Why it’s (not) important what you believe

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…

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Controversies, Fundamentalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Liberalism, Psychology, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Why it’s (not) important what you believe

  1. I think you’re right. I found this post from Shaun Groves very helpful (it has stayed in my mind ever since): http://shaungroves.com/2013/10/the-opened-closed-hands/


  2. Terry says:

    ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (Galatians 5:6b NIV)

    You gotta love Paul. He puts this wonderful sentiment in a letter bolloc-, um, challenging people on their wayward theology.


    • Maybe Paul understood the paradox better than I do (though I can’t believe that could be true 😉 ) – perhaps he’s both right that our theology does matter but isn’t what counts in the end, as maybe bad theology can lead to bad living… or something…


  3. Terry says:

    Just testing something, Harvey.


  4. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Reblogged this on Jesus Without Baggage and commented:
    Evangelical Liberal says:

    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.
    See more


  5. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Evan, I think you did an excellent job here. I re-blogged it and also shared it on other media.


  6. lotharson says:

    Let’s LOVE drive us????


  7. Tom Devins says:

    Totally disagree. What you believe makes a big difference. If you believe in reincarnation then, yes, love and compassion will be center points of your life….but so will meditation. Meditation allows one to discipline and gain a measure of control over the otherwise unruly mind in preparation for the post death bardo experiences.


    • Fair enough – but I’m saying that it both does and doesn’t matter what you believe, depending on what those beliefs are and whether or not you really believe them or just think you do. A lot of people sign up to creeds with their minds or tongues, without those beliefs really going deep into them and changing them within.

      Personally I strongly don’t believe in reincarnation, but I can see that such a belief could have either helpful, unhelpful or neutral ramifications, depending on how you choose to apply it and live by it. A bit like most other religious beliefs!


  8. michaeleeast says:

    Yes. What we really believe deep down is more important than what we subscribe to. It may even be contradictory. I think we are all challenged by the New Paradigm shift.


  9. Chas says:

    Harvey, welcome back. Tim has touched on the part that seems the nub to me: a radical change that accompanies entry into a relationship with God. For me, that came while watching the Nicky Gumbel videos as part of the Alpha Course. He explained that we were separated from God (by sin in his example) and I suddenly understood that it was belief in Jesus as the Son of God which brought us out of this separation. Since then I have grown in that relationship, from an initial state of being unaware of any change, via belief that the Bible was inerrant, to a present state in which my beliefs have been pared down to a minimum (some might use the analogy of pruning, rather than paring) in which many of the basic beliefs of Christianity have been discarded. Since I have moved through these stages which other people (still) hold, it would be hypocritical of me to say that belief in these things is wrong, but the discards are the crucifixion, resurrection, atonement, belief that Jesus was the Christ (making me no longer a Christian), and even that Jesus ought to be worshiped. The things that remain as vital are the virgin birth (making Jesus the Son of God) and the understanding that it is belief in Jesus as the Son of God, which brings us out of eternal separation from God into His Presence (which people came to understand as the Holy Spirit). If these things cause problems to others, that is unfortunate, but it is where I currently stand. I still speak in tongues, as I have done since quite early in my walk with God.


    • Thanks Chas. It’s interesting, because the beliefs that I’ve questioned and put to one side are quite different to the ones that you have. So for me I’m no longer fully convinced about the whole sin-separation idea, at least as understood in traditional Christian orthodoxy, and I’m not too bothered about the virgin birth (though I do still believe it, on balance). But I do see the cross and resurrection as essential for my own faith, along with Jesus being the Christ – though that doesn’t mean I don’t accept your faith as real and good, just very different to mine. Vive la difference!


      • Chas says:

        Harvey, I’m just wondering if my beliefs on sin have been explained adequately, because I firmly reject the idea that sin is the source of our separation from God. We were always separated from God, that is why we were unable to resist doing things that might lead to suffering until we come into the Presence of God and receive His influence and help.

        If you are not bothered about the virgin birth, then you appear to believe in Jesus Christ, rather than Jesus the Son of God. What this is making me wonder is whether the starting point for our belief has been crucial in determining our route to where we are now. If you are now more sceptical about the sin/atonement idea, why is the cross and resurrection still essential to your faith?


