Writing this blog I get to interact with a lot of people with widely differing beliefs – ranging from straight-down-the-line evangelicals to deists, agnostics, atheists and even the occasional pagan, with pretty much every other shade of belief and unbelief in between.
While I occasionally feel uncomfortable with some of the views and ideas expressed by those who take the trouble to comment, and I sometimes disagree with them quite strongly, I welcome this diversity. I think it’s healthy to engage with people who think and believe differently from yourself.
Not too long ago I’d have felt obliged to ‘correct’ views which seemed too heretical to me, out of concern for the safety of the thinker’s soul. These days though, it’s equally likely to be me who’s straying off the straight path of orthodoxy. And while I still challenge theologies I disagree with, that’s not generally because I fear for the other person’s salvation.
But… surely it does matter what you believe – for example what you believe about Christ, or the Trinity, or theories of the atonement, or the resurrection or Virgin Birth, or the inspiration of Scripture, or the baptism of the Spirit, or whether hell is real, or whether homosexual relationships are ungodly?
Yes and no. To put it in frustratingly Rollins-esque terms, of course it does (not) matter.
Yes, potentially it can matter hugely; but no, it also may not matter at all. It rather depends on how you believe what you believe, and crucially what effect those beliefs have on your life, your relationships and the way you view and treat other people.
Why it doesn’t matter what you believe
I certainly no longer think that what a person believes or doesn’t believe is the most important thing about them, or even about their faith or their spiritual life.
As I’ve written at the top of my own Creed, doctrinal statements aren’t really what it’s all about. What counts, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, is a changed life – a life of commitment to reality and to love.
It doesn’t really matter a hill of beans whether you accept a particular theory of the atonement or favour a particular version of End Times theology, so long as you have love – to paraphrase Paul again.
I’m fairly certain that a person’s acceptance or otherwise of ‘correct’ doctrines or theologies makes little or no difference to whether or not they are ‘saved’ (in whatever sense you mean that). Intellectual assent to particular doctrines is a side issue, in many ways an irrelevance. Some people, for example infants or adults with severe learning difficulties, may simply not be capable of understanding the finer points of Christian doctrine, but I’m convinced that they can nevertheless experience a redeeming relationship with Jesus.
In so much of what matters in our lives, the specifics of our beliefs are supremely unimportant and irrelevant. What matters when we come across a person in need is not what we believe about eschatology or creationism, it’s whether or not we respond with compassion. Or when someone hurts us, it doesn’t really matter which theory of the atonement we subscribe to, it matters whether we’re able to forgive or not. When faced with tragedy in our own lives, our theology of suffering may not help us much (though it may a little), but the friendships we’ve invested in might.
Better or worse than your beliefs?
I know many people whose beliefs I strongly disagree with and even find abhorrent – perhaps most obviously Christian fundamentalists. Yet I’ve often been chastened to discover that these same people are often deeply kind, compassionate, and Christlike – far more so than I am. I would say these people are better than their beliefs, better than their theology.
In Jesus’ day, the Scribes and Pharisees were the guardians of correct biblical doctrine. Interestingly, Jesus tended not to critique them on the content of their beliefs (as he did with, say, the Sadducees who didn’t believe in resurrection). Rather he critiqued them on their attitudes, their cold hearts, their legalistic approach to religion, their arrogance and self-righteousness, their lack of compassion towards ‘sinners’ and the poor.
So I don’t worry too much now if I encounter people with off-the-wall beliefs, or if I find that I can’t any longer accept some standard mainstream doctrines. What I worry about more is people claiming to be doctrinally sound yet appearing to be deeply emotionally immature, lacking in love and self-awareness. And I worry about my own shortcomings in these areas.
Why it does matter what you believe
Yet at the same time it does matter what you believe – to the extent that what you believe impacts on how you live and how you treat people.
I’d say that what really matters is not what creed you sign up to but rather what beliefs underlie your actual life and relationships, underpinning who you are and what you do. These beliefs may well be hidden, even largely unconscious, and often aren’t directly theological or doctrinal. They probably wouldn’t be things you’d recite in a creed or sing hymns about.
For example, you may believe deep down that certain types of people are better or worse, worth less or more than others. Or you might believe that the world owes you something, or that you’re exempt from certain rules that only apply to others. You might believe that intimacy is best avoided, or that it’s better to hide certain truths about yourself, or that things will always go wrong for you however hard you try. Or all sorts of other things, many of which may be deeply unhealthy and unhelpful.
What you really believe
So what you say you believe often matters very little. You can believe pretty much anything you like in your head and still remain the same person at root. But what you really believe in the deepest place, the deep-rooted, foundational ideas and views and assumptions that form and shape your attitudes and thinking and behaviour – this does matter a lot. Because that’s who you really are.
Theological beliefs may of course impact on your attitudes and behaviours. You might believe that people who suffer have brought it upon themselves and deserve no kindness, or that people with particular ‘sinful’ lifestyles should be shunned and excluded, or that as you’re going to be Raptured to heaven you can exploit the hell out of the planet now.
But even then, these theological beliefs often arise from a person’s preferences and prejudices rather than the other way round. I’d lay odds that the ‘God hates fags’ brigade adopted their particular hateful theology because it suited their pre-existing beliefs about the world and about themselves. The same surely goes for Islamic State.
And perhaps a similar process applies to all of us. We arrive at our beliefs for a mixture of reasons, but mostly because they suit our deep-rooted view of how things are or should be, or our view of ourselves. So our intellectual, theological beliefs and creeds often follow from who we are, rather than forming us.
Conversion and paradigm shift
But what of our belief in God him- or herself? The kind of God we believe in – angry and vengeful / distant and aloof / friendly and fluffy – surely does affect us deeply, and impacts on how we view ourselves and treat others.
Following from this, there is something which potentially overturns everything I’ve said so far – the possibility of conversion. By which I mean a radical change of heart and life, usually brought about by encounter with something beyond the self, something greater than the self. When people genuinely encounter the divine they often change deep within, or are opened up to the possibility of change.
At this point the deep self with its prejudices, preferences and preconceptions – its underlying, unconscious belief system – is challenged to the core, and a new deep-level paradigm is offered which has the power to shift the person’s entire way of seeing and thinking and relating.
But this does not generally come about from accepting a set of beliefs about God or Christianity. Rather the set of beliefs follow on from the encounter which brings about the internal paradigm shift. Not all these resulting beliefs will necessarily be exactly ‘correct’ or accurate, and in some ways their precise content isn’t what matters. It’s what they point to, and where they come from, that matters more.
Christian doctrines were never meant as things to pin on us as a sign of our belonging. This kind of badge-wearing belief doesn’t change anything. You have to really believe – to accept and believe in God’s grace and redemption in the core of your being, and really let them change you; to let them become incarnate in you.
So again I repeat – what counts is a changed life, not a set of correct doctrines. If I think I believe all the ‘right’ things but have not love, I have nothing. But if I truly have love, I have the basis of everything that counts, even if my theological views are decidedly unusual.
Which isn’t a particularly comforting thought from where I’m standing right now…