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In Search of Belief



The New Fire flamed in the blackness of the chapel. The cantor’s voice spun one of those high, clear exultets through the night that sounds as if it came from another world and pierces the commonness of this one. The holy water stood gleaming in the crystal font. “Do you believe in God?” the presider intoned. The solemnity of the moment demanded a special kind of attention. As he began the renew of the baptismal promises that are an ancient part of the Easter liturgy, the relic of a time when creeds were more a private act that the signature of an institution, the questions seemed more personal than usual. Year after year it had always been the same. Year after year I had done it automatically. But this Easter night was different.

“Do you believe?” I asked myself. It was the year my mother died. Her grave was still fresh in the ground, her voice still fresh in my heart. But gone. “Do you believe?” I asked myself. “Do you? Really? And if so, what?” The answer was neither a simple one, not a simplistic one. It had been hard won, still forming, always new.

When the Christian assembly stands together to say the Creed these days, I still say “I believe” with everybody else but I say it knowing that I believe quite differently now than I did in years past. As a result, I am convinced, the faith that lives in me now is a more demanding, more robust variety than it was in the earlier stages of my spiritual life. It is also a far less certain kind of faith and, therefore, I think, a great deal more real than when I believed the unbelievable. I used to believe, for instance, that the apostles themselves wrote the Apostles’ Creed. They didn’t. I used to believe that every statement in the Creed was “fact,” in the sense of being provable, historical, “real.” It isn’t. I used to believe that God was male. Impossible. I used to believe a lot of things that I no longer believe; so do I have faith or not?

When it is at its best, religion offers more than a list of answers designed to resolve the unanswerable; it tenders a way to deal with the questions that plague our lives and puzzle our hearts. I know the transition from certainty to faith, from faithful answers to faithful questions. I have gone through it myself. So when I pray, I still say “I believe,” but the truth is that I now believe both a great deal less and a great deal more than I did years ago. I believe a great deal less about the historical or scientific dimensions of the faith and a great deal more about the mystery of creation, the ongoing struggle of redemption and the commonplace of sanctity. And furthermore, I believe that just about everybody else does, too. How, in fact, do we “believe” -- meaning take as fact -- a Creed even the name of which is incredible. It is, of course, pure myth that each of the apostles wrote “The Apostles’ Creed.”

The essence remains

What is not myth is that the Creed carries the ideas and understandings, the concepts and visions of life that underlie Christian spirituality. These are the convictions for which the apostles gave their lives to pass on to the Christian community. The ideas changed in form and purpose from age to age to suit the questions and cultures of the time, yes, but the essence of them remained: There is a God; Jesus is the Way; the Holy Spirit lives in each of us. Those are the givens, the things that do not change. But the world around us shifts like a glacier in sunlight. Now, in our time, we have again a culture in flux and questions in embryo -- different from ages before us, perhaps, but no less faithful in their asking.

The question does not lie with whether or not the Creed is believable. The Creed is about the mystery of life, and its mystery is apparent. The question is whether or not the Creed is meaningful to us, here, now. Clearly, the quandary is that we live in a desert between two places, one a relatively static world where doubt was little tolerated, the other a world exploding with information, inundated with questions, where we are now and find ourselves, as a result, no longer sure.

In an era of spaceships and microprocessors, of laser beams and satellites -- the stuff of science fiction and Buck Rogers comic books come to life -- we talk without end about technical and cultural changes. At the same time, we talk very little about the spiritual implications of such things, or the fears they touch in the center of us, or the once commonplace theological images they shatter. Years ago, in fact, Russian cosmonauts reported that they saw no heaven in the cosmos, no God on a cloud. We groped to reconcile ancient spiritual images with raw science. We struggled to adjust to a concept of space that was, it seemed, only space after all. When the Hubble Telescope showed the world a universe of galaxies, the notion that the earth whirled unique in an empty void of rock-hard stars died once and for all. Surely, surely, the heart demands in the face of planet after planet, galaxy after galaxy alight on every tiny television screen before us, there must be someone else out there in that great celestial abyss. There must, too, be the Life of life who was there long before we came to know the God of the apostles, long before humanity.

As I sat and watched the news one night, Chicago physicist Richard Seed announced to the public that he intends to clone a human being within the next 18 months. By the millennium, in other words, with a sheep, a monkey and a calf to prove the possibility of the process, the whole definition of life will be in question. We find ourselves on the brink of a world full of designer people where once we saw only the hand of a creating God. What are we to believe in the face of such cataclysmic changes?

