Sunday, January 18, 2015

Say what you mean: What do I believe?

We live in a world of growing contradiction and inconsistency. As much as we would like to think that we are growing in rationality and progressing in reason, if we honestly look at everything that's happening today, it's pretty hard to say that we have. Then again, if we're honest with ourselves, perhaps it's just that there isn't really all that much to progress, there isn't some new epiphany of reasoning or rationality that seems reasonable or rational. That may seem a little dubious to some of us, but one thing I think is rather undeniable is we live in an era of growing "political correctness". I suppose the phrase "political correctness" as the general desire to not offend people. While that in and of itself is a noble goal, carried to an extreme, we essentially are forced to communicate by saying almost nothing, because almost anything can be construed as offensive. Now that I really think about it, the idea of "political correctness" seems rather irrational and unreasonable as well.

In this growing trend of "political correctness" we've often come to mouthing meaningless and often pithy platitudes with a certain amount of sincere insincerity. First, I want to make clear that I'm not here to bash propriety or politeness. I think those are important. We ought to be polite and nice to one another. The point I am trying to make is that we've become so accustomed to mouthing these words that we no longer understand nor really care to understand, their meanings. We say things we don't mean. Frankly, I would argue, we don't really know the meaning of the things we say anymore. That's a problem. A rather big one I would say.

It's seems ironic to me, that people today are shocked by people who actually live according to what they believe. This explains the Western world's difficulty to understand the extremes of Islamic fanaticism and on the other hand, why we find the actions of Chick-fil-A owner Mark Meadows so extraordinary. We live in a world where words and actions have been somewhat separated. Examples of the incongruity between professions of belief and actual action pop up throughout the events of our modern world. Just follow current day news events and you'll find the glaring inconsistency between what is said and what is done. If you want some clear analysis of it, I'd recommend listening to The Briefing, a podcast by Albert Mohler, examining current events from a Christian perspective.

The dichotomy between action and belief, from my perspective, stems largely from this one issue, we don't really know what we believe. We've over-compartmentalized our world that the word, "belief" no longer means what it meant when the word is translated from the context of Biblical text. While this may not be universal, I believe it is highly prevalent, particularly in the modern, developed world. So, what is belief? This is a rather tricky question because of the nature of the subject, and how we kind of have to employ a certain degree of "belief" to understand "belief". That's confusing. I know. But it's important, which is why I think we ought to examine it more closely.

The world today would have us hold that belief is a strictly intellectual exercise. We can believe and profess what we want so long as it's, according to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, "... in their pews, homes and hearts" but only there and not anywhere else. Before I go further, I'd like to just mention that I will be using the words "faith" and "belief" fairly interchangeably, while some of us may hold that they are somewhat different, it's not something I want to get into at the moment, and for this exercise they're close enough to mix and match.

I don't think we're insincere, at least not intentionally so. It's more that we're ignorant. When we take belief and turn it into shorthand for "intellectual assent", then we have undermined the concept of belief as a whole. When we sit down and seriously consider what is meant by "belief" we have to ultimately conclude that oftentimes there is a fairly large disconnect between what we say we believe and what we actually believe. I am going simply define belief as an assertion of truth. To believe in something, is to hold it to be true. Perhaps it's an over-simplification, but I think it is an accurate portrayal of what is generally meant when we say we "believe in" something.

Yet, if we hold something to be true, it must therefore impact our actions. To borrow the age old example, my belief in gravity leads me from jumping off of high places unless I have some sort of assurance that I can and will counteract its (gravity's) effect on me. My belief in the structural integrity of a chair leads me to sit in it. So Bruni's concept of limiting beliefs to people's "pews, homes and hearts" is frankly ludicrous, because it's a call to disbelief. To further cloud the issue, we have to recognize that Bruni's statement in and of itself is an assertion of truth, a belief. Before you start accusing me of just arguing semantics, I want you to seriously consider it.

Despite its inconsistency and complete irrationality, we live a world that holds relativism to be the most reasonable and logical conclusion to come to. I recall a conversation I had in high school with a extraordinarily intelligent classmate by the name of Kyle. I don't recall much of the content of the conversation, but what I do distinctly remember was the conversation turning towards the idea that perhaps Christianity makes sense and is logical, or something along those lines. What struck me most vividly was Kyle's response, "That's a matter of faith." It wasn't relevant to the conversation. While that is true, to a degree, the meaning behind it was that there was this divide between what we consider "faith" and intellect, logic, and reasoning.

The context of Frank Bruni's statement was made in response to the firing of a fire chief in Atlanta for holding to a Christian worldview that the practice of homosexual acts was sinful according to the Bible. The fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, was terminated, and the New York Times believes, rightly so. Without getting too embroiled in this debate, I want us to simply consider this, isn't Bruni's own assertion that belief being contained to "pews, homes and hearts" in and of itself a sort of belief? The underlying assumption that is being asserted here though, is that Bruni's belief need not be contained because of a (somewhat arbitrary) label of "religion". Bruni's beliefs are legitimately aired, simply because what, there is no organized religion behind it? That there is no pew for him to keep his beliefs to?

People much wiser than I have asserted that, "Life is faith, it's not a question of whether or not you have it, it's a question of what you have faith in." That most likely is a paraphrase, but the point remains clear. We live and act according to what we believe. The point here is not necessarily that Bruni is inconsistent, but rather, are we? Bruni is just a small example of where we've created this disconnect. An example from the other end of the spectrum is Mark Meadows, and as he simply put it, "It was the right thing to do." He acted according to his belief, in feeding someone who was asking to work for food, and then giving this man his gloves for the cold when he found out the man didn't have any.

These are sort of big examples, but their extremity gives us a clear look at what exactly we mean and are asserting by our statements of belief. When I say, "I believe in the Bible." the first thing I have to ask myself is: do I know what it says? When we think about the concept of believing in something we don't even know, it seems kind of, well, insane. The second thing we must consider then, is do our actions reflect the words written therein? That, is perhaps the challenging part. Am I loving my neighbors (Matthew 22:39)? Am I loving my fellow brothers and sisters (John 13:34)? Am I seeking the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)? These are all challenging questions, and ones perhaps we ignore simply because it's not something we've given thought to before.

Yet when we give it thought, the picture becomes muddied, unclear. Sure, I'd like to say that I believe God will provide, but when I observe my actions and mindset, is that really the case? When I am in a difficult situation where do I go? Do I first go to Christ in prayer or do I go to the internet? or Oprah? or some self-help book? or the advice of some "successful" people? The question is not whether or not Oprah or others have bad advice, but the question is where do I go first. That simple unconscious action of sorting through who we'd go to first in a crisis is reflective of who we really believe can resolve our issue.

I sometimes feel like in today's world, not only does what we believe not have any bearing on our actual actions, but rather, that it shouldn't. Yet, when that occurs, what we are referring to is no longer belief, what I hold to be true, but idealism, what I'd like to be true. That is why, when for some reason, someone's beliefs align with their actions, it baffles us. That's not the way it should be. However, if we closely examine and consider, that's really the only way it can be. Certainly, I believe there is benefit to understanding what I should believe, but it can't end there, the question isn't do I mentally acknowledge the right thing? But rather, how do I get my actions to align with it?

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