RE: CHOOSING Belief... Responses from Friends

In response to my post the other day on choosing belief, some good comments.

David Manning said:
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? ... 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 ... 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? ... 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... Sometimes I get a sickening feeling that we're only really interested in the brand name.

David, lots of great stuff here, and yes, I did manage to "slog through" it ;)  Myself, I don't literally wake up every morning with the personal capacity to be a Christian, Muslim or Hindu.  The option?  Sure. We're at least free to practice and cognitively change our beliefs.  I'm just arguing that - for example - I'm not 100% convinced that the resurrection is historical reality.  I don't expect I ever will be.  But I AM a Christian.  To briefly skip to the end of your comment: I don't want or intend to be a Christian merely by "brand name," so I deliberately and self-consciously subscribe to belief in the resurrection.  If I were picking and choosing, as you seem to be critiquing, I would be buffet-style throwing out the things I don't want.  Instead, I'm saying, "if these are the fundamental dogmas of Christianity, then as a Christian, I'll affirm them.  Don't ask me to pretend to blindly believe all of them, but I see no real value in tossing them out either.  I still find PLENTY of latitude, by the way, to toss out the stuff in Christianity that isn't dogma that I find really destructive (for example, biblical inerrancy, gender complementarianism, anti-gay rhetoric or hellfire-exclusivism).

Maybe I didn't communicate myself well in the last post, but picking and choosing is not at all what I was trying to articulate.  Instead, I want to convey a means of embracing a relatively traditional, (albeit socially-liberal, in my case) liturgical Christianity that does not reject or omit supernatural/mystical aspects of the faith in an attempt to capture cultural relevance, but instead simply acknowledges the precariousness of any faith claim, the ambiguity of any supernatural questions or answers, and the inability of religion to settle these questions.  Rather, religions role should be to ask these questions with fervor, excitement, cynicism, humor, and perhaps apophatic enthusiasm (!) and invite corporate participation in the whole process.  I don't believe it's reasonable to ask modern people to suspend disbelieve.  I believe this leads to denial, and worse, forced ignorance.  Instead, I think the best we can do is pray, "Lord, help my unbelief..." and "slog through."

PDXAndrew said:
Some people seem to talk about faith-belief like it's something that we can switch on and off ... 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...

PDXAndrew, this is so true.  I can't simply say, "Okay, I believe in the literal Virgin Birth."  What I can say, instead, is: "The Virgin Birth is a vital, foundational part of Christianity's understanding of who Jesus Christ is.  It is in that context that I have come to understand who Jesus Christ is.  Do I think it's possible that Jesus was miraculously born of a virgin?  Absolutely?  And I think it's a beautiful statement about who God is and how Christ's Epiphany manifested.  But I am not certain about the Virgin Birth.  I can't even tell you I think it was likely.  I simply choose to believe it.  I think your comment, PDXAndrew, on putting ourselves in a position of power is poignant, and I wonder what that says about my choice.  I believe, however, that my "fight" for choice here is not a fight for the "virtue" of choice, but rather a fight for us all to ADMIT that WE ARE ALREADY MAKING THESE CHOICES (it just sounds impious when we say it out loud).    Still, I think there's a lot to this notion of undermining God's sovereignty.

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

Again, I want to reiterate here that I'm not advocating for a "MY-BRAND-OF-CHRISTIANITY" Christianity.  This is not just a pick-and-choose argument (although I have made that argument before, it's been more related to social issues and interpretations, not dogma).  I'm simply saying I'd like to be a little more open and honest about the stuff many of us aren't so sure about.  

I think if Christians were willing to acknowledge that we might be wrong about a few fundamental things (and that, that's okay) that inevitably leads to more understanding, more grace, and more healing between folks of other faiths, cultures and traditions.  The death of extremism begins with the death of my own extremism.  


David Manning said...


Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I'm amazed how consistently I'm pissed off by the titles of your blog posts, only to find myself mostly agreeing with you when I read them. I'm not sure if that makes you headlines good or bad.

I think I understand where you're coming from. You're right, we all make choices about what we believe, and having made those choices doesn't automagically grant us certainty in our convictions. I don't think the sort of passive intellectual certainty we sometimes imagine to be the ideal of faith is really something we're meant to achieve.

Still a couple of things though… you make a distinction between having the capacity to choose and the option to choose. I'm not altogether sure how meaningful it is to have an option for which I have no ability to opt.

Also, though I can't honestly claim to have cognitive certainty about the bodily resurrection of Christ, I feel like I can certainly that Christianity's meaning and value hinges on the historicity of the event. And just to leave no doubt what I mean by that: if it were possible to prove to me beyond doubt that the resurrection was merely a story, I would would want nothing further to do with the Christianity. I would, in fact, do everything in my power to tear the edifice of the Church to the ground, so that we could build something better in its place.

