What I Believe

I was raised in a fairly traditional Christian family.  There was much that I appreciated about this upbringing, and I still have an  immense gratitude to my parents for raising what was, despite the faults that all families have, a loving and supportive family.  Still, my beliefs, religious and otherwise, have changed a great deal from those that were taught to me, and as I have been confronted with raising my own family, I have begun to realize the need to articulate my beliefs more clearly.  While my own thinking might tolerate a great deal of ambiguity about some of these things, a child’s thinking does not, and I am struggling to say clearly, concisely, and simply what it is that I believe.

What follows is a first attempt.  It is not adequate for more reasons than I can list here, but I hope that it might be a place where I can begin thinking through these kinds of ideas with others who are like-minded.  Though the following statements are very influenced by my Christian upbringing, they are only those that I feel that I can defend experientially, apart from any specific text or tradition.

1. I believe in a God who loves us, though I confess that I do not understand this love.

2. I believe in a God who comes to us because we are unable to come to God, though I confess that I do not understand how this  is accomplished.

3. I believe that the only proper response to God’s love is to love God in return, and that it is only possible to love God through loving one another.

4. I believe that all true religion, in whatever faith it arises, leads to an increase of love, and that any religion leading to anything else, in whatever faith it arises, is false, absolutely.

5. I believe that God appears through the Christian tradition, through its scriptures and sacraments, though I suspect that this appearance is neither exclusive nor absolute.

6. I believe that the only essential theology is this:  “God loves us, so we must love God through loving one another.”

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30 comments
  1. John Jantunen said:

    You know, Luke, I always wondered (but even my abrassiveness has boundaries). Thanks for articulating so clearly. I have confided, previously, that I don’t believe in God (a or the), for reasons that we have discussed, but that said I agree with much of what you have written, even though I would, and do, use different words to express my beliefs. I particularily agree that one must articulate clearly one’s beliefs so that one’s children can be given a stable foundation upon which to base their own, be they in harmony or in conflict with their parents. It is as we discussed the other day, In the beginning was the word… By necessity, the word is always the first step towards action, be it mumbled to oneself or proclaimed to the world, because contained within the word is the idea and it is the idea that we, initially, have about ourselves, who we are and what we believe, that defines our ideas about the world in which we live in and then, the idea thus seeded, germinates into the sense of agency that enables us to use this understanding of ourselves in relation to the world to begin the lifelong process of creating the world in which we want to live.

    John

  2. d said:

    I do not understand how anyone can believe the first, unless the ‘us’ is reduced to a very small number of people.

  3. John,

    Yes, belief needs to be articulated so that it can become action. Otherwise it will produce nothing.

  4. d,

    Yes, you touch on the hardest question. I have no answer for it. I do believe that any answer would suffice. Even so, I believe that God loves all of us. I have spent more night hours than I can count, laying on my bed, wrestling with this paradox, but I am no further closer to an answer. If there is an answer, it surpasses me entirely, and I am left only with believing what I seem to have no choice but to believe.

  5. d said:

    Curtis,

    Why? Treblinka.

  6. D, I see, I have no answer to this. I did make some very ignorant comments, which did not comprehend your answer, which Luke was gracious enough to delete and inform me of privately. I have no terms to come to this very simple argument. It does on the other hand make me curious about the second part of your first response ‘the ‘us’ is reduced to a very small number of people.’

  7. d said:

    Curtis,

    What I mean by the second part of my answer is that it makes sense (to me) to believe that God loves us if ‘us’ is defined as, for example, a small demographic of people who are ‘on the right side of history’. I just read a book about Afro-Americans in New England in the 18th Century. At that time, the ‘us’ of New England Protestants was moreorless an exclusively white ‘us’. White racism in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries was usually expressed in religious terms. While we all agree that this narrow approach is abhorrent – and ultimately in contradiction with the text of the Bible – it ‘makes sense’ as a means of maintaining Christian optimism in the face of the slave trade.

