Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

All of us have a lot of beliefs about a lot of different things. In this article I am writing particularly about the most basic beliefs which we hold. These might be called our presuppositions, those basic beliefs we hold before we start thinking.
Those basic beliefs are rooted in our worldview or faith commitment. But why do we believe what we believe? Where does our faith come from?
Faith/beliefs are the result of what we have learned—from other people or from our own experiences. Our basic beliefs (faith) begin to be formed first at home and then in the primary community of our formative years.
Our early community nexus creates what sociologist Peter Berger calls our “plausibility structure.” That is the framework by which, or the lens through which, we understand the world around us.
Our plausibility structure determines what seems to us to be “common sense.” It is the basis for how we interpret all we see and hear.
Like for many of you readers, my plausibility structure was shaped by regular church attendance. From the time I was about seven years old I attended church activities nearly every Sunday morning as well as on Sunday and Wednesday evenings In addition, during most of those formative years, I read some from the Bible almost every day.
My theological understanding (and please note that theology is basically “faith seeking understanding”) has changed quite a bit through the years. But my basic faith has not changed.

It is important to distinguish between faith, which is closely related to one’s basic presuppositions or worldview, and beliefs. It is possible, and usual, for beliefs to change more than faith.
There are many who have a faith journey similar to mine. But for many of us perhaps, our faith is not as strong as it used to be. That is because our plausibility structure has been gradually re-shaped by things other than a community of faith and the Bible.
For many people today, it may not be erroneous to say that their plausibility structure is now shaped far more by the media—CNN, Comedy Central (Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart), or, Heaven forbid, Fox News—than by the Bible or a faith community.
And, unfortunately, for many who are active church members, that “faith community” may be more like a religious club, or a service club, than a real community of faith.
In reflecting on my own experience, now nearly ten years after leaving my full-time work as an educational missionary and as a pastor, I sense that my faith has weakened somewhat.
I don’t spend as much time studying the Bible, preparing sermons, reading theology books. On the other hand, I spend more time reading and thinking about politics and social issues.
True, I attempt to read and think about politics and social issues from a faith-based or theological viewpoint. I claim, I think validly, that my political views are shaped by my worldview (faith) rather than my worldview being shaped by politics.
Many others, with all the emphasis in contemporary society on entertainment, seem to have fallen into a worldview, or lifestyle, that is predominantly hedonistic.
We believe what we believe because of what we think about the most and/or consider the most important. If our lives are centered on the Bible, worship, devotional and theological books, and on Christian fellowship, our religious faith will be and likely remain strong.
But if politics or entertainment becomes our main focus, our faith will weaken and gradually become inconsequential.
May it not be so.


  1. Leroy: I'm sorry, I just wrote a long piece, and when I clicked on "publish," it disappeared. That has happened to me before, so I know to write separately and cut and paste, but I forgot to do it. Perhaps I'll get back to it later to reconstruct that post. I mentioned two things mostly: (1) I think you're drawing too strong a distinction between faith and non-faith/other things; (2) You've done a nice job of opening up the issue of differences in worldview when people are raised in different times, places, and families.

    1. Anton, I am sorry you lost what you wrote in your "long piece," and I hope you will be able to reconstruct at least some of it to share with my and other readers of this blog.

      I would like to know more about your charge that I am drawing too strong a distinction between faith and non-faith/other things. If faith (which forms, or is, our basic set of presuppositions or worldview) is the lens through which we understand everything else, as I believe it is, then how can there not be a strong distinction?

    2. I think, Leroy, faith has not been sufficiently distinguished from beliefs. In the first part of your essay, you identify faith with “basic beliefs” (worldview and presuppositions). And then you say, half way through, “It is important to distinguish between faith, which is closely related to one’s basic presuppositions or worldview, and beliefs.” Then later you seem to suggest that faith is strengthened primarily by studying “the Bible, preparing sermons, reading theology books.” This would sound to most people like an emphasis on cognition.

      I agree that faith should be distinguished from beliefs—all beliefs. And I would argue, thus, faith is not a worldview; rather faith is essentially a relationship of trust in one’s object of faith (to use Tillichian language), which those of us who belief in God think should be God. When we recognize this, then faith cannot be reduced to emotions, beliefs, or even actions of any given sort (keeping in mind the strong Baptist distinction between faith and works).

      The conclusions, then, would be different, too. Even if one is engaged in political stuff far more than biblical or theological study, it wouldn’t say anything necessarily about one’s faith.

    3. Anton, thanks for writing again--and successfully getting your comments posted this time.

      I am sorry I was not clearer in what I was trying to say. I fully agree that "faith is essentially a relationship of trust in one's object of faith," which for me is faith in God as I understand God through Jesus Christ.

      Although what I wrote may sound "to most people like an emphasis on cognition," that is not what I meant. Studying the Bible, preparing sermons, reading theology books made me more aware of God than most other things.

      Certainly I believe that being "engaged in political stuff" can be, and should be, based on faith. But I'm afraid it is also easy for many of us to see politics as an end rather than a means.

