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Beliefs Do Matter; Often Not how We Expect

March 31, 2011

Human develpement philosopher Ken Wilber makes the important point that the cognitive (conscious knowledge, learning) aspect of our complex make-up is a core guide to our broader development.  It can be, and often is, a limiting factor as well!  Our beliefs can either spur or get in the way of our spiritual (or other) development.

When we are part of a religion, even if we think of it as a faith or “The Truth” or “The Way” (an often-used moniker emphasizing “way of life” and going back at least to the 1st century Christians), we are declaring belief in at least a few concepts about God and the world.  In the case of Christianity this includes Jesus Christ, of course.  In Christianity, for most of its history, adherence to various creeds or catechisms (all pretty similar since the earliest broadly spread one around 1700 years ago) is crucial.  Orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (error) are measured in relation to creeds and more thorough statements of dogma (beliefs).  Heresy is taken very, very seriously. 

Lately there is a lot of discussion, much of it via interactive blogs, among Christians and others about the nature and specific beliefs of true Christianity.  The internet seems to have spurred this kind of discussion more widely and drawn more people actively into it than in pre-internet days, although it’s hard to make a solid comparison.  What the consequences of the apparent explosion of discussion are and will be is a fascinating if yet an elusive question.  At the least, I’m assuming there is a strong educational and stimulating-of-thinking effect, which I celebrate.  Hopefully another result is growing recognition of and respect for others inside and outside of one’s own faith, and desire to cooperate on shared goals.  If you participate, as I do both here and on others’ blogs, Facebook, etc., I encourage you to remember this larger picture when you may get ticked off and want to blast someone.      

But I digress… I wanted to make one key observation about the process of all this in relation to the “cognitive line” of our development among the many spoken of by Wilber.  It is to identify one issue “beneath the issues.”  If one has studied much psychology or observed one’s own and others’ emotionally intimate interactions, one realizes how often a deeper issue lurks beneath the issue being outwardly discussed. 

Here’s the underlying issue I refer to, relative to these extensive interactions on what to believe about the Bible and the many prescriptive statements in it (or the condemnations that guide positions on many current “hot button” cultural issues such as gay marriage or ordination, etc.): very few people step back to examine how and why they came to their beliefs in the first place or how/why they maintain them or form new ones.  Oh, they may point to “I was taught that growing up,” or “I had a dramatic conversion experience,” or something like this, but the examination remains surface.  This helps perpetuate the never-ending battle (sometimes fun but often nasty, with painful results) over who is right and why it matters.  Often it does matter, but perhaps not in the way the believer thinks. 

One step out of this unproductive, energy-wasting cycle is to cultivate the habit of looking at our own thinking style to better understand what may unconsciously push us toward certain beliefs.  Ultimately we are our own authority.  Let me reiterate: we determine who and what we end up accepting as valid authority on which to base our beliefs.  Shouldn’t we know ourselves enough to trust our own judgment, or know that we can’t, without careful double or triple-checks? Actually, we all should require such checks — much as I tend to trust my judgment at this stage of life, I do so largely because I’ve learned to seek multiple confirmations and to hold beliefs tentatively meanwhile.

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