So no, I can't be empirically certain, but I can choose to bet my lot on the stories being true. Call that what you will, but it's as close to certain as the human mind can ever be about truths that aren't restricted to axiomatic systems (e.g. 2+2=4).

Benjamin Verble said...

Thanks for reading Peter.

Peter said...

David, you're a good sport. And the titles of my post are (shamefully or shamelessly?) on purpose...

You said: "I feel like I can certainly that Christianity's meaning and value hinges on the historicity of the event. And just to leave no doubt what I mean by that: if it were possible to prove to me beyond doubt that the resurrection was merely a story, I would would want nothing further to do with the Christianity."

That's TOTALLY legitimate. And you speak for the majority of Christians in the world. We merely differ here. I believe that within the next century or two, there will be a shift toward something more like I'm describing. And I don't say that with an air of superiority (honestly) but more cautionary: my unchurched friends don't mind supernatural "possibility." They can swallow "what-if" and that puts us on the path. But they'll get off the path if they're told they're doubts are unwelcome, or that there is no underlying meaning without the literal truth.

Mine is not a REJECTION of the creeds or of the supernatural (at least I hope not, that's just classical liberalism) but instead a rejection of the DEMAND of literalism and perhaps ontology when it comes to faith. And if the stories don't turn out to be true, that's where I'm a shameless existentialist: my personal experience of God has been powerful enough and meaningful enough to carry me beyond the trauma of mistaken context. And my belief in the vision of Christ and the Kingdom of God is real enough that it doesn't hinge on anything but itself. The Cross and Resurrection illuminated Christ and illustrated salvation. They did not invent, define or limit them (imho).

Enjoying the conversation my friend,

David Manning said...


I appreciate your being a good sport as well.

These are the questions that occur to me:

And my belief in the vision of Christ and the Kingdom of God is real enough that it doesn't hinge on anything but itself

If your belief is a real thing in itself, and doesn't have to signify anything beyond itself, then in what sense can you and I—we both being Christians—be said to share the same faith? I can see how the phrase "we both believe X" has meaning if we both have a similar belief that corresponds to a thing exterior to us both, but if the correspondence to something objective isn't important, how can two individuals be said to belong to the same faith?

The Cross and Resurrection illuminated Christ and illustrated salvation. They did not invent, define or limit them (imho).

This seems to assume that there is *something* out there that corresponds to the idea of salvation. What sort of thing is it? On what basis is it founded? Whatever it is, why is it a more acceptable basis for salvation than the historical Incarnation?

Thanks for your patience, Peter. I'm not trying to be overly esoteric. These are real questions.

Mary Perry-McCormick said...

An interesting discussion between you two.
I was raised in a faith tradition that is very literal but because I have walked a spiritual path with God that I would call that of a seeker, I've been blessed with tolerance and insight into spirituality. I choose to believe in Jesus Christ not because "the Bible tells me so" but because my experience tells me so: he was/is something divine; God's very own. Once you allow your ego to fade away (even if briefly) theology takes a back seat. Faith is not faith if you have no doubt. It is simply dogma. In many ways, doubt is the beginning of faith. That is where "you test the spirits" and cross over into knowing. For me virgin birth and resurrection are not deal breakers. I KNOW there is God. I KNOW there is Jesus.
On the other side of doubt, there is the place where God once resided and where Jesus dwelt. What deep comfort it was/is when you find those places are not empty.
Christianity is not a shortcut into the life of the spirit. It is just the door (where he was knocking). In the end you can choose what you believe but deep [Christian] faith is beyond all that.

Peter said...

David, once again I've moved our conversation to a new post (I need fodder for posts - keeps the blog moving, so thanks!).

Mary, thanks for dropping in! I love your outlook. I agree with you - "faith is not faith if you have no doubt... simply dogma." I agree about deal breakers, but I'd challenge you even on the God question, not for any reason except for the sake of the argument at hand: do we KNOW there is a God? I BELIEVE there is a God. In all these things, I might be wrong.

I might be a severely delusional, mentally ill patient, medicated and unconscious in a padded cell right now. There is some level of certainty that is simply beyond our capacity to command. So we make a choice and keep moving forward.

Mary, I absolutely LOVE this: "Christianity is not a shortcut into the life of the spirit. It is just the door..."

Perfectly said.

Mary Perry-McCormick said...

"do we KNOW there is a God?". Part of my point was that I (personally) came to the knowing there is G-d not because of my faith tradition but I found (in doubt) 'the place where God once resided and where Jesus dwelt' is not empty. That was discovered in the not-knowing and through the life of the soul. That is personal and at any given time knowing there is or is not a God changes for each person. Different for each individual. Sometimes from moment to moment. And is part of a real soul journey. Peace to you.

Peter said...

You have a nice way with words, Mary. Thanks for elaborating. I agree with you: it changes at any given time. I, too, oscillate between certainty and doubt. Peace to you as well, and thanks for great food for thought!

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