Believe in = Embrace the Mystery of

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.

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Yewtree

    If one embraced the mystery, why would one need a creed? (Just sayin’.)

    I do like the idea of recasting belief as something more mystical and agnostic though. But you’ll need to emphasise that mystery is an experiential process or initiatory experience and not a secret or an absence of knowledge.

  • Shadwynn


    Interestingly, what you described as “belief” I would see more as “faith.” But then again, we are dealing with semantics in a language with ever-changing patterns of nuance. It is my experience that more and more people tend to see the word “belief” as descriptive of an intellectual assent to certain dogmatic propositions (especially in a religious context).

    Your recommendation of the phrase “embracing the Mystery” is spot on! Many of your sentiments were captured in a poem of mine which appeared in the September 1, 2009, issue of online poetry journal Autumn Leaves. It is entitled “The Mystic Yearning” and I reproduce it for you below:

    To embrace the ineffable Essence,
    the Presence and the Paradox,
    the One disguised as many
    in manifold masquerade;

    To apprehend the mystery of divinity,
    deathless, yet dying,
    incarnate in the human condition,
    triumphant through tribulation,
    resurrected and renewing,
    transcending dimensional circumscription
    as inexplicable Epiphany
    ever-present among us;

    To be transformed
    by upward process towards potential,
    a brightly woven tapestry
    upon the loom of life,
    its yarn a colored transfiguration
    from solemn-shaded skeins
    of deadness and despair;

    To be brushed by the Holy Breath of inspiration;
    to discover the commonwealth of the Spirit;
    to acquire the wisdom born of wonder;

    For all these yearnings of the soul
    let us give praise to Providence
    as we walk between the worlds,
    wayfarers in an odyssey of existential exploration,
    our mortal footsteps tracing a pilgrim’s pathway
    along the perilous precipice
    at the edge of eternity
    while we search
    for the Bridge that crosses over.


  • Carl McColman

    It is my experience that more and more people tend to see the word “belief” as descriptive of an intellectual assent to certain dogmatic propositions (especially in a religious context).

    My point exactly. But the creeds all use “believe” rather than “faith,” so that’s the word I’m left to struggle with. And I don’t think the creedal concept of belief is about mere intellectual assent.

    If one embraced the mystery, why would one need a creed? (Just sayin’.)

    Indeed. It’s no secret that the creeds serve a social function as gatekeeping for the boundaries that separate the “one true faith” from all those nasty heretics out there. Meanwhile, a contemplative approach to Christianity-as-wisdom-tradition is annoyingly unconcerned about who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. Just one more reason why mysticism has never gotten much traction in the church institutional.

  • John Anngeister

    Carl, I see your point to Shadwynn, about the choice you made to struggle with word-meanings inherited from creedal statements, but I share his concern that you risk some important things by trying to import into your meaning of ‘belief’ so much that pertains to living ‘faith’ – a move which leaves faith stuck with the very difficult job of being ‘certainty.’

    I think the concept of ‘faith’ needs the help of your powers more than the concept of belief. Make faith vital and active, and belief merely passive, and you do a greater service to all religions, in my view.

    For example, one can entertain a belief that Jesus was born of a virgin (as the creed directs), one can even “embrace the mystery” of this concept in a subjective way, because it represents something that may be true (and may be false). But one cannot actually do anything with this particular belief. I say, if a belief cannot be acted upon, it cannot attain to faith. Therefore the virgin birth can never be the object of faith, but only the object of belief. Maybe that’s why it is in the creed.

    On the other hand, look at a New Testament concept which we don’t find in the creed – that the risen Lord has bestowed a spirit “comforter” upon the world, a spirit of adoption which may be apprehended in prayer and in life. Now this is a belief which I may act upon, verify, realize (or not) in contemplation and action. Therefore it is one of those religious concepts which can be a proper object of faith, and can be truly “embraced” in more than a merely subjective way.

    Hello and thanks for the post, and for the blog. An occasion for reflection this morning.
    I’m new here, but not new to Christian mysticism.

  • Phil Souch

    This is one of those sticky wicket subjects that makes the spiritual journey a never-ending one.

    I’ve worked at confronting the question of whether there is a God (can’t be answered definitively). I’ve worked at confronting the question of whether “the mystery” or “myth” is the result of human imagination, developed as man has evolved (a la Joseph Campbell), which would relegate faith and belief to nothing more than a psychological response to perceived mystery. In the latter case, I found myself running smack into that sense of nihilism you mention.

