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Recently, a friend posed a question to his Facebook friends that garnered quite a number of responses. He wanted to know who among his friends had changed their beliefs about religious/spiritual things so significantly that others who knew them 10 years ago wouldn’t recognize them today.
I think it’s a good question. It certainly caused me to pause and consider the question for myself.
Most responses affirmed a significant level of change, while a few indicated they hadn’t changed at all. At least one person stated something like: “In some ways I’ve changed a lot and in some ways I’m still the same me.” I thought that response was insightful.
Initially, my own response involves more questions. Such as: What do you mean by ‘change’ and what does the word ‘spiritual’ mean? What is ‘belief’ and why does it matter? How does one go about ‘changing beliefs’ and what nurturing influences lead to such change?
I’ve changed. That much is certain. We all have. It’s human to change—and to learn is to change.
Change is to belief as learning is to knowing. Some of us feel the latter is more important than the former but the truth is: you can’t know anything without learning it. Learning (experiencing and reflecting on experience) precedes knowing. So, which is greater? Both are good and necessary.
So, what have I learned? Well…to be honest, I am still learning whatever I have supposedly learned. Knowledge is like that. As soon as you think you’ve laid claim to it, it has eluded you. The most learned people I know are those who know they don’t know. That’s what keeps them learning. And, as long as they are rapt by learning, they are changing, deeply, truly.
This stance towards learning and knowledge is itself life-changing. In high school, my approach to knowledge was something like this: “I should acquire as much knowledge as I can so I can convince others to see things my way.”
I’m sure it was quite off-putting to most people who knew me and for that I am sorry. See, my view of knowledge was fixed at the time. I treated knowledge as if it was a bounded set. If a topic seemed of high import to me, I would set out to learn everything I could about that topic so I could become an expert in it.
I talk about that like it is in the past. But, the truth is: it’s still tempting for me to bind knowledge, even today. I’m still learning that it’s wiser to acknowledge my own foolishness and limitation than to suffer the delusion that I can know it all, do it all.
In sum: I still need to learn—and I hope I’m still learning. And I hope that is my belief.
But sometimes I refuse to learn or I stop learning. So, sometimes, I betray my belief.
That begs the question, “Do I really believe, then?”
What is belief, anyway?
Because all true belief is tested, it is more variable than we realize. We believe that we believe something with certainty, but then something comes along that questions our certainty and, if we discover something essential lacking in our original belief, we change what we believe.
Some people think it is a bad thing to change what one believes. But, if what we believe is false or only partly true, is it not better to change belief for the sake of truth than to go on living a lie?
The real conundrum with this surfaces when we consider that what we once believed we did so with certainty. And, when we change or modify our belief we also do so with certainty. We become convinced of another reality and cannot look back to our former model.
And yet…might our new belief also be partial or even false? How can we be so certain?
No doubt, we might appeal to experience or any number of (reasonable, mind you!) rationalizations. But, did we not base our former belief squarely on the same “solid” footing? So, how can we be so certain now?
Sometimes certainty in belief is the very thing that keeps us from true belief, which is open and expansive. Even so-called open and expansive beliefs warrant uncertainty if they are to be truly open and expansive. The truly free thinker can by no means rule out that some perspectives may be false and destructive, if they are to claim openness as a hallmark of their belief system.
This applies equally to the Christian as to the atheist.
I sometimes wonder if Christians wouldn’t benefit more if we learned to learn from our atheist neighbors. Sometimes I think Christians could benefit from a little “Christian agnosticism.” Sometimes it is Christian certainty that prevents the non-Christian seeker-of-truth from considering Christianity an option for them.
Can you blame them? I can’t.
To be a Christian is to be a seeker-of-truth more than to be a keeper-of-truth. If we encounter in another the same passion to seek truth, we should certainly treat them as a tender life that elicits respect and nurture, friendly affection and an openness to let the truth we encounter through them…change us.
“Change me.” Is this not the truest Christian prayer? How often do we pray it? And when we pray it, do we really mean it?
It’s a dangerous prayer, to be sure. It’s mostly dangerous because once the prayer is answered you know it still isn’t answered completely. There’s more change a-coming; there’s more change needed. Having been changed, we become more aware of our need for more change.
Unless we see that, I doubt we have really changed.
I have a good friend who is a shining example of belief to me.
It has been said that knowledge is like a flame. I like that image because it ascribes definition beyond confinement. The flame of a match is not the flame of a candle. The flame of a campfire is not the flame of a forest fire. Just as there are different kinds of flames, there are different kinds of knowing.