        • Hi Chas, thanks – lots to respond to…

          #1. Sin and separation. Don’t worry, you had explained your beliefs on this, and all makes sense. My own understanding is slightly different. I don’t think we’re separated from God through the creation process, but nor do I fully accept the traditional view of the Fall. I favour Irenaeus’s idea that we were created immature and incomplete, needing to grow into wholeness, and the ‘fall’ was an attempt to shortcut the maturation process.

          #2. Virgin birth – I do believe that Jesus is in some sense the Son of God, and that he is both fully divine and fully human. However, I don’t see the Virgin Birth as essential to this belief (though it does line up nicely). I wrote a whole post about this so won’t go into more details now!

          The idea of Incarnation is utterly central to my faith – that God became one of us so that we might become like him and be with him. But again, for me this doesn’t have to come about by Virgin Birth – though it may have done.

          #3. Cross and resurrection – these are still central for me but not for the same reasons they’re central to evangelicals. The cross means many things, but to me it’s above all about Love responding to evil and suffering by taking them upon itself (himself), and so overcoming and redeeming them. And the resurrection is about the triumph of love and goodness over evil, death, despair, hate, chaos etc. It means that there’s always hope, and that in the end all will be well.


          • Chas says:

            Harvey, although I cannot now believe that Jesus was crucified (at least in part because God would have wanted to minimise his suffering), God would have had to accept, in the beginning, that He (God) would know all of the suffering that was going to take place on earth as the inevitable result of creating individual intelligent beings. He will also have to continue to know that suffering until the process of creation is completed, when (in your words) in the end all will be well.


            • For me Jesus’s suffering on the cross is the nub of God’s work in minimising the suffering of everyone else. On the cross, God himself (in Jesus) bears our suffering in order to overcome and redeem it.

              Thousands of people died on Roman crosses, and God did not prevent it. For myself, I find it most helpful to believe in a God who fully enters into our very real suffering, and who suffers with us in order to bring good out of that suffering.


            • Chas says:

              Harvey, you have just opened another Pandora’s box: is/was Jesus God, or a man? You already know my view.


            • I didn’t open it – it’s been open since shortly after Jesus first showed up and apparently made claims to be one with God and co-equal with God! 🙂

              I don’t see it as a Pandora’s box or a problem particularly. The view held by pretty much all branches of the Christian churches throughout the world and throughout most of church history is that Jesus was both fully man and fully God. It makes spiritual sense to me, I find the paradox satisfying and helpful, and it’s one of the few orthodox doctrines I have little problem with. I have at times questioned it of course, but I’ve always come back to the standard view.


            • Chas says:

              Harvey, This has led me to recall my early months of belief, because from quite an early time the message for me was the overarching Authority of the Father. It could be seen in the scriptures, since Jesus always acknowledged it and it always seemed to be someone else who took his claim to be God’s Son to be a claim of co-equality. Jesus himself never claimed to be God, although he acknowledged that he was the Son of God, when he was asked under oath. It was also stated in my first church that the Trinity was not mentioned in the Bible: it was only there by inferrence. In regard to the ‘fully God, fully man’ debate, wasn’t this ongoing until the Council of Nicea, more than 400 years after Jesus lived, and wasn’t that the time that Augustine wanted to use Christianity for his own purposes. Why do we still think that Nicea should have had any authority at all? The whole message has been for us to have a direct relationship with God, with no intermediaries, even Jesus. If we accept any authority other than God himself, we put ourselves under the influence of men.


            • Hi Chas, okay, maybe it is a little bit of a Pandora’s Box! 🙂

              It’s too big and complex a subject to deal with adequately in comments, but I am planning a post on it in the near-ish future.

              In the meantime, my understanding is that for the first couple of centuries the early church got on with a broad working understanding of Jesus’s nature and role in salvation without feeling the need to pin down the exact details into a creed. But when that perceived need did finally arise, of course it became a massive bone of contention, at least for a little while.

              My view is that Jesus does hint quite strongly at his divinity within the gospels, particularly John’s gospel, e.g. ‘I and the Father are one’; ‘if you have seen me, you have seen the Father’; ‘before Abraham was, I am’. (If we accept the broad accuracy of the gospel reporting, that is.) And then the writings of the apostles show that from very soon after Jesus’ death they were starting to equate him with God, e.g. Philippians 2 ‘Jesus, though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped’.