    I think the practical outcome of Luke’s theology is a fine one (what else can one be left with but good works and love?), but I do not share the optimism that it is rooted in. I am not convinced by Christian theodicy. I am not a theist, but in my reading the logical outcome of theism is a deeply pessimistic and terrifying vision. If I say, “ok, I will take the Torah seriously, I will live my life as if G-d really did give these laws to Moses during the exodus and so on”, then I am left with an understanding of ‘chosen people’ that is a burden rather than a gift. I am left with the Talmudic concept of G-d in exile. I am left with a world in which redemption has not come yet and which is coming, maybe… maybe? I am left with the theology of Kafka.

    The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too will it sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different. (This is strangely an eloquent metaphor for the ‘revolutions’ of the last two centuries, but that’s a topic for another day.)

    Curtis, I don’t think anyone has an answer to this. I am not satisfied with the ontological implications of atheism either. Nowhere to go, really.

    Luke,

    Thank you again for provoking me to think about these things or for allowing me to think through them on your website. I value your writings very much and look forward to sharing with you the new issue of my journal, which appears later this month.

  8. d said:

    Also, I am very curious what your initial response was, but I understand if you do not want to share it.

  9. Allan Heidman said:

    Luke,
    If you believe in the God who appears to us through Christian tradition and scripture, you really need to comment on more than just his love. You need to say something about his holiness, otherwise you will lack the proper context for his love and you will wind up with people saying stuff like, “How can a loving God allow (insert tragic event here)?”. A loving God divorced of pure holiness is not the God of the bible.

    It is important to understand that God’s love to us is not expressed in his attempt to make us feel loved or feel comfortable or even to grant us eternal life. God’s love needs the context of his holiness for it to cohere with the reality which we observe. God’s love is expressed to us through his desire to make us holy. That process is not always comfortable. Often it will not make any sense at all actually. But, as a Christian, I can trust a holy God. He knows what I need better than I do.

    It is perhaps easier to understand God’s love as we consider ourselves as parents. Our children do not always like our decisions, but I can say that I will always do what is best for my children because I love my children. I will try to send them to bed on time. I will make sure that they eat proper foods. I will make sure they go to school. I will discipline them. I will do all of these things even though my children will not like my decision at the time.

    In order to understand my love for my kids, you need to contextualize my love in the concept of what is good for them, and not in what makes them feel good at the time. So it is with God. God is holy and he knows what it is to be holy. In that then, he will lead me into becoming holy because that is how he expresses his love to me. The question for today then is this: Do I trust him?

  10. d said:

    Moshe Halbertal has an article in the latest issue of the Jewish Review of Books called ‘The Limits of Prayer’. I think it is relevant to this discussion. Unfortunately, the full online text is only available to subscribers, or I would like it here.

    These paragraphs in particular…

    “What appears to be an irrelevant digression in our chapter turns out to be a clarification of an 
essential aspect of religious life. It rejects two possible and completely consistent solutions. The first one suggests an easy division of labor—a person should thank God for the good and may petition him to counteract all that is bad. The second option could have been to adopt a resigned attitude and to repudiate the religious value of petition altogether. Such fatalistic opposition to petitionary prayer has been adopted by some religious traditions on the grounds that a devout person should leave his fate in God’s hands. In rejecting these two options, the Mishnah shapes a complex attitude towards evil. When bad things are still avoidable, a person ought to fight them with all his strength. He should act on his own and petition God up to the last moment.

    But once the events have actually occurred, he has to shift from demand to acceptance.”

    I understand this, but it seems indecent, as does the metaphor of parenting.

  11. John Jantunen said:

    d.

    I don’t understand why those who profess to not believe in god are dissatisfied with the ontological implications of atheism. What is there about clinging to a warm drop of moisture in the vast coldness of space that makes some people question what their nature seems to be telling them? What I like about Luke’s clarification (especially point #6) is that it allows one to hold such a view (the hot and wet theory of existence, if you will) with very little difference in the way either belief requires us to act since, in both cases, our greatness (closeness to god?) is revealled by the extent of our love for those around us. Means being what they are and the end being so far out of reach, I wonder why all the fuss?