My friend’s belief is like that. It is more than head knowledge. She believes with her whole being. I call it “gut-knowing.” It’s not an unreasonable knowing, but it’s more than merely reasoned. It’s embodied.
The ancient Hebrews used a word that helps us locate the center of belief, thus helping us to understand its true nature. They used the word nephesh. We translate it as “soul” but it literally means “neck.”
It’s a metaphor. Eugene Peterson, a Christian pastor/theologian, explains:
“The neck is the narrow part of the anatomy that connects the head, the site of intelligence and the nervous system, with everything else; it literally keeps us ‘together.’ Physically, the head is higher than the body, at least when we are standing up, and so we sometimes speak of the higher functions of thinking, seeing, hearing and tasting in contrast to the lower functions of digestion and excretion, of perspiring and copulating. But if there are higher and lower aspects to human life (which I very much doubt) it is not as if they can exist independently from one another. And what connects them is the neck. The neck contains the narrow passage through which air passes from mouth to lungs and back out again in speech—breath, spirit, God-breathed life. It is the conduit for the entire nervous system stemming and branching from the brain. And it is where the mighty jugular vein, an extremely vulnerable three to four inches of blood supply, comes dangerously close to the surface of the skin. Soul, nephesh, keeps it all together.”[i]
According to this metaphor, soul unites body and mind. This is the center of belief and it tells us something about the nature of belief.
We could speak of changing belief, therefore, in rational or intellectual terms. And that is what we often do. When we ask someone what they believe we usually frame it in terms of what someone thinks about a certain issue.
Because our true beliefs are not merely reasoned but embodied, we then experience contrary beliefs as personally threatening. It’s like fire meeting more fire. It sets a rage inside us we can hardly stand. After all, there is little that upsets us more than a belief we can’t control.
That is why Facebook can become such a volatile place. As long as we keep our interactions polite and in reference to subjects that do not disturb our core beliefs, we find the engagement amusing and entertaining. But, if someone should venture to reveal a core belief contrary to ours, well…often it sets off a firestorm of impassioned debate, usually between people who do not know each other very well.
This is why it’s important to remember that belief is more than ideology. Before judging another’s thoughts, we should consider their life.
If I say I believe in God but show no compassion for the poor, do I really believe in God? If there is no connection between what I think and what I do, I am worse than a headless body—I am a bodiless head.
To kill a person it only takes one swift chop to the neck.
Author Henri Nouwen gives us a fine example of belief. He writes:
“After twenty years in the academic world as a teacher of pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality, I began to experience a deep inner threat. As I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, ‘Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?’ After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed. It was very hard for me to see clearly…
“In the midst of this I kept praying, ‘Lord, show me where you want me to go and I will follow you, but please be clear and unambiguous about it!’ Well, God was. In the person of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people, God said, ‘Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.’ The call was so clear and distinct that I had no choice but to follow. So, I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and the brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society.”[ii]
What changed? His thinking? Maybe. But, more than that: his life.
I believe we live our way into new thinking much more than we think our way into new living.
Most times, if we change or modify our beliefs, we do so because we encounter people or situations that do not fit neatly into our belief system.
Yet, we do not always change when such an encounter takes place—because when we are confronted with a challenge to our belief system our first response is usually to defend our beliefs. That’s because we know that if our belief is wrong, we will need to change what we believe and, therefore, change how we live. And that makes us uncomfortable.
Often, when a Christian encounters an atheist or a person from another religion leading a life that is exemplary, the Christian will look for ways to explain how that could be so while defending his or her own Christian beliefs. (To be fair, I think the reverse is also the case. The atheist will offer reasons why Christians do what they do, all to defend their own viewpoint.)
There is little that threatens us more than a challenge to our beliefs. Yet it is the way we respond to those challenges that makes the difference between a life that languishes or flourishes.
This is why, in any discussion of belief, we need the term “faith.”
Author George MacDonald teaches on a Bible text that is translated like this in the King James Version: “…faith is…the evidence of things not seen.”[iii]
We often equate faith to belief but I offer that faith is a more helpful word in our discussion of “changing beliefs”. Faith is like the lifeblood of the soul. It, too, connects what we think with what we do but notice that (to use Peterson’s analogy) oxygen is delivered to the brain through the body.
Here’s a light-hearted example of the nature of faith: I’m teaching my son to drive a car and hopefully this time next week he’ll have his driver’s license.
