Tuesday, December 01, 2009

I Don't Know If I Believe in Belief

I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosover liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

These propositions, purportedly uttered by Jesus, seem unequivocal. Believers who are dead will live again, and believers who are alive will live on forever. But it can't possibly have its plain meaning, can it? So far, everyone born before 1890, believers and unbelievers alike, has died. Does this mean that there were no real believers? Or does it mean that Jesus was speaking figuratively? Why did he distinguish between the living and the dead if there were no difference between the two states in terms of destiny?

I confess that this passage sometimes disturbs me as much as it comforts me. I don't even know what to make of the requirement that we "believe" in Jesus. What does "belief" entail? Is it the satisfaction of the old epistemological itch? If so, what specific propositions are we minimally supposed to believe in order to be saved? Is it belief in the form of "trust" that we are supposed to have?

I am not even sure that any of us has "beliefs" except as useful fictions to explain and predict the behavior of others and ourselves. There may not actually be brain states that can be identified as "belief in Jesus" or any beliefs for that matter. Beliefs are supposed by folk psychologists to inform behavior and to serve as part of the explanation for what people have done and will do. Someone who can be said to "believe in Jesus" would certainly manifest a set of behaviors that was extraordinary and unlike those of ordinary men, wouldn't he?

Or is it enough simply to profess belief, especially where the object of belief is relatively far removed from everyday experience? One might announce quite sincerely that one believes that there is intelligent life on other planets without showing any behavioral manifestations of such a belief. Likewise, one may make all manner of theological assertions that can have no bearing whatsoever on how one lives, eg various conceptions of the trinity. How easily then might we profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior and then go about our business as if this profession meant nothing much in terms of our actions. Perhaps we should consider whether many of our beliefs are really more in the nature of "opinions".

I am thinking mainly of myself and the feebleness with which I live the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps I am too hard on myself. If we have beliefs or opinions, we do not choose them. They happen to us. If God wills me to believe harder and to manifest my beliefs more radically, it will happen. Meanwhile, it is perhaps ingratitude for the belief that I believe that I have that leads me to whine about not believing better than I do, assuming that I have beliefs in the first place.

I am going to characterize the whole issue of "belief" as a mystery and worry about it later. The same goes for the "never die" thing.

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