Sunday, 4 October 2015

A short statement of 'belief'

In my opening post I mentioned that I could no longer reconcile my personal worldview and beliefs with the confession of the church. In this post I’ll try and summarize my position as best I can, leaving the details for future entries.

In essence, I’ve come to the view that Christianity is an entirely natural and human phenomenon. Like any other religion or worldview, it is a product of human culture, and like culture, it continues to grow and change. It is just one way that one group of humans came to understand their place in the world and live in it. Along with an increasing number of Christians, I hold to a ‘non-supernatural’ view of the Christian faith. In other words, I don’t take the miraculous and mythical elements in the bible and creeds as literal facts or historical events, but rather, as a product of human faith and belief.

Just to be clear on this score: all the things Christians are traditionally assumed or expected to believe, I now regard as entirely human constructs,  and no more: the bible as divinely inspired, Jesus as divine, the virgin birth, the literal resurrection, interventionist miracles, angels and demons, heaven and hell – all these I see as products of human religious communities. Of course, that is not to dismiss them as irrelevant or stupid. On the contrary, there is much to be gained in reflecting upon these beliefs as powerful symbols of the Christian worldview, and indeed, the Christian world is the soil from which our modern western culture has emerged. But that’s for other posts to discuss in detail.  

So to return to the main thread...what am I then? Rather than trying to find a neat religious label to wear, I am content to simply state the following: as one of 7.37 billion poor mortals on this fragile planet, I am amazed by the miracle of existence, of life, of consciousness, and of the human spirit. There is such a profound mystery to this natural universe that I don’t need to believe in any further supernatural realities. Everything in life is already the most profound miracle you could ask for. Many people (and theologians too) give the name ‘God’ to this mystery, and that is something that I can live with.

For me, the best response to this mystery is to be as honest as I can about what I do and don’t believe, to try and understand other viewpoints as fairly and as charitably as I can, and to always be willing to revise my opinions, no matter how sacred or securely held they are. In my opinion, it is far better to remain agnostic about life’s greatest mysteries, rather than accept beliefs that you secretly doubt simply out of loyalty to one’s church or tradition. I just don’t think you can ‘wear’ someone else’s belief unless that belief has its own inherent power to convince you.

I am content to regard myself as a listener to the Christian tradition. And as we know, the purpose of good listening is not to rush to conclusions about who is right and wrong, but to better understand. Even by traditional standards, listening is the greater half of faith. But at the same time, I am also a listener to other traditions, in particular the secular and philosophical tradition of Western culture.

Another way I like to think of myself now is a friend of the Christian tradition. A friend cares, a friend takes an interest, a friend chooses to see the best in another. But a friend does not have to agree with everything you say. It is the mark of friendship that you might view the world in completely different ways – any many fine novels and movies are based on this observation.

One more term that could describe my position is that of secular Christian. On the one hand, I am secular because my worldview and understanding of reality is shaped by modern science, history and philosophy – not the supernatural assumptions people held in biblical times or previous centuries. On the other hand, I have been irreversibly shaped by the Christian tradition, and I resonate with many of its key symbols and values.  

I believe that how you live is much more important than what you happen to believe. Beliefs are inherited from our specific respective traditions. But kindness, generosity, respect, and friendship – are understood by people everywhere, and celebrated by all the great traditions. I’m not saying I excel in any of these – I wish I did! – but they are the things worth aiming for.

If we are to talk about ‘beliefs’ or ‘believing’, I would understand it in terms of what one cares about, or what one thinks is important. So on this basis I ‘believe’ the following:
  • life is an irreplaceable gift and a precious endowment;
  • we humans are flawed, our own worst enemy, curved in on ourselves (as Luther said), forever creating and being enslaved by idols of our own making;
  • we often resort to ‘the law’ to bring our unstable and selfish natures into line, but far better is when we experience true, inner transformation, which we  (along with many other traditions) describe as ‘grace’;
  • often we are brought to a point where we must ‘die’ to ourselves if we are going to experience newness of life;
  • life can be understood as a pilgrimage that leads one in a three-steps-forward two-steps-back progression from bondage to freedom; 
  • at the end of our lives we realize that love and the quality of our relationships matter far more than our achievements and material possessions;

All these ‘beliefs’ are emphasized by Christian faith, and one can value them (as I do) regardless of what we believe about stories and doctrines that serve to express them. 

Another way of putting this, one that I have come across countless times in my reading, is the distinction between belief and faith. Beliefs are certain views you hold about what is actual or real, about what ‘really happened’. Because beliefs grow out of a certain time and culture, they will inevitably change. But faith is a particular approach to life which is marked by how you live and what you care about, as I’ve just described above. The person of faith I have in mind could live within their religious tradition without accepting its beliefs as statements of fact. As many Christians are increasingly doing, inherited beliefs which can no longer be held literally can instead be taken as symbols which provide a means for reflecting upon and deepening one’s life of faith.

More on these things to follow...please feel free to comment.