WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE WORD “BELIEVER?”
Wikipedia defines the general concept of belief this way:
Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty.
“REALITY” VS “THE WORLD”
Everything we know about reality enters our brains via one or more of our five senses.
An individual person, living in a specific physical location on the earth, will never in the course of a lifetime encounter 99% or more of all the information and/or experience that is available on just this one tiny planet. We won’t read all the books. We won’t visit all the places. We won’t meet all the people. Most of the animal species on earth we won’t even see a picture of in our lifetimes, let alone witness in person (there are some 950,000 species of insects, alone). The “world” each of us labels “reality” is in fact a construct in our brain, built from the miniscule slivers of data we take in through our senses, living in at most a few places, attending a few, or even just one school system, knowing at most a handful of people, and having even that tiny stream of experience narrowed down to the few scraps our brains don’t withhold from consciousness for our own good.
That may sound bleak, but if it were otherwise, we would almost certainly succumb to overwhelm and be unable to function.
So, why then does the unique “world” in each of our brains feel like the “whole world” to us? We can accept rationally, based on what we know about brain function as described in the previous paragraph, that our understanding of reality can’t possibly be an accurate/complete representation of the world we live in.
Yet it feels completely real. Why?
THE NECESSITY OF BELIEF
Why do we believe anything beyond the concrete, present-moment data being continually gathered by our senses? And not just God or religious/spiritual type beliefs, but anything at all? Why do I believe my wife loves me? Why do I believe my children will succeed in life? Why do I believe that I am a good person, and so are my friends? Why do I believe there are even such categories as good or evil in the world?
The explanation is that navigating the limited piece of physical reality we encounter in life, and remaining mentally and emotionally secure enough to survive, find mates, and propagate the species, requires an unquestioning, and when you think about it, strikingly unreasonable confidence in ourselves and in the world. Since full awareness of reality as-it-is was not an option for our ancient ancestors (as the overwhelm caused by so much data would have diminished, rather than enhanced, their chances of survival), evolution equipped them –and, as their descendants, us too — with brains capable of generating a convincing illusion of the reality of our own small words.
Think about an optical illusion. What we see in the picture is not simply what’s there. Our brains connect dots and fill in gaps until the bits and pieces in the image coalesce into something we recognize. We are seeing what’s there, but our brains are adding “unreal” elements that allow us to make sense of what we’re seeing, or that allow us to understand incoming data in relation to purely mental pieces of our experience, like memory.
Our brains are not malfunctioning when they do this. They are operating as designed. Beliefs are the projected “lines” (storylines might be an even better analogy) our brains have evolved to draw between “dots” of otherwise unrelated hard data, in order to tease out a solid and relatable, if to a disturbing degree illusory, world for us to succeed in.
Our brains are simply Belief Generating Machines.
Without beliefs, we would have no context in which to understand ourselves and our lives. We would be lost and ineffective. Our brains generate beliefs because beliefs are necessary for biological survival.
EQUIVALENT BELIEF SYSTEMS — RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE
From this perspective, the brains of not only Christians, Muslims and Hindus, but also Stoics, Existentialists, Transcendentalists (all philosophies), and even atheists who accept the reality-explaining power of science, are doing exactly the same thing. They are connecting the scant number of “dots” in their individual sensory experience with projected “belief lines” to create a picture of the world they can move about in confidently.
It’s important to stress here that the fact that our brains generate new, or accept established, beliefs to make sense of reality does not automatically mean that the content of those beliefs is false . I think that’s an easy conclusion to jump to, and I want to avoid easy conclusions.
WHAT DO WE BELIEVE?
Let’s do a little experiment together. Pick up some droppable object near you. Keys, a pillow, a small child, whatever. (For the literalists, I should add that I am just kidding about the child, and that you really shouldn’t ever drop children.)
Ok, now look at it and really try to believe that when you drop it, that it is going to float into the sky. I am going to do this with you. I just picked up a stuffed rabbit that happened to be on the couch. Now using your free will, REALLY try to BELIEVE that when you drop your object, gravity is not going to exist anymore. If you are anything like me, you will find that this is not possible. While I was staring at the rabbit, I actually was able to create this superficial feeling of suspense and tried to really expect it to not drop. But if you stopped me and asked me in the middle of that if I would bet my life on the results, I am going to go ahead and admit that I would have bet on gravity.
