Friday, October 24, 2014

Do You Really Believe What You Believe? Why?

As I have been writing posts the last few days, a thought keeps poking up through the rant in my head, about why people believe things, and I think this is something that most people probably don't consider a whole lot. Of course, I am so sheltered, having grown up in a totally conservative environment, where everyone's beliefs are handed down from generation to generation, with no need to question them until recently, because, the majority of people, while not necessarily subscribing to them, agreed that they were probably true, at least on some level.

This makes me one of the worst judges of what normal people do, or talk, or think about. But, in my experience, a lot of people that I have known, seem to give more thought to their choice of a favorite major league sports franchise, than they do to their philosophy on life. That, or they spend about six months during college, when they are taking philosophy, or comparative religion, or psychology to gel their belief system, and then they never revisit it, you know, set it and forget it, like the showtime rotisserie.

So, I thought about it and I came to a few conclusions, which are probably completely wrong, but I am sure you kind people will be good enough to correct my misconceptions. So, here they are.

WHY?

There are a few major reasons that people believe the things they believe, most of them are, in one way or another, inherited. Here they are in no particular order.

  • Because my parents told me so
  • Because I learned it in school
  • Because that is what everyone else I know believes
  • The Bible says so
  • And last but not least, there are a few individuals who think it through, listen to input, read, study and come to well reasoned conclusions.

So, there they are. Now, let's take them apart and look at them a little.

BECAUSE MY PARENTS SAID SO

For most of us, this one tends to wear off a bit by the time we are fourteen. However, it comes back around as the default when we reach adulthood, unless we find other beliefs to take up space in our heads, but for the record, this is probably the single worst reason to believe anything!

My dad, the preacher, used to use this sermon illustration: A woman is preparing her first big Holiday meal in her own home,and her mother sits at the kitchen table, helping with odd things here and there. The woman pulls a large roast out of the refrigerator, where it has been marinating, and promptly cuts off both ends of it, putting the smaller, center section of the roast into a broiler pan with the herbs and spices, and pops it in the oven.
Her mother looks at her questioningly and the daughter asks why, the mother asks why she has cut the roast that way, and the daughter says, because you taught me to. The mother laughs. Turns out the mother had been cutting the roast off at both ends because the pan she had when the daughter lived at home, was too small for a larger roast. In turn, this pan was the one inherited from her mother, who also cut the roast ends to accommodate the smaller pan.

It is a fact that our parents do have deeply held beliefs, and that we tend to pick up on them. Some are overtly shared, and expected to be carried on. Some are unintentionally passed along through habits and traditions. In some cases, we may not even know the difference, like the woman cutting the roast, there are probably things in most lives that we do thinking they are important, or sacred on some level, when all the while it is just what has always been done. This roast cutting ritual could have been passed down to another generation, and so on, if the mother had never asked.

These beliefs may be useful, and some of them may prove to be true, but accepting beliefs, especially beliefs that dictate your relationships, religious observances, or political affiliations, without really knowing if you really believe in them or not, seems like a recipe for an unfulfilled life.

So, how do you explore these family heirlooms without being disrespectful? First, there is absolutely no reason to say anything to anyone who will be offended, until you have truly decided. You are an adult, and you can choose your own beliefs. Where your parents are right, follow them and teach your children to do the same, where they are wrong, drop it like its hot. When it doesn't matter, just think it through, if the belief adds to your life, keep it, if not, do what you want, if it detracts, throw it out.

MY TEACHER TOLD ME SO!

Teachers are great, and if you listen to the news, they are the unsung heroes of our era, but keep looking and you will also see that some of them are not and should never be left alone with minors. In general, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and most teachers are hard working, well meaning people who took their jobs to help young people get a head start on life.

Teachers are fairly well educated, and as such are looked to as dispensers of accurate information. However, many of them also start straight into their teaching profession, with little work, or other adult experience, outside academia. Sometimes this creates a very narrow window of information and they share mostly what was taught to them and from approved sources that other teachers use as well.

In general, this is not a problem when it comes to basic facts, but almost all of what we consider to be beliefs are not factual information, but opinion based ideals that we use as a framework for making life decisions. A person with limited outside experience, who works inside a government structure, with others who have a similarly limited experience, may not be the best ones to get your world view from.

Everyone has biases, the trick is to expose yourself to enough different points of view to minimize the impact your biases have on your general belief system. So, same as with the parents, when it comes to beliefs you learned in school, expose them to the light of day, if they still stand up, keep them, if not, meh...

EVERYONE KNOWS THAT!

Everyone, as it turns out, is a highly unreliable source of information. After all, everyone, passed around a story that had youngsters and women sneaking peaks into their back seats in fear of a gangster wannabe with a hatchet, ready to take their hand back to their leaders in some form of gang initiation. Turns out, this never happened, or was never recorded at least, not one single time! But everyone was convinced that it was true.

Recently everyone has been up in arms about a lot of things that are going to destroy the American dream, take your pick
  • Illegal aliens
  • Ebola
  • Obama
  • The NSA
  • ISIS

The names change from time to time, but there is nothing new in that. Before we were so afraid of Islamic terrorists, it was Russians. When the iron curtain finally came down, what did we find out? Were they our equal, but opposite nemesis? NO, they were a broke, disorganized mess that could not even keep track of their own nuclear arsenal. Everyone knew they were going to get us, to the point that school children were subjected to ridiculously pointless drills, in the firm belief that their eventual attack could be survived by ducking and covering under a school desk. But it never happened.

