Saturday, June 07, 2008

Circumstantial faith?

by Nathan Brown

As a believer—for present purposes, defined simply as one who believes—I have often wondered what and how I would believe differently had I been born into a family and culture with different beliefs. Obviously I believe what I believe because I believe it to include truth but would I have believed in that truth if I had not been raised and taught in the way that I have? Is what I believe so “true” that I can reassure myself that if I had not “inherited” it, I would still have searched for it, found it and embraced it?

Of course, for my belief to be of value to me, I have had to make it my own, not merely “inherit” it. In its own way, this is a kind of conversion—moving from one belief to another—but perhaps a gentler process than many. But how would that process have been different and how would it have changed the way I believe if I had come to the set of beliefs I now hold from a background further removed? Indeed, would—or even could—I have arrived at that set of beliefs?

And perhaps the most difficult decision for believers to accept is when fellow believers choose differently. So what about friends with whom I have shared various aspects of my faith tradition, experience and education but who have chosen to be less committed to it or even chosen other beliefs to pursue? What in their experience or circumstances has made the difference? Not only does it strain the friendship that has existed and had been reinforced by shared belief, it must also critique one’s own belief. Are they less committed and less focused or do they demonstrate greater courage in stepping away from the safe and the assumed? And is my belief somehow diminished without the community support offered by the formerly fellow believer?

These are big questions—or at least key questions behind the big questions of life, the universe and everything. But even the fact we wrestle with such questions points to some kind of existential impulse for something more than we can see or touch. One of the ancient wise men of the Bible suggested that God “has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and, even if we are not ready to acknowledge God as the creator of this human drive, most of us will recognise something like a seed of eternity somewhere in our being.

But my initial string of questions focuses on what causes this seed to sprout and grow in a certain way and at different times in our lives. Let me point out that we are still talking about belief generically and changing or growing from one group of beliefs to another without—for the purposes this reflection—necessarily identifying particular beliefs or addressing their respective merits.

Undoubtedly, life circumstances have an impact on the formation of our belief. Psychologists, life coaches, salespeople and evangelists of all kinds know that when people are going through major life changes they are more open to different ideas and beliefs. A death in the family, moving house, divorce, serious illness, the birth of a child, a change in career—whether planned or forced—and other such circumstances and events can trigger reflection, questions and faith experimentation.

Perhaps almost cynically, some have used these times of searching as opportunities to pitch their formulation of belief to the newly dislocated, recognising that they may “catch” them at a time of greater receptiveness. But these are also occasions when it is appropriate for caring neighbours, family and community members to reach out in support and caring. The key element is authenticity. We should help each other through the difficult times of life and, if we find our beliefs helpful in working through the challenges of life, part of helping is to share what is valuable to us.

But the questions remain. While such life events prompt a response, similar circumstances do not necessarily prompt similar responses. A family tragedy can prompt one believer to cling more tightly to their belief as a source of hope amid sorrow, while another believer enduring a similar grief may abandon their existing belief entirely.

So circumstances are no guarantee of one or another kind of belief. At most, we might argue that faith is circumstantial to each of us individually. But if faith were merely circumstantial in this way, we would need to demonstrate that either conversion or confirmation of belief must be in some way beneficial or positive to the individual. And, at least superficially, this does not seem to be how it works.

Perhaps it often takes such jolts to move us in our belief precisely because change in our belief system is difficult at any time and not always an obviously positive or pleasant experience. Any conversion requires loss. Some existing beliefs, habits or priorities must be given up in the process of embracing something new.

English scholar and writer, C S Lewis, described his midlife conversion as a less-than-joyous event. “That which I most feared had come upon me,” he wrote in his autobiographical Surprised By Joy. “I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Some years later, writing to a friend undergoing a similar experience, he commented, “For whatever people who have never undergone an adult conversion may say, it is a process not without its distresses. Indeed they are the very sign that it is a true initiation. Like learning to swim or to skate, or getting married, or taking up a profession. There are cold shudderings about all these processes” (Letters of C S Lewis). Many people do not describe conversion experiences in such daunting terms but there is a refreshing element of honesty in Lewis’ description.

However, there is a more “natural” process of life changes that also seems to have an influence on the development of belief. Like anything that grows, our lives and faith have seasons—times of growing and resting, sprouting and harvesting, dryness and flood—and these impact on the acceptance or rejection, development or decline of belief. In this way, we recognise something organic in the nature of belief. It is not an automatic process and it is unreasonable and unhealthy to expect unwavering, unchanging belief. At different times in our lives, different aspects of belief will be more important to us and belief rejected at some stages of life may be embraced in other seasons.

And whether belief grows in joyous or reluctant conversion, almost imperceptibly or with great flourish, prompted by a dramatic life event or absorbed as if by osmosis from our family and culture, belief cannot remain as just a set of ideas—good though they may be. It must take some form in our lives. Writer Robert Wuthnow argues that “the quest to know God may arise from existential yearnings, from illness and loneliness, or from moments of wonder about the ultimate mysteries of life. But these vague yearnings and experiences have to take shape. They have to find carriers, vehicles of expression to help people make sense of their feelings” (All in Sync).