  12. Jordan Vetro said:

    John,
    I don’t know if I am misunderstanding what you appreciate in Luke’s post here, but I would think that the joy of belief is not in our ability to change one point, or idea, or word and see no change in our action. Belief, in its most solid and real form, is exciting because the smallest change necessitates and creates the greatest difference. I think the only way we can argue that different beliefs result in the same application is to begin with the importance of the application, and then support it with our motivations which we will use to shape our beliefs. With belief as a starting point; a place where we stand so that we can ask ‘What now must I do,’ we see the difference in beliefs becoming so much more important. I think treating separate beliefs like they are the same codes with ‘synonyms’ like ‘greatness’ and ‘closeness to god’ included in the statements discounts the importance of belief, and knowing what we believe.

  13. Allan,

    This idea of holiness does not suffice to explain evil in the world. Any God who decides that we need Darfur, Rawanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Cambodia, Stalinist Russia, or Nazi Germany in order to lead us into holiness is not a god but a monster, and while I would defend the metaphor of God as parents in many respects, I agree with d. very strongly that it is not appropriate in this context. I certainly do make decisions that my children do not understand and do not like in order to raise them into ethical and responsible adulthood, but I would never allow them to be subjected to rape and torture and violence and death as a part of this process. If I did, I would not be holy, and any God who would do this would not be holy either, not in any way. Though this is the argument that most Christians make to explain evil in the world, it is radically insufficient, passing glibly over a paradox that must never be passed over to any degree but that should preoccupy us continually as a condition of our ethical relation to the world.

  14. Allan Heidman said:

    Luke,
    God’s holiness does not suffice to explain evil in the world, yes, but it does suffice if we are to ever measure the presence, depth, and extent of evil. I’d call it necessary to gauge it but not sufficent to completely explain it.

    I agree that parenting is a sloppy metephor. It is to parallel me allowing my kids to stay up an hour later with God allowing children in Haiti to die in an earthquake. It’s not an ideal comparison mostly because we have nothing else to use as a standard to gauge pure holiness. God is completely other in that regard. Without a standard to measure good and evil, what exactly are you talking about when you say that something is evil? Basically, you are just talking about your own feelings. But Hitler certainly didn’t feel it was evil.

    So without a moral absolute, we’re only talking about preferences when we talk about good and evil. For some, the holocaust was evil, and for others like Hitler it was not. I’m not at all prepared to say that a holy God does not exist. If he doesn’t exist then all of our talk about good and evil is ultimately meaningless at the cosmic level. You can’t wipe out the frame of reference and then go on about what is good and what is evil. That’s nonsense.

    I did not mean to say that God’s holiness leads him to decide that we need the holocaust. I mean that God’s holiness is what makes him completely other. This is to say that for God there is no death or pain or suffering… among other things. God’s holiness is precisely why we can’t understand him. He is other.

    So, we experience horrors like the holocaust not in spite of our unholiness, but rather as a result of it. In that then, a God who allows something like the holocaust is a God who allows it because it is the outworking of our own unholiness or unrighteousness. He allows it because his creation is cursed. He allows it because His creation has been subjected to frustration. He allows it because we are dead in our sin against him even before he has allowed it to occur. In that, he allows us to suffer because we are already dead to him. We see it as horrific, but He sees it as inevitable without his intervention. It is the outworking of who and what we have become apart from who he is. We see untimely death as evil for the most part, yet for God death is the outworking of a broken creation. Why do we see a natural death as so much less evil than a death by tragedy? It’s still death and it’s still inevitable one way or the other and it is what we are to God: Dead.

    You speak of Christians who argue glibly. In my experience, most atheists have not sufficiently attempted to see the world as God may see it. To argue that God doesn’t love us simply because deep suffering exists is an indication to me that there has been little no attempt on the part of that person to see and comprehend the condition of humanity as God has described it in scripture: Dead in our trespasses and sins.

    The question is not why God allows horrors to occur. The real question is, why are we still here? We who mock him, why are we still standing and breathing? Why does God allow laughter in a world which shakes its fist in defiance against him? Why does God show any mercy at all? If we are dead to him, why does he still seek to redeem us? This is the love of God as I understand it. He does so out of love and not because we have done anything to deserve it.

