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It's A-Week again, which means my FaceBook page is covered in litle stylized A's. That has me thinking about the topic of atheism, and so a few days, I finally read Bertrand Russell's famous "Why I Am Not a Christian" speech.

He defines Christians as people who have a certain set f beliefs - that God exists, that you'll survive your death, tat Christ is a sort of moral exemplar if not God-in-man. It's not the specifics that bother me, it's the whole idea of a category of beliefs. Here's my problem: I'd say before a belief has any hope of being true it must be understood by the person that believes it. I cannot have a true belief that all biltrices are nargles until I know what a biltrix and a nargle is. But this is just what traditional Christianity denies - that (a) God can be broken down into parts, and (b) that God's essence [the undifferentiated core of what He is, as opposed to His relationships to others] is beyond my ability to understand it. The problem isn't that the beliefs are unproven or untestable; it's that the subject matter doesn't really sort into beliefs at all.

Yes, Christians had creeds. But historically those creeds came about when one group wanted to expel another. Jesus IIRC only taught the "Our Father," and that was all about the relationship of God to us, not God per se. I'd be more comfortable talking about religious traditions not as a checklist of phrases you have to agree to but as a methodology, a toolkit for exploring something that's really above all our pay-grades. I mean, have you actually read the Nicene Creed? How the heck can you be both "eternally begotten of the Father" and at the same time "of one Being with the Father"? You can't be begotten out of something that's also the same thing as you. I have to imagine that 99.9% of the people sitting in the pews - even most of your parish priests - don't understand what those words, or just what it is about the Holy Spirit "who proceeds from the Father and the Son" that differentiates the RCC from, say, the Eastern Christians? It's easy to nod your head to things you don't really understand, but it's hardly the case that you believe them.

So I'm leaning more and more to saying Russell was wrong here, that the Fundamentalists and anyone who wnts to use doxology to say "you're one of us, but you over there, you're not" is barking up the wrong tree. I want to say that there's still a brain state worth thinking about: of faith, the conviction that what I am able to grasp isn't all there is to experience. But that also feels a bit like a Hail mary - to say something does the work beliefs normally wouldn't, but isn't subect to the same needs to justify the belief.

I'd appreciae some opinions. Is religion all about belief, or is there something else going on?

(I've had about five hours of sleep since Saturday night and I am seriously sleep-deprived. Am going to crash now. Even if I don't reply, though, this is something I'm very interested in. (It's one of the things that keeps me up nights, actually. That and BMEM.) But if you have thoughts on this topic, please do make them. Is religion about creeds and beliefs, or is there something else going o? (Or both, or neither...)



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 20th, 2012 08:01 pm (UTC)
Practicing Lutheran here, so bear in mind that I'm going to be coming at this from a completely different wavelength than most.

It can't be just about belief, in the sense of who is who, etc.. Even the devil believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God; we have Scriptural evidence of that. The rest might be a conjecture, but I'm fairly sure that the devil also believes that Christ came to earth to become mankind's Substitute who could be perfect (hence the high temptation priority) but still take the punishment for our imperfections. That doesn't make the devil a Christian. I'd argue that Christianity enters the picture once you say, "Jesus died for me." So ultimately, the relationship with God has to be there.

With that said, I think there have to be some beliefs involved, because even wanting to have a personal relationship with God means you have to know what kind of an entity you're dealing with, as best as our puny little minds understand. Which is why divine revelation is so important, because it's God's way of telling us what He's like and how He wants us to love Him. Then the question is, what constitutes that revelation? A lot of the mysteries of Christianity simply boil down to "God has that He exists from eternity, with no beginning and end. Scripture tells me so, but it makes no sense." Somehow, instead of early believers pulling a Jefferson and excising that because it didn't make sense, that got transformed to "aspects of God are beyond our understanding," which is what has irked some of my atheist friends in the past.

But at the end of the day, which beliefs are necessary? That's where the admonition not to judge comes in. Most church bodies accept that people of a denomination that holds to the divinity of Christ and the Trinity are going to make it into heaven (if that's how we want to accept the definition of a Christian). Hence the chagrin over whether or not Mormons are Christian, since they aren't Trinitarians. But I don't know if that's where the cutoff actually stands.

I think a more clear-cut case is that, if someone thinks that she's been so good God will have to let her in, that's a point where her beliefs, and resulting pride, are interfering with her ability to have a relationship with God. And I think that, ultimately, is the cornerstone for Christianity.

After all, if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Mar. 20th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)

Merriam-Webster defines "belief" this way:

: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
: something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

and it defines "faith" this way:

a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

But somehow I don't think either of these sets of definitions quite hit the point, although I am relieved that they are not considered synonyms.

I feel very strongly that religion is often about tenets or belief in creeds, but that faith is something somehow separate and above religion. Yet I am not sure that I can explain why I feel this way.

I know that I can believe quite firmly in a creed: to me, the Apostle's Creed is an excellent summation of the things I believe are most essential about Christianity. And yet I could be a Christian if I never heard of that creed, so long as I had faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour.

Hebrews 11:1 has the Biblical definition of faith:

1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Of course, we then have to decide what "substance" is, and what sort of "evidence" there is of things not seen.
Mar. 20th, 2012 11:28 pm (UTC)
Creeds worry me and I won't say them. I don't think you can ever pin down.I find faith more of a feeling than a set of beliefs.
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