              I don’t see Jesus as an intermediary, but as the incarnation of God – i.e. God himself, directly accessed, but in human form. I tend to pray to God the Father, but if I pray to Jesus I see that as effectively the same thing.


            • Chas says:

              Harvey, sorry, can’t tell my Constantine from my Augustine, or my Nicaea from Nicea!


            • Chas says:

              Harvey, some of the things you have mentioned could have been written in an attempt to establish that Jesus was the Messiah/Christ, who was supposed to have lived in Heaven with God, until he came down to bring peace in the whole earth, build the second temple and establish the Judaic laws for everyone. The Jesus is Christ/not Christ battle can still be seen in the Gospels, because everyone on both sides wasn’t: ‘singing from the same hymnsheet.’


            • Hi Chas, for sure, it’s possible they were written for that reason… but then that turns into a bit of a circular argument – we discount the texts that don’t support one viewpoint because they may have been written to discredit that viewpoint.

              Would it be possible for you to provide some sources? – firstly for the 1st-century view that the Messiah/Christ was supposed to have lived in heaven with God etc; and secondly for the idea that the NT writers were divided in their beliefs over whether Jesus was Christ or not. It’s just that I haven’t come across those views myself, so I’m interested in the evidence. Thanks 🙂


            • Chas says:

              Harvey, your post highlights why I prefer to reject all of the Bible as a primary source and use it instead as a means to give understanding in interactions with other people, as the Holy Spirit guides me. Since we can show that there are contradictions in the Bible, how can we accept the infallibility of any of it? Which parts are reliable and which are not?

              I will try to prepare a review of the Judaic beliefs concerning the Messiah and how this is inconsistent with the Christian view. I will also set out some of the scriptures that seem to show a dispute between gospel writers/contributors on whether Jesus was the Christ, or not. This will be too long to post here, so I will send it directly to you, as an attachment to an e:mail and will hope to produce an adequate summary short enough to post here, but we can discuss that by e:mail at the time.


            • Thanks Chas, that would be great.

              I have similar issues with the Bible to you, but I think my approach/response to them is slightly different. I no longer see the Bible as inerrant, but I still think it’s far and away the best primary source we have on matters of Christian theology. It just means we have to be more careful in our study and more cautious with our findings.


  10. doncher says:

    I have nothing intelligent (or even non-intelligent) to add to the discussion, but just wanted to say that, once again, I appreciate very much you writing about things which I frequently wrestle with but find difficult to articulate. Also, since you end the piece above with….. ‘which isn’t a particularly comforting thought from where I’m standing right now…’, this suggests that the things you write about often mean you’re in a position that isn’t a comfortable place to be. Anyway, it struck me that you (and I’m sure lots of others, too) are holding an important place for many of the rest of us by ‘standing by the door’ as talked about in the poem by Samuel Shoemaker. I won’t write it out here – you probably already know it (and it’s really long!) but I read it recently and he talks about standing close to the door, so that he can truly help people find the door to God and also help those who go in, get a taste of God, but get scared (or confused or disillusioned by people on the ‘inside’ – I’ve added these bits because this is often where I find myself) and want to run away again. I think you can only really be in this position if you are trying to understand and hear both those on the ‘inside’ and those on the ‘outside’ and I guess inevitably that’s an uncomfortable place to be.

    One of the last paragraphs of the poem sort of sums it up:

    I admire the people who go way in.
    But I wish they would not forget how it was
    Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
    The people who have not yet even found the door.
    Or the people who want to run away again from God.
    You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
    And forget the people outside the door.
    As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
    Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
    But not so far from men as not to hear them,
    And remember they are there too.

    Sorry for the long post!


  11. johnm55 says:

    Harvey, what you are saying here kind of echo’s an on going discussion/argument in the online atheist community between the “dictionary” atheists -those who say that a non-belief in gods is the only thing that matters- and the humanists. The DA’s argue that fighting for social justice is an irrelevance. As humanist who is fairly sure that we only have one chance at life, I think we are compelled to do what we can to make this world a better and fairer place. Your actual belief system is neither here nor there if that is your goal. And if your belief system does not point you toward that goal then you need to seriously examine your belief system.


