Love and Belief

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re a part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

–Fred Rogers

The same applies to beliefs generally. Feelings and beliefs are closely linked. Belief is something we find ourselves in the midst of, not something we freely chose among genuine options. Unbelief isn’t quite the same–it’s not that we stop believing in particular things per se but that prior beliefs are gradually or even sometimes suddenly replaced by new beliefs that aren’t compatible with the former beliefs.

Yet this isn’t something that we consciously do. We can’t will ourselves to believe something we don’t believe, or disbelieve something that we do. One can no more choose to believe or disbelieve any proposition about the world (not just religious propositions) than one can choose a sexual orientation. Yet the judgments that surround beliefs are often harsh and unmerciful and the reason for that is that they are tied to intent. We can’t be guilty of something we did not intend to do, yet negative judgments of both the faithful and formerly faithful are often contingent on the perception that people maliciously or lazily or naively choose to believe this or that. Or, just as common, certain people insist that we haven’t correctly applied a supposedly universal formula that is supposed to produce “acceptable” belief, and when shared conviction is not the result, they look to find fault with those who couldn’t produce the results, not with the formula itself.

There are, however, probably two things we are more or less “free” to do, and it’s interesting how we cannot avoid that question under any circumstance–what we can choose or fail to choose. Human beings are anxious to the point of crippling disability when it comes to choice and freedom. We must know in what ways we are free, and not knowing that is both unthinkable and unacceptable.

In any case, the first thing is that we can take responsibility for exploring, describing, and fine-tuning what it means to believe what we believe (even and maybe especially when it comes to new beliefs that have displaced former ones). In other words, like Mr. Rogers suggests, we can figure out what we can constructively do (or what we shouldn’t do) with our beliefs. This includes the willingness to be in dialogue with and listen to others describe their ways of believing or not believing, and a cultivation of an awareness of the givenness and unchosenness of belief. The second thing is that hope, unlike belief, is something we can will, something we can have (some) power over. We can hope for what we cannot see and what we cannot believe. In other words, we can be honest that X or Y are not something we feel we believe but that nevertheless we hope that they could be true. We can hope for a different or better world and take steps to realize that hope. Most of all, we can hope for love and reconciliation even when we cannot all believe the same. But even here there are limitations. We cannot will a desire to hope. We cannot desire to desire if we don’t desire. We can’t manufacture hope out of nothing, even if the hope is a hope for nothingness.

We need to be more merciful towards others and ourselves with regard to belief. Belief is the lightest thing in the world. We usually find ourselves believing what our loved ones believe, and when we fall out of one belief and into another it’s again because of the love of others and we find ourselves believing what they believe (sometimes precisely because they loved us when others did not). We almost always believe what those who love us believe. Even those who have encounters with the divine receive belief as an unwilled gift, no different than the gift of belief we receive from communities of people who love us, where we call home.

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