      For a person of Christian faith, though, the end ought always, I believe, to be seeking the Kingdom of God and God's desired "shalom" for all people.

  2. Here are pertinent comments from local Thinking Friend David Nelson:

    "The second assumption of Appreciative Inquiry is "Reality is what we pay attention to." Sounds a bit like 'We believe what we believe because of what we think about the most.' I agree with both.

    "I also celebrate that meaning and purpose, as well as joy and happiness, can be discovered and nurtured in a variety of settings. I am not convinced that paying attention to politics or entertainment will weaken faith.

    "'We all live enchanted lives, if we pay attention.' I think Tom Robbins wrote something like that.

    "I believe every corner of life is sacred, especially if we bring our minds, experience, and imagination into them.

    "Thanks Leroy for again inviting me to think."

    1. Thanks, David, for your pertinent comments.

      I fully agree that paying attention to politics or entertainment will not necessarily weaken faith. But as I have just written to Anton above, if either politics or entertainment become an end, our main purpose for living, then I think it does weaken or even take the place of faith.

      Any "ism," it seems to me has the potential of becoming our "ultimate concern," as Tillich (whom Anton mentioned) termed the object of faith. That is the reason I think we have to be wary of hedonism and of patriotism/nationalism and of many other "isms."

      I like the idea that "every corner of life is sacred." But that is so, I believe, because of faith in God, the Creator--and understood to be so because of that faith.

  3. Yesterday, local Thinking Friend Joe Barbour sent the following comments:

    "Thanks so much for today’s blog.

    "I have just gone through an experience of asking about my belief structure and determined to go back to some disciplines of the past where my focus is on time alone with God and and my focus is what God wants of me and not what I want."

  4. I also received a fairly long email from Thinking Friend Rob Daoust in Arizona. Here is the first of that significant message:

    "Thank you for an excellent blog posting encouraging our minds to consider the concept of plausibility structure.

    "During the course of a wonderful father’s day today I thought of a number of relevant occasions which emphasized my notions of belief, faith, and worldviews. I considered how my faith seeking understanding has also changed over the years and I would have to say that my basic faith has, along with my beliefs, also changed greatly.

    "I agree that it is important to distinguish between faith and beliefs and indeed many of my beliefs have changed. However I would emphasize that my basic faith has also changed."

    1. Rob, thanks for sharing your comments.

      Yes, sometimes a person's basic faith does change. That change usually is accompanied with a lot of turmoil, though, for it is often painful to change from one basic set of presuppositions to another.

      Such a change is what is often called a paradigm shift. And such a shift can occur, I think, both in individuals and in societies--but not without uneasiness and usually some pain.

  5. "Humans aren't rational creatures but rationalizing creatures."
    Author Unknown

    Acknowledging this I place my own reasons for beliefs under examination.
    There is always an element of self protection in why I'm inclined to a position.

    I continue to move away from intellectual assertions (Though I'm still too much of a know it all.).
    Faith, for me, isn't belief in some philosophical or religious assertion, but the capacity to let one's self-centered agendas go with an open heart. I don;t claim my own heart is so wonderfully open, but I celebrate the cracks.
    What I can assert confidently is that I believe in Grace.


    1. Patrick, thanks for your, as always, thoughtful comments.

      I like your concluding sentence. And in that connection I would say that faith is primarily one's response to Grace.

      To quote Tillich again (as above), faith is our "acceptance of acceptance." And that second acceptance is an expression of God's unconditional love for us, which is Grace.

    2. "I would say that faith is primarily one's response to Grace."
      I give you a hearty amen!

      Oh, I could go on about this. But to stay on the theme: Over the years my religious beliefs have certainly up-ended. Occasionally I reconnect with college friends. I was a Seventh-day Adventist then. They still being so (And one a pastor now.), they are appalled that I have "lost the faith." I was such a serious Christian back then. (awfully serious). I try to explain to them that I haven't lost /my/ faith. It's not about the doctrines and creeds but can thrive within and without beliefs. When I open my heart and dare to feel through my hurts (As I did not many years ago when my beloved dipped my heart in liquid nitrogen and hit it with a hammer.) I find an embracing tenderness, Tillich's "You are Accepted!" I extend that to the people I feel have wronged me. This is what I know of the Divine. This felt sense is the genuine fundamental.It's not good ethical behavior or the right beliefs, but transcending, transforming Grace.


    3. Thanks for your further, and significant, sharing, Patrick.

  6. Temp Sparkman, another local Thinking Friend, send this brief comment yesterday:

    "Leroy, your religious consciousness is more developed than some of your friends, but your confession strikes home. The whole structure-content issue is not easily negotiated, but this a helpful attempt."

  7. Still another local Thinking Friend, Dr. Will Adams, a retired political science professor, shares these comments:

    "Good analysis. What you call presuppositions I usually refer to collectively as our 'frame of reference.' These are what you call the 'commons sense' perspectives, mostly unconscious, on the basis of which we reason consciously about issues.

    "I used to ask my classes: Why is it that two people can listen to two debaters express opposite views on an issue, and when the debate is over, one listener thinks the first debater was absolutely right and the second was all wet, while the other listener thinks just the opposite.

