Many years ago, an acquaintance approached me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re having a baby!” And I said something like, “That’s good to know. I hadn’t heard that.” Now having children is really good news. I have three and they have been and remain one of my greatest joys. But on that day I didn’t accept the good news from my acquaintance. I didn’t believe that we were really having baby. I reasoned that my wife would have told me before telling him.
Imagine, though, that I had believed this person because he was my wife’s doctor. I would have said, “We’re going to have another baby?” Then, after they revived me, I would have gone home and kissed my wife and started buying baby furniture and car seats and enrolling for Lamaze classes. We act in accordance with what we believe.
That’s a truth that is difficult for people to face. I recall a presidential candidate from past campaigns. He had a seven-figure income and was constantly spouting platitudes about helping the poor. But when his tax records were made public, it turned out that he had given less to charity than I had. His tax return called his oft-stated convictions into question.
Because we cannot help but act in accordance with our beliefs, every person’s life is a theological statement. Its theology may be confusing and even bizarre, because we are capable of simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, but it will nevertheless be consistent with our beliefs. Whether the beliefs are consistent with reality is another matter altogether.
This principle applies to both personal and public life. Consider, for example, how this principle applies to the public square. From all appearances, the Obama administration has hoped to relegate personal beliefs to private life. It is fine for the family of Hobby Lobby shareholders to have religious beliefs—on Sunday morning. Just don’t let those beliefs dictate operational procedures from Monday to Friday.
Such an approach deeply misunderstands the nature of belief. In fact, it cynically assumes that people don’t really believe what they say they believe. The idea that a people’s deepest beliefs can be banned from the public square contradicts reason and history. It is simply fantasy.
This principle is even more obvious in private life. Take, for example, the man who says, “Going to church is important.” He went to church as a child, sent his own kids when they were children, and can even quote the Bible on the subject: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” But he now rarely goes to church.
What are we to say about such a person? We can say (as might have been said of the candidate whose tax return didn’t match his rhetoric) that he either does not believe what he says he believes or that he holds contradictory beliefs that cancel out his sincere belief.
If the latter of these alternatives – that he holds contradictory beliefs – is true, then he the kind of person St. James had in mind when he wrote, “…he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” Simultaneously held contradictory beliefs will inevitably lead to instability in life and relationships.
The good news is that our belief system is not sealed. It can, and almost certainly will, change. Of course this could also be bad news, if the changes do not bring our beliefs into closer alignment with reality.
Because exposure to new ideas can change our belief system, we ought to be aware of the ideas to which we are being exposed. We must keep in mind that the TV sitcom we’re laughing at expresses a belief system. So does MSNBC and Fox News. And so does the Bible. It is to it that I have turned again and again, not primarily for the comfort it gives but for the reality I find in it – a reality that has stood the test of time and addressed the complexity of life in this world.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/11/2015