Why Do I Write About Belief?
Up to now, most of the writing online I've done has been political commentary or short fiction. I've written here and there about my faith but have never plunged in quite so deeply as these last few posts have gotten. So why am I know moved to write so much about belief?
I write to create space for belief
It is, in part, simply because I believe, in a world that I'm told is rapidly losing its belief. It's hard sometimes to maintain the room to believe. When I look at the news, I see survey results from the Pew Research Institute and others that tell me that religious affiliation is dropping, that church attendance is dwindling, and that as many as 20%-25% of Americans claim no belief system of their own.
While I also believe in the principles of science, and I realize that beliefs that are not directly supported by empirical evidence are in the realm of uncertainty and supposition, not proof (that's why they call faith the evidence of things unseen), I also feel pressure from vocal critics of religion as mere superstition—the Dawkins and Hawkings of the world—to let my beliefs go, as a destructive force that holds us back, rather than celebrate the positive aspects of our beliefs that uplift, that motivate, that connect us to others rather than divide. It's hard sometimes to see that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.
When I look at a culture that seeks to be increasingly equitable, fair, and inclusive, traditional values tied to religious beliefs are often propped up as the enemy—and in many cases, religious institutions and people have a lot of repenting and listening to do for the prejudice and oppression our forebears committed in the name of God—but I don't want to lose sight of the possibility that religious belief, when motivated by love, can also be radically welcoming. It's hard sometimes not to paint all of religious thought with the same broad brush.
I write to challenge what we believe
Another reason I write about belief is that there are some institutions that hold on so tightly to their particular slice of the truth, without letting in any new revelations or insights, that it feels that there is no room for questions, conversations, or mystery.
Within Christianity, my home religion since birth, we have been practicing for around 2,000 years, based on a combination of tradition, the authority of our religious leaders, and a text that was written by many different people in many different places in many different times for many different purposes—and which, in some places, saying different things. I believe the spirit of God runs through that text, and I believe in the faithfulness of the many prophets, storytellers, and scribes who went into building it. But it's been a long history, with many interpretations, questions, movements, and influences. Many of us only know a little slice of it, from our church upbringing, from the sermons we hear on Sundays, maybe from school if we studied the word, maybe from our own study of an English translation of the original Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic. But without all the history and context, it's hard for any one individual or even one institution to say they have it all nailed down.
Even the very apostles who walked with Jesus every day didn't have it all figured out. They might have thought they were following a war hero, and that the cross was a failure. For the first followers of Jesus, the resurrection was a surprise—and we're still working to figure out the full depth of its meaning.
In a world in which our scientific observations show us that an ancient Earth with evolving species is a more likely explanation for life as we know it than the gorgeous and inspiring poetic retelling at the opening of Genesis, in which modern advances in communication and transportation bring us so much closer to people of other religious beliefs—beliefs in which they were raised, are perfectly happy, and have not been given any overwhelming reason to change, a world in which we hear story after story and witness the lives of our gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer brothers, sisters, and other beautiful humans who defy our labels and realize their stories are real, moving, genuine expressions of themselves—not the mistakes or poor choices certain traditions tell us they are—when we stand in the middle of this world, this mighty stream of human experience, and are asked to believe dogma that goes so deeply against our lived experience, there's a point where we have to examine the core of our beliefs, whether they say everything we are taught they say, and whether they were meant to be read that dogmatically at all.
What we believe shapes our assumptions about others around us—which then shapes how we act toward them.
What if, in the end, our religion was meant to free us from at least some of the strictures of religion? Jesus didn't call many people names, but he reserved the flipping over of tables and the throwing of invectives like "you brood of vipers" for religious authorities and those who profited off of religious practice.
We owe it to ourselves to ask what his revolution really means.
I write because our beliefs shape the world
As I read the newspaper every day, it is so clear to me how much our beliefs shape what choices we make in the world, in society, politically, in the voting booth and in our interactions with our neighbors. Particularly in a "post-factual" era, when any veneer of objectivity in the media has been cast aside, and our knowledge of confirmation bias—that is, the way what we already believe determines what facts we accept and which we dismiss—seems only to have sharpened the tools with which we use to skewer the ideas of our political opponents, without having sharpened our focus on our own deep-seated biases.
Whether it has to do with differing ideas on economics and which political actions are best for growing a robust economy, or our polarized views on the relationships between law enforcement and people of color, or our own beliefs about the relative danger of private ownership of deadly firearms, or even our viewpoint on the connection between human behavior and changes in our climate, it seems that the quantifiable data has nowhere near as much impact as our emotional beliefs (flying in the face of those rationalists telling me my believing in God is an irresponsible surrender to the irrational back in the first section)!
