Maybe it’s just me and the circles of interest I have, but it seems like a lot of people are talking and writing about what they believe these days. That seems good, overall, but it also makes for some frustrating reading. In the social media culture it would seem that beliefs can change with moods or as responses to the random “new” thoughts of others. I regularly read phrases like, “I used to believe…” or “sometimes I believe…”
There is also a strong desire among some people to categorize the beliefs of others in comparison to their own. They seem to especially like to dissect statements from dead teachers like C. S. Lewis or the early church fathers. They leap on an idea to use it as support or as an opportunity to challenge. They say, “See this is what so-and-so believed.”
But I suspect that our culture is using the idea of “belief” wrongly. To believe something is to place your faith in it or build your faith upon it. There is something important in our beliefs, something we cling to for strength and hope. To say, “I believe,” used to be a statement of faith equivalent to Luther’s “Here I stand.”
It seems wrong to take the thoughts of an ancient writer, even a theologian, and categorize them as his beliefs. We all go through times of life where we question the truths we hold or where we toy with ideas contrary to what we have been taught. The traditional method of communication was to put these things in writing for others to consider. If you had a close friend in whom you confided your inner thoughts and struggles and were limited to communication by letter, you would not have hesitated to write what we might consider the more hidden thoughts of your heart. But today, if someone found the letters, you could be branded a heretic or welcomed as a progressive on the basis of your expressed beliefs.
When my father died I was the one who organized both business and home details. I would often wonder where he put certain things or what he was thinking when he made certain choices. During those times, I would occasionally ask him what he had done and why. If you overheard me, you might think I was praying to him. If I wrote such a thing in a letter (or on a blog) you might think I worshiped my ancestors. You would wonder about my beliefs. But I knew what I was doing. It was an expression of my heart. I missed him, both in fellowship and in practice.
Some of our thoughts are just thoughts, even if we write them down. The same is true for any church father or any special teacher. There is a difference between that which is stated as doctrine and that which is expressed as desire or pondering. To miss the point of that difference is irresponsible and usually incorrect.
Perhaps part of the evangelical struggle is the idea that any thoughts put in writing must be “beliefs” we would die (or kill) for. We expect that aberrant thoughts, ideas outside those considered acceptable, will be hidden or, perhaps, shared only with intimate friends. But previous generations understood that putting thoughts out to the public promoted dialog and understanding. Talking things through, even in writing, is part of the process rightly used to discover truth.
As I have aged, I have developed many “suspicions.” These are not things I would defend to the death or even to the point of heated argument. I would not judge anyone for disagreeing with me on my suspicions. Nor would I call them beliefs—even if they were strong enough for me to act on them. I understand that they are a little outside of orthodoxy, but I also understand that my experience of faith grows and adapts as life changes. I have even found that some of those things I formerly held as beliefs may not have the firm foundation that I once thought. I don’t have to abandon them because of that, but I do have to categorize them differently. They are now theories, suspicions, or just thoughts.
I have learned that I “know” less as I grow older. The things I know, the things I believe, are more foundational than they used to be. Simpler. You can hold me to those. I will die with those beliefs. But they have little to do with the end-times, the order of salvation, the hierarchy of Heaven, or other dissection of the mysteries of the faith. No, they center on the love of God in Jesus.
The great theologian Karl Barth was often attacked for his musings. He wrote thousands of pages for the sake of dialog and expression. But when someone asked him what he knew to be true, he simply said, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
I’m with him.