At one time Jonas did not believe that his father was a murderer. For that matter, Jonas did not know what murder was. But one day he learned of its abhorrent reality and also what sort of practice his father was partaking in. As it turned out, a disturbing requirement of his father’s occupation was the injecting of poison into newly born infants. Why? For the sole reason of the child being an identical twin to his sibling, and in the Community two identical members cannot be allowed. Of course, Jonas’s father had no conception of his action being anything like murder, but his ignorance did not mitigate Jonas’s horror.
Before the Giver gave Jonas the memories of our history he had a certain set of beliefs about life and who is father was. After becoming the Receiver those beliefs dramatically changed. Jonas could not will himself to revert to his previous beliefs regardless of how much he desired that innocence/ignorance once again. And the question for us is, what did Jonas really think of his father once he knew the truth while his father continued to believe the lie?
This is not unlike how converts experience the world. An atheist convert to theism has had his or her eyes opened. The previous life no longer makes any sense. And the same is said by the deconverted. There’s just one difference here. Most newly formed atheists don’t consider the theist’s belief in God to be an inherently immoral action despite thinking the theist is ignorant to the truth. (Most, that is).
But on the other side of the aisle— and let’s just talk about a particular type of theist of which I identify as — the Christian often does accuse the atheist of immorality by way of sin simply for believing incorrect propositions. And it’s here where I want to say that this is a mistake. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the accusation, but I think how we talk about belief in God, and by extension morality, makes all the difference.
“Do you believe in God?” is one of the most loaded questions of the 21st century. One that I think is better off responded to with, “That depends, what day of the week is it?” If your answer is succinctly yes or no to such a belief or non-belief in a deity then I have my doubts as to whether or not you’ve really thought it through.
This is because to answer the question properly you must first take seriously the language constructing it. And for starters, the most obvious word needing meticulously deconstructed is that ‘God’ with the pesky capital ‘G.’ Although we cannot be limited here. For what do we also mean by ‘believe’ or even ‘you?’ So then, let us commence in the digression . . .
Belief is Participation
What does it really mean to believe in something, or anything for that matter? Do I believe in the existence of the keyboard I’m currently typing on? Well, sure that’s easy. I can touch it. I can show it to you. You can touch it too.
Now, though, do I also believe my wife loves me?
Hell, let’s make it more interesting. Do I believe I love her? After all, where’s the evidence? With the keyboard I can simply stand and point with exasperated enthusiasm. But what about the marital love I feel is also equally real? Unfortunately this is not as demonstrable. Or so we’ve been told. Sure one could point to all the seemingly selfless things I do for the woman. But one could also just as easily pyscho-analyze my every minuscule action and attempt to trace these back to some sort of cynical Freudian Narcissism theory or some other nonsense evolutionary psychologists are pushing these days. My so-called love is not really a belief in true, immaterial love, but simply a primal emotion emitted as byproduct steam leftover from the boiling kettle we know as the selfish gene, which has been brewing for millions of years. Or whatever.
So how does a man know if he really believes he loves his wife? To start, I think it’s clear that we need to make a distinction: not all beliefs are on the same playing field. Belief in my keyboard’s existence and the belief that I love my wife are in separate categories. The keyboard is a physical concrete object while ‘my love for my wife’ is a nonphysical concrete object. Here we are using concrete only to mean that the object in question is something specific that can be pointed to: namely this keyboard I’m typing on and the love I have for my wife. Both are things that we are curious to determine if they exist or not and, if so, then my belief in them is warranted.
Now contrast these ideas with the abstract. If the concrete referred to a specific keyboard or a specific love between a husband and wife then the abstract would be a non-specific referrant. Can the concept of ‘the keyboard’ or ‘the love between husband and wife’ exist outside of any specific example? Are these objects capable of existing at some general universal level even if none of them had ever existed concretely in the physical world? This is a debate that has been waging for a long, long time and not something I’m going to attempt to sufficiently answer here. I mention these contrasting ideas only to highlight the question of what it is exactly we’re believing in. Do we believe in only physical concrete objects? Or is the nonphysical allowed? Can we also believe in abstract objects as something real? You believe that the Eye of Providence triangle on your American dollar bill is real of course. You also know it cannot truly be a perfect triangle. But can you simultaneously believe that a perfect triangle exists in some abstract form? The perfect triangle is not here on this dollar bill but could it be ‘out there’ in the abstract ether of which we draw from? For how could we concoct imperfect triangles if it were not for their deviation from perfection? Why call them imperfect at all?
