Tag Archives: belief

Reasons to Believe

Sometime back, Tim Hardin came out with “Reason to Believe”.

Here’s the beginning, and the song’s premise:

“If I listened long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true,
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried.
Still I look to find a reason to believe.”

Perhaps that lyric resonates with me because I feel in it the truth that belief is a choice, and that for a multitude of reasons, each of us would choose to believe in an idea or a cause, or in somebody, if we could find a reason to make the choice feel valid.

Everyone who believes in God has at least one reason, and our reasons are crucial to the integrity of our faith and its working out in practice.

Kierkegaard holds that the Christianity of many people is tainted because it is grounded in impure reasons, such as: the quest for personal salvation; the need to feel forgiven; a conviction that faith will deliver prosperity; or the vision of heavenly rewards in return for our earthly sacrifices.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, he contends that the only worthy reason to believe, and the only one that will guide us toward integrity and an effective faith, is simply to will the good. He would have us will the good for no other reason than because it is the good, and to recognize that following Christ is the best and perhaps only way we can recognize what the good is.

On our way to Tucson for Thanksgiving, my son Cody and I talked about happiness and how it results most naturally from the setting aside of ego when we turn our concerns toward the well-being of others.

Some years ago, I spent a summer in a cabin in the mountains above Chico, California. I had a great job, a lovely environment, but my kids were a thousand miles away. My marriage of seventeen years had disintegrated. I felt as if a tumor the size of a softball had taken root in my stomach, except whenever my thoughts turned from my plight to somebody else’s. Then the tumor would shrink, only to grow again when I returned to brooding about me.

Later, I spent several days in Tijuana taking notes for an article about Mother Teresa’s seminarians. These folks had forsaken all their possessions to live on handout food, in the barracks-like quarters of a former elementary school located in a polluted barrio of families living in shacks and tool sheds. The seminarians had taken a vow of “poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor”. Yet (or consequently) they appeared to be the happiest of all people.

Cody, a high school teacher, mentioned that many teachers want to help others but get discouraged because students and parents aren’t demonstrably appreciative. So, eventually, they give up sacrificing for their students.

When Cody wondered aloud if it’s possible to continue pursuing the good of others if we don’t feel compelled by our faith, I thought of a theme that drove Feodor Dostoyevski’s novels: without God there is no reason to follow any moral system.

I suspect even believers who do good for the sake of reward such as the desire to get thanked, to find peace, or to achieve heavenly bliss, are doomed to discouragement, because their motive is essentially selfish. In Christian terms, blessings don’t follow from sinful (i.e. selfish) motives.

According to Kierkegaard, we are called to find in our hearts or spirits the will to choose (and act for the sake of) the good regardless of personal benefit. To ask ourselves: will I pursue the good if all I ever get in return is mockery and punishment on earth followed by eternal oblivion? Can I believe that strongly in the good, which essentially is love?

Take a look at Ken Kuhlken’s books  Midheaven and Reading Brother Lawrence, both gripping and thoughtful stories.

Kierkegaard and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown

Even during the rare times when my mind is able to fully engage, I might read a paragraph or page of Soren Kierkegaard and find my only reaction is “Huh?” I might read the page over again and again and at last give up, wondering if the translator was suffering from dementia.  But, if I put down the book and ask myself to translate subjectively, beginning with the premise of the section or chapter and asking how could this premise, in my experience, possibly prove true, usually an answer comes.

The Works of Love chapter, “Love Believes All Things” maintains that (in my translation) we who aim to follow Christ should believe that Lucy won’t pull the football away just as Charlie Brown kicks at it. Even if she pulls it away seventy times seven times, we are required to believe that next time she won’t.

What’s more, Kierkegaard has the audacity to argue that if we believe all things, even that Lucy could change, we will never be deceived. “Huh?” I muttered, then laid the book down and wondered how could this be true?

I don’t know whether Charles Shultz read Kierkegaard, but I imagine he knew of St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthian’s 13:7. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Without claiming Charlie Brown as a Christ figure, I will submit that Charlie is no dupe, that he remembers quite well what Lucy has done in the past and realizes what she may do again. Yet he also recognizes that no matter the number of times Lucy has snatched the football, the next time she might either snatch it or hold it still. After all, she is human, and humans grow and change. So he chooses to believe in Lucy.

Either at some point in his development or in accord with his nature, Charlie has chosen to love. On account of that choice, love has become part of him. So he believes all things. And he is not deceived. He knows he may turn a flip and land on his back. She may laugh and berate him. But he would rather suffer pain and humiliation than risk forsaking love, which chooses to believe. Sure, he could walk away, but he is neither a quitter nor a coward, and Lucy has offered him a chance to believe, to act out of love. I applaud Charlie Brown.

So would Kierkegaard, who writes: “… knowledge does not defile a man; it is mistrust which defiles a man’s knowledge just as love purifies it.”

Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence, the account of a trip to the Kingdom of Heaven, recently came out as an ebook.

The Good Know Nothing

A quote by novelist Paul Auster rang so true, I used a phrase from it as the title of my current Tom Hickey novel in progress.

“Only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

The best minds are too small to consider all the complexities around us.  The most objective are driven by emotions, needs and passions they can barely begin to understand, let alone control.  Surely all our beliefs might be illusions.

We claim to know so that we can feel secure, or to create a useful platform from which to further our particular agenda.  Churchgoers aren’t likely to admit to the extent of their doubts.  The wealthy commonly believe poverty equals laziness.  And so on.

When I passed along the Auster quote to my son Cody, he thought it through then came back with, “But Dad, if that’s true then the good must be ineffectual, because they don’t have the certainty about anything to make a stand.”

Here’s my answwer:

Those of us who can’t be satisfied with a meaningless life are by definition called to make an existential choice, to decide between alternatives and dedicate ourselves to a guiding belief.

As a path toward recognizing the best choice, Kierkegaard argued the value of subjectivity.  The highest and deepest truth, he contended, is discovered by an inward journey rather than by observation of external reality.  By searching inside ourselves, in solitary, devoted, open-minded exploration; by preferring the instincts of the artist to the over-confident ways of science or philosophy, we can discover realms beyond the external and objective.

Those who have chosen to believe but admit that they are choosing on the basis of subjective experience can draw a distinction between knowledge (in an absolute sense) and belief.  Then they can make a stand with dedication and passion, yet retain a lightness of heart and mind, a portion of humility.  With these they can avoid the defensiveness or arrogance of the know-it-all.