(Based on a paper I presented in May 2012, titled “Ways of Believing,” at the regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Concordia University Portland)
The phone rang. Upon answering, my dad was on the line to ask a question that, coming from him, took me by surprise. “What do you know about Calvinism?” Before I could respond, I heard my dad say, “Here is my daughter.” Shortly, I was on the phone with one of his paint contractors.
For nearly an hour, the contractor shared his struggles with the church he has attended for some 30 years. New leaders have been putting together a faith statement with tenets from strict Calvinism on election, predestination, and salvation. Simply put, and bothersome to the contractor, his church’s stand on who is in and who is out.
The contractor has disagreed with the stance taken recently by the church leaders. He feels a pull, wanting to align his beliefs with what the Bible, not his church, teaches. He feels pressure to believe a certain way, or else.
Conflict hurts. At one point during our conversation, the contractor broke down. I fear his dilemma is widespread. It goes something like this: will I be accepted in the church if I disagree, if I have questions?
I wonder if this scenario reflects a deeper issue, revealing the tendency to confuse who we are as human beings with our beliefs. To what extent, if at all, are we our beliefs?
I pick up where I ended in the third post for this series on the need to transcend one’s beliefs to embrace the humanity of self and of another. I called attention to the philosopher John Searle and his theory of the five basic ways humans use language, and that language arises from mental states in the brain (e.g., my ability to assert that it is raining arises from my belief that it is raining; my ability to direct you to listen arises from my desire for you to listen, etc.).
In working directly with Searle for my research (applying his philosophical categories to the New Testament writers and what they asserted/believed concerning Christ’s blood), I was intrigued with Searle’s lack of belief in God. For Searle, belief in God goes against the natural order of how the world works. It is misleading to label Searle an agnostic or atheist. The reason, he says, is that he has moved “beyond atheism.” He has moved away from religious dialogue because for him it is pointless.
I can appreciate what the contractor has been going through. Working with a non-religious philosopher for my religious project produced for me questions and vulnerability. But I continued to read Searle’s books. We met. We corresponded. He coached me, I a Christian, he a nonbeliever.
As time went on, I became curious how Searle reconciles his biological naturalism with the fact that many, if not all, people have some religious experience or thought at some point in life. One day, I mustered the courage to ask him. True, says Searle, people do have supernatural experiences, but “from individual experience, nothing much follows.”
Conversation closed. An impasse develops that fast.
But is this really the end of the conversation, or does Searle’s comment reflect the tendency to stay within the familiar confines of one’s particular field of study (i.e., comfort zone), missing opportunities for an interdisciplinary approach — scientists, theologians, psychologists, and philosophers — to tackle the nature of divine experiences, religious beliefs, and the language to express them? All processed in and by the brain. Here, as we will see, the field of neurotheology looks promising.
I keep before me my acquired belief in Jesus. More pressing, I keep in mind the contractor and Searle as reminders of the way our different beliefs split us into the realm of right-wrong.
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