One’s belief in any sort of thing is insistent upon one’s capacity to participate in that which they believe in. The word participation here is key. Implicit in its definition is the conception that the thing you are partaking in did not originate with you. Participation means something has already been established and you are merely taking part in this existing reality. The dance is not possible without the partner or the music. For without the partner or the music you are only making wild movements to nothing intelligible at all. I did not create my keyboard, but I am participating in all its sensory clickity clackiness. But even if I did assemble it, I would have only participated in the matter that got arranged to produce this array of depressible numbers and letters and the language intrinsic to its purpose. My belief in it cannot be solely due to the isolated reason that this thing my fingers are dancing across is an object that my physical body receives as visual and touch sensations and then transmits to my brain. In reality it is a metaphor of some higher truth symbolized within a physical object that I must subjectively interpret by participating in the higher truth undergirding its form and meaning.
The love I experience for my wife is something I believe in because I participate in sacrificing my selfish desires for her wellbeing. But this idea of wellbeing and the goodness of sacrificing one’s self for the sake of another was already ‘out there’ for me to dance with, a symphony playing in the background for husband and wife to join in, not something I’ve simply deduced as part of an equation nor as something I’ve concocted solely within my imagination. It is the perfect triangle I am attempting to draw from.
Even in the case of equations such as in mathematics to believe that 2 + 2 = 4 you must first participate in an underlying truth upholding the meaning behind those symbols. And in the case of the delusional schizophrenic who loves his imaginary unicorn who vomits rainbows, nevertheless, he is still participating in romanticism and a heritage of myth stemming from the humble narwhal which mankind eventually conjoined with a horse. He need not live in a completely consistent manner to that of a husband and wife for the belief to be participatory rather than fully self-manifested. For if he were to ask you if you could describe a unicorn suffering from some form of Skittle-induced bulimia you would be perfectly able to describe this fictional entity. “So there it is,” he would say, “You know what my love looks like. This isn’t something I made up. I didn’t even describe her most defining feature to you and you confessed what it is without any help from me. So how dare you say I should not believe in her. Or worse, that I do not love her.”
Therefore, belief is neither something you simply think is true by virtue of pure rationality and empiricism nor is it something you must fully embody in order to maintain it. It is the participation in the convergence of the concrete and the abstract. You can only dance with your partner and your favorite music because the dance and the music was there beforehand.
You are a Paradox unto Yourself
When I say that I believe in God the not-so-obvious question we should be asking within this brief moment of time is which I is expressing the belief? Is it the me who just ended an extended period of fasting and prayer and spiritual fellowship? Or is it the me who just witnessed a group of Christians justifying the unethical and inhumane detainment of foreigners at our country’s borders followed by news of another mass shooting followed by the eating of an entire pint of ice cream and a week of overcast skies? Because that me may not feel so sincere in the proclamation that I believe in God. And yet, in hindsight despite the intense feelings of situational doubt and the dishonesty of the moment perhaps I can still say that the me that is the core me, even then, still believed in God. It is as if my consciousness was a skyscraper and every floor suddenly became infested with termites, but the steel skeleton and the deep stone foundation holding it all together nonetheless somehow remained intact.
The reverse can be said for the nonbeliever. Perhaps there comes a time when a sort of spiritual uplifting infects their every movement and a sudden wonderment suggests that maybe some divine power exists after all. Nevertheless, the building remains as it is.
The paradox here, though, is that you may find yourself fluctuating between opposing beliefs not in time, but seemingly instantaneously within one precise moment. Or so it seems as we become confused by our own thoughts. “Do I or don’t I?” is something we’ve all stopped and asked ourselves at one time or another. And then it’s not so clear what type of steel or stone foundation is making up the tower. Maybe it’s mutating from the believer type to the unbeliever type in a blurred contradiction regardless of what sort of insect infestation or fire or construction work is going on in each floor. Here the core you is no longer clear. And the only way to fight this internal struggle is to avoid it through action. You must simply do what you have always done in the world and hope that this dispute sorts itself out at a later date. You don’t cure the paradox, but you bandage it with action. And through your actions you continue to identify how you always have, unless some paradigm shifting moment adjusts such an identity for the foreseeable future.
Not to reuse the same analogy ad nauseam but again anyone who has ever been married knows that I’m right. You only fight as intensely and brutally with your spouse as opposed to anyone else because it’s the person you love the most … and hate the most (but also love the most). Within the confusion you simply continue to act toward your spouse in love and let time heal the mental contradiction. Or you don’t and hate becomes the new core belief within you and divorce is the eventual outcome. Either way, it’s an example of how our internal conflicts of belief make our true identities difficult to pin down. So to answer the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ one needs to be very mindful of who the you is attempting to respond.
God: Is Complicated
Of course the most obvious problem with questioning a belief in God is what exactly is meant by G-o-d with all its 21st century baggage. Is God a bearded man hovering in the sky carefully watching over his unruly kingdom? Or is God just another word for some unifying and balancing force (or principle) responsible for suspending the universe on its eternal trapeze wire?
