As I started to be open, I started to reconsider my own beliefs. Sometimes if we get fixated on critiquing other peoples’ beliefs, we can neglect to evaluate our own beliefs, and hold those to the same standard and energy of our criticisms. I realized that wasn’t a fair or objective way to do things. So I turned the mirror on myself and asked, “Well, what do I believe and why?”
In the process, I learned a few major lessons about “belief” that have stayed with me ever since:
(1) Beliefs aren’t just what we say, but are revealed by our actions and decisions.
This is so fundamental to start with, because so often, I find that people talk about “beliefs” as intellectual ideas removed from their lives and reality. So a person could say, “I don’t believe in the existence of good and evil,” but is that reflected in the way they live their lives; the way they treat others and wish to be treated? I rarely find that to be the case, when I press people. So when we consider what we “believe,” we must look deeper than just words or doctrines that we can carefully craft in an “ivory tower.” That’s when we’re put to the true tests: will we back up what we say with our actions and life commitments, especially in the face of pressure and critique? It’s one thing to say we’re not afraid of heights, but it’s another to go skydiving. It’s one thing to say we believe in justice, and another to stand up for somebody who is being mistreated. So what do we really believe?
(2) People don’t always know or evaluate why they believe what they do. It’s hard work and it’s not always logical or consistent.
Despite the fact that most people want to believe that they are completely rational and always consistent, it’s just not true of any of us. We all have beliefs grounded in past experiences, emotions, and so many other factors that are even subconscious. It takes intentional reflection to work through this, and to articulate what we believe and why.
For me, I started with a simple question: “How does one believe in anything at all?” For instance, take a simple statement of belief, such as, “I believe that paper comes from trees.” Well, how does one know such a thing?
Here are some possible reasons:
Authority or source of belief:
I read about it on the Internet, and saw a documentary on the making of paper. I’ve also heard this is true from multiple reliable friends and expert sources.
I visited a paper-making facility myself and saw the process myself.
Logic or reason:
It makes logical sense: paper is made from wood, and wood comes from trees.
All these factors put together seem to fit with the picture of the world that I live in.
Those are some examples of reasons why we believe what we do, and they do apply to beliefs about deeper things, like people, the world, and God! So as I personally went through these reasons, I was able to evaluate what I believed, and found that some of my reasons weren’t as solid as I had assumed. My authority sources weren’t as reliable as I had hoped. My beliefs didn’t seem to make sense of widespread realities like the overarching human needs for justice and forgiveness. Let me be clear: this didn’t make me become a Christian – it only made me re-consider what I believed and why, and I found my beliefs and reasons for those beliefs, to be unsatisfactory. I suspected there was a better way.
(3) Nobody can be 100% sure of what they believe. There will always be unanswered questions and issues with any set of beliefs about the world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t (and don’t) believe in anything!
How then does one decide on what to believe in? For me, that journey involved exploring diverse religions and philosophies, asking the hardest and most important questions of each. I spent hours in bookstores and talking to people, exploring beliefs as much as a suburban high school student could.
Along the way, I encountered many questions and issues with Christianity. My first thought was: how can I believe in something that I can’t know is 100% true? I talk to so many people who say, “I have too many problems and questions to believe in Christianity.” But to that, I would ask, “What you currently believe (about the world, about people, and about God): does that have any problems or inconsistencies? Does it explain everything you see around you? Are you 100% sure that it is true?”
What I realized is that I was critiquing Christianity more harshly than other belief systems, for some reason. When I applied the same hard questions and critiques to other religions, and to my own belief system at the time, I found just as many – and in fact more – inconsistencies and problems. So if I really wanted to pursue “truth,” the best thing I could do is to believe the system that had the least amount of problems. And that turned out to be Christianity. If I wasn’t willing to change my beliefs, I didn’t feel I was being earnest and humble in my pursuit of what is true in the world.
(4) However, people generally don’t believe what they do based upon the intellect, but based upon deeper ethical and emotional factors.
I’ve frequently asked people (as I asked myself in the past), “If we could resolve almost all of your intellectual objections to Christianity, to a point where you are satisfied with the answers, would you then believe?” And many of them said “no,” with an honesty that I respect. Some even admitted that they didn’t have very solid or thorough reasons for why they believed what they did. But they seemed to be okay with that.
I would pose the same invitation to anyone who reads this. If you feel there are just too many problems or questions about Christianity to believe in it, I’d love to dialogue with you further, for as long as you’re willing to go. I will work with you and listen, and take where you’re coming from with respect. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I do think I’ve personally asked and wrestled through an above-average number of questions… and perhaps my own wrestling with Christianity could be a resource to you. Maybe we have more in common than you think. If so, feel free to e-mail me. Consider that a standing offer.
In any case, back to my own story. In the end, I realized that the intellect is important: it can help remove unnecessary barriers to belief, like it did for me. It can provide a reasonable foundation for faith that’s much more assuring than “blind faith.” However, it can only go so far. The biggest issues for most people are deeper than the intellect and pure rationality. That was also true for me, and I look forward to sharing more about that in the next post of this series.