Guest post by Jonnie Russell.
In a recent TNT podcast, new HBC correspondent Mickey Jones brought up two things that stimulated this post: she called for more inter-deacon exchange and, in discussing infallibility, she mentioned the anxiety-invoking phenomena of belief statements many a religious community holds dearly to. This perked an interest of mine in the nature of religious belief. Particularly, the language of assenting to certain propositions (an admittedly dry way of putting it) or choosing to believe (whether one ‘feels led’ or not) seems to create an anxiety in us, a confusing mystical shroud around ‘religious’ belief that is so fundamentally at odds with how we experience belief in our daily lives. Here are a couple thoughts that are helping me rethink what beliefs are and why religious communities often get them so wrong.
Years ago, I remember sitting in a lecture on the philosopher Edmund Husserl with the late Dallas Willard where he made the poignant comment that belief in God is more like belief in your car than one thinks. His point was that beliefs are dispositions to act—ways we’ve been formed into and find ourselves. This is the dispositional model of belief as opposed to the assertive model (things we assert or profess). Imagine the case of the car. Did you ever “choose” to trust your car or believe that its engine would safely take you somewhere rather than explode in your lap? No, you sat in it, anxious at first, wary of the power at your fingertips, and drove it. You tested and explored it and one day found that you trusted it. You found yourself with a disposition to act as if it were trustworthy. You never sat at the wheel, white-knuckled and willful, and made a decision to believe and put your trust in it.
Take the case of belief in parents. Did we choose to believe in who they were, in their love and support (or the inverse)? We cannot point to the beliefs in these cases as ‘discrete things’ that we chose. They don’t really feel like things in our head that can be identified at all (more on this later). While both of the cases are admittedly mundane (intentionally) and clearly focusing on beliefs of a certain kind, I think they aptly point out why belief in the religious context is presented in such an alienating way that produces anxiety and confusion.
In an odd way, religious belief is often couched in completely different terms. Alter calls, belief statements, and doctrinal confessions, all present belief in these ultimate questions as matters of assent. The anxiety, the alienation from our normal belief contexts, is manifest in that we somehow feel we are supposed to will these kinds of beliefs—that they are distinct things, or propositions ‘in our mind,’ that we can point to and say, “yep, I believe that.” We’re ripped from real life, and called to the mat with a choice like no other in life. This is a context ripe for self-deception. We pretend we can choose.
Second thought: Religious belief just ain’t in the head.
The common conception of the mental life (our beliefs, hopes, etc.) has been deeply shaped by the philosopher Descartes (and arguably Augustine) as a theater inside our head, or mind. Indeed, philosophers have been trying to get out from this inner self ever since.
If there’s anything concretely interesting about discussions between philosophy and neuroscience, I think it’s insights that help us rethink the mind as a fundamentally active, social, and outside-the-head thing. On this model, called embodied cognition, beliefs aren’t states of the brain or mind we can examine, but action tendencies literally patterned into our brains and bodies through our constant action in our word. The very shape of our brains (look up “neuroplacticity”) is formed and reformed by our public, physical lives. In essence, there is no “inside” the head where beliefs are. They’re as much in our hands and feet and community as in our head. Sounds weird right? That’s the in-the-head model fighting back.
Beliefs are contextual constraints: dispositions shaped into us by our lives in the world, not things we can point to in our mind or bits of content lodged in the head.
What does all this mean for what Mickey was talking about and how we should think about religious belief?
Here are the beginnings of some thoughts:
Religious communities that lean heavily on conceptions of belief where one wills oneself into belief, where it is understood to be inculcated by some choice or call, will be rightly deconstructed. No doubt, this decision-oriented idea of belief is what creates the puzzling cases where we are sent looking for our beliefs, riddled by the anxiety of putting the question to ourselves, “do I really believe?” This angst, this whole mode of thinking, is a product of having gotten belief wrong.
We do not hold our beliefs, but are rather held by them.
We do not get at them in a theater of the mind—they are not there to begin with. In a very real way, they are the work of our hands. We find ourselves with constraints patterned into our action within the world. We find ourselves with beliefs. In this way, the social word is not simply where we ‘live out’ our beliefs, but where they are, in some sense.
This does, after all, seem to be a quite biblical concept. “Truly I tell you, what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me,” can be seen with a new vivacity—an embodied, socialized understanding of what it means to believe. Faith and works are both in our hands. We have no recourse any longer to our heads, an intellectualized internal model of belief. At the very least, we can transfer that angst to something more productive, something outside our heads and in the world.
Jonnie Russell has a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary where he focused on philosophical theology & was a founding member & guitar player in the band Cold War Kids from 2005-2011. Stephen Keating recently got him to start a twitter account and he wants more friends to follow @JBoRussell