At a recent festival where I was speaking I inadvertently caused quite a bit of controversy and concern. Over the course of the few days some were moved to tears, others to rage and still others to confusion. A group of young people tried to lead me to Jesus, a crowd gathered to condemn me as a false teacher and a few stood side by side with me in solidarity. But regardless of where people placed themselves it seemed like the whole place was ablaze with passionate debate and reflection.
At this festival one of the questions that I kept getting asked was “what do you believe?” It became obvious that some thought I was encouraging people to question their intellectual affirmations in order to rid them of belief. So here, in a nutshell is how I answered them in the last talk.
I am not trying to rid people of their beliefs at all; indeed this is not even possible. Without beliefs a person would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. Beliefs are operating all the time, enabling us to function on a day-to-day basis. I am rather interested in showing how what we really believe often has nothing whatsoever to do with what we say we believe (i.e. the story we tell ourselves about ourselves).
Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way. Or take the example of buying cheap clothes from a department store. Regardless of what I say, if I don’t ask some basic questions about where the clothes come from I believe in sweatshops. Or at best I believe in ignorance, in not asking questions and in the virtue of being an uncritical consumer. Again these beliefs are not ones I will admit to myself (bring to my mind) but rather they are beliefs I enact as a result of my basic desires (arising from my heart). Finally, if I didn’t stand up to protest against rendition flights, if I didn’t voice my disgust at the practices that go on in places like Guantanamo Bay in my name, then I believe in torture.
In the West we are very prone to think that beliefs operate at the level of the mind, however what goes on in the mind has no necessary relation to the material realty of our operative beliefs (those that we enact). For example a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe).
In Biblical terms the latter is understood as the category of the “heart”. The text clearly informs us in various places that we live from the heart rather than the mind. Indeed Bonheoffer shows us that the text categorically rejects the notion that beliefs arise from the latter. This means that when we read of how we should confess with our lips and believe in our heart that Christ is Lord this does not mean that we ought to make some intellectual confession. The text is abundantly clear that to confess with ones lips means to speak love, grace and mercy and that to believe in ones heart means to demonstrate these virtues in the very texture of ones life. This is why I reject the religious/spiritual debate. For me Christianity is “none of the above”. It is nothing less than a material faith i.e. a mode of being that transforms ones material actuality.
One of the reasons why we cannot actually admit to ourselves the truth of what we believe (i.e. our beliefs as reflected in our material actuality) is because we have not experienced grace. If, for instance, I mostly watch family television and comedies then I don’t believe in watching politically informative documentaries that might challenge how I might live. But I can’t admit that to myself because I would find it hard to accept myself, or feel that I could be accepted by others, if I did.
In grace (the experience of actually accepting that you are accepted) we can admit to who we are without excuses, or even trying to change. For in grace we accept that we are accepted as we are and don’t have to change anything. The power of grace really comes to light when we realise that it is only as we are able to find this acceptance and admit to our darkness that the darkness begins to dissipate and our basic operating code begins to change.
This is what we see operating in AA where a person is able to stop deceiving or condemning themselves and simply admit that they are an alcoholic. They are able to do this because they are in a room full of people overflowing with grace. People who accept them for what they are, not what they might one day be. Here in this space of grace where we do not need to change, true change begins to sprout from the dry earth of our being.