Thinking About Believing

I consider my students and I consider myself–and I think:  our problem is that we know heaps and heaps of things but we believe nothing, or almost nothing.

A friend of mine asked me the other day about Christian religious belief and being a good person, about whether you can be a good person and disbelieve.  That sort of question I cannot answer formulaically, and would not, I hope, even if a formula came to mind.  What I found myself saying was something like this:

We most of us have no real knowledge of what we believe or disbelieve, in the existentially indexed form of belief I take ultimately to be at issue in Christianity.  What we believe or disbelieve is something that isn’t captured by putting a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ in the blank before, say, “There is a God”, on a True/False test.  Perhaps living a good life–a genuinely good life, not a conventionally good one–is itself to believe.  And perhaps living a bad life–a genuinely bad life, not a conventionally bad one–is to disbelieve.

What I said was something like that.  At any rate, I reckon that someone who has a false understanding of Christ could disbelieve in that Christ without disbelieving in Christ.  So too someone with a false understanding of Christ could believe in that Christ without believing in Christ.  Kierkegaard somewhere attempts to elucidate Christian belief by talking about it as ultimately a matter of the imitation of Christ:  imitation is the sincerest form of belief, we might say.  Does imitation–in the sense at issue, whatever exactly that is–require that one know that one is imitating, who one is imitating?

“No one can come to the Father except through me”, “I am the door of the sheep”:  couldn’t ‘going through’, ‘entering the door’, be a matter of what we are ontologically (salvation as theosis) and not, or not so much, a matter of what we are epistemologically, of what we believe in a non-existentially indexed sense?  “Not everyone who saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…”   Will non-existentially indexed denial prevent entrance?

What significance would all this have for the Church?  Well, that is a huge topic.  But Orthodoxy has taught me to believe that although we know where the Holy Spirit is (in the Church) we do not know where it isn’t. –What the Church does is to help us to live a good life, a genuinely good life, to live in imitation of Christ, deliberate imitation, and imitation of Christ truly understood.

Living a genuinely good life is far harder than we reckon it to be, I think, far harder; a camel passing through the eye of a needle.  Both inside the Church and outside it, people underestimate how hard it is.  Mea maxima culpa.  And it is not just hard to live a genuinely good life, it is just as hard to figure out what one would be, what it would look like.  Especially on your own, especially in situ.  “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, and few there be that find it.”  Travelling the way is hard, yes; but finding it is just as hard.

I know there is much to complain about here–but I am just thinking aloud, quasserting, not asserting.

13 responses

  1. “Living a genuinely good life is far harder than we reckon it to be, I think, far harder; a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Both inside the Church and outside it, people underestimate how hard it is. Mea maxima culpa.”

    Think that’s the nut right there (for me at least). Your Christ musings made me think of:

    What has gone basically wrong with Christendom is really Christianity, that be being preached day in and day out, the doctrine of the God-man (safeguarded in the Christian understanding, be it noted, by the paradox and the possibility of offence) is taken in vain, that the difference in kind between God and man is pantheistically revoked (first with an air of superiority in speculative philosophy, then vulgarly in the streets and alley-ways). Never on earth has any teaching really brought God and man so close to one another as Christianity; nor could any other: only God himself can do that, every human invention remains only a dream, an uncertain conceit.
    — The Sickness Unto Death

    Thanks for this post.

  2. The Bible says, “If we confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe that God has raised Him from the dead we shall be saved.” I think this is Romans 10:9. Of course the faith is not ours either. God must give us faith to be saved. We ask and then we receive. I suppose we have enough faith to ask, as the man said to Christ, “Lord I believe; please help my unbelief.” This can’t be a formula, because it can’t be reduced to principle parts which we can fully understand. But salvation is accomplished by Christ, not by us. Of course we “work out our own salvation,” but it is Christ who works in and through us to accomplish His good will. Also, the Bible says we are transformed from darkness unto light, from death unto life, that we are made a new creation. Either we are darkness or light. We are either dead or alive. We are either a new creation or not. Therefore salvation is, by logical necessity, instantaneous. But we still work for Jesus, and we still have to follow him.

    • I understand your line of thought here. But I am puzzled by the ‘logical necessity’ claim at the end. What are you thinking there? Is it supposed to be the case that the Either…or… structures are such that they allow for no middle ground, no vagueness, and that therefore change from one disjunct to the other has to be ‘instantaneous’? Or am I misunderstanding?

  3. couldn’t follow all of the tangents here but while many churches may do a good job of showing laity what they should be working towards (via the Bible and other accounts of saints) I don’t see much of anything being done in terms of teaching people how to wrestle with all of their cognitive-biases and other twists and turns of the screw and would welcome some models of communities taking on the shaping of modern souls.

      • part of it at least is coming to understand how at pre-conscious levels we are prejudiced in ways which keep us from taking in sources/experiences which might shift us from our selfish critterly natures and than trying to ‘hack’ these all-too-human habits by shaping our environs/interactions to make ourselves more available to compassion/agape.

      • Ok, I see. I wonder about the role of ascetic practice in relation to what you mention. While of course such practices are often misunderstood and often abused, when rightly done I take them to be an attempt to move beyond, say, humility as a conscious state toward humility in our body, in its members. We are saved body and soul, and must change in both, since they interpenetrate one another. I’m thinking here of these words by Dallas Willard (the essential point is in the first paragraph):

        “The human body is, then, the plastic bearer of massive intentionalities of will, feeling and perception which do not depend for their functioning upon self-conscious awareness or direct effort, but rather provide the essential foundation of such awareness and effort. The body thus understood is not transformed by religious conversion or ritual alone, much less by mere intellectual enlightenment, but by intense, large-scale and long-run experience, and especially by ascetic practices or spiritual “disciplines.” Such a transformation is essential to bring us to the point where we effectively do what we would (ought) and do not do what we would (ought) not.

