Shuck and Jive

Monday, April 13, 2015

Believing In God

I believe in God.
I don't believe in God.

Those statements seem crystal clear, don't they?  You either do or you don't.  You believe in God or you don't believe in God.  You are a believer or a non-believer, a theist or an atheist, religious or non-religious.  Never the twain shall meet.

I find this polarization unfortunate and simplistic and I challenge the either/or.  I think that both statements "I believe in God" and "I don't believe in God" could be true for the same person. Once we start to parse the statements, "I believe in God" and "I don't believe in God" things become far less clear.  The words "believe" and "God" require definition.    These words mean different things to different people.  In fact, they can mean different things to the same person depending on how and when we use these words. 

Let's start with the word "believe."  What does the verb "to believe" mean?  I am not interested in the proper use of the verb as if that can be determined.  I am interested in the way it is used by those who use it.  We may object that we shouldn't use the word in a certain way.  Fine.  Still we do.

1)  The verb believe is at times used as a synonym for assert or affirm or declare--as in assert, affirm, or declare as a fact.   For example, in my eight points, I wrote that I believe in evolutionary theory.  I affirm, as fact, evolution.  I believe North Dakota borders Montana. I believe Earth is a sphere.  I believe in the existence of protons.   In this sense of believe, believers affirm, assert, or declare the existence of God (in whatever definition they assume for God).

2)  The verb believe can be used to express an opinion that may or may not be shared widely.  "I believe that 9/11 was an inside job" or "I believe Sarah Palin would make a great president."  It can be used to express a hope or a fear:  "I believe that marriage equality will be the law in all fifty states by 2017." My eighth point expressed this use of the verb when I stated that I believe that industrial civilization is headed for a long descent.  It is an opinion of what I think will happen.   This sense of believe may have some urgency about it.  That I believe in this long descent means that I think we should prepare for it and take it more seriously than we seem to be doing.

3)  It can also reflect a commitment.  The synonym might be trust or even love.   We might say, "I believe in you."  We mean, "I trust you" and "I am committed to you."  In point two I stated, "I believe in higher criticism of the Bible."  Higher criticism obviously exists.  I am declaring its existence as a fact.  But I am also stating that it is a good thing to use.  I have a commitment to using higher criticism as an approach to the Bible.  I trust it to deliver good results.  This is similar to the way I believe in evolutionary theory as well.  I have a commitment to using it to better understand life including human life and of course, religion and theology. 

4)  It can also reflect a value even if what is being valued is not real, or is fictional, mythical, or highly abstract.  "I believe in love."  We may have a debate over whether or not love exists or what we mean by the word, but still value it.   "I believe in Harry Potter."  In this sense I am saying I value what this character communicates as a way of being in the world.  Adults can say, "I believe in Santa Claus."  They are "believing in"--that is valuing and making a commitment to--what the Santa Claus mythos represents: generosity, joy, human kindness, etc.   To say, "I believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" may involve my commitment to, trust in, and value of, the totality of what this particular collection of symbols means for me.  It doesn't necessarily mean I believe that these entities exist. That is not the point.  To believe in this sense is to embrace a particular way of engaging life, a Christian way in this case.  I believe in, that is I trust and love what these metaphors imagine. 
In summary, the verb believe can mean to affirm as fact, to state an opinion, or to express one's love for and commitment to X.  The verb believe can be used as a combination of the above ways or in a particular way that excludes the other(s).

I think the reason the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has avoided making its leaders and members subscribe to a list of "beliefs" or essential tenets is because to do so would emphasize the affirmation or opinion aspect of believe over the more relational, trusting, and commitment aspect.  Nonetheless, we still can't seem to get beyond the notion that belief is about affirming the existence of external realities.  If that is the best we can do, we should jettison belief altogether and become belief-less or do more work to communicate the relational aspect of the verb to believe.

When Hemant Mehta titled my piece and I approved the title, "I'm A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn't Believe in God" he was responding to what I had written: "I don't believe in God as a supernatural agent or force."   No, I do not affirm the existence of a supernatural being, nor am I committed to such an entity.  But as a Christian I do trust, love, and am committed to--that is I believe in--what the symbols of faith invite me to be in this world.   I do believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I do believe that the Bible is "God's word to me" and I do believe in Jesus called the Anointed.  All of those beautiful and powerful symbols beckon me to a particular way of living.  All of this is God. 

I don't believe in God.
I believe in God.


1 comment:

  1. Well said. I used to have a look issues with "Churches" but I came to believe in the value of a safe place for people to share their joy, sorrow and gratitude while at least attempting to build a community based on love and respect for ones neighbor. If this isn't sacred, what is? It doesn't really matter too much what the under myths are, unless they interfere with desire of the community to be loving, tolerant. open and enlightened.