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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Faith & Belief

How many times have we said, I believe, in asserting what is a closely held opinion, whether or not we have any first-hand knowledge or evidence to sustain that belief. I am not talking here about faith—a very special form of belief that transcends the tests we should apply to our opinions. Faith, by definition comes down to a matter of intuition, something beyond feeling or intellect. I use the word intuition in the sense our ancestors understood it—a deeply experienced transformative understanding drawn from life itself. While we may hold all manner of beliefs throughout our lives, they are subject to change as life experiences and information persuade us. Genuine faith is a self actualizing belief, however, it requires only our reason and conviction.

Opinion on the other hand is a hypothesis, and if we are honest with ourselves should never be permitted to remain untested by our knowledge and experiences. Contradictions are warning signs we need to observe—a telltale that there may be a flaw in our thinking. You might ask why? Well, intellectual integrity is certainly one reason however abstract that may seem. But beyond such reasoning, we owe ourselves a test whenever the integrity of our beliefs is in question. What we believe dictates how we behave, towards others, our loved ones and even how we feel about ourselves.

It is not uncommon to reject such tests—to sustain a belief not simply in spite of evidence to the contrary, but sometimes in complete dissonance with what we know to be true. This kind of cognitive dis-association strains the psyche, often with unhealthy consequences. If it is true that we are personally responsible for our actions, the beliefs on which they are based must then held to the highest standard. How else can we be assured that we are acting as we should? But being human, we have an infinite capacity to suspend judgement of ourselves, to permit those things that are discordant with what we wish or have been taught to believe to remain in suspension secured behind denial.

There is also a mistaken conviction that we should never challenge our own judgement, never permit the unpleasant introduction of new information to alter our closely held beliefs. Ignorance and faith are contradictory—true wisdom acknowledges the limits of human knowledge and understanding and history paints us a vivid picture of the ignorance of our past until challenged. It would be hubris in the extreme to assume that our understanding, at any point in our own lives much less that of all humanity, is complete much less infallible.

Our beliefs after all arise from lessons taught and observed, whether delivered by a parent, teacher, priest, or anyone else of consequence in our lives. There is and should not be anything about such lessons that is either unassailable, or necessarily true on its face. If we have been taught well, we learn early on that what we see and hear is not always what it seems and it should follow that all we experience should be tested to see if it is coherent with what we think we know and with our experience of life. That is, we should not seek to conform what we see or hear but compare and contrast it with what we have personally observed, felt, and intuited. We should also acknowledge that all our beliefs are the product of a frame of reference, change the frame and they cannot sustain. If our beliefs don’t hang together, we should ask why not? This is the basis of critical thinking, a much maligned facility, perhaps the most feared by those who see education as an enemy, especially those who tout religious dogma as the source of all wisdom.

Fundamentalist Christians in particular forget or intentionally mislead followers into beliefs about Jesus and what he said, spoke and did—but the scripture they are quick to contort into support for their words tells us he was a rabbi, a teacher. And we might be reminded that he taught, not through speeches but through lessons and parables. His lessons were not appeals but observations based on what people already knew from their own personal experience and what they understood from their daily lives. Jesus did not speak in abstractions or from doctrine, as did the Sadducees and Pharisees. He used parables not to hide his meaning but rather to ground his words in terms that were accessible to his audience. He did this so that people could test his words against their own experience, to come to belief out of critical thought rather than its rejection. That should be all the lesson we need to find suspect anyone who claims truth without evidence, who claims that they alone possess wisdom, and cites opaque scripture subject to their interpretation as a basis for belief.

We are inundated with information today, some manufactured some real but all subject to question as a prelude to acceptance. The conviction of the speaker should hold no sway over us, in fact it should sharpen our minds and prompt us to ask if what we are hearing or reading seems true because it is what we want to believe or is based on some objective reality, the integrity of which can be demonstrated. It may seem laughable when conspiracists suggest the earth is flat, as an example. That is a belief based on ignorance and readily disproved with basic science. But when shown proof that it is untrue, denying the proof because it does not fit the narrative is fantasy. It is the same with those who conflate faith with belief, who see knowledge as an enemy and not a tool for understanding.

In his book, Mere Christianity, the great Christian apologetics writer C.S. Lewis had this to say about his own journey to faith: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” Lewis did not come to faith out of dogma but out of reason, and through observation. He found God by asking where the values and convictions common to us all came from. Faith is a lens, it should sharpen and not obfuscate and cause us to unceasingly question our life's meaning.

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