        That the way to transformation is hard is something that has been long recognized. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, section 287, it is said: “Unto wickedness men attain easily and in multitudes; smooth is the way and her dwelling is very near at hand. But the gods have ordained much sweat upon the path to virtue.”

        The ingrained tendencies which St. Paul refers to as “the motions of sin which work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5), or “the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23), defeats the moral intent in two main ways: (i). Through the speed of its reaction it leads to action before reflection can bring the moral intent into play. (ii). Through persistence of feelings and conative tendencies associated with contra-moral activity it wears down the will to good and right. With these two ways working together, the self remains entangled in patterns of feeling, action and social interaction which overwhelm the moral intent and direct efforts to perform and be as one ought. But the automatic and persistent active tendencies toward evil or wrong-doing are diminished, redirected or even replaced through appropriate ascetic practices in such a way that “the flesh” becomes the ally of “the spirit,” and the individual becomes free and able to do the good which he or she would and to avoid the evil which is in fact not intended.

        To refer once more back to the New Testament writings, it is clear that ascetic practices were seriously engaged in by Jesus as well as by St. Paul. Both were upon occasion intensely involved, for long periods of time, with solitude, fasting, prayer, poverty and sacrificial service, and not because those conditions were unavoidable. It would seem, then, that those who would follow Christ, and follow Paul as he followed Christ (I Corinthians 11:1), must find in those practices an important part of what they should undertake as His disciples. Certainly this was so in the early centuries of the Christian era. For some reason, however, it is rarely done now; and outstanding Christian writers of the present time do not normally suggest that the practices of Jesus and Paul should be adopted by us. We are to be like them, but without following techniques which they seem to have found necessary.

        In An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledges that “Men cannot, by taking thought, strengthen their will …. The strength of the will depends upon the strength of the factors which enter into its organization.” But the necessary supplement as indicated by Niebuhr is a combination of “… the socio-spiritual inheritance of the individual and … the result of concatenations of circumstance.” “The church is the body of Christ and … the noble living and noble dead in her communion help to build up in her the living Christ, a dimension of life which transcends the inclinations of the natural man.” [SCM Press, 1936), p. 226] “Deeds of love are not the consequence of specific acts of will. They are the consequence of a religio-moral tension in life which is possible only if the individual consciously lives in the total dimension of life.” (p. 228) “The law of love is not obeyed simply by being known. Whenever it is obeyed at all, it is because life in its beauty and terror has been more fully revealed to man.” (p. 230)

        How characteristic these pretty words are of writings by Christian moralists in the 20th Century! A fine discussion could be mounted of what, if anything, they really mean for practice. But they do not seem to address with any realism and practicality the problem of moral and spiritual enablement; and they seem to be in some wholly different vein from the rigorous advice on life handed out on the pages of the New Testament and by the Church throughout most of its history. They are, I believe, a form of the Protestant delusion that the fellowship of the Church or of Christ infuses the power to do as we ought to do without our undertaking a rigorous, individualized program of “exercise unto godliness” (I Timothy 4:7).”

  4. I don’t have anything helpful to add, but just wanted to chime in that I really appreciated this: “I consider my students and I consider myself–and I think: our problem is that we know heaps and heaps of things but we believe nothing, or almost nothing.” I feel you.

  5. This post gives me a lot of trouble, especially its third paragraph. Can you explain what you mean by “existentially indexed belief”? In the absence of any explanation of that phrase, your use of the phrase makes me suspect that it is a sort of conceptual blank check for maintaining, or at least suggesting, the position that Christian belief is a necessary and sufficient condition of ethical goodness. You qualify your expression of this position by representing it as merely something that you said to someone and by putting “perhaps” before it, but there amid the qualifications is the proposition that, in the pertinent sense of “belief,” anyone who lives a good life is a Christian believer (no matter what appearances may be) and anyone who lives a bad life is a disbeliever (no matter what appearances may be)—a proposition that, I suppose, is gratifying to Christian believers, or to those who consider themselves such, but which avowed outsiders like me do not receive kindly.

    • Is it as troubling if the idea is that one can be, as it were, Christian in character but not in dogma (roughly and loosely)? (One might, of course, reject the values of a “Christian character”…and so there might still be trouble here…)

      • Matt, that sounds more benign: it corresponds to the use of the word “Christian” as a term of commendation of character and conduct (and of its opposite, “unchristian,” as a term of censure). Of course, such a manner of speaking holds little attraction for non-Christians, but it seems inoffensive to me, if a little quaint. However, I think it is a retreat from Kelly’s proposal rather than an interpretation of it. Kelly’s proposal puts character–or at least goodness of life, which may not be the same thing–on the side of belief. However loosely you may intend the word “dogma” (though I can’t help thinking that “creed” is actually the word that you want), it surely falls within “belief” and not outside of it. To square your proposal with Kelly’s, one would have to construe it to mean that one can be Christian in belief (and character) without being Christian in dogma (or, as I think you mean, creed); which to me suggests that the notion of “belief” is here being stretched to its breaking point.

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