I dropped it. And guess what?! It didn’t drop! It floated in mid-air! Isn’t that amazing?
Do you believe me?
Because by the time you can use your conscious mind to “believe” something, your unconscious mind has already sorted through the data and there is no way you can force yourself to un-know what you know. You might be able to convince yourself that it is possible for gravity to stop for a moment. It’s like when I was in high school and I kept almost breaking my glasses to prove that I really believed God would heal my eyes.
But when the rubber meets the road, you really can’t choose to believe or not believe in something like gravity. Every moment of your existence has been influenced and limited by it. You’ve never escaped it, and unless you leave this planet on some space adventure some day, you never will.
I grew up in an environment that placed a high priority on belief. Belief was everything. Belief was made “us” vs “them”. Belief was what determined not just your life, but your afterlife. But what is belief really?
Do I believe in gravity or do I know that it exists? After all, isn’t it theoretically possible that gravity as we currently understand it doesn’t exist? I mean, our views of what holds us to the ground has changed pretty radically through history. Who is to know that we won’t discover that our current understanding of gravity is wrong? Even the most straight forward assumptions are still assumptions. There’s always another possibility. For example, isn’t it theoretically possible (even if unlikely) that we are part of a computer simulation that holds us to the ground simply because that’s what the programmer wanted the program to do?
So on that level, pretty much EVERYTHING is a belief because EVERYTHING we know is built on assumptions. We “know” that gravity is real, but that assumes that your perception of existence is real and not a dream or some sort of momentary simulation in the mind of God. Everything you believe or know is built on a lot of assumptions that have already been processed by your unconscious mind and that is the foundation upon which we can start forming words and ideas about what we “believe.”
So what happens when your unconscious mind removes some of the assumptions?
What happens when some of what you built the words and concepts on does not exist anymore?
For instance, let’s talk about God.
When I was a kid, I would pray up to the sky all the time. During worship services, I would look up because I was somehow taught that God was this Supreme Being “up” in Heaven, and someday he would come “down” here to rescue us. But then in school, of course, we learned about space and the earth and how it rotates and how there is really no such thing as “up” or “down.” These are ideas relative to earth and our position within its gravitational pull. And in fact, what is up to me right now is down for a lot of other people on earth, and in a few hours, up has drastically changed for all of us. So if up and down aren’t real, then what do we mean by God being “up” in Heaven? And why do so many worship leaders stare at the lights of the sanctuary and reach their hands into the sky as though trying to reach somebody “up” there? Up where? Towards which planet? Which galaxy? Because if it’s in some direction that we are supposed to think about God, that direction would be constantly changing. Sometimes the congregation should be gazing down and to the right or reaching their hands straight out behind them…
So what do you do when you lose the up and down assumption in your unconscious? Well, you either stop looking up, or you look up in a more metaphorical way. But once you lose that assumption, it’s impossible to once again BELIEVE that God is UP there. You can’t do it. You have seen that up is not real, and you will never be able to un-see that.
So here’s my point in all of this: we should be very slow to judge people for their beliefs.
I’m talking to myself as well here. There are some beliefs that drive me crazy. I find them backwards and limiting and destructive. But while I think it’s okay to make value judgments on beliefs, I think so many of us are so quick to label, categorize and dismiss human beings because of their beliefs.
But here’s the reality. We don’t really get to chose our beliefs. They are handed to us from our environment. Who of us came up with any our beliefs on our own? You can’t even have concepts or beliefs in your head without words. And where did you get those words? Did you make them up? Did you invent the word ‘God? Did you invent the words ‘science’, ‘humanism’, ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘love’…? No, these words do not exist as something separate from your experience and environment. These words come to you with concepts and experiences that have been handed to you from your particular environment. And you either accept them, change them, or deny them, but even those decisions are largely out of your control. You will see what you will see, and those things cannot be un-seen. You will think with words that your environment hands you and you have no ability to unlearn those words or concepts. They are burned into your brain, and they always will be.
This sounds awfully fatalistic, but I don’t think it has to be. Because I believe that you can choose with your conscious mind what you want to do with the (un)beliefs that you have.