It is my opinion, that none of these things will be our ultimate undoing, we will destroy ourselves, running from one fear to the next, with everyone cheering us on to our demise.

There are some simple way to combat everyone's beliefs. First, do a little fact checking before you decide to believe what they say. Find out for yourself, especially if your health, safety, finances, or family are at risk if they are wrong. In this day and age, information on almost anything is available at your fingertips. When everyone was saying that thousands were being beheaded by ISIS a simple search would reveal that the source was one single interview which got repeated so many times that it became fact over night, although credible evidence was nowhere to be found, and even many conservative watchdog sites caught on and debunked some of the photos claiming to show this atrocity.

Think about it, if there were thousands of christians being beheaded, wouldn't you be able to find pictures? I mean, Rene Zellweger gets a little eyelid tuck and there are literally hundreds of stories chock full of comparison photos,and you seriously think that the same govt that used this story as a justification to bomb another middle eastern country straight to hell scrubbed the internet of photos related to it? Turns out, there were never even tens of thousands of this people group to begin with.

Same practice applies, if it isn't true, or doesn't make sense, why bother with it? In most cases, a simple, am I minding my own business? Test will make it unnecessary for you to have an opinion at all. It goes like this: Does this have a direct bearing on my life? No, scrap it. Yes, continue. Is there anything I can do to change it? No, stop worrying so much, Yes, do it! If it really does not effect you in any way, stop talking about it, it's gossip, it's none of your business and you are becoming a part of the problem.

THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO!

This one is tricky for me, because I happen to believe in the Bible as a source of truth. But, I have heard more outrageous beliefs justified by supposed Biblical support, or mandate, than just about anything else. So, let's get started, shall we?

The first stop on this little jaunt is, does it really? Does it really say whatever is being claimed? In many cases, the answer will be yes, and you may have to do a little digging to get to the truth. In addition to a literal interpretation of a single verse,or small passage, an understanding of context will often clear up many misunderstandings. For instance, there are some verses, if quoted on their own, or only in part, seem to say one thing. For example the Bible says “We keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace” but in reality that verse says: “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” And the following verse adds to this understanding by adding: “Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?”

This is, of course, not something that I have ever heard anyone claim, or teach, but you get the idea. So, ask, where is that verse, then go and read the passage, the chapter, or two chapters surrounding it. Find out , who is talking? Who are they talking to? Why are they saying what they are saying? Does it really seem to mean what you heard it meant? Does that line up with the rest of scripture, and what you know about the Bible and christianity? If not, keep looking until you find the answer!

There are other more subtle nuances to this as well, for instance, do you know the difference between a translation and a version? Is the version being quoted generally seen as reliable to the original text? Are the passages still relevant today? Not everything that is in scripture is generally considered applicable to modern believers. Is the language in the passage, other than what was quoted figurative, or literal?

Asking all of these questions will get you through many crises of Biblical understanding, and just knowing these tips will put you way ahead of many people who even teach the Bible themselves!

Before I leave this topic, I want to hit on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Basically, the tenets of most evangelical, mainstream protestant denominations state that the Bible is perfect. That it was protected by God so that it would be perfectly translated, that the documents that are a part of it are perfect, and inspired directly by God and that it is the complete revealed message of God.

This is something I used to ascribe to, vehemently. Then one day I realized, it does not matter. No, I don't mean it isn't important whether it is true, or accurate. What I mean is this, we cannot claim to perfectly understand all parts of scripture. If you think you do, there will be an equal number of equally educated experts lined up on the other side to argue against your interpretation, so, ergo, whether it is perfect or not, does not matter. This does not mean we should not strive to understand it better and better as we live our lives.

Here is one question to ask yourself regarding the inerrancy of scripture, why does it matter to you? I know for myself it was a matter of self justification. In other words, if I have this perfect book, and I use it as a filter to judge everything in life, then I can know that what I believe is true, all of the time. Another part of why it mattered was this, I could also “rightly judge” the actions of others to know who was and was not in the club!

I will argue the other side for one moment. This document, however flawed, is the only tangible thing we Christians have to base our faith on. It is the only single point of conversion we can all point to and work from in understanding how we should interact with each other, and it is the most complete record of the life of Christ and His teachings.

So, is “because the Bible tells me so” a good reason to believe something? In many cases, the answer may be yes. But not everything that it says is as it appears, especially out of context, and not everything someone claims it says is true. Want to be one of the best educated Christians in the world? Read it, from front to back, you will be more informed than almost every other believer. Very few ever do that.

THINK FOR YOURSELF!

Above all else, you have been given a mind, and a conscience. If you are a Christian, Jesus said the spirit of God would reside within you. You have all of the mental, spiritual and physical capacities to make good decisions, form good beliefs and judge what you want to add, and what you want to discard. Ultimately, you will be accountable for your own life, take this from Paul, the Apostle

If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience' sake. But if anyone says to you, "This is meat sacrificed to idols," do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience' sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man's; for why is my freedom judged by another's conscience?…

I love this last bit, why is my freedom judged by another's conscience. No, it should not be. You and you alone will give an account for the life you lead. Please, think about your beliefs, get rid of those that don't fit. Accept new and better ones when you find them and live by all of your beliefs in such a way that you love all men, at all times, in all places.



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