Television came alive with the subject. Programs debating the efficiency, the technology, the efficacy, the morality of cloning human beings appeared on every network. Local news programs made jokes about it. Public television programs did serious discussions. Everybody everywhere talked for weeks about the specter of duplicating ourselves scientifically. Within a week of the announcement, three panelists -- the reporter from The New York Times who broke the story of the cloning of Dolly the sheep, a biotechnologist from a national research laboratory, and a gynecologist who works with infertile couples -- discussed for living room consumption on PBS’s Charlie Rose show what till the day before Seed’s announcement had been largely confined to graduate school seminars on biogenetics. They all had different opinions about the subject, of course, with one exception. On one point they were all agreed. They all took the idea for granted. They all pronounced that it could assuredly be done. They all believe that eventually -- next year, five years from now, in the next 10 years, at most -- this procedure, which only a few months before was confidently pronounced to be totally impossible, would certainly be accomplished. Cloning, the conception of a human being’s identical twin by the duplication of a donor cell, has become a commonplace in the human mind. The panelists’ only question was when and how and under what restrictions, if any, it would happen. “So what will determine the acceptability of this procedure?” Charlie Rose, the PBS program moderator, asked. The question was an oblique reference to committees created in the past to determine who does or does not qualify for organ transplants.

“Well, not religion,” Gina Kolata, the reporter said. “I was there the day the president’s commission called a rabbi and a Catholic priest to testify, one after the other, on the theological admissibility of such a procedure. They both used the same passage of Genesis to demonstrate their points: ‘This text,’ the priest said, ‘proves that God does not want cloning.’ And the rabbi who testified next said of the very same scripture, ‘This text proves that God has no problem whatsoever with cloning.’ No consensus there,” the reporter concluded.

Working at the desk while the program droned on, I was suddenly focused on the issues. I stopped slitting envelopes and making lists. I contemplated the implications of the statement. There’s the real question, I thought: What are we to believe in a period of major ethical differences and massive social disbelief? What are waitresses and cab drivers and young teachers and old grandparents and secretaries and accountants and parents of small children supposed to believe when all the professional believers of the world disagree? And what is belief anyway? And should anyone believe anything that isn’t self-evident? Is it any longer credible, in fact, to believe in faith, to have faith in belief? Is creed even possible now?

In a period when the world is spinning off its axis and nothing looks like it did even as recently as 25 years ago, belief becomes an also-ran. When the planet is not the white world’s private paradise anymore and life is not incontestably a male preserve alone, old assumptions fail us. When, in the face of a possible nuclear holocaust and the rape of the earth and the obscene poverty of whole peoples, sin is obviously more than simply a social checklist of personal peccadilloes, it is time to reconsider what life is really all about. It is time to ask ourselves again what it is in which we believe. It is time to retrieve the faith that underlies the rituals and to revive the sense of mystery that underlies answers that no longer persuade. It is time to reassess our place in the world. It is time to believe in more than ourselves. But believe in what? And how? And why?

Lacking the breadth and depth of life

It is a dangerous time spiritually, solved by some only by dismissing everything that once they accepted unquestionably and now find incompatible with present reality or, conversely, by others by continuing to cling blindly to past explanations because present situations are more than they can absorb or integrate into an older world-view. Both responses are understandable but both are lacking something of the breadth and depth of life. One shuts out the mystical in favor of the obvious; the other shuts out reality and calls such anemic retreat from creation the spiritual life. The rest of us, too cautious, too judicious, to take either extreme, find ourselves adrift and alone, trying to make a spiritual raft out of the shards of shattered reason. We flounder and we drift. We avoid questions and doubt answers. We hope against hope that someday things will all get clear again, even while we know down deep that if life continues on its maddeningly fascinating scientific way, more than likely, they will not. For appearances sake, we try to look as if nothing has changed, knowing that everything has changed. We simply go on going on. But not all.

