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Do We Have Control Over What We Believe?


Do We Have Control Over What We Believe?

How much control does a person have over what she believes? Can she choose to believe in God? To believe in no God?

I am not thinking of the tiresome debates about predestination and free will (though the close connections between these questions are obvious). I am thinking of the nature of belief and the frequent tensions between cognitive (and verbal) assent and what a person actually thinks (and how this influences her life in the world). In short: there is usually a disparity between what we say or think we believe and what we actually believe. One can give verbal and mental assent to all manner of orthodox doctrines and remain a functional heretic. I acknowledge the reality of the Triune God, but what does it mean to live Trinitarianly and to what extent can this be done?

Our beliefs are always based in experience even when those experiences are what might rightly be called 'revelation.' (One could argue that all right belief is a result of revelation.) What we believe is based on our encounter with the world and consists of what we have, in those encounters perceived to be true or real (even allowing for the locality of some kinds of knowledge). We may pay lip-service to all manner of belief -- that God is love, distant, all-powerful, ineffectual, non-existent or what have you -- but does this cohere with our experience of reality?

As Protestants, we like to think "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so," but is this really how we knew the love of the incarnate Son of God? I don't doubt that some (perhaps many) experience God's love directly through the reading of scripture. But when I reflect on my own experience, I realize it was probably the love of my parents (in particular, my mother) that first communicated God's love to me, not the Bible. Mom was the face of God to us. In many ways, my belief still operates this way. I believe in God's love because I have people who love me and whom I love.

The difficulty, as anyone who has suffered beneath the sun knows, is that we can just as easily (perhaps more easily) believe in God's unlove because of how we have encountered unlove through others. These people (if God, in fact, is love) are false images, images that do not embody the person of God.

Still, how much do we control what we believe? I don't mean to imply that we are simply sponges that absorb whatever realities we encounter. This is, I think, even impossible, since we daily encounter (what seem to be at least) competing realities, conflicting voices that vie for our attention, and we cannot absorb it all. (Or: perhaps we do. Perhaps we hold in ourselves more tension and conflict and reality than we can ever know or bear to know, the whole world warring within us, waiting to be born.) We experience both love and hate, both mercy and cruelty. And we also find ourselves capable of both great love and great cruelty.

We do not just absorb, however. We interact. We weigh our experiences in the balance and respond, shape, act, believe.

Where am I going with all this? (Perhaps that is the real question, a question of location and movement instead of stillness and immobile being.)

What we think we believe and what we really believe do not always cohere. You can say (and even think) the orthodox creeds of Christianity but live a functionally godless life. I suppose I am intrigued (and perhaps unwittingly believe?) in the kind of Christian universalism depicted in Lewis' Last Battle, where some who did not know Aslan by name actually honored him in how they lived their lives. 

If God is the creator of the world and committed to re-creating it through his Son, Jesus Christ, are all who re-create (those who facilitate the renewal of life) in some way serving God, albeit unwittingly? Perhaps they do not believe in God. But if they live as though God is in the world (and in some sense become God in the world), do they believe even when they do not believe, their bodies working against every cognitive objection to the presence of God?

I am not saying this is what I believe, though my own declarations of belief may bear only a distant resemblance to what I believe. I am speaking in order to get to my belief, to plot how I've experienced the world and what I've encountered as true.

These reflections are (of course) evoked by experience: the fact that many of my friends and acquaintances from Bible college no longer identify as Christians  (most are athiests or agnostics). And, no, these are not people who "fell into a life of sin" and became distant from God. These are honest, questioning friends who have serious doubts about the form (and content) of the faith bequeathed to them from their parents or Church community. Their questions are not unlike many of my own, and their critiques of Christianity are (often) valid.

All this makes me wonder about the nature of belief. Why is it that I say I "believe" in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his Church, as witnessed through Judeo-Christian scripture and the testimony of the saints throughout history? Why do I (if I do) actually believe? In what or whom do I believe? What (perhaps more importantly) should or do my husband and I communicate to our son about belief in God? Faith, like any living, breathing relationship, must evolve or die. What shape does my faith take now and what shape ought it to take in this transitory life? And how much control do I have over its shape?