Belief is a funny thing.
We cling to it. Put our faith in it.
Use it to define our day to day – to make sense of our world.
What we believe is so intrinsically linked to who we ARE that there’s often no separating the two.
Belief defines us. It governs how we see each other, how we experience the world, what we consider right and wrong.
Growing up, my church had 11 doctrines. Each one started with “We Believe” – and they were the basis for our whole denomination – and consequently, my whole world. One of the first things I remember reading independently were the doctrines, listed in the back of the hymnals in the pews. My first doctrine lesson was at 6 years old.
I remember my Jr Soldier teacher saying to us, as we sat there eating our animal crackers during junior church, that if we knew what we believed, we would always know how to act and what to do. Having beliefs, she said, was the most important part of living as a good Christian [outside of salvation, of course].
I took her words to heart. By age 7, I could recite all 11 doctrines. By age 12, I was an honor Junior Soldier, ready to win the world for Jesus, and at 14, I knew that I believed being an officer/preacher was the highest calling, and was absolutely what I was supposed to do with my life – so I lived accordingly.
Believing meant adhering to all sorts of standards – no secular music, no dancing, no sexy clothing, no swearing, reading my bible all the way through every calendar year, devotions every morning, participating in the church as much as possible, trying to win others to Christ. I even had a bumper sticker that was taped to my dresser mirror that said, “God said it, I believe it, That settles it.”
Belief was paramount.
What you believed – that was the most important thing you could ever assert.
At the same time I was diving headlong into theology books and looking into Christian Universities with the best programs, I also had an amazing teacher at my public high school. She taught English, and pretty much single-handedly taught me everything I know about being a good writer.
I ADORED HER.
Correction: I ADORE HER. Present tense. She’s still part of my life, almost 25 years later, and I STILL adore her. But that’s a story for a different day.
She taught me about succinct, strong writing, and one of the things she drilled into my head was that using the words “I Believe” weakened the tone of the sentence/paragraph/paper, and that it was to be avoided at all costs.
I didn’t understand this concept, and fought her on it repeatedly, especially since my beliefs were so ingrained into my own heart and mind as facts. I argued this point with her before school one day, and she quietly put her pen down, looked across her desk at me, and said, “Chris, you should never beliefs with facts. They are not always one in the same.”
I didn’t understand.
“If you say ‘I believe’, you leave room for doubt, because it’s being presented as nothing more than a belief or opinion. Which one is more convincing – I believe the sky is blue, or the sky is blue?”
I got it.
Or at least I thought I did.
From that day on, I never used the words “I believe” in my writing again. I wanted my writing to be strong – my beliefs to stand confidently on their own.
I decided that if I were to believe in something, I had to believe fully – it had to be FACT – for it to have any validity – so I believed as hard as I could, in every area of my life….especially my spirituality.
And that worked, I guess, for a long time. Until I started to realize the mental gymnastics I was doing to justify my beliefs no longer measured up to the facts that were staring me in the face.
I didn’t ‘stop believing’ overnight.
It was more like a slow wakng up.
I’d read bible stories and start thinking just how fucked up some of them were. Started noticing behaviors and patterns of action and reaction that were really disturbing, and frankly, abusive. One day, I was reading the story of Abraham getting ready to sacrifice Isaac, and something broke inside me. I literally threw my bible across the room and yelled “THIS IS SO FUCKED UP! WHAT KIND OF MONSTER ASKS THAT OF SOMEONE AS A FUCKING TEST OF LOYALTY?!?!” I tried hard to go through the apologetics I’d studied so long, making mental note of time period, the allegory, the, the, the….UTTER FUCKING BARBARISM OF IT.
I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t find a way to justify condoning such an abhorrent, manipulative, abusive narrative any more.
If we were talking about humans, it would be considered unacceptable in every way – there would be NOTHING redeeming about traumatizing a child like that, just to prove loyalty to another person, SO WHY IS IT OKAY WHEN THERE’S A DIETY INVOLVED?!?!?!
Why is emotional manipulation in the name of religion okay, when it isn’t in a friendship or a spousal relationship? Why are we still justifying the barbarism of bronze age fairy tales that objectify women, devalue children, and perpetuate systemic emotional and sometimes physical abuse?
I slowly stopped believing…first in the doctrines, then the bible, then god.
About a year ago, my pastor at the Unitarian church [yep, I still go to church – but not a Christian church] asked me, in one of our many therapeutic conversations, what I believed NOW, compared to what I believed then.
My answer was “I don’t know.”
I wasn’t ready to say out loud that I no longer believe in a diety, or a book of what I now consider bronze-age fairy tales.
I don’t know felt safer somehow. Like, if I said it out loud, it would be fact.
But then I thought about my teacher – the one who taught me to write, who told me not confuse belief with fact.
Slowly, I’ve developed a new set of beliefs.
And they’re just that – beliefs.
I call it my “theology of the I don’t know.”
There isn’t much I’m certain of these days, and that’s okay. I don’t need to be certain to believe.
I may not believe in god anymore, but here’s what I do believe –
I believe in kindness
That everyone is valuable
That I am enough
that I don’t need religion to be a good person
that as long as the sun rises, there’s hope
That I might not know what, if anything, is out there
I believe that i finally understand her lesson…
I’m not certain
And that’s okay.