“Some people in the group said they aren’t going to church anymore,” the discussion leader reported to the assembly, “because they can’t say the Creed with integrity. They simply don’t believe those things now.” The comment has become standard. In group after group everywhere someone sidles up to me to confess their inability to confess the faith. Everywhere the problems are the same: Men say that the Creed doesn’t make “sense.” Women say it’s insulting. It excludes the feminine from the spiritual equation of life, a woman told me, so why believe -- in the name of religion -- what does not believe in women for what it calls religious reasons. The situation is fraught with danger, both intellectual and spiritual. On the one hand, it seems we are being asked to fly in the face of the obvious. On the other hand, we find ourselves without the moorings of the soul. Little by little, one way or the other, the spiritual foundations of the Christian life go to powder. We know far too much and, in the knowing, find ourselves perceiving far too little. We have developed one-dimensional souls, awash in facts, bereft of the clarity of mystery.

Knowledge has outrun faith before this. We are not the first people in history to find ourselves with too much information and too little understanding. In ancient times, when Greek mythology ceased to satisfy the new commitment to the orderly pursuit of evidence, philosophers began to point out the contradictions inherent in popular theology. Who was really God if there were many gods? What kind of god, the Greeks asked, deserved to be served who dallied in the wanton destruction even of other figures said to be divine? What kind of religion was it that dealt with humanity in some kind of brutal sport? What was heaven if competition between the gods was par for the course and chaos part and parcel of godliness there? The old myths condemned themselves by their own hand. Intelligent people began to feel distant from a system that was arbitrary and incongruent. Religion reeled from the assault, and people lost heart for its explications. Philosophy emerged to provide more reasonable answers to the problems of life.

Old religious ideas died a slow but painful death, and the support of the people with them. Religion as the ancient Greeks had known it was dead. But where was the real error? Which was the greater errancy: the mythological explanations of life given by religion or the rational imaginings of the new purveyors of philosophical ideas? What was really right, the old myths or the new logic? In the end, after all, science and philosophy offered no more definitive answers to the great questions of life than the myths had done. So which was to be believed?

The situation, ancient as it seems, is uncannily like what we ourselves are facing. Science has made promises that science cannot keep. Disease is with us still. Chemicals meant to stimulate life diminish it as well. Everything we discover leads to more of what first we did not see. The more science knows, the less it knows. The more scientists pontificate, the more worrisome it becomes to wonder where and how they develop their own value systems. What is missing, perhaps, both to the Greeks and to us, is the failure to realize that religion and science do two different things. One looks at life and attempts to understand it. The other looks at life and attempts to explain it. Venturing to wed the two may do each a disservice of immense proportions and render us rudderless in the process. Science seeks verifiability of material processes. Religion seeks understanding of spiritual realities. Religion is not about equations; and its counterpart, spirituality, is not about knowledge. Religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane. Religion seeks to bind the human to the divine, to bridge the gap between here and hereafter, to explain the unexplainable. It is not about history, not about science. We have, in fact, done religion a great disservice by attempting to absolutize what the Apostles’ Creed itself allows simply to be more fundament than fact.

Social turbulence, then, is sure sign that the faith must be rethought, reinterpreted, restated in the light of present circumstances if the faith itself is to survive assault from an arena that is no real threat to faith at all. It is not the first time in history that new creeds have emerged in the light of new questions. The Council of Nicaea in 325, the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Athanasian Creed in the sixth century, even Pope Paul VI’s “Credo of the People of God,” published as late as 1968, and multiple others all attempted at different times, in the face of different questions, to reformulate the fundamentals in ways that could be understood by people at that time. We are, surely, in no less serious situation today. To question is not to deny. It may, in fact, be the truest type of faith a person can muster.

I don’t remember exactly when I first began to notice the shift of circumstances, the change in attitudes, but I do know that every day the truth of the difference between past and present religious evolutions became more and more clear for me. What has for long years been considered “dissent” in the churches by those who want more answers than questions, more clerical authority than spiritual investment, may not be real dissent at all. People are not challenging Christianity and leaving the church. They are not arguing against the need for a spiritual life. They are not denying God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. They are not ridiculing religion and going away. On the contrary. People currently considered “excommunicated” or “suspect” or “heretical” or “smorgasbord” believers are, in many ways, among the most intense Christians of our time. They do more than sing in the choir or raise money for the parish center or fix flowers for the church. They care about it and call it to be its truest self. They question it, not to undermine it, but to strengthen it. They call for new ways of being church together. They do not dismiss the need for the spiritual life. They crave it. What’s more, they look for it in their churches. But they crave more than ritual. They crave meaning. They look for more than salvation. They look for authenticity and the integrity of the faith.

