Why Do You Believe What You Believe? — Part Two

April 17, 2007
How does your view of God affect your actions?

If you have not yet read PART ONE, I believe it will help you understand this post a little better.

Sunset over the ocean and rocksIn my earlier comments on this topic, I created an imaginary community that is far more idealistic than one could find in the “real” world. But wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place where people are able to accept one another as fellow seekers who have arrived at their faith or philosophy of life through different routes?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all consciously chose our beliefs through a process of careful consideration, rather than automatically accepting what someone else says is true? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could live in a world where faith, which is unknowable and unproveable, is not elevated to the irrefutable? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all recognize that just because someone (us or the other guy) believes something — sincerely, earnestly, genuinely, totally, intensely (add your own adjectives) — deep within his or her own heart, that such a conviction does not raise it to a position of universal truth that everyone else must feel as deeply?

If we could live this way, we would discover that the process of exploring one’s faith is not quick or easy. But if we make the effort to push beyond the rote memorization and blind acceptance of the dogma of a church, mosque or temple, we will find deeper truths that can speak to our hearts in a more personal and satisfying way.

Also, if we took the time to explore religion more deeply, we would recognize that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of interpretations of holy writ. Then, when someone says, “I’m not interpreting the Bible. What I believe is just what the Bible says,” we would recognize that what that person is actually saying is, “I believe my interpretation is right.”

After all, there are always slightly different, or sometimes significantly different, views of the same scripture. No one follows every word of the Bible absolutely literally. Everyone picks and chooses what he or she wants to emphasize.

That is why, when deciding how you will answer the   questions below, it is important you do not use scripture to explain your position. I want to encourage you to go beyond saying, “I believe God is __[fill in the blank]__ because it says so in the Bible.” The purpose of these questions is to have you see what it is in YOU that causes you to interpret the Bible in a way that makes you feel as though God is __[fill in the blank]__, or that there is no “God.”

In fact, it seems to me that we would live in a much less troubled world if we were all willing to explore WHY we follow one religion or spiritual path rather than another.

Why does one interpretation of scripture appeal to one person and not to another? Why does one Muslim find justification for killing innocent people in the same Koran that others claim is peaceful? Why does one Christian believe the world was created 6,000 years ago and another has no trouble in believing in both Jesus and evolution? Why does one person believe in hell and another does not?

Why do Americans who say they believe in “God” have four quite different definitions of that deity, as discovered in a study by sociologists from Baylor University that was conducted by Gallup in 2006? In this survey, where, interestingly, no one category received more than 32% overall agreement, the respondents said their God was:

An “Authoritarian” God who is angry at humanity’s sins, engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs, and ready to throw a thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.

A “Benevolent” God who sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible.

A “Critical” God who keeps his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort.

A “Distant” God who is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us,” but a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.

What is it about each of these definitions of God that appeals to one person rather than another? What happens when you probe more deeply into the reasons behind your definition of God — or your disbelief in a concept of God?

For example, if you believe in an authoritative God who is the prime mover in sickness and health, what do we make of the observation by John Shelby Spong, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, that “antibiotics, surgery, and chemotherapy are just as effective on sinners as they are on saints”? Or what is your take on his recognition that “with the advent of modern warfare, God seems always to be on the side of the nations with the greatest arsenal,” although with Iraq it may be that weapons play less a role than conviction and hubris. And what about hurricanes and cyclones that had at one time been explained as the work of a vengeful God, but are now seen as weather patterns influenced in part by humankind’s lack of care for the environment?

How we view God is not simple or easily explained, is it?

But I am convinced that the more we explore why we believe one thing rather than another, the more we can strengthen the beliefs that are most important to us, question those that no longer work for us, and gain greater tolerance for the beliefs of others.

PLEASE NOTE: Before answering the questions at the end of this post, be certain to read the next two paragraphs.

Remember that no matter how you see yourself or understand the relationship between who you are and your beliefs, your answer does not make you good, bad, wise, or foolish. If I knew your answer, I would make no judgment about you, whether or not the interpretation of scripture to which you are drawn is one with which I would agree.

I simply want all of us to begin to recognize, if we haven’t already, that when any of us says we know what God is, or isn’t, that we are only speaking for ourselves. Others may agree with us, but each response to spiritual questions is an individual one. I believe it needs to be addressed as such. That doesn’t make our striving to understand religion or to follow spiritual practices either noble or inconsequential. But it can certainly help us understand why each of us is attracted to, and experiences, religion in a different way.


If you believe in a “God” (or a spirit or power you call by another name), would you define your God as authoritarian, benevolent, critical, or distant? What is there in your experience that supports your belief?

How do you describe God when you want to tell someone what He/She/It is like? For example, do you believe God is a “being,” like humans but without form, or more like a “presence?” What personal and spiritual experiences have you had that cause you to believe this?

What is there about your life that causes you to conclude the creation of the universe occurred as you believe it did?

Do you believe “God” plays a role in daily life? What is that role? Why do you believe that?

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