It encourages me to know that we believe. For we either believe in the undefined other that motivates our constant refiguring of the world, or we believe in nothing at all. Some would call the latter nihilism. I call it, simply, human.
Jesus came to earth, the gospels tell us, with a prominent message: Love. It isn’t distinct, and it bears no assumptions. This is the fault of the gospel. How can we possibly preach, let alone live, such ambiguity?
As well as we believe, I reckon.
But while I constantly struggle with what to believe in and how to demonstrate that belief, ensuring that it doesn’t deteriorate, I continually fall short of ever being satisfied that I’ve convinced that which I believe in that I truly do believe. And, if we believe in anything, isn’t it most important that the heart and soul of our belief is aware of it?
We walk down the street eyeing pedestrians warily. We hesitate to smile, we subdue the urge to say hello. We stare intently at the sidewalk. Homeless are avoided. Who knows what they would do to us? And as I say these things, recognizing how much they bother me, I realize I am guilty of the same.
It’s a simple, perhaps even pedestrian, story of our missing the point. If love is given to us in ambiguity, we assume that its meaning can be parsed, analyzed, teased, and torn from its dense cavity. Ironically, perhaps we are so absent-minded in our thinking, we fail to recognize strangers on the street. We upset the manifestations of love because we are too busy figuring it out. We might just say the same of belief.
Can’t we blame Jesus for this? He could, after all, have been more specific, bequeathing to his lost followers reams of Dos and Don’ts during his life. Wasn’t that his goal?
But then we remember parables like Peter at sea, wanting so much to forget there was water beneath him—wanting so much just to believe. But I am fairly certain that much of his strenuous activity in those 30 seconds on the water was trying to figure out how to believe. How do I love Jesus? How do I have the faith I need? What are the steps, the pieces, the procedure?
To which, Jesus replies: “Oh ye of little faith.” Hardly a reassurance, granted, but revealing nonetheless. Faith is not a matter of dissecting or discovering. It cannot be built, and it is not found. It simply is. To have faith, as we have said for so long, can only mean to recognize the faith that is already within us. And this recognition brings with it an abundance of freedom: Freedom to release the pains of our world to God, freedom to enjoy ourselves as a part of Him, and freedom to acknowledge our unique role in the life of the world.
I say this as much to myself as to others. To believe, as we say we do, is not to say we believe in something specifically, i.e. God. This is often the presumption, but it lacks sincerity. Truth be told, every human being is born with the capacity and the need to believe, but the form of this belief is manifested in many diverse ways.
The reason for belief is evident: Proof eludes us constantly, and we need assurance that what is not defined and demonstrated exists anyway. We believe we are loved, though no one is around to confirm it; we believe we are merciful, though no one has thanked us for our ready forgiveness; we believe we are integral to the life of the world, though no document or people has ever said as much. We do this because what we believe in is necessary to us. If we say we believe in nothing, we might well be saying that we believed heartily in much, and were disappointed, and so have forced ourselves to retract belief. Our tendency is to push ourselves to believe in nothing because it will prevent heartache and pain. But that very act of self-preservation—entirely human though it is—cannot ever truly exist. For our belief in “nothing” is, truly, a belief that not believing will sustain us. There is no proof that this will be true, but we follow this course anyway because it takes us away from what once caused pain. In so doing, however, we attempt to relinquish pieces of ourselves that are so vital to our existence, we affect the opposite of our intent—we destroy ourselves.
Let me offer an anecdote to demonstrate the point. I knew of a young man a few years ago who was alienated by his family. His father was in prison for drug dealing, and his mother and sister had all but ostracized him for a heavy inheritance given to him on his grandfather’s deathbed. A teenage boy, he had yet inchoate notions of love and family—those elements which are so important to the development of children. His response was to run away and utterly shun his family. But he was smart enough to know that part of his survival, indeed his most urgent need, was to belong to a family. He professed he did not believe in the sanctity of his own family, and yet ran away from home to join the Air Force. There, he went through the rigor—and sometimes torture—of basic training. As the weeks wound on, he found himself clinging to a small group of friends, all of whom seemed to function as a unit. They were, luckily, deployed to the same base, and assigned to similar tasks. Over the course of the next few years, he watched his friends find girlfriends, marry, and start families. He discovered shortly thereafter—or finally admitted to himself—that he was gay. His friends where wholly accepting and supported him completely. Though his position in the Air Force made the prospect bleak, he found a healthy, satisfying relationship and sustained it over many years. To my knowledge, he is still happily coupled with the same man.
Though this once-was teen lost belief in the sanctity of family, running from it bruised, angry, and emotionally broken, his belief didn’t really disappear. The belief that family is necessary translated into the need for family of a different sort—the type his friends in the Air Force provided. Thereafter, he began his own relationship and family. The model for it wasn’t his biological mother and father, but his friends.
He may say, even still, that he has lost all hope in family. He may doubt the value of it, the need for nurture, and the support it claims to offer. But while his conscious recognition of belief in this way seems stark, there is a deeper system of belief that enabled him to find a different and more loving family than he once knew. Belief was not erased or abandoned, it was simply challenged. Though he may say he doubts the need for family, his experiences and friendships prove otherwise.
And so it comes to this: Belief is with us, whether we like it or not. A scary feeling, perhaps, but also a wonderful one. It redeems us when we feel irredeemable, and it presents itself in ways we would never imagine. But it never escapes; it is never destroyed; it is never put to rest.