In today’s post I want to talk about our willingness to hold, suspend and ignore belief in favour of knowledge, facts and truth – and why it doesn’t make much sense to me.
Closed hand, open mind?
I wonder if you have ever come across the concept of “closed hand” and “open hand” theology? The basic idea is that there are some ideas which cannot be negotiated (closed hand) and some which can (open hand). For example, Jesus being the Son of God would be considered “closed hand” by most Christians, but creationism is considered “open hand” by most – in this country anyway. “Open hand” ideas can be held more lightly than “closed hand” ones.
In my years of deconstructing my faith I started to tear down all of the open hand ideas that I had, and followed swiftly with the closed hand ideas – I’m not sure any longer about penal substitution, the existence of the devil, the idea that anybody is condemned to hell, and so on.
I have also found myself increasingly willing to accept scientific and situational explanations for everything. Feeding 5000? sharing food previously kept selfishly. Walking on water? stepping stones. Demon possession? a crude and offensive depiction of epilepsy. Jesus’ death on the cross as atonement? symbolism.
So my closed hand has become smaller and smaller as my mind has become more and more “open” – or so it would seem to a someone both liberal and cerebral.
The thing about belief is that there’s got to be a point to it. Otherwise we’re just creating a fantasy world for the sake of it. Now, questions of truth aside for a moment – let us consider the way in which we believe.
The term “suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a philosopher-poet. Loosely, it refers to the willingness of human beings to pretend something to be true in spite of one’s doubts, for the sake of enjoyment and happiness.
Ever been to a church? sounds familiar doesn’t it. People pushing aside obvious explanations in favour of more convoluted ones used to support their pre-existing idea of God: healing that doesn’t seem miraculous; coincidences that seem like, well, coincidences. That sort of thing. All the while covered under the blanket protection from any kind of critique: “you just don’t have enough faith”.
This kind of approach makes many people, myself included, want to suspend our belief – not our disbelief. We want to explain everything as rational so that it doesn’t seem quite so, well, crazy…
A healthier approach to belief
Whilst I do happen to think that the kind of church context I’ve just described is all-too-common; I think we can end up taking it too far. If we deconstruct everything, we have nothing left to build on.
Let’s say for a minute that, like me, you are inclined to believe in God. But not just God – the God who also sent Jesus to the earth. Jesus then explains to all of his followers that God is love and that fundamentally we must love God, ourselves and one another.
Let’s stop it there. Because after that, it gets complicated, doesn’t it?
I come from an Evangelical background where the “closed hand” extends beyond here into Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the afterlife [and curiously ignores a lot of his social teaching – but that’s for another day]. Yet I now find myself in a Liberal context where each of those things are held as a very much open question.
I want to suggest that there’s a healthy way of discerning between what we choose to explain, and what we choose to believe. I think it comes down to the question of why we want to explain everything away.
For me, the answer to that question is insecurity. What if I am wrong? What if God isn’t real? perhaps if I reduce God down to something lesser – a God who does not perform miracles; a God who does not intervene; a God who does not raise from the dead – perhaps then I don’t have to be so insecure about my beliefs. My doubts will be lessened because there will be less to doubt in the first place.
So back to my earlier thread – let’s say God is real, etc. Why wouldn’t I want to believe that there’s a life to come, that Jesus is coming back, and that he raised from the dead and that we will raise with him? Why wouldn’t I believe that God incarnate could walk on water, heal the sick, fight evil and so on?
Because it’s too hard to believe some of those things in an ever secularized world where I can alienate myself more and more from the stories of faith found in the circles where disbelief has been well and truly suspended. Perhaps, just perhaps, I am throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
After all. I believe in God. I believe that there is something beyond this. This is not all there is. There’s more.
I believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s more than meets the eye to this universe and its stories and tales and myths and legends and science and faith and – all of it. There’s more. Moreover, I believe that this “God” has a way to interact with us and chose very specifically to be a part of the world in Jesus.
Pretty wacky stuff, isn’t it? So, why wouldn’t I go a bit further and believe in heaven, hell, resurrection, and so on?
That’s the question I find I am constantly now asking myself. I have no answer other than to respond by choosing to recognise that I’ve already come this far. So I might as well go that bit further.
There’s always a catch
Of course, there are 2 significant critiques to this that I can’t let be ignored. The first is that this all falls down if we take away the idea that God is the Judeo-Christian God. Of course that’s true. I happen to believe in that God because I believe that God has had an impact on my life; because I have seen patterns; because I have come to believe that it is that God who is talked about in the Bible and that I have had similar experiences.
I cannot prove what I believe. That’s why it is called belief and not knowledge. But I can decide to believe it – that’s my prerogative. You may disagree if you wish!
Secondly, where does this leave our critique of the church and its willful suspension of disbelief? I think there are a couple of things here. Primarily, suspension doesn’t excuse terrible theology. Just because you want to say something is true because it is “written in scripture” and you happen to have a very particular way of seeing it – does not make it true.
I don’t mean to pick on a particular ideology, but if we take the example of creationism: It’s a poem, written as a description of the idea that God made everything on purpose. It’s not meant to be a treatise on the development of species across the globe.
The other upshot of suspension of belief is that it leaves no room for doubt. Doubt is a vital part of our journey of faith. Doubt and faith are not opposites. Faith and knowledge are opposites. Doubt is a sign that our brains have not ceased to engage with a topic. Doubt is a sign that we are open to new ideas and ways of being, to change, to improvement, to a better understanding of the world around us.
Doubt is fundamentally good. And yet it is sidelined and ignored by a great many in the world of Christendom.
I have come to the conclusion that faith and knowledge need to remain separate – and that doubt is incredibly useful a tool in this. I have also come to the conclusion that if I am not willing to eliminate my belief in the God if Jesus, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, then I ought to consider accepting some of the rest of the story.
Why wouldn’t I want there to be a new earth, where God reconciles all things, where there is no more pain, suffering, poverty, disease, hunger and torture? Why wouldn’t I want to see those who lived all to short a life given life eternal? Why wouldn’t I want to have belief in the idea that the blind could see and the deaf could hear and the mute could talk?
It’s too good a story to not believe in.