They do not believe in a God who tortures people for the sake of saving them from the world God created for them to enjoy. Women, in particular, find themselves with theological questions that will not go away and immerse themselves in the struggle to bring the churches to be what churches say they are. Men grapple to reconcile what the institution teaches with what the institution does. These men and women do not abandon the spiritual life, however distant their association with the churches that feel so distant from them. If anything, they try harder to provide for themselves the kind of fullness of the spiritual life their churches fail to provide or even deny, for whatever reason. They reach out everywhere to everything that will provide new insights, new awareness of the presence of God.

The women join women’s spirituality groups and look for books that give them hope and teach their daughters what they themselves did not know about the gifts and graces and great good works of the women who went before them -- despite eons of theological and legal restrictions arrayed against them. Men make retreats and find their way to Bible study groups and become involved in community service projects to find in the gospel what is too often lacking in the institution. Indeed, the reality is that men and women with new questions about old issues and old questions about new issues are calling the churches to be more intent on spirituality and less intent on catechisms than ever before. These are the people who identify with the tradition more than they do with the institution. These are the people who are calling the church to bring the best of the tradition to challenge the best of the institution. They do not question because they reject the church. They question the church because they love it. They question because they seek a spiritual life, with or without an institution, and even outside of it if being in it is what makes the spiritual life impossible for them.

Once upon a time religion was simple, and spiritual practices were the coin of its sincerity. People did what churchmen said to do, thought what churchmen told them to think and lived controlled lives of private devotion in denominational ghettoes. Religious chauvinism made denominational religion a team sport. Our side was true; their side was false. We had the answers. They were wrong. Holy wars were the national pastime. The world has changed its mold and hue. Now we live in countries where Christian governments practice genocide, and Muslims model great virtue, where blacks are holy and whites are godless, where true and false, right and wrong know no single color, no one creed, no clerical status. Now we see that there are many faces of God, and each of us sees a different profile. Now religion is the question of the age, and spirituality is its deepest measure.

We want more from religion now than rules. We want something to help us find meaning in life when all the rules cease to make sense, when all the old systems break down or fade away. We want a glimpse of God here and now.

The discrepancy between the obvious and the mysterious is not simply a source of institutional conflict, religious wars and credal clashes, however. Tension between what the heart knows and what the authorities say happens on the personal level, as well. It happens many times in life, in fact. It happens at all ages. It certainly happened to me. Young. Very young. I remember it to this day:

A day in second grade

Second grade was a most exciting place to be. You learned things there. They gave you books instead of phonics charts and catechisms instead of pictures. Every day something new happened and every day it became a family event. In fact, the first subject treated every evening was always, “Well, Joan, what did you learn in school today?” I especially reveled in the opportunity to explain the intricacies of religion to my Irish-Catholic mother, who was proud of my explanations, and Presbyterian stepfather, who was more than a little wary of things Roman Catholic. They had married in the 1940s, before ecumenism was even a word, let alone a virtue, and the marriage itself was a miracle in those days. But one day everything went wrong.

On that particular afternoon, I did not stay to clean the chalkboards or dust the erasers or carry out the wastebasket for Sister. Young as I was, I knew that it was absolutely imperative that I get home before my father came in from work so the school question would be asked outside his hearing. I had to get things straight, check things out, work things through with my mother. Just the two of us. Catholics. Alone.

I was breathless by the time I made it out of the schoolyard, down the street, over the fence, through the alley and into the kitchen. My mother stood at the kitchen sink, her arms up to her elbows in suds, clearing away the dishes of the day before, beginning to clean the vegetables for supper. “Well, you are certainly excited, aren’t you?” she said, taking one look at my matted hair and disheveled blouse. “What did you learn in school today that has you so wound up?”

I looked around the empty kitchen and breathed a little easier. We were the only ones there. “Sister said that only Catholics go to heaven,” I said softly.

“Oh, really?” my mother said, still working at the sink. “And what do you think about that, Joan?” she said carefully.

I took a deep breath. “I think Sister’s wrong,” I said.

“And why do you think Sister would say a thing that’s wrong?” my mother pressed.

“Because,” I whispered slowly, “Sister doesn’t know Daddy.”

