Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserted that doctrinally speaking, a religion is “a set of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended. In the long run your character and your conduct of life depend on your intimate convictions.” (Religion in the Making, 15) Experience is essential to vital spirituality. Experience alone is not enough. As whole persons, our spiritual lives depend on the interplay – hopefully creative and congruent – of head, heart, and hands, each one dynamically shaping the others.
Today, many Christians and seekers, especially young adults, see experience as the heart of spirituality and to some extent they are right. But, experience without a flexible structure of beliefs often ends with how we feel as the sole criterion of religious truth, and forgets that belief is important in shaping both behavior and experience. Belief transforms experience into ethics. Some recent examples of the relationship between belief and behavior are:
- Followers of Harold Camping, in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming, sold their homes and quit their jobs.
- A former Secretary of the Interior opened up government lands to businesses and, according to reports, noted that there was no reason to protect forests and ranges because the Second Coming was imminent. It was alright, however, to make as much money as possible in anticipation of Jesus’ return!
- Beliefs about scripture lead to various attitudes toward human rights, for example, antagonism to marriage equality and equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons.
- The philosophy of Ayn Rand has lead political leaders to seek to reduce the social safety net for vulnerable persons, while promoting increases in defense spending, as a result of their adherence to her philosophy of rugged individualism.
- Opposition to research on global climate change is greatest among conservative Christians not only because of their laissez faire economics, but their affirmation that God, and not humans, will decide the planet’s future. They are happy with asserting that God will destroy everything after rescuing the faithful! So, why worry about climate change when God will do the job!
- Beliefs can shape how we view an earthquake, disease, or medical care. Are natural disasters divine punishment or random events? Are we sick because of God’s will, karma, or divine punishment? Is taking your sick child to the hospital a sign of faithlessness?
- Beliefs about original sin, human life, women’s roles, and sexuality influence legislation related to abortion, contraception, and equal pay for women.
Beliefs make a difference and can become the tipping point between life and death for persons and communities. They are surely at work in today’s presidential election and party politics.
Ray Silverman, author of the new book The Core of Johnny Appleseed, asserts that John Chapman’s life was deeply influenced by his Swedenborgian belief system. Johnny Appleseed aka Chapman wandered across the new frontier spreading apple seeds and good will because of deeply held convictions about God, humankind, the indigenous peoples, and the world. In contrast to Calvinist-influenced manifest destiny, images of God’s wrath predestination, and beliefs in heaven and hell, Chapman believed that God was pure love and that all humans, whether European or indigenous, were created in God’s image and blessed by God’s expansive and inclusive love. Our future destiny is not decided by our beliefs, an angry God, or predestination, but by “how we live our lives and why we do what we do.” (The Core of Johnny Appleseed, 23) Literally speaking, Chapman believed the spiritual saying “by their fruits you shall know them.” He planted positive fruits of the spirit among native peoples and new settlers, seeing all as worthy of respect and honesty as God’s beloved children and recipients of eternal life.
Chapman lived by Swedenborg’s belief that the realm of God is a life of useful service. While he was a good business person, he saw his vocation as serving everyone he met and providing resources for settlers in their quest to become landowners. Profit was always seen from a larger perspective, the well-being of persons and communities. Fruit bearing trees reflected, according to both Swedenborg and Chapman, our own spiritual fruitfulness. This inspired Chapman to a live a fruitful life, literally speaking, that embraced his business, personal, and spiritual affairs as one, interconnected holy reality. He was always willing to share good news, “right fresh from heaven,” in act and word. Again, literally speaking, Chapman walked the talk in his relationships with his customers, strangers, and native peoples. He saw non-humans as God’s creation, worthy of respect and ethical consideration. This inspired him to live simply and do his best not to destroy creatures who caused him no harm.
Johnny Appleseed is a model for business, government, and environmental care. Emphasis on profit-making alone destroys communities, spirits, and the soul of the business person as well if it fails to see that all business is personal and planetary. Business has the purpose of making money, but equally the purpose of improving community life, sustaining the environment, and helping people improve their economic and spiritual lot. Johnny Appleseed reminds us today that our future depends on joining Earth care and people care with initiative and creativity in our role as God’s stewards of creation.
For more on the new book The Core of Johnny Appleseed, visit the Patheos Book Club!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.