    "When we realize that the reason for such phenomena is that the two listeners had very different frames of reference (neither of which can probably be 'proven' to be correct), we may become a little more tolerant of the diversity of views we find in society and even in our neighborhoods.

    "Perhaps we may then embrace the thought of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who noted that freedom of expression is not only for ideas we find comfortable, but includes 'freedom for the thought we hate.'

    "Perhaps the hardest thing for a person to do is to harbor a strong belief in the correctness of a view and, at the same time, remember that I might be wrong. But that is the basis for a stable free society."

    1. Dr. Adams, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your taking the time to share them.

      I agree that "frame of reference" is another way of expressing what I referred to as basic presuppositions. And your comment that such cannot be "proven" is certainly true, I think.

      Your last paragraph is consistent with the position of Michael Polanyi as expressed in his book seminal book "Personal Knowledge," a position that I have found very helpful since I first came across it in the mid-1960s. Since there is no such thing as objective proof of anything, he argued, we have to live with a passionate commitment to what we believe to be true, all the time recognizing that it might be false. Or, we might say, we live by faith.

  8. Leroy,
    I found your entry fascinating. At Howard Div, we speak often of the importance of social location, which includes race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, education, political commitments and the like. For example, I am white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, liberal Quaker (though former Southern Baptist minister and missionary), highly educated, politically progressive, etc.

    It is important to speak not just of "a community of faith" but communities, which include various groups (family, religion, employment, service, etc.) that shape us throughout our lives. The literary critic Stanley Fish speaks of "interpretive communities." From these communities that we "interpret" not only written texts but "the texts of our lives," including personal events and world issues.

    It's interesting that you say that your faith has weakened because you think about political issues so much, yet you say that you attempt to bring a "faith-based perspective" to these issues. I would like a bit more clarification on these two statements. You do that to some extent in your response to questions, but I would like to read more discussion on this tension.

    Thanks for this stimulating piece.

    Peace to you,

    1. Michael, it was good to hear from you and I appreciate you posting pertinent comments.

      Certainly it is true that we all are shaped by numerous communities, but it seems to me that one's faith is shaped primarily by family and a faith community. All communities help shape our worldview, but many of those tend to form a "secular" viewpoint rather than one rooted in faith (in God). Of course, that is true for many families also.

      Concerning your last (long) paragraph: I am sorry for not making it clearer in the beginning about the point I was trying to make. There is a great difference, I think, between thinking about and working for the Kingdom of God and God's justice and, for example, working for the election of politicians. If the latter are seen as being advocates for the former, there is no conflict between the two, perhaps. But it is a loss of faith, I think, if we lose sight of the end (the KoG, for example) and work primarily for political victories. Do you see what I am saying?

  9. Many moons ago, I was teaching a Sunday School class. Children of mixed ages. Topic: Genesis/the creation story. We were talking about acting it out -- a "what if" exercise. I had them move about to the NRSV words of Genesis 1 (my favored creation story) as I played different background music for God. One piece was the opening to Elton John's Funeral for a Friend. Minor key, dark with ambient noise of wind blowing. Another piece was a heady and complex Liszt Sonata. Another I called "Broadway God." It was brassy orchestral, major key. Then we had a discussion on what was God's background music. I was shocked that there was no consensus -- all three pieces got votes -- but some strong opinions. It was a marvelous window into the children as individuals. The kids recognized too that their peers who "heard" God's background music differently from them operated from a whole different set of assumptions. It was one of the best children's Sunday School discussions I've ever heard.

    How we articulate our theology may change over the course of our lives, but does God's background music? I didn't figure it out then, and I don't know now. But I'm thinking about it again. That's all that's important at this blog, right?

  10. Many years ago I laid upon the altar the heavy burden of trying to read the Bible as a book of holy answers. I took up a new discipline from Job 38:1-3, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.'" As a book of sacred questions the Bible has become far more valuable to me than it ever was as an answer.

    I saw this again recently as my wife and I, at the urging of our daughter, finished viewing the remake of Battle Star Galactica, which uses a song from the 1960s as a touchstone. Written by Bob Dylan, and perfected by Jimi Hendrix, the haunting chords of "All Along the Watchtower" became the very soul of the series. Along the way, it probes and explores all sorts of religious views, constantly pressing for a deeper understanding of life and religion.

    Wikipedia steered me to an additional layer of mystery, for Bob Dylan apparently wrote the lyrics as a meditation on Isaiah 21. Now that is one strange chapter, and Dylan's song strangely avoids the very center of the chapter, the fact that the two horsemen are a sign of the fall of Babylon. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground." (verse 9)

    Well, what could be more timely than the fall of Babylon? Even as we share here, the army of ISIS is threatening to overthrow it's successor, Baghdad. Yet, not just Iraq, but the whole world trembles, wondering what will happen, and what it will mean. We have learned from thousands of years of warfare that the fall of Babylon is not unalloyed good news. It may even be terrible news. As Dylan summarized it, "The hour is getting late!"