I spoke with a friend recently about the concept of belief. We talked about the challenges of believing in the postmodern world. Joni Mitchell sums it up nicely in her song “The Same Situation”:
Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering where it had to go
With heaven full of astronauts
And the Lord on death row…
Much of the contemporary difficulty, I think, comes from the fact that belief has, culturally speaking, come to imply a sort of suppression of rational or cognitive doubt: “I believe in Santa Claus” means I affirm the idea that a man lives in the north pole and distributes presents to children all over the world on Christmas eve (well, he goes to the Netherlands on December 6), never mind all evidence to the contrary. And even if we can allow that “believing in Santa Claus” implies nothing more than accepting the power of Santa as myth or metaphor, as soon as you raise the stakes and start talking about believing in God or believing in Jesus Christ, the waters get muddier and murkier. It’s one thing to believe in Santa-the-myth, but if we start talking about “the mythic Christ,” tempers flare and anxiety levels rise.
Here’s something I wrote way back in the mid 1990s, which appears in my first book, Spirituality:
Even more interesting is the etymology of “belief.” It stems from an Ind0-European word, lubh-, which means “to hold dear” or “to like.” Lubh-, incidentally, is the same ancient root from which love originates. This connection between belief and love suggests that belief has something to do with being in relationship. To believe means to trust and to love. To believe in the Sacred means to love the Sacred — and to be the Sacred’s beloved. To believe in God means to trust, depend on, and rely on God. Belief is not a matter of certainty or lack of doubt. Belief is a matter of emotional openness. Belief grows out of such characteristics of spirituality as willingness and vulnerability.
From the perspective of mysticism or contemplation, perhaps it is best if we lay aside any temptation to link belief with certainty. Perhaps it is the glory of belief that it is awash with unknowing. Not an anti-intellectual, willfully naive unknowing, but a humbler recognition that all human knowledge is suspended over the vast mystery of a cosmos that is beyond our capacity for full understanding. In other words, an unknowing that comes only when we are forced to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge, our perception, our capacity for reason and analysis. We can dissect God, we can prove (or disprove) God’s existence, we can rest painfully in the unanswered questions of theodicy or the mystery of suffering. And then we face a choice. Do we retreat into nihilism and despair, or at best, a nontheistic humanism (which is more or less what so many secularized intellectuals opt for in our culture), or do we, seeking to continue the conversation of our centuries-old wisdom tradition, choose with joyful hope to embrace the mystery?
What if we recast the creed, substituting “embrace the mystery of” for “believe in”? Consider this as a tool for your own spiritual reflection.
We embrace the mystery of one God, the Father, the Almighty.
We embrace the mystery of one Lord, Jesus Christ, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen; the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…
We embrace the mystery of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son)…
We embrace the mystery of one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Maybe this won’t solve all the problems of belief in the postmodern age. But if nothing else, it might open up some new ways of approaching the question of how do we “do” faith in our time, consistent with the calling of contemplative spirituality.