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Believing in Belief

Do you ever wonder how much our modern life has changed humanity? For thousands of years human life went along in about the same way. But, in the last 100 years or so it has changed drastically. There are more changes than I can list, but a simple example might be that for most of human history humans did not worry about exercise. A great deal of physical activity was just a natural part of life. Of course, this is no longer a given.

It is of course difficult to measure but my guess is that our way of life has also permanently impacted our spiritual lives. For example, we read over and over again in scripture that God can be found in silence, yet silence has become a rare commodity. Our ancestors probably understood this spiritual insight better than us by simple virtue of their naturally close relationship to nature. Apart from great effort or intervention I am not sure we could ever discover this spiritual truth because our world is so noisy and full of distractions.

The pending demise of liturgical worship and churches who cling to it has been predicted by church growth experts for decades. This is also a by-product of changes to our way of life. Critics of liturgical worship rightly understood it to be a product of the past out of place in a modern world. It is a way of worship that is inherently communal. It depends on silence, yet we are uncomfortable with silence. It is not easily utilized to manipulate emotion, but we seem to think the Spirit is not present unless we are made to feel. Its calendar and its cycle of prayer is tied to a way of life that depend on seasons and times of harvest that seem to be quickly disappearing, while our modern schedules are centered on economics, entertainment, school schedules and holidays.

The ancient creeds are also often pointed too as aspects of Christian life and worship that need to be left behind. Radical individualists like modern Americans have trouble grasping communal statements of faith. We see everything through the lens of “I” and have trouble wrapping our brains around “we” statements. Communal faith feels like an assault on our most cherished right, the right to choose. For us belief is about comprehension and mental assent. It is about something we can individually possess or defend like a math equation. Mystery plays no part in the notion of belief we defend. A way of life or the challenge to strive after a way of life that the ancient idea of belief calls us (or actually a community) too is less important to us than individual mental assent.

Ironically, the part of the creed that most have no problem saying is the first sentence. The statement, “We believe in one God,” is actually the part that best demonstrates the faulty nature of our modern individualistic approach to belief. If we could prove the existence of God the way we prove the existence of the South Pole or the Pythagorean Theorem then that would be a god who did not affect our daily life, a god who did not matter. This would be a god who has no claim to mystery. For God to be God, God must be beyond our comprehension.

Even if we are not aware of it when we say, “We believe in one God,” we are also saying there is another way of seeing the world. We are advancing the notion that our Christian faith is more than just a commitment to ethical behavior or to loving our neighbors or going to worship. Our belief also has to be able to change our understanding of the world. This can only happen in community. This can only happen with practice.

Regardless of what we might claim, there is in each of us an intuitive understanding that every belief cannot be proven like a math equation. No one operates solely from the modern individualistic idea of belief as pure mental assent. If I understood belief in this way I could not say, for example, that I believe that it makes sense to spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of ‘man hours’ to rescue a person from a collapsed building. I could not say that I believe there is nothing more important you can do this afternoon than visit a sick friend. I cannot prove either of these statements, but I do believe them to be true. My point is that deep down we understand that belief is much more than mental assent. We understand that belief is something that shapes our actions and ideals.

May we learn from the wisdom of our ancestors. Although it may be a turning point belief does not arise from an argument won or some point of scripture is proven. Belief has its origin in the birth of a sense of wonder that eventually leads to a reverence rooted in the recognition of our own limitations in the face of God’s goodness or greatness. Belief begins when we come face to face with the unexplainable. May we remember that this sort of belief in God leads us to shared desire to strive and to reach beyond ourselves alongside others. Belief is about rediscovering our capacity for mystery and reverence. When we say, “We believe in one God,” we are are attempting to reclaim mystery and reverence in our lives and we are making the claim that we have a basis for that attempt.

See you in church,

Fr. Tom +


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