That means that on Monday March 27, 2017 he may very well be driving himself to school. That’s the whole reason we’re going through the trouble of teaching him, so he can drive himself around.
But, here’s the catch: it will take faith for me to give him the keys and let him actually drive off on his own that Monday. I’ll have to put to test the belief that he’ll be fine and won’t wreck the car. (Pray for me!)
Now, unless I put that belief to the test, I won’t really know if my belief is well-founded. I have to risk being wrong to find out if I’m right.
That’s faith. It’s a risk that you might be wrong. It involves acting on what you believe. Faith says that unless you act on what you believe you don’t really believe it and once you act on what you believe, you will either believe the same thing more or change what you believe. In either case, the nature of your belief changes since tested belief is substantively different than untested belief. It’s stronger, in fact.
That’s why MacDonald points out that Hebrews 11:1 is best translated to carry the idea that faith proves the unseen.[iv] Faith acts as if something is true when we have no proof; but, unless we exercise faith, we will never know it to be true. Faith proves it.
That’s why Christians say faith changes things, including people. That’s why I feel it must not be possible to be a Christian and say, “I haven’t changed.” Indeed, a Christian that hasn’t changed can scarcely be fully human, let alone a Christian. That includes thought and action.
A Christian is one who is being transformed to become more and more like Jesus—in devotion, thought and action. As long as we have breath, this process of transformation never ceases—no matter how old you are.
A Christian is either becoming more like Jesus or less like him. There is no steady state. Just when you think you’ve reached equilibrium, Jesus comes and troubles the water. Before your life can be ordered by Jesus it needs to be disordered by Jesus. Jesus is better at making messes than he is at cleaning and tidying things up. Don’t look to Jesus if you want confirmation of your belief. He’ll challenge you.
Many Christians turn to a text written by the apostle John to reference the kind of transformation Jesus effects. It’s in the Gospel of John, chapter 3. Here, Jesus says, “You must be born again.”[v]
The interesting thing about this text is that Jesus used the expression to mean one thing but Christians sometimes interpret it to mean something Jesus did not intend. Christians often use it to refer to that moment in time we refer to as “conversion.” When a person is “born again” we say they have been “converted.”
But in the discourse Jesus has with Nicodemus (a seeker of truth) Jesus likens the process of new birth to the wind. Just as we do not know from whence the wind blows and to where it is blowing, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit of God.
The wind will no sooner stop blowing than the new life can stop growing. Once that new life is formed in you, it will cry and stretch and yearn for you to feed it—and, in feeding it, it will grow and change until you can’t control it. It will change you from the inside out, not just in your thinking but in the way you live.
We can no sooner control the new life that grows in us than we can control the wind. Yet, we are prone to make a home in the new place to which the wind blows us. This is precisely why the wind will disturb us again and move us to someplace else. This is why the Christian has the experience of feeling at home in God, yet homeless, all the same. If you make your home in the wind, you won’t have a home as some people know it.
Christians make their home in the wind, God’s breath. That’s what Pentecost says, anyway.
The Christian is never fully converted. Strictly speaking, the Christian is being converted. We experience conversion as a process punctuated by a number of watershed events, which feel like homecomings as we age. When a Christian lets the wind lead, they arrive at a new place and they feel it is home. But then they move to a new place and, without knowing the place yet, feel it is home.
In this way, our future (a place unfamiliar to us because we’ve never been there before) feels like our past (a place that feels most familiar to us). We feel we have returned to someplace true when we arrive at someplace we have never been.
Like the wind, it’s a mystery.
This is why I say, “If I haven’t changed these past 10 years such that the person I’ve become is unrecognizable to the people who knew me then, something’s wonky.”
Embrace change. Don’t be afraid of it.
And give others leave to change. We’re all human and God’s wind blows for everyone to bring us all to a new home. Don’t force others to be where you are. Don’t even force that on yourself. Play.
[i] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 36-37.
[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 2000), pp. 9-11.
[iii] The text in question is Hebrews 11:1.
[iv] George MacDonald, Proving the Unseen (New York: Ballantine, 1989), p. 2, 4-5. On page 2, MacDonald asks: “But what is the meaning of ‘the evidence of things not seen’? I cannot find any meaning in that translation at all. But I believe the true meaning of the original is the most profound fact in human history. And the true meaning is this: Faith is the trial or the proving of things not seen.”
[v] John 3:7