Faith and Belief

This is the third of a 4-part interview of me by Dr. Jackie Stinton – a psychologist and spiritual director who lives in Calgary. Watch for the final instalment of this wide-ranging interview to be published here later in 2016.

Jackie:   David, I would like to talk about faith and beliefs because many of us find it challenging to integrate these things. What distinction do you make between them?

David:   Although they are related, faith and beliefs are quite different things. Belief is conviction of the trustworthiness of a proposition. Beliefs are construals –a synthesis of thought that we accept as the truth about something or someone. Faith, on the other hand, can never be reduced to beliefs or thoughts. In its essence, faith is trust. From my point of view it is faith that is important. Beliefs are often simply objects of attachment that provide a misleading sense of certainty.

Jackie:   Before we get to trust, say a little more about how beliefs can involve a misleading sense of certainty.

David:   Beliefs form as we try to make sense of life. In their natural development they might start as assumptions, then become working hypotheses, then take the form of tentative convictions and finally emerge as certainties. What pushes this forward is our need to manage the anxiety that naturally arises in the face of the complexity of life. I think this is the primary function of beliefs and certainly seems to me to be what is going on when we attach strongly to them. When I speak of a misleading sense of certainty what I am suggesting is that the certainty associated with firmly held absolute beliefs distances the person holding beliefs this way from the appropriate anxiety of living they would otherwise experience – that is, from the anxiety of simply being human. This in turn keeps them from the maturing influence of a more creative engagement with the underlying existential anxiety.

Jackie:   So, in spiritual terms, our existential anxiety makes us latch onto beliefs about God which reduce our anxiety as they give us a sense of security.

David:   Yes, that is what I am suggesting. The primary way in which beliefs give us security is through a sense of certainty. Our need for certainty arises from the uncertainties of life and the anxiety associated with this pushes our ideas and thoughts toward beliefs because of the certainty and simplification they provide. The other thing that is involved, of course, is the notion of truth. Perhaps this is the dividing line between beliefs and tentatively held working assumptions. Beliefs are construals that we consider to be indisputable truth.

I think we confuse things when we treat beliefs as truth because, at least in terms of religious beliefs, there is absolutely no way to confirm or disconfirm those assumptions. This is why I prefer to talk about trust rather than beliefs. I trust God with the full weight of my life, but it is God I trust, not my ideas about God. Once we back away from beliefs as truth claims we can hold our construals and understandings with humility. On this and many other matters I stand with the mystics more than the dogmatists, the mystics rather universally warning us of the foolishness of assuming that words and thoughts can contain Ultimate Mystery. I love the way the Sufi mystical poet, Hafiz puts this:

 

I have a thousand brilliant lies for the question: How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies for the question: What is God?
If you think that the Truth can be known from words
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing – Now!

 

It makes me laugh to think of how hard I worked for so long to try and reduce truth to propositions that I could frame in a way that actually contained truth. It makes me laugh!

Jackie:   What do you see as a “more creative engagement” with the underlying anxiety?

David:   A more creative engagement would be to live with the humility of holding construals about matters of faith lightly. There is no Christian doctrine expressed in the major creeds of our faith that I dis-believe. I can understand what these statements mean and I can affirm their value and the role they have played in shaping the Christian tradition. But rather than understand them as statements of truth I treat them as provisional understandings of mysteries, understandings that will always fail to capture the truth to which they at best point and which, therefore, should continue to evolve.

Jackie:   Let’s go back to trust. Tell me more about the connection between faith and trust, and how this impacts our underlying existential anxiety.

David:   Trust is the dynamic core of faith and an essential plank in living life courageously in the face of the inescapable freedom and anxiety that comes with being human. But that’s a bit too abstract for something that is, in reality, very personal. So let me speak of it in more personal terms.

I was blessed to grow up in a family of strong faith-as-trust and quickly absorbed my parent’s deep-seated confidence in the absolute trustworthiness of God. Our home was saturated with this trust. My parents talked often about their deep trust in God. Daily I would hear of their gratitude to God for blessings. This was the primary way in which I came to know the source of their hope and trust. But they also often spoke of God’s will and it was clear that this was not something that they had to do but a place of being that gave them great comfort. They taught my brother and me that being in God’s will was a place where, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all would be well and all manner of things would be well. Their sense of the trustworthiness of God became mine. I can never remember a time when I didn’t trust God. That trust has always been rock solid. And it had very little to do with beliefs. Beliefs came later and the most important of them grew out of this basic trust. But beliefs have never been the foundation of this core sense of trust that is the essence of my faith.