And the most common “vehicles” for belief are found in religion in its various forms. Religious community, spiritual practices and mentoring from more experienced believers help us form our vague yearnings into living response. In this sense and at its best, religion pools our common belief, helping each of us grow our piece of “eternity” and providing a foundation to move beyond a faith based merely in our respective and changeable circumstances and seasons. As a believer, I must recognise the value in such aggregations of belief.

As a Christian believer, I believe God is the source and goal of our impulse for belief. I believe He planted eternity in us and “His purpose in all of this was that the nations should seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27, 28). Though usually invisible, I believe He is active and present in our world and our lives, wanting to build a partnership with anyone who—responding to the echoes of eternity—chooses to make the kingdom of God a life priority (see Matthew 6:33).

But that still leaves a lot of my questions unanswered—and perhaps raises more. Apart from acknowledging our freedom to choose, I wonder how and why so many people turn away from Him, even when they seem to know the theory of belief in God—if it really is that “simple.” And I still wonder if I would believe in God in this way if my circumstances of birth, culture, education and life were different.


  1. Nathan posted...

    "And I still wonder if I would believe in God in this way if my circumstances of birth, culture, education and life were different."

    Based on what we observe in the world, more than likely you would. Fortunately we have people who, for many reasons, choose to take a different path than the one given them by birth, culture, and education.

    My choice to go in a different direction of belief was because the belief I was given created a lot of suffering and I was told that this suffering was either because I wasn't believing hard enough or it was the natural result of being a sinful human being.

    What I noticed was that when I stopped trying to believe what I was taught to be true, the suffering stopped. And when I only believed what I knew from experience to be true, my life improved considerably.

    That's all any of us has and within those limitations there are many options, adventures, and challenges. And they all make life incredibly interesting and worth living.

  2. Hi Nathan - I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking ponderings. I have often wondered similarly, and not just in regards to my spirituality, but also my politics, ethnicity and national heritage. For example, I have often wondered what I would be like spiritually if I were born and raised and currently lived in Myanmar. Stuff like that...

    Regardless, it can be easy to lose one's self in such inward thinking (btw, not an accusation...) I love what C.S Lewis wrote into the stories of Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treador. Lucy often wondered what would have happened in certain situations. Aslan's reply was very appropriate to this post:

    "Child,” said Aslan, “did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”

    Perhaps one of the things Jesus tried to teach us is that we are to revel in the joy of living the present reality of Jesus our King.

  3. enjoyed the read.

    i personally do not understand why people turn away from God. when i lived a less than idea spiritual life, my reasonin for turning away was the fact that i lived within the ways of the world. i refused to accept His Word.

    i have to think others emulate my past behavior.

  4. I have just glanced at a few chapters from Muriel Orevillo-Montenegro's book 'The Jesus of Asian Women - Women from the margins'. I find such books helpful - one soon begins to realise that Jesus is not the property of my own culture - if anything our culture often warps our view of Him. And so it goes for the women of Asia - some have found in Jesus entirely different reflections of God from those we are used to in the West.

    I intend once again visiting my own roots - Hinduism - which I left nearly fifty years ago - in a book which I have just ordered - 'Christ across the Ganges - Hindu responses to Jesus'. I think it is useful to explore Jesus in different contexts as it helps us to relate more sympathetically to others who may see Him differently.

    I remember so clearly that day when I stood at the bedside of my guru, who was dying of kidney failure. I had attended his ashram for some three years. He looked up at me and told me that I would eventually find God through Christianity. Quite a few years would go by before I 'fell' into christianity - quite by chance I thought.

    My memory stilll respects Muthray Pillay and all he stood for - he was never a part of my culture so His Jesus was in many ways different to mine - and yet in the essentials Jesus held a very high position in his reckoning.

  5. Great thoughts. Your original question is one I have asked many times.

    I've often heard fellow Adventist friends say that many people of other faiths will be saved. I fully agree. But many of us also put on people of other faiths the expectation that when introduced to the "full truth" they must recognize it and accept it. While this may be a reasonably fair expectation, I think it is just as important, probably even more important that we place this expectation on ourselves.

    If we are open to the idea that there is still the possibility of discovering new "present truth", and that we don't necessarily have everything figured out yet, we certainly must be willing to continuously be challenging and testing our own beliefs. It is definately not possible to do this fairly and thoroughly without being willing to look at the avenues that led us to our current beliefs. Our upbringing must certainly be a part of what is considered.

    It's so easy to want to get all the correct beliefs lined up, put into a book and sealed. But the urge to find definitave truth must not trump the process by which real truth can be found.

    BTW, I was informed about this blog by a couple of friends on completely separate occasions. It's fantastic! Thanks!

  6. Huston Smith, the author of 'The World's Religions', the leading comparative religions textbook for over three decades, is interviewed by Rev Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral.

    Smith is a highly respected and eminently gentle (as well as aged - he is 86 years old but still active) Christian who was born in china of Methodist missionery parents. He speaks of the 'geography' and happenstance of his faith, while at the same time reminding us of the universality of the eight great religion's ethical principles.

    Elsewhere (on the Washington Cathedral website) Huston Smith talks about why he considers Christianity to be unique amongst the world's religions. He is certainly a man who is worth listening to, because he has the experience of wisdom discovered through much reflection as well as a long life.

    When I am faced by the power which lies within such wisdom, intelligence, and finally spirituality I am made aware of how the very narrow view of my faith is truly humbled by a God who is far greater than we sometimes give credence.