Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Reflection on Beliefs and Practices

Baptistnomad, asked this question about belief and ractices, I gave a short responce there. Which should come first or which comes first? Or which founds the other? Should belief found our practices or should practices lead to certain beliefs? These are various ways I read her question. As a spiritual director some people come to our sessions with a question about belief and it leads really to a question about practice. Some times its the oppostie way arround. Sometimes a practice leads to beleif, at other times belief iluminates what practice should be or look like.

But what is belief? Belief isn't simply knowledge, nor would I say in the sense fo baptismnomnad's question, is belief merely assent to some proposition that may or may not be provable. Belief implies commitment. Engagigng in a practice can mean a number of things, it can imply curiosity: I might engage in X to experience X and find out whether or not I enjoy X. I might engage in X to aid my belief in y. I might engage in X because of my belief in Y. All of these might lead to belief in Y, or reinforce it.

As I encountered historical Criticism and engaged various secular claims and alternatives to Christianity, one of the things that remained unconviining in the creedal formulations was the Virgin Birth Resurection wasn't so much a problem not because I thought it explicable as that Christianity didn't seem to make sense without it. On the other hand, the Virgin Birth seemed less crucial a belief. At the time, I was in college, I was in a church that did not ever recite any Creed including the apostles creed. At some point I started occasionaly attending Eastern Orthodox churches, and reciting the creed in the context of worship, and then my wife and I attened an episcopal church and I came to Chicago for seminary and the church I attended and Kates church both regularly said the creed in the midst of worship. One day I realized that although I could still produce my historical Critical arguments against a belief in the virgin birth, those same arguments no longer had any force. In fact they seemed pointless.

One might say that the practice of saying the creed lead to my beleif in the Virgin Birth. But that seems so sterile and attempts to isolate the practice and affirmation from a much larger reality of my commitments and community. First I was raised as a Christian, raised with this whole set of beliefs, but those beliefs are expressions of an idenity and and commitement and both the practices and the beliefs of that community reinforced each other. I don't know that I have ever completely been able to step out of those commitments, even when I questioned a particular affirmation within that matrix of belief. Even at the moment that I was feeling compeled by humanistic and atheistic arguments, I found myself having visions of Christ Crucified as the fundamental actuality of my own being, a vision that indicated that if I let go of Christ that I would disintegrate. This expreince of Christ lead me back to the community that taught me who Christ was, and that community leads me to the larger community of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. This commitment leads me to both practices and beleifs, maybe even beliefs that I can't accept on my own based on my own reasoning.

In Spiritual Direction I often attempt to help people discern their commitments and relationships, ultimately with God but also from God to those arround them. This invariably means talking about beliefs and practices. To begin to talk about how one wants to live, how one wants to act in the world is to already have asked the question of what one believes. I have found both in my own life and the life of my directees that some doubt can paralize, or that a inconsistent or false belief can lead to unhelpful even destructive behaviors or practices. I have also seen how a certain practice can iluminate what a person in fact believes. Though there are times that a practice contradicts a particular belief only to reveai upon examination either another contradictory belief or an unresloved question about a belief. But ultimately all this goes back to commitments, relationship and love, Ultimately with God. Spiritual Direction can only go so far if the directee is unwilling to engage her beliefs and practices on the level of commitment and practice.


Pastor Gavin said...

Larry, if you don't mind, I'd like to take a stab at this issue coming from a completely different starting point.
In our adult Bible study at our church (in rural Iowa) we have been looking at the early church (as described in Acts and beyond). I've been having fun introducing some of the letters of the apostolic fathers to my congregation. One thing we went through was the Didache. It was short enough that we could look at the whole thing and the second half of it specifically dealt with what was expected in a small rural church in the second century. The first half of the Didache presents the Two Ways. There is the way of life and the way of death. It then tells you how you are to live if you want to live the way of life. What follows are a bunch of do's and don'ts.
Someone in my Contemporary Christian congregation (does that title need a trademark? I'm not sure) rose their hand and said that they found the Didache to be very legalistic. It didn't talk at all about asking Jesus into your heart and believing in him. Obviously, they were reading it from a perspective that placed belief and behavior at odds. Trying to speak in their language, I commented that this was a letter written to people who were already Christians and it wasn't trying to say how people should be saved, rather it was trying to say how the saved should live. I'm not sure that this answer I gave was completely honest or helpful. The truth is that, for some reason, we have divided up faith and works, belief and practices. Yet they need to be connected. Sometimes your belief will affect your practices. Sometimes your practices will affect your belief. A friend told me of a church they grew up in where the Pastor was having an affair with a lady in the church. Suddenly his desk in his office was covered with books about Jesus not being the Messiah. His actions and his beliefs did not mesh up, and therefore one needed to change. For this man, it was easier to change his beliefs than his actions. Sometimes it is the other way around. Either way, it is when the beliefs and actions do point in the same direction that you are going to be most comfortable with yourself.
Anyway, just some thoughts on the issue, from a different starting point.

Larry Kamphausen said...

Hi Gavin,
Glad you are able to introduce your congregation to the Didache, how exciting.
I find it interesting that the person who raised his hand found the Didache legalistic, mainly because (although I haven't read it recently that was not my reaction upon first reading it years ago.) But, it does seem that we have divided off beliefs and practices. I would suggest we do this because we have a poor understanding of how our commitments form us and that belief and practice are about our commitments. So the "contemporary Christian" reads the Didache and he can't see the practices as the outgrowth and expression of commitment to Christ, but I would suspect he has also reduced belief to a bear minimum of propositions that have to be accepted to be saved, or in your case "accepting Jesus into your heart", but doesn't that entail knowing/believing certain things about Jesus. Ie. that he is God, that God is Three persons in one essence etc.... and isnt' "accepting Jesus in ones heart" a contemporary Christian practice?
Your final example I think simply ilustrates your point quite well, it is difficult perhaps impossilbe to divide out our beliefs and practices. A change in one eventually (if one is seeking integrity) will affect the other.
Perhaps "contemporary Christianity" fails to see this connection because it fails to seek integrity in the face of trying to insist that we are not saved by our works, which is true.
After all, what can it possibly mean that someone is saved if they in the business place are as ruthless as everyother business person around them? or if they turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor and so on. It seems to me "contemporary Christian" churches are full of people who have accpeted Jesus in theri hearts and live no differently than their neighbor.
but then perhaps I am to harsh.