I recently listened to episode 16 of the Life after God podcast where Ryan Bell interviewed Diana Butler Bass.
It was a really good conversation, and you should definitely go listen to it, but two things really stood out to me and I wanted to explore them a bit.
The first was something Diana said about the etymology of the word believe. She said that it originally mean to belove, and not an intellectual assent to a proposition.
I’m not an etymological scholar but etymonline.com seems to support this general idea saying:
from Proto-Germanic *ga-laubjan “to believe,” perhaps literally “hold dear (or valuable, or satisfactory), to love” (source also of Old Saxon gilobian“believe,” Dutch geloven, Old High German gilouben, German glauben), ultimately a compound based on PIE root *leubh- “to care, desire, love”
So in essence to love, value, cherish or hold dear.
Now why this stood out to me is because for the past year and a half I have been going through — depending on your perspective — a crisis faith or a deconstruction of my beliefs.
I grew up like many other evangelical Christians, convinced that the Bible was the Word of God without any error. Add to that by my early teens I was a charismatic, and by my late teens, I fully believed in the fivefold ministry and restorationism. And so immersed was I into that part of Christianity, that I could conceive of no other way to be Christian.
Put another way, I had never even heard of liberal Protestantism, knew nothing of the ancient liturgical churches — Roman Catholic and Orthodox — and knew less than nothing about the debate between theism and atheism.
So when I started coming in contact with both the more liberal views of the mainline churches, Catholics, and of course the critiques of atheists of all religion, it was really hard for me.
When doubts piled up and I cautiously applied the “Outsider Test of Faith” to my beliefs they didn’t pass muster. It was devastating. I didn’t know what to do, and I definitely didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid of what they would say or think of me.
But here is the thing. Like many charismatics — or many Christian mystics for that matter — I had undoubtedly had profound, intimate, moving experiences with Jesus.
As a lonely awkward teenager, my relationship with Jesus is what gave me purpose, it is what helped me to start overcoming my insecurities and making friends. And that passion for God is what ultimately led me into ministry for over a decade.
But it wasn’t just a Sunday morning relationship with God. I was immersed in the world of dreams, visions, tongues, prophecy, and most importantly, hearing the voice of God for myself.
And when I say ‘hear’ I mean to hear in my heart and mind. It is like hearing your own thoughts, but it feels like it comes from a much deeper place in you that knows you better than you know your self. I’m sure Jungians know what I’m talking about 🙂
So God for me was this very real, but yet very inner experience. My inner world was very rich and alive, and in time when I found other Christians who believed the same things as I did, it gave me all the validation that I needed at the time, to know that I was hearing from God and that my experiences were real.
Yet as my deconstruction progressed, the craziest thing for me was that while the idea of God kept getting harder and harder to square away intellectually, when I was silent and just meditating, that same voice of Jesus was there with me.
Telling me that I was loved. Telling me that he understood what I was going through, and it was all going to be okay.
I didn’t know what to do with that, so I researched all I could about neuroscience and spirituality and I found some pretty interesting facts about how brains work. FYI, the Liturgists Podcast really helped me in this area.
I even read a book called The Illusion of God’s Presence by Stephen C. Wathey in which he argues that there is an innate mental model of a mother in infants, and that same neural circuitry is what is used in spiritual experiences.
But despite all of that, I had to admit that experientially God, in the form of Jesus, was still real to me, while at the same time intellectually I couldn’t defend my God belief.
All of this tension came to a head when my unbelief accidentally came out and the people in my life, all devout Christians, really asked me what I believed.
And so after reflection, I told them that based on my experience I still believed in Jesus but I didn’t honestly know what I believed about all of the Christian doctrines and that my theology was likely to change in the future. And amazingly, they were pretty cool with that.
Since that time I’ve kind of been in this limbo. Understanding that spiritual experience is very real, even if you are a reductionist and think it is only neurons firing in the brain.
Yet at the same time, remaining unmoved in my belief that many of the doctrines in the Bible fail to meet an acceptable burden of proof for me.
I’ve since looked at many different ways of conceptualizing God. As the ground of being or as the source of or a part of consciousness itself. Or as an archetype a la Jordan Peterson.
I even looked into Perrenial philosophy which has a beautiful way of blending religions and seeing a greater truth through the dogma. But mostly I’ve just sat in this tension between belief and experience.
And then comes Diana Butler Bass and her passing comment about the word believe.
It reminded me of something Reza Aslan said about “faith is an emotion and religion is the language you use to express that emotion”.
Here is the point. No matter the true origins of the word believe, I think it is fair to say that most Christians who get serious about their faith, do so for emotional reasons, not intellectual ones.
They attend revival meetings or retreats and feel something.
They hear the Bible preached with conviction about a God who loves them and they feel something.
They realize their life is not what it should be and then hear about a God who can make it better and they feel something.
And then they respond to that feeling with faith, which I take to mean trust and then from that trust, loyalty, and identity.
And religion makes this process easy to understand. There is a clear path from not belonging to belonging. From not being a member to becoming a member of the family of God.
What this facet of human nature tells me is that belief for the majority of people is not about the facts.
That’s why many atheists wring their hands when a theist dodges their pointed question. Because the facts that they are being asked to prove is their loyalty based on deep emotions and years of loving a person. And how do you prove loyalty except by being loyal?
Anyways, this perspective on belief was amazing to me. Because if I re-state the question of “Do you intellectually assent to the propositions of Bible” to “Do you love Jesus” or “Is the Christian faith dear to you”?
Then the answer is an easy yes. Yes, I love Jesus. Yes, in spite of all its flaws and historical failings, I love the Church.
Why? Because in my relationship with Jesus — whatever the metaphysical reality of that relationship is — I experience love, fulfillment, and joy.
This way of looking at belief and faith reminds me of a very famous verse.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
As I read the Bible, over and over what matters to God is not so much faith as love. God is portrayed in the Johannine epistles as the embodiment of love and if we say we love God but hate our brother then we don’t know God.
Also, Jesus made it pretty clear:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Loving God with all my heart and soul came easy. Loving God with all my mind and seeking truth was more difficult. But Jesus said God was looking for those who would worship God in spirit and in truth.
I take that to mean those who would have an experience of God through love and adoration and those who would know God through the use of reason and the study of the natural world.
I can’t help laughing at how similar this sounds to the Hindu concept of bhakti yoga, but that is a discussion for another day.
In closing, let me quickly say the second thing that stood out to me from that conversation: Both/And.
The problem I have with the traditional understanding of belief as intellectual assent is that is Either/Or.
Either God is real or he does not exist.
Either the Bible is literally true or it is false.
Either when you look up in the sky you see flaming balls of gas or you see the handiwork of God.
Diana makes the point persuasively in asking why must we accept this binary position? Why can’t we see the divine in the sky and accept the findings of cosmology?
Why can’t we accept evolution and the value of Scripture? Or the fact that the ultimate reality of God is unknowable and we humans have a tendency to project ourselves onto God, but yet the divine is very real for those who experience it?
For me, that podcast has given me a lot to think about, but I can confidently say that from now on I will approach the question of belief and faith more from considering what and who I love and hold dear, rather than if I agree with truth claims.
This, I think, is honoring of the nature and message of Jesus as described in Scripture. And it is also a way towards a more humble, and open-minded role for Christianity in the 21st century.
One thing is for sure, for the moment I’m done with the debate between theism and atheism. Both sides have good points, but what really matters is living the one and only life we know for sure that we have.