05 July 2012


Preach it, Rufus.*

In case you can't read the image above, it's a quote from Chris Rock's character Rufus the Apostle from the movie Dogma.  Says Rufus: "I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant."

I think Rufus is right on.  I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I really want to work hard to not have beliefs.  This might sound strange from someone who identifies fiercely with the Christian Church - and it may well sound strange to some of my friends within the Church.  But upon much reflection, I really just don't think that "beliefs" are a very good idea.  I'm trying to do my darnedest to avoid them.

So, for example, I'm not interested in saying, "I believe there is no god", as an atheist would (though I will have to confess a lack of belief in any concretely-imagined concept of a divine being).  But nor am I interested in saying, "I believe God is One in Three" (though I find very rich and helpful symbolism in Trinitarian thought) or "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God" (though I remain a devoted disciple of Jesus as the ultimate - for me - image of Love in human form).

So you're probably saying - well, it sure sounds like you have beliefs.  And maybe I (along with Rufus) am just arguing semantics.  But to me, "belief" means something like "coming to a conclusion about something for which there is insufficient evidence to decide".  That just seems unwise to me.  So instead, I try to have other things instead.

I have ideas, like Rufus suggested.

I have conclusions based on scientific evidence.  Due to the nature of science, these are of course provisional.

I have opinions.  I support marriage equality (even though I think that "marriage" as we know it is a hot Constantinian mess) and I think the indefinite detention provisions of the 2012 NDAA are a horrific idea.  For example.

I have heuristics.  Rules of thumb.  Things that I think work well a lot of the time.  The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is full of those.  I'm a fan.

I have hunches.  For example, I have a hunch about the thing that happens when groups intentionally seeking discernment have moments of clarity that lead them to helpful and healing action - which Christians often attribute to the Holy Spirit.  I have a hunch that that's a real thing.  Perhaps "Jungian collective unconsciousness" or "adaptive social sensitivity" or something is a better interpretive construct for that sort of thing than "the Holy Spirit".  I'm not super-concerned about interpretive constructs.  I think that for many phenomena that we don't understand very well, there's a wide variety of interpretive constructs/images/symbols that might be productively used to talk about them.  I think when we latch on to those constructs and make them "beliefs", they can (but don't necessarily) become harmful.

(Another example might be mental illness.  As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I actually think that the ancient interpretation of some forms of mental illness as "demon possession" was not as ridiculous as it may seem.  That's a pretty apt image for what it's like sometimes.  But when you take that too seriously - and morally judge someone for "dealing with demons" - or prescribe exorcism instead of psychiatry - then it becomes harmful.)

I have hopes.  For example, I have a hunch that there's no continuity of consciousness that survives death.  But I have a hope that I'm wrong.  I also have a hope that the human race's future might be characterized by lots more love and grace (what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God), rather than by various forms of human-made apocalypse.  I don't expect God to just take care of that for us while we sit back and keep screwing things up...nor do I believe that the "myth of progress" will inexorably march us to that outcome.  Yet I persist in this hope.

All these things, I have.  All these things are provisional.  My dear friend Deanna once described belief as a "stake in the sand" - something you put down in order to function in the world, but could pull up easily when appropriate.  Something provisional, in other words - like Rufus's "ideas".

I suppose many of my "other things" described above could be called "beliefs" in this sense.  Maybe I am just quibbling about language.  So be it.  But I guess "belief" is just not a word I'm finding very helpful right now.

*The above image is credited to The Interwebs.  I don't know who made it, and since they amusingly credit it to Chris Rock a line that was written by Kevin Smith, I'm not too concerned about the image creator chasing after me for lack of attribution.


Nondescript said...

First, I would like to correct your depiction of atheists. We don't tend to say, "I believe there is no god". There are a few gods I would say this about. The so-called cargo cult gods can be demonstrated to not exist, or at least to not be gods. Other gods are vaguely defined. You can't put evidence toward something, pro or con, if that something is not defined well enough. Personally, you statement " lack of belief in any concretely-imagined concept of a divine being" is enough for me to classify you as an atheist, though an agnostic one. Though, you may just have a belief in the existence of a more Deistic god.

Your play on the words "belief" and "idea" are largely semantic, but I get your point. Though most religions are against evolving in the least bit, all of them do. The absolute divine word of the almighty GOD (whichever one) always seems to change according to the mores of society, though generally lagging 20 to 2000 years depending on the topic.

Otherwise, I generally agree with the gist of your post. A belief untested is not much of a belief. The thing that irks me most about religion is the artificial shield of "sacredness" with which it attempts to wrap itself. Bill Donohue, for example, will attack anybody who publicly casts Catholicism in a bad light. Muslims are renowned for physically attacking people who slight Islam. In that sense, I fully agree with your disdain for unvetted belief.

Mike Croghan said...

Thanks for your reply! I'm not going to quibble over language re: "atheist", but my impression has been that most folks who claim the label "atheist" are going out on a limb and stating that they've come to a conclusion on the issue of divine beings' existence - even ill-defined divine beings. Folks less inclined to stake out a claim on this have tended (in my experience) to prefer "agnostic", or "apatheist", or something else. But far be it from me to define anyone else's identification for them. It's a fact that I haven't spent much time with atheists - at least ones who organize as such and reflect a lot about labels.

I'm happy to "rightly pass for an atheist" (as Derrida once said about himself) though I definitely strive to "rightly pass for a Christian" at the same time - though folks who conceive Christianity as being primarily a matter of belief (not practice) may disagree. (By a similar token, I don't claim to rightly pass for a Buddhist any more, because I no longer practice Buddhism.) But your statement (regarding my confession qualifying me as an atheist) raises an interesting question for me: what's the difference between an atheist and a religious person who practices the apophatic or "via negativa" path - only admitting those theological statements that say "the Divine is not..." and rejecting those that say "the Divine is..."?

I'm definitely not a Deist. The uninvolved, distant God is the one I believe in least of all. I've sometimes called myself a functional binitarian - I try to follow Jesus, and I have perceived something at work (especially in community, but also in myself) that I'm perfectly happy to call "the Holy Spirit", but I have a hard time figuring out how or why anyone wants to say anything about a transcendant God the Father off somewhere away from humans and nature. (The "Abba" to whom Jesus addresses prayer sounds more like the immanent Spirit to me than a distant Platonic ideal or patriarchal ruler deity, to be honest.)


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You are an Emergent. And your tattoo is pagan.

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Thanks! :-D

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