Jackie:   What do you mean by “trust God”?

David:   As a child, trust is simple. Children seem naturally to trust until they discover that those they trust are often untrustworthy. For children, trusting God is an extension of trusting parents. If parents or other significant adults are not experienced as safe and dependable, no one else will be. But if they are, trust is natural.

Trusting God did not have much content for me as a child. I don’t think it usually does. Adults complicate trust – and by extension faith – when we begin to add a lot of content. We do this when we begin to specify what benefits or guarantees we think we can count on as a result of our trust. I simply assumed that, like my parents, God had my best interests at heart. I still do. I did not think that this meant that I would never be hurt or disappointed. My parents remained caring and supportive when I experienced unwelcome things and through that I came to trust that God’s care and support were equally dependable.

Jackie: You were blessed to have a strong family foundation where you both heard and saw lives lived out in trust of God, and in confidence of what appears to be the goodness of his will. But what do you say to those who find it difficult to trust God, and see his will as onerous, joy-defeating, and controlling?

David:   Let me start with what I would not do. I would not try to convince such a person that God is different than they envisage. That is, I would not approach this as a matter of faith as beliefs. I would approach it as a matter of trust. What I would do is encourage them to notice and reflect on their sense of trust – on what or who they trust or don’t trust and how each makes them feel. Trust is fundamental to life. I’d take the whole discussion out of a religious context and move it from a discussion of beliefs to a discussion of trust. Without trust, human development grinds to a halt so finding a basis for trust is essential to human well-being.

Jackie:   That certainly conveys a sense of relief as it brings the matter back to the person learning to trust their human experience. But how do we live in deep relationship with God if we know we have faith but we question beliefs that typically are defined as ‘having faith’?

David:   The short answer is we adjust our ideas about God and loosen our attachment to the ones we have. Generally, both of these things happen at the same time as our ideas of God change in the way that is necessary for faith to mature. But, let me say again that faith is not reducible to beliefs. I simply reject the notion that faith in God involves believing certain things about God. Faith will always have some cognitive content. For example, I have certain ideas, thoughts, working assumptions about the nature of the God I trust. But faith is not so much those ideas as how I hold them. And this is the dimension of faith that I am pointing to when I suggest that mature faith involves softening our attachment to our ideas. It involves holding our theology (which is just a fancy name for our ideas, thoughts and convictions) with humility. This is what makes it possible for those gently held current construals to evolve as our faith (understood as our trust) deepens.

But, let’s be honest. The reason this is hard is that so many churches and Christian teachers offer a form of Christianity that is based on indoctrination rather than healthy, mature and maturing faith. When you ask about the challenge of dealing with “accepted beliefs that are defined as having faith” you are talking about indoctrination. This is a cultic dynamic that is not only destructive to genuine faith but a great impediment to psychospiritual health and well-being. This has had a disastrous consequence not only on the spiritual development of those who, for one reason or another, have remained in environments that stress belief but also that it has served as a serious impediment to their journey toward wholeness and maturity. Rather than empowering their development it infantilizes; it keeps them dependent on the authorities that tell them how to think. It keeps them in a mind-based level of consciousness, identity and development.

Jackie:   This rings so true, and is certainly what many of us on the journey of faith experience. But how do we know that we are on the ‘true path’ toward wholeness when it seems we are bookended by rigid indoctrination and limitless persuasions?

David:   We don’t. There are very few if any things that humans can be certain about other than the inevitability of death, loss and suffering. Certainty may be possible for God but it certainly is not for humans. That is why the Christian spiritual journey is described in Scriptures as a journey of faith, not a journey of certainty. Faith is the creative response to existential anxiety. It is trust that allows us to live and to live fiercely without denying the realities of our existence.

Jackie: How have you been shaped by your faith and belief systems?

David:   My faith has been an incredibly important foundation of my development as a human. My beliefs have had no significant shaping influence in that journey. That is why I often say that beliefs are over-rated. I simply don’t think they are formative, nor do I think they are important. I don’t have a single belief about God that I’d die for. I have long viewed my beliefs to be simply working hypotheses, or provisional construals. I expect them to change and evolve. How could they not if I am changing and evolving? This is why I say that any commitment or constraining influence that blocks the evolution of our ideas about God blocks our growth and development as a human. It also limits any possibility of our transformation.