    • Hi John, great to hear from you! I’d definitely be on the side of the humanists myself. Proving or disproving the existence of god/s, and proving or disproving particular religious beliefs and doctrines, seems hugely irrelevant to me most of the time when set against the business of making this world a better and fairer place.

      Of course, we might all argue (hopefully constructively) on what this better and fairer world would look like and how we go about achieving it. And those with religious beliefs might well argue that their beliefs help us understand what ‘better’ means, and also help in providing the power to bring about change – all which of course secular humanists would understandably dispute! 🙂


  12. One thing I wanted to add as a general reply / postscript… I’d suggest that on the whole our beliefs are good and useful in so far as they line up with Reality (and/or help us to do so), and ‘bad’ or unhelpful in so far as they don’t (or don’t help us to).

    However, we might all dispute what Reality is and what beliefs best represent it. So I would say that our beliefs should ideally line up as far as possible with (a) physical reality as we best understand it from science, and (b) the reality of human personalities and relationships as we best understand them from psychology. In particular, beliefs that in practice promote psychological, emotional and relational health seem to me ‘good’ beliefs.


    • Harvey, I love the post and also your last remark in this “reply”. Proximity to “reality” or better perception of it I also feel is a key criterion for what is both healthy and “right” (or righteous). That “better” or closer perception of reality, with more acceptance of it (without resistance or “fighting” stuff we may not like about the way things work), I believe can come via any number of paths, not all overtly “religious” or even “spiritual”.

      The Integral system of Wilber et al is good at dissecting the ascending levels of perception or consciousness. It is VERY informative about the dynamics and thought “content” of each level (which are not always fully distinct but tend to be surprisingly so). The love principles of both Jesus and Paul I think most people intuitively sort out and value highest (correctly, to me) within all that both said (or supposedly said, per the story-tellers in Jesus’ case and the contents of erroneous epistle attributions in Paul’s… of several of “his” letters apparently written after his death).

      As just one example, whether it’s Wilber, James Fowler (as stage theorists), or any of a number of Christian or other commentators, the building of “perspective-taking” (empathizing) ability both more deeply and in widening circles from self, family, “tribe”, etc., is one definition of “love”. This somewhat comes from pure life exposure and “automatic” maturation, but is easily stalled. If one has gotten stuck, then a “conversion” experience (Christian or otherwise) or a set of mini-conversions is often what opens one… first receiving love, which then enables its giving out as well.

      This is the kind of transformation my long study of St. Paul leads me to believe he had…. It may not have been much like the Acts descriptions (which vary some even among themselves), but seems to have been both cognitive (theological) and highly experiential (“third heaven”, etc.). It turned him from applying his zeal in violent ways to applying it in loving ways, and universally rather than ethnically. (Generally loving… altho he DID carry some anger and said a few nasty things about/toward not just “Judiazers” vaguely, but the “supposed pillars” (James, John, Peter) and others in Jerusalem he’d at least spent a few days with, and sought to work jointly with in a somewhat disjointed “movement”.)

      Such a look at Paul and the real inner workings of the earliest Jesus-followers (before being called “Christian”) in the Jerusalem and Pauline lines is VERY instructive and important…. Sometimes it appears love WAS “lost” over belief/lifestyle/ethnic issues. I’ve just reviewed a great new book dealing with the core and critical conflict involved, “A Polite Bribe” by Robert Orlando… just posted to my blog not long ago, here: http://wp.me/p5oBn-A1.

      Thanks again for a meaty and thought-provoking article.


      • Thanks Howard – lots for me to look into there, including the integral system of Wilber, and Robert Orlando’s ‘A Polite Bribe’! Should keep me busy in my spare moments for a while… 🙂

        I completely agree that a better/closer perception of reality can come about through all sorts of paths, not necessarily ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. For me, the insights of secular psychology have really helped, and I’m also fascinated by science. And the arts, music and literature and just meeting with other people who think differently have all pushed me along the road, I think.

        I like your analysis of Paul and look forward to finding out more about this…

        And I really must read some Jung!

        Thanks again, and all the best,


  13. Pingback: What You Believe is (not) Important - Contemplative Theology : Contemplative Theology

  14. Pingback: What You Believe is (not) Important | Contemplative Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.