Back to the “up” thing. Even if you know God isn’t up there somewhere, perhaps you are a person that finds great solace in looking up while you pray or lifting your hands when you sing. Perhaps it makes you feel like a child looking up to a parent. Or perhaps it makes you feel lighter and more human, more connected and a part of everything. So maybe you decide to keep looking up sometimes. Maybe lifting your hands makes you feel like you are surrendering something of yourself to something or someone “higher” than yourself. Even though you realize the absurdity of thinking of God as some being that lives somewhere in the direction of Galaxy 54-tx42… You have a choice on what to do with that belief (or lack thereof) now. You can stop looking up. Or you can look up. That’s your decision. Unlike believing that the rabbit is not going to hit the floor when you drop it, that’s something you can actually choose.
Over the last year, I have had so many questions asked of me about what I believe. Just tonight I had a conversation with someone extremely close to me that said that he wouldn’t consider me a Christian anymore.
Not because of my life.. Not because my life looks like Jesus or doesn’t look like Jesus. But because of my lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE. Because I’ve lost so many of the unconscious assumptions that I used to have and have no ability to un-see what I have seen.
I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up. I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity. But I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories. But this is what happens…
If you try to find some value in them as stories, there will be some people that say that you aren’t a Christian anymore because you don’t believe the Bible is true or “authoritative”. Even if you try to argue that you think there is a truth to the stories, just not in an historical sense; that doesn’t matter. To some people, you denying the “truth” of a 6,000 year old earth with naked people in a garden eating an apple being responsible for the death of dinosaurs is the same thing as you nailing Jesus to the cross. You become part of ‘them’. The deniers of God’s Word.
The easy thing for me on the other side of my experience would be to see those who do believe in literal Genesis stories like that as somehow unenlightened or foolish. It would be easy and just as destructive for me to write off all THOSE people who believe those things as something less than beautiful, complicated and intelligent human beings. I must remember that the people that believe in a literal Genesis have no more ability to not believe it than I do to believe it. They have been handed a set of words, ideas and assumptions that they have built their consciousness on, and until something shifts for them, they see the world as they see it, and they can’t un-see it.
I think this understanding can help us see that all of us have assumptions and biases and beliefs and that we ought to be very slow in writing others off because of their words and concepts. That would almost be like writing them off because of the color of their skin or because they speak with a different accent or language than you.
So be careful of labels. Be careful who you judge as “in” or “out” of your camp. It’s a destructive way of seeing the world.
I think a healthier way of thinking about belief is to think about the kind of lives we choose to live with the words and beliefs that have been handed to us. Perhaps a more important question than whether God is a guy in the sky or the Ground of Being or the future, infinite Trinitarian relationality is what you will do with your assumptions of what God is or is not. Will you love God? Will you love your neighbor? Maybe these questions are far more important than what you BELIEVE about God or your neighbor. Maybe whether or not you do what Jesus said is more important than the language that use to describe Jesus.
I’m not saying that language is unimportant. It is important. Just not important enough to divide over. People are more important than ideas. Love is more important than the concept of love. We should never hurt or lessen the humanity of actual human beings because of the language, beliefs, and concepts that their environment and experiences have given them.
So, for me, I’ve decided to think about my ‘beliefs’ in terms of how I live rather than what my unconscious assumptions are. Because there are lots of people that have all sorts of beautiful ‘beliefs’ that live really awful lives. If I’m on the side of a road bleeding, I don’t care if the priest or the Levite have beautiful ‘beliefs’ about the poor and the hurting.. Give me the samaritan. The heretic. The outsider who may have the ‘wrong’ ‘beliefs’ in words and concepts but actually lives out the right beliefs by stopping and helping me. That’s the kind of belief I’m interested in at this point.
What do I believe? Look at my life. That’s what I believe. And that’s the kind of belief I’m interested in for my friends as well. I don’t care so much about what their words and unconscious assumptions are (even though that can make for some enjoyable pub conversation). I care about what kind of lives they live. Do they believe IN the underdog, or do they BELIEVE in the underdog? Do they believe in loving their neighbor or do they believe by loving their neighbor?
Allow me to close this post with some words from the book of James, Chapter 2:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?
Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.