The Nature of Belief – The Short Short Version
Klauss Issler wrote an excellent article in the most recent Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care about belief and how it can be changed (or not). I feel like his emphasis is a little bit amiss, though it may be that he was particularly concerned with belief and so did not emphasize the more critical kinds of beliefs that are generally amiss in our sinful state and how to go about dealing with those. Still, he presents a good starting place, and I felt like it might not be a terrible thing to give a shorter parallel here of my own sort.
Paul told the Philippian jailer “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your whole household.” I’ve often heard this text used by Christians to give a short, quick version of what must be done in order to become Christian, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, though I think the way it comes across, due to the understanding of the speaker and the sub-culture from which it comes, is oversimplified. This sort of belief is almost oversimplified into intellectual assent, but belief is something that goes far deeper than the mind. Belief is something that rests in the heart. In fact, I believe that belief is one of only two capacities, the other being desire, that rests solely in the heart, the deepest aspect of the human person. And because it is so deep, it is more complicated and far reaching than something that is held within the mind.
An infant does not have the capacity yet to reason and think. She cannot intellectually assent to anything because her brain has not yet cohered and formed the necessary connections to physically enable this capacity of the soul. And yet, this little girl still has the ability to believe. She believes that emptiness is unpleasant, that heights are frightening, that mommy is good. She has no way of analyzing these beliefs, nor any means of communicating them in a symbolic or complicated fashion, but those beliefs will drive her towards and away from things.
Even we as adults have beliefs that will move us towards things and away from things, and almost like a child, we may not truly understand why. We may move away from people almost habitually, or we may undermine ourselves at times. Perhaps we gravitate towards art or studying or work and activity. Surely we have reasons for all of these things, or at least we do most times. Yet sometimes the reasons don’t actually make sense, and it seems that there is actually something else that is moving us. Those are our beliefs. We may have been taught through experience and so believe that success leads to wrath and so we prevent ourselves from doing well when it counts. We may believe that words are insufficient to explain what’s happening in our souls or that they do not carry any weight and are cast aside by others, and so we must express ourselves through music or painting. Or perhaps we have come to believe that the world is not safe and so we must retreat into our heads. These things shape how we live our lives, and we may or may not even be aware of them.
But if a belief is something in the heart and something that arises before we have the capacity to reason, then it likewise must be something that is created out of more than reason. It must be born out of experience and the interplay of other beliefs and desires that are already present in the soul. When we experience the world as happy and loving, then we begin to believe that the world is this way, unless we already believe the world is not good, and so we instead interpret this experience as deceitful, suspicious, or merely a passing fad that will end. Should we others as dangerous, we may believe them to be and so isolate ourselves in some fashion. Or if we experience others as caring, then we may believe that people are good and safe. The critical issue is one of experience. Should we never experience the world as safe, then it is not possible for us to believe it to be so. Perhaps we might create the idea that it is and even claim so, but our deep hearts will say differently, for the heart is not swayed by reason so much as experience.
What this implies, then, is that for beliefs to change, there must be a change in experience. To believe that God loves us, we must first experience love, for until then we may not believe that love is possible. To believe that we are forgiven, we must experience forgiveness. To believe that God is present, we must experience others as present. An intellectual movement may be the beginning of this, for our intellect allows us to shape what experiences we will be open to and the direction from which our experiences may come, but it is only the first step. Belief is more than our minds can contain. It flows from the deepest parts of our being, and so we must believe in Christ from this deep place, and not merely from our minds. There are a great number of other issues and implications, but I’d rather not go on forever on a blog. Perhaps more in later posts.