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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Keontic Hymn (Phil 2: 5-11)

Photo by Rowan Gillespie

From The Letters of G. M. Hopkins to Robert Bridges (Letter xcix)

Christ’s life and character are such as appeal to all the world’s admiration, but there is one insight St. Paul gives of it which is very secret and seems to me more touching and constraining than anything else:  This mind he says; was in Christ Jesus–he means as man:  being in the form of God—that is, finding, as in the first instant of his incarnation he did, his human nature informed by the godhead—he thought it nevertheless no snatching-matter for him to be equal with God, but annihilated himself, taking the form of a servant; that is, he could not but see that he was, God, but he would see it as if he did not see it, and be it as if he were not instead of snatching at once at what all the time was his, or was himself, he emptied or exhausted himself so far as that was possible, of godhead and behaved only as God’s slave, as his creature, as man, which also he was, and then being in the guise of man humbled himself to death, the death of the cross.  It is this holding of himself back, and not snatching at the truest and highest good, the good that was his right, nay his possession from a past eternity in his other nature, his own being and self, which seems to me the root of all his holiness and the imitation of this the root of all other moral good in other men.

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