On many of these fronts, I'm not sure why there is any debate. The numbers are right there for us to find. The history of every political squabble, of every international conflict, is discoverable at our fingertips thanks to the vast web of online information meant to connect and democratize us, and yet it has helped fuel thousands of splinter factions with their own realities. And those frames of reference not only filter how we see, but how we act.
When I watch the news, I see the subtle and not-so-subtle influence that deeply held religious beliefs have on not only the selection and election of candidates, but on the moves that those candidates make to please their constituents. Support for candidates who are willing to peel back decades of environmental protections, who impulsively push for short-term military solutions to international conflicts, who are hyper-focused on symbolic actions like which capitols and temples we choose to honor, make a lot more sense when they are read within the frame of someone who believes that the world is going to end in the next few years, amid the fires of a war prophesied 2,000 years ago and precipitated by a mass Rapture, based on a particular interpretation of the Bible less than 200 years old.
When I see candidates who are trying to build longer-term peace solutions, who are focused on sustaining the resources of the earth as long as possible, and who are focused on fostering equality to all people, even if that equality means breaking ancient religious taboos, while some might see them as apostates trying to build a secular Heaven here on Earth, I know this is also in line with progressive Christian theology, which is why one can see as many clergy and worshippers marching in the fight for marriage equality and social justice as one sees protesting them.
There are those who believe that our country was built on Christian principles and that our strict adherence to that interpretation of Christian values is why we have been blessed with prosperity and protection because of it—and that any backsliding on any aspect of our values will equal a loss of protection for our nation.
There are those who believe our nation is beloved of God as all people are but that our blessings are in spite of the grievous sins of the genocide of the indigenous peoples who were part of this land before the first European settlers, the enslavement of the African and Caribbean people on whose backs this nation was built, and the exploitation and mistreatment of immigrants throughout our history, all of whom are still paying the price for the unrepented sins of our forefathers.
These beliefs are not trivial nor are they insignificant.
Our worldviews shape what we hope for, what we fear, and what we fight for.
Because of the heavy influence of belief on how it shapes the world around us.
We ignore the impact of our beliefs on the world and our place in society at our own peril. If this is what's driving our politics and our society, then those beliefs need to be tested, held to the light, kicked around, shaken, stirred, poured out and sifted through the finest strainer we have.
If we are going to be strong, or good, or in any way worth anything as a nation, we have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our foundations are strong.
And for these reasons, I write about what we believe.
I write because it’s simply not that simple
It's scary and heavy business, talking out loud about what we believe.
People from all sides are so heavily invested in it.
Whether people devoutly believe or resolutely don't, it can be uncomfortable at best, or devastating at worst, to be bumped out of one's lane and have to re-assess where we are.
For the many who say that religion is private business, we cannot forget those who believe that they are part of religious systems that affect not only the health of communities and the cohesion of the nation itself (think on that—people praying to keep our nation healthy the way they would pray at the bedside of an ailing relative), but about the very battle between good and evil in the universe. Belief is what keeps the light burning and the darkness at bay.
And for those who say all the belief systems in the world are a bunch of nonsense, or those who flatten them all into just a single pursuit, all in search of the same thing, I say it's just not that simple. That totally discounts the unique and personal experiences of so many who have had their revelations and have seen miracles they cannot discount. I, too, have seen miracles I cannot discount.
It's not that easy to say we're going to figure it out—it may be that the pursuit of truth in belief is to always be in dynamic tension, weighing the evidence of our lived experience, of our inner truths and assumptions about the universe that we harbor either privately or publicly, and the traditions that we share with those who are similarly looking for truth.
And if it sounds like I'm trying to push everything into "what is truth," territory, and veering away from orthodoxy, please believe me when I tell you, I'm biting my tongue to keep from shouting from the rooftops the EXACTLY RIGHT WAY THAT I HAVE FIGURED IT ALL OUT and swooping down with a Bible in hand to preach and proselytize all comers into the pearly gates.
However, I know that true converts are made by faith that is a gift from the divine, not from me shouting at them on the subway. If you want to know how I see it, let's have a drink or break bread together and I'll lay it all out. Or better yet, watch what I do through the day--that will betray what I truly believe.
But as I said at the beginning of all this—I DO believe. And for me, that statement—that action—the surrender to belief—is the only thing simple about it.