    Take it a step further: If a holy and loving God were to stamp out every evil in the world, as many suggest he should, where should he begin and where should he end? Why should he not begin with me? Or you? What makes you or I so good and pure that God should spare us? Nothing. This is what I mean by the insufficiency of the atheists arguement. It assumes that the atheist is somehow God’s equal in terms of holiness. It’s flawed. badly. Apart from the grace of a loving God, what hope have we? “While we were still sinners…”.

    Luke, I am curious, what place does the holiness of God have in your theology? If your God is revealed though scripture, I cannot imagine how you are able to have a theology which is soft on his holiness.

  15. Allan,

    If you would argue that evil in the world is explained by the absolute otherness of God, then I need to challenge you to think the idea of transcendence more thoroughly. An absolutely transcendent God would never appear for us at all, and any God that consented to appear to us could only do so by taking on a particular form in a particular place, by becoming immanent. Christian faith is predicated on this idea that God comes to us, becomes like us, endures our suffering, submits to our death, becomes immanent. Christian faith requires that this immanence be accomplished, requires that the distance between the divine and the human, at least in this one respect, be abolished. I have some difficulties with this idea that I will not go into here, but one of its implications is that God is no longer completely other, that God willingly forgoes absolute transcendence in order to be like us, to the point that I do not think traditional Christian theology can make arguments from transcendence alone but must locate itself within the irreducible paradox of a God who is absolutely transcendent and also absolutely immanent, both, simultaneously.

    However, let us assume for a moment a traditional Christian God, one who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and let us assume that this God is holy and transcendent in the sense that you are describing. This God creates a world in which he knows that people will choose to sin, in which he knows that people will subject each other to unspeakable horrors, a world in which he knows that he will permit these things to occur. Such a God, according to all human understanding, even according to many of the principles outlined in the scriptures that proclaim him, would be deeply monstrous. According to any principle of goodness and righteousness and justice imaginable by the human mind, he could be said to be loving and holy in only the most twisted and perverted ways.

    Now, I am not claiming that God is twisted and perverted. Neither am I claiming that God is unloving or unholy, though I would contest very strongly some of the ways that you understand the concept of holiness. What I am claiming is that there is no satisfactory human explanation that would reconcile the ideas of a loving God and an evil world, but that I nevertheless experience and affirm a God who loves. I am claiming that any faith in a loving God must exist in the tension of this paradox, and I am claiming that any attempt to unravel this paradox according to human understanding will only trivialize both the evil that people endure and the love of God that people experience.

    Religion in general and Christianity in particular needs to stop pretending that the question of evil and suffering is one that it has solved or can solve. It needs to confess that it too is broken in the face of the evil we do, one to the other. And yet, at the same time, in the same breath, every time and always, it must also confess how God has loved us. It would be spiritually and intellectually dishonest to pass over this paradox.

  16. John Jantunen said:

    Jordan,

    Does this mean that if I follow the teachings of Christ but don’t believe that he was the son of god that my actions will necessarily be different than someone who follows his teachings but does believe in the immaculate conception? I am uncertain how.

  17. John Jantunen said:

    Allan,

    Just to clarify, when you say, “to argue that (God doesn’t love us simply because deep suffering exists) is an indication to me that there has been little no attempt on the part of that person to see and comprehend the condition of humanity”, are you suggesting that the bracketed section is what an atheist might argue? If so, I offer that an atheists would counter by saying that god doesn’t love us because he doesn’t exist and, further, that whether a person believes in a god has no bearing upon said person’s ability to comprehend the condition of humanity (a random survey of the literature would, I suggest, back me up on this).

  18. Mr. Heidman- I believe that your inclusion of Holiness is completely irrelevent to the point in context. God’s love is not at all in context of producing ‘Holiness’. Whatever that is? The point in the scripture, as it was used from the get go by youself, is to become fully Human as Christ was, this is to become fully alive, as Christ was, in this frame work, Holiness is not emphasised except in the notion of being God’s glory, his reputation, his image, his testimony on earth, in the end, God revile’s and fleeces everyone who gave a damn about being holy, you know, not feeding the hungry, not helping the homeless, naked, rejected, drunkards, the raped, the prostitute, the poor, the rich who have this attitude. It is pretty clear that this attitude of ‘holiness’ is exactly what makes us inhuman, ‘dead’, devoid of eternal life, and at odds with God.