Clearly when imposed on the word that capital ‘G’ we should not be talking about some archaic being belonging to a pantheon of other gods who bridge the gap between our lack of understanding in the weather and the terrifying reality of lightning strikes and earthquakes. Capital-‘G’ God is an ultimate figure. It is the wellspring of all reality. It is simultaneously the beginning and the end whether you’re from east or west.
However it appears that all too often there is a difficulty in remembering this ‘God’ when people are asked the question of whether or not they believe. Rather in this moment God suddenly descends as some sort of Santa god, king of the angelic pantheon, who is as easily dismissed as a rainbow barfing unicorn love affair. And yet what is not so easily forgotten, for whatever reason, is the implicit moral framework hidden beneath the question as some kind of underlying accusation. For if you do not believe in God then you do not believe in a moral lawgiver checking his naughty or nice list and thus you have attempted to free yourself from this cosmic code of conduct so that you can throw yourself into as much sensual debauchery as your heathenous heart desires. Or so it seems.
Moreover God can be seen as a benevolent creator intent on bestowing gifts of love to his prized creation or God can be seen as a pernicious, moody dictator who demands the obedience of an arbitrary set of moral commands and an undying expectation of praise and worship for himself. So obviously how you frame the concept of God will likely affect your proclivity to believe in him or her or it. But what seems inescapable in all of these conceptions is that nagging insinuation of moral deficiency should this supposed foundation for everything that is good and beautiful be denied.
Jordan B(eliever). Peterson
Love him or hate him, Jordan Peterson has become an international phenomenon. Much of his popularity is in large part for his intellectual combativeness, regardless if you think intellectual is the appropriate adjective to describe these bouts. The Canadian psychologist is widely known for dissecting deep subjects often times to the scoffing of his anti-religious opposition. One of those topics is answering the apparently uncomfortable question that consistently gets launched at him: Do you believe in God?
Peterson recently released a nearly 2 hour lecture, or what I might refer to as the rant, to the public from a pre-recorded evening in Sydney, Australia. Much is said in this talk that is quite good. But in the end Peterson asks who dare have the audacity to say he believes in God because to say that you actually believe in God means that you should instantaneously become morally perfect, or else you don’t really believe, and that’s why Jordan can’t believe … I guess.
On the one hand I sympathize with his frustration. Peterson almost properly grasps the truth of belief as participation. If you say that you believe in God but do not participate in the reality of a transcendent Goodness in your day to day life then how can you possibly say you truly believe? Indeed I commend him for calling out the hypocrisy of believers. But what Peterson gets so wrong here is assuming a belief in God is something that must be fully embodied by the believer in such a way as to make that believer God incarnate him or herself. In other words, to believe in God you must first be God. This may sound like an exaggeration of his argument, and yet within the same stream of thought we see Peterson quoting Nietzsche in saying, “There’s only ever been one true Christian and he died on a cross.”
Here I wonder how Peterson would reply if asked if he believes he loves his wife. Or his daughter. Does he think one must become the perfect husband or father, fully embodying this love in sacred harmoniousness, to have the audacity to say he loves his family? Like the perfect triangle there is some ideal, abstract perfect lover or father out there that one must fully self-manifest in order to say that he truly believes in what is entailed by the nature of these beings. Why is it that Peterson would not go so far here, but will when it comes to God? If I had my guess, and I assure you this is only a guess, it’s because Peterson actually sees himself as more virtuous for refusing to believe in God on the grounds of this manufactured humility, which ironically pits him as being more vain at the end of the day. I realize now that I am psycho-analyzing the psychologist from afar but it is difficult to see it any other way. What reason is there for implying that beliefs in the things we participate in on a daily basis may be warranted, but the ultimate source of those things cannot be justified because belief in God requires not simply participation, but rather full embodiment?
To say that you believe in your family is easier because it is possible to imagine yourself dying for them. But to say that you believe in the ultimate goodness that grounds meaning and love into everyone’s lives would require you to be willing to die for the entire world. If you are not then you are like the family man unwilling to give his life for his family. So, naturally, Jordan is just claiming humility here, that he’s not willing to die for the whole world as anyone who does make such a claim is a liar. Except in this he’s also implicitly accusing everyone who dares to believe to be arrogant, naive sycophants who haven’t grasped the full weight behind what it means to really believe.
The inconsistency here is that even a man who is willing to sacrifice himself for his family is susceptible to shirking off his responsibilities to them for his own hobbies or his own career every now and then. So again while Peterson may think himself humble for beating his chest at the temerity of believing in God he should then deny belief in his own love for his family to remain consistent in this modesty. And maybe he would to some degree make this concession to maintain the virtue signaling. But that seems unlikely considering what he got so right in the first part of his talk.
