshole to others—as you profess to have been—because I believed I had the market cornered on truth. But if no one is allowed to ever say what it means to be a Christian, why should anyone think that being a Christian means anything at all? If there's nothing in the rose but its name, why should we even care whether it smells sweet?

Good theology has always been linked with good praxis. That's the main reason the Church started worrying over theological questions to begin with. The Church has to instruct its members in what it means to be a Christian. Lines like "one substance, three persons" and "honor your father and mother" create a space in which might be formed the sort of person who is able to have belief in God (in sense of praxis) from one moment to the next. Definitions were never meant to be ends in themselves. Affirmation of the creedal truths was never the point. That's why most of the creeds are apophatic in nature. The point is that the affirmation of Christian creeds and adherence to the regulation of the Church allows for the formation of the sort of person one calls a Christian. In that way, the Church and the creeds and Scripture do determine what it means to be a Christian. It isn't a term open to individual, or even generational redefinition.

If someone finds such an argument too restrictive, I understand. What I don't so much get is what we're still hanging on to if we're so intent on emptying historical words of their historical meaning. Sometimes I get a sickening feeling that we're only really interested in the brand name.

If you're still reading, then cheers to you for being gracious enough to slog through my rambling.

peace,
David

pdxandrew said...

I've struggled with this concept of "choosing to believe" for awhile now... For example, I cannot "choose" to believe that gravity doesn't exist. I can deny to accept what experience and understanding has taught me, but it's not something I really choose... Some people seem to talk about faith-belief like it's something that we can switch on and off...

I like what you say about the emphasis upon belief in what is unknown that is an act of faith. My old pastor (Lutheran) would say that we don't choose to accept Christ/God - that would put us in a position of power. For example, do I accept this job applicant, or that one... do I accept this gift, or that one... Doing so reduces God's sovereignty (so he said). Rather, Christ comes to say "You have been saved. You are reconcilled to God. God loves you, even in lieu of sin. So sin no more. And all you really can do is believe..." Of course, belief can be interchanged with trust I suppose...

Another thought, if one wants to get existentialistic/postmodern enough, you can argue that almost everything can be deconstructed down into basic statements of faith/belief, even "scientific" notions. Example, Water boils when heated. Not true, sometimes a lesser flame doesn't make it boil. OK, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Not always - it differs on a mountain top. OK, water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level. What about on Mars? etc. etc. etc. At some point it seems to me that we end up coming to shared agreements on what words mean, but those words no longer signify absolutes... Hence we end up needing to have faith in the imperfection of understanding...

I love your article. Well written, and I agree with you that "the correctness of one’s theology is less important than the humility of one’s spirituality."

Benjamin Verble said...

Peter,

I agree with what you are saying to an extent, though I might not say it quite the same way. I also think David Manning made some great points, particularly about the real choices that a habit-formed individual has to change. They have choices, but they are not limitless.

I've been reading about Ecclesiology for class and have been wondering if my individualism has gotten a bit out of control.

I'm wondering what would have happened if the Church tolerated dissent a bit better and if dissenters did not always feel the need to break off and start their own Church? The Church has often murdered or cut itself off from dissenters in order to protect Orthodoxy. On the other hand, dissenters have often been very impatient with the Church and decided to just give up and leave. Where is unity in all of this?

My problem here is that each of us accepts some sort of authority. We decide which sources of truth we will listen to. All of these sources are mortal and flawed. Why can't we find unity together in a mortal, flawed Church? I myself am a denominational orphan looking for a permanent home. I feel that I am missing something, despite the fact that I have been free to form many opinions. I wonder if I am missing the opportunity to try to change minds and fail, to wait for minds to change, and to submit to an authority that I don't always agree with.
-Ben Verble

Peter said...

Great comments here, all! I'm reposting some of them and responding to them in a post tonight! Hope you'll respond and interact! Thanks!

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