    It might be truly beneficial that most of the approved things you hear from the pulpit, are by default of tradition, absolutely false- ‘Holiness’, absolute truth, evangelism, ‘purity’, faith, all of them come from a total lack of appreciation for humanity- and so completely evil.

  19. If to become holy, is to be ‘like God’ as in to rise above something, once one becomes elevated or in awe to desire elevation, rather than to produce the decent of Christ, which for the entire purpose of LOVE, endured suffering for no other reason than we could fall into love.

    It has nothing to do with Holiness, it has to do, those whom love God love humanity, those whom love God, align with him, and those who aligned with him align with others, so he aligns with them, and vice versa, he aligns with those who align with us, nothing else matters, True religion is to hunger for the hungry to be fed, to be blown raw for the naked to be clothed, the see the blind, talk to the deaf, speak to the mute, kneel with the lame, come down, get dirty, get sick, get ripped to bits by love, be crucified, without any metaphors about bs like Holiness, and love your neighbour, weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, give water for thirst, blankets for cold, medicine for illness,company for the isolated, blood for the bleeding, life for the dying, personhood for the trampled, ‘holiness’ wont let go, reality expholiates entirely, affection, love, sacrifice, obedient allegiance to people, if this is not Holiness, to sweat in the dust for your brother- then who the hell needs to be holy, it’s useless, stupid, and will atrify us with an end to purpose.

  20. Jordan Vetro said:

    John,
    I would say this is a very good example of what I mean. To decide to follow the teachings of Christ, and to make any belief about Christ’s nature and existence arbitrary to that decision, will necessarily affect action. A paper by Nietzsche discusses how we are constantly putting the cart before the horse; confusing action and motivation. Does the desire to love tell us something about Christ or does our belief in Christ teach us how we should love? To believe in Christ as the son of God is to have the motivation of heaven, God, and the supernatural realm of reality behind action – to believe that Christ was not the son of God is to believe in a love that is formed out of human experience and historically developed to better humankind. I will not place one over the other, but I believe I could very quickly lay out a piece on how the difference in motivation will change the nature of the love, or of any action. The difference between belief and disbelief in the supernatural realm is one of the most obvious examples of a belief that drastically changes our motivation to act. I think if this point were not important, then a piece on “What I believe” would lose a lot of its relevance. We would do better to teach people how to act and leave belief to each person as a past-time.

  21. D, in pondering the things you say, the one thing that comes to mind, is whether it can be expressed this way by everyone or not, what precisely becomes love, without the idea that, God not only loves us in the simplest exchange of one generous stranger to another, or between good friends, or within family, or best and most wonderfully, in romance [by which I do not at all mean candles and poetry and such rubbish] but that we, in becoming love for what we have seen in another person in order to love them, in any of those four loves, are not seeing God and so loving God, as well as the mystery of loving that person, separate, but despite, and also as a direct result of that God-headedness? I would like to understand, how one loves anyone without the notion of a God who loves us, and in being able to love, what is it then if it is not to be mesmerised by the deity implicit in another person?

  22. Mr. Heidman, in terms of what you have presented on a ‘theological’ level, how do you reconcile to the fact that it is neither traditional nor biblical?

  23. John Jantunen said:

    Jordan,

    What you say is all well and good, but I’m going to need a concrete example of how person A’s action will necessarily differ from person B’s (that’s just the way my mind works.)

  24. d said:

    Curtis,

    I am having trouble parsing your second-to-last comment (“in pondering the things…”). Can you rephrase it? I want to understand what you are saying before I respond.

  25. Well, for me love is the ability to see God in another person, loving them inspite of, and because of the deity you witness in them on all levels of relationship, from stranger to lover. I view this ability to love another, as being able to love God, and when it is returned truly, honestly, rivetingly, well then God is shown to love us, from stranger, friend, family, lover. If God doesn’t love us then, what becomes of love between us simple people?

  26. In the same category in reverse, if one is able to love a stranger by the genius present in them, even extending it to the reality that we can lose patience, isn’t the response of someone to not love, simply the refusal to see God, a refusal to compel love from within themselves, or be aware of this ability to love even what did not exist before you bumped into them on the bored walk.

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