In the first half Peterson is insistent that we must believe in the ‘Divine Spark’ within us as some attempt to pursue moral goodness for the sake of each other. He’s not talking about some perfume by Charlize Theron. The Divine Spark is the value we have found in each other that we cannot have given ourselves, so in some sense must have come from God. We must have faith that our intrinsic dignity is in some way transcendent beyond our own making as it is impossible, he says, to live righteously without such faith. He is adamant that you must believe in your capacity to love thy neighbor in spite of your own malevolence, which as he says you have no shortage of. Yes, yes Dr. Peterson! We agree on this faith and we agree on this divinity, which must come from God — whatever that God may be. So why then the sudden shift of definitions in the second half of your lecture?
It is this reversal in the rant that creates so much confusion. Peterson changes his definition of belief from that of participation to something of complete and consummate obedience. Also now his God has suddenly become just another deity demanding moral allegiance rather than the giver of transcendent love and goodness Dr. Peterson advocated participation in just some 30 minutes prior. The irony is in his attempt for humility Peterson actually elevates himself and others like him as superior to God for not making such a demand. Jordan leaves the stage as the human one who allows grace for us all, but God could do no such thing, therefore how could we believe in this God unless we ourselves are willing to obey (believe) as necessary? For a man who talks so much about the importance of Jesus and the Logos it is baffling to see how the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel story itself has still managed to escape him.
And Yet Jordan Peterson is Right
The upshot of all of this is that Peterson inadvertently (or maybe through brilliant intentionality) exposes the total lack of belief in the believers themselves. It is not difficult for me to accuse myself of believing in my keyboard more than God himself. And yet I know from my own reason and faith that God should be the most real thing my puny brain can comprehend. So why do I tend to trust my own limited senses over the ultimate grounding for all of reality?
Typically in these conversations the default mode of discursion is to first ask whether or not belief is a choice. Based on my participation in the world, and my actions which help solidify my identity, it is difficult to see how I could choose to believe in the existence of a romantic unicorn. But this is too narrow a view on what the effects of all choices are. The doctrine of Sin within the Christian tradition — properly understood in my view — is that of a butterfly effect which invades all of reality through the fuel of human and spiritual corrupted actions. Every small sin adds to the whirlwind that distorts truth for us all. Evil principalities and powers feed off these morsels and shape them into far larger deceptions that wreck havoc on others in perversely creative ways. The delusion of a unicorn is a tsunami that has taken a millennia to be generated from the small flaps of millions of butterflies, which dark spiritual forces have helped to mold and direct.
Because of this our beliefs operate in a hierarchy according to our moral misgivings. (What’s that? Hierarchies in an article about Jordan Peterson?!). The less real or substantive something is, such as dead material things that give me pain or pleasure, the more I believe in them because of my corrupted nature. The more real something is like justice or love, the harder it is to believe in because of my isolation from God, who is the very essence of these higher realities. The key here, however, is understanding that the phrase “our moral misgivings” is not establishing a formula of “if you do something bad then you’ll believe dumb things.” Rather I use the word our in the literal sense, meaning immoral contributions of humanity are collective, pervasive, and viral in how they affect the beliefs of one another across space and time. (Again the butterfly effect). Your individual sin may not affect your ability to sustain true beliefs, but it will participate in the spreading of lies to the greater humanity in a much more subtle, hidden way that is far darker than what you’ll ever see on the surface. And that’s exactly what the Enemy wants and it’s why the hierarchy is upside down in the way it currently is.
Unbelief is both a choice and something we are all victim to. It is only through the lie of individualism and libertarianism that some Christians make themselves feel justified in proclaiming that the unbeliever deserves damnation for choosing not to believe. The irony here is that this very accusation, which is a corruption of God’s love, only adds to the heaping mess of distortions that cause unbelief in all of us wherever we are. So Jordan is on to something when he belies the hideousness of those who have the audacity to say they believe in the ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but then abuse a fellow image of this God so readily. He identifies the malevolent monster within us and this is what pushes us to believe more in the things that are less real than those which are of ultimate substance. Better for him, he says, to tread lightly as the ramifications of profaning such a higher belief are so monumentally catastrophic.
Therefore it is a vicious feedback loop of evil that promotes separation from our true home. Bad beliefs contribute to bad behavior and bad behavior contributes to bad belief. Jonas’s father believed something bad because of a corrupt power structure, but he also contributed to this bad belief by maintaining solidarity with the authoritarians. All are guilty and yet no one person is solely responsible for his own belief-driven destiny. If you’re mad that an atheist “can’t believe” then stop and realize the reason she can’t is because of you and me and all of the dark powers we submit ourselves to by believing their lies over God’s truth. If you are saved by Christ then be thankful that by grace you find yourself freed from unbelief, not by your own doing, but by God’s mysterious providential love. Stay vigilant in participating in his love for sin is always crouching at your door.
So, are you a bad person for not believing in God? Yes of course. But am I a bad person for believing in God? I’m in a far worse spot as the Jesus-representing hypocrite.