My trust in God has deepened as my trust in my ability to understand and contain the ultimate mystery that I name as God has lessened. My faith in God is stronger than it has ever been in my life, but my understanding of what the word “God” points to is held with ever-increasing humility as it continues to evolve. My faith is no longer the content of a religious part of my life; it is the central dynamic of my being. It is not something I hold; it is that which holds me. That is why I say that my faith is not reducible to a set of beliefs that I am convinced are “correct” or that I would defend or die for. I am held by the God who is beyond belief (that is, the God who is unimaginably beyond the ability of being grasped by thoughts and construals) but who is not beyond the possibility of being known.

Jackie:   I really like the distinction you make between faith being limited to a single part of your life and faith being the core of your life. And that rather than being a static content, faith is an evolving dynamic. That, to me, allows the faith journey to be one of openness, anticipation, and welcoming watchfulness. Perhaps this is why your trust in God has deepened as your trust in your own understanding has lessened.

David:   I think it is. As you say, trust allows us to live with openness, anticipation and watchfulness. It does this because it facilitates awakening. And this is why faith as trust is so fundamental to any transformational spiritual journey.

Jackie:   What are some of the significant changes you have experienced in your faith and beliefs, and how have these arisen?

David:   My faith hasn’t changed – only deepened. That process has been incremental and only in one case involved enough angst to be worth calling a crisis of faith. The way in which my beliefs have changed has been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Jackie:   Can you give me an example of a belief that has changed?

David:   A good example might be my beliefs about the nature of Scriptures although I think of it more in terms of a shift in my understanding of Scriptures. The evangelical tradition that shaped my early years offered me a view of Scriptures that made them functionally a paper pope. Roman Catholics have a human pope who was the ultimate authority on the details of how to live and evangelicals have a paper version that they treat in the same way – something that is considered absolutely trustworthy and without error, something that has, therefore, to be believed in every detail if you are to be a true Christian. So, I grew up believing that Scriptures were inspired by God (although exactly what that meant was never too clear to me) and without errors in all matters that they addressed. This made them, if not an authoritative text on carpentry or accounting, an unquestionably authoritative text on theology, morality, science, and a few other fields of knowledge like psychology and ethics.

My questions about this were more intellectual than matters of faith. That is, I wasn’t doubting God as I became increasingly convinced that non-critical acceptance of a literal reading of Scriptures represented a naive hermeneutic, I was simply finding ways to better make sense of what is involved in interpreting a humanly composed and edited work of literature. I remain quite prepared to accept some sort of divine shaping of that process. But, it remains a human creation, a work of literature that is sacred to Christians. Reading and interpreting it in anything like a responsible manner requires reading it what I would call a critical-literary manner. Literary refers to the fact that I understand the Bible to be not a single book penned by a single author but a collection of many types of literature. Critical means that in order to avoid a naive literal reading of this diverse body of literature we need to bring to it all the critical resources of our minds; the wisdom of science; the best available non-doctrinal, academic Biblical scholarship; the richness of Christian tradition; the perspectives of other traditions (the Bible forming a part of the legacy of the world’s wisdom tradition – that is, the great global conversation throughout history about the relationship of human beings to ultimate reality); and our own experience.

I believe that to be Christian is to be shaped by a continuing conversation with the collection of texts that we call the Bible. I do not, however, believe that reading them literally or factually is the best way to conduct this conversation as it has the unfortunate consequence of keeping the reader at an immature level of faith development. Not surprisingly, my movement from a factual-literal reading to a critical-literary has led to lots of tweaking of specific beliefs and huge changes in how I believe – that is, how attached I am to my beliefs – but that has, as I have said, only strengthened my faith.

Jackie:   How can we start to become more critical-literary in our reading and interpreting Scriptures?

David:   It comes back to the question of whether we understand faith as beliefs or trust. If faith is a matter of beliefs, reason will often be the enemy because many religious beliefs seem, at least at a literal level, quite unreasonable. Science and non-doctrinal, academic Biblical scholarship will also easily perceived to be the enemy of faith-as-beliefs. None of these things are a threat to faith-as-trust. The real problem has been our reduction of trust to belief. The consequences of this have been much more pervasive than merely how we approach Scriptures. Much more seriously, this has displaced faith from the center of being and doing and restricted it to the mental sphere of life. It is no wonder that many find such a faith absolutely trivial. And what a tragedy that is! Faith-as-trust is the foundation of human development and movement toward wholeness. Faith-as-beliefs is at best a serious distraction from this journey of human becoming and at worst, a serious impediment to it.