    As for me, I need the hope of something beyond, and since we have managed to track, examine and share the meanderings of man’s reasonings over thousands of years — identifying some sense of singular truth through much of it — I choose to believe the mystery is good and to therefore, as you suggest, “embrace the mystery.”

    My challenge is to embrace it in such a way that I remember I am only one small part of the larger mystery and perhaps serve as a link in the human chain that allows others to embrace the mystery, too.

    To quote Henri Nouwen, “My deepest vocation is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

  • Jeff

    According to my Young’s Concordance the Greek word for “believe” means “to trust in, rely on, and adhere to” and that the English word “faith” is a translation of the noun form of the Greek word for believe. When I think about why I “trust in, rely on and adhere to” the Triune God of Christianity I think of a compost heap. I have a number of reasons to believe peculiar to my life and experience that have piled up over the years and created faith – childhood exposure to Bible stories, a general cultural backdrop of Christianity, arguments for the validity of the New Testament record, various spiritual experiences and perceptions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, answers to prayers, the witness of several genuine healing miracles of people close to me – with clear medical records of the before and after- for instance the technician who ran the scan that showed my wife’s heart had been healed of several incurable conditions when he saw the results literally jumped in joy, announced he was a back slidden Christian and asked my wife what was a good church to attend! My wife had been told to have no more children beyond the two we had already to ensure she would be alive to raise them. After the healing I had my vasectomy reversed and we had three more children. Another reason I have for faith is the availability of God’s comfort and peace to me in prayer. For me faith is not a leap in the dark, but usually is a leap to the light I know is there. At times difficult circumstances, the problems found in this world at large, and my own struggles and inner problems obscure the light of Christ and I can get frustrated and have doubts, but as I keep speaking to the Lord Jesus or the Father the comfort of the Holy Spirit always comes and my ship that is leaning over rights itself. I’ve learned to count on this, but I can still forget the simplicity of lifting up my soul to God and talking to him like David did in Psalms.

  • Stefan Andre Waligur

    Yes. I think one good way to enter the dialogue is by a living demonstration of ” belief” in loving, trusting relationships…a parable of community…a post-modern invitation to loving the sacred. “Come and see…” is always a good conversation starter.

  • Joe Rawls

    I like the whole idea of “Pascal’s Wager”, the notion that belief is what you’re willing to bet on. A bit inelegant, maybe, but it works for me.

  • Harmony Isle

    Last year I had the privilege of hearing Cynthia Bourgeault speak at a local church, and someone in the audience asked her about the Nicene creed–I don’t remember the exact question, but it was based on a reluctance to recite the creed. Cynthia said she relates to the creed as a sort of love poetry. I found that comparison very liberating. On the one hand, of course it stemmed from a very political debate, and became a tool for domination– but somewhere underneath, lies a pure passion, a desire to understand, connect with, and tune our will to the divine. A common story, and a common passion, are what bind us through the ages to the first folks who called themselves Christians. We take our Christian myth too literally, and too seriously, sapping it of the mystery and domesticating the passion.

  • Jeff

    One of my sons went through a faith (trust?) struggle in his early twenties. He stated he no longer believed in the classic Jesus Resurrected Son of God and Savior, at times he would get quite ugly about it, but at times he would wistfully admit it was nonetheless a beautiful story. He eventually resolved his issues and now trusts in Christ and displays in his living room a drawing of Jesus made by his Grandmother based on a series of visions my son had of the Lord as a child. He first saw just the Lord’s feet, later up to the Lord’s knees and finally a vision of Christ who had his hands lowered by his sides in a position of blessing with his palms facing out. My son saw only up to the Lord’s elbows.The visions then ceased. At the time we took it to mean his final revelation of Christ’s face would be in eternity. His Grandmother rendered a picture of that final revelation showing the complete Jesus in his glory. As you can see from this story, seeing is not necessarily believing! Though it may be a help to some. Currently a good proportion of people from people from a Islamic background who convert to Christianity do so because of a visionary experience of Jesus, perhaps this happens to give them the strength to endure the persecution and ill treatment that often ensues because of their change in faith.

  • Kristi

    This is so profound and makes perfect sense to me. I was trying to explain a similar way of thinking to a friend of mine, but I was much less articulate than you and struggled to present it in a way that was helpful. This clarifies things immensely. Thank you.