Sister, in other words, was missing some of the evidence. I had, after all, seen the Bible just like ours that my father had been given for perfect Sunday school attendance when he was a child. I had heard his family sing hymns and saw my little cousins say prayers. Sister clearly did not know what I knew. Sister had not seen what God saw. I looked up tentatively. My mother was simply standing there, smiling at me. To this day, I can still see her look, still feel the grain of her apron against my face. She shook the suds off her hands, pulled me up close against her warm, hard stomach and said, “That’s right, darling. That’s right.”

What I really learned that day is that information does not change God, it changes what we think about God. I learned that there is such a thing as belief and “belief.” I learned that belief is bigger than any particular moment, however defined the vision of the moment, however absolute it may seem to be. I learned that what we believe about some things affects what we believe about other things. I learned that it is not God who changes; it is we who change. That day I learned most of all that keeping the faith requires more than keeping the rules. It may be, I have come to realize, the most important thing I ever learned in second grade.

Whatever the struggle to come to terms with the questions of an age, the truth is that there is no putting down the notion of belief. “What do you believe?” I asked the new man in a discussion group.

“I don’t really believe in anything much anymore,” he said, and then went on to tell me about the business he was starting and the Krugerrands he’d bought.

I smiled a little. He clearly believed in the god of money.

“What do you believe,” I asked a younger man, fresh from a college degree, not long married.

“I’m taking a Bible study course,” he said. “I believe that Americans are God’s special people and that the man is supposed to be the head of the family.” I watched him giving his wife orders as we talked. He sat, waiting to be served his supper, while she ran after two small children. His belief, obviously, was in himself and the god of entitlements.

“What do you believe?” I asked a woman who had left the church.

“I believe that God made women to have the same abilities and opportunities as men have and I’m not going to be part of anything that says otherwise,” she said.

No such thing as unbelievers

The situations made the point: Everybody believes in something. There is no such thing as an age of “unbelievers.” Some believe in self-determination and some believe in God the puppeteer. Some believe that reality is a mirage and some believe that reality is all there is. Some people believe in a God of wrath, others in a God of love. But underneath all of them there is one constant: Whatever we believe at the deepest center of our being determines what we ourselves become, even when we say we believe in something else.

No one goes through life empty of belief. Each of us draws from a well of ideas that guides us from choice to choice to choice until our life becomes the sum total of each mitered one of them. Some of those ideas are borrowed. They come from authorities and stand fast, at least until tested. Borrowed ideas are somebody else’s interpretation of the human story. The ideas that shape the final us, however, come the hard way. They are the attitudes, the assumptions, the concepts that, even if handed down, will, if we are lucky, have been tried by fire. Distilled from experience, these ideas burn themselves into our souls as life works its will on us until, at the end, we find ourselves to be believers pared to the core. The fringes don’t matter any more once we come to understand the big things in life: love, commitment, God, justice, Jesus.

Ideas from authority we treat with respect. Ideas from experience we regard as pearls of great price. These are the beliefs that illuminate for us our own human story in the light of the universal one. The best beliefs, surely, are those that have been tried and found consistent with the instincts of the rest of the universe who, down the long corridors of time, have come back again and again to the truisms of life: There is something beyond us; there is something bigger than we are that calls us on; there is a purpose to life. It is my story flashed against the screen of the human story. It is, for the Christian, my story seen in the light of the Jesus story. It is belief tested and found to be true, not scientifically but spiritually. It is not statistical, not measurable, not historical, not scientifically verifiable. It is much better than that. It is the spiritual insight that erupts out of a community tempered by tradition and in concert with the consciousness of streams of witnesses before it, even while acknowledging that within the context of the created universe the Jesus story occupies but a millisecond.

Belief is not contrary to fact. It simply transcends it. To believe something is to know its truth not so much in our minds but in the center of our souls. We believe in goodness, for instance, because, however effective evil seems to be, it contradicts the highest aspirations of humanity. We believe in love, rather than hate, because love draws out the best in us while hate feeds on our smallnesses. We believe in the people whose hearts we hold in our hands, whatever the situations that challenge that certainty, because we ourselves are nourished by that relationship. We believe in the spiritual because the material is simply not enough to justify the sense of the unfinishedness of life that lurks in every human heart. In sum, belief is the ability to know what we cannot see. None of our beliefs, if they are really “belief,” are sure in the way that chemicals on scales are sure. Belief is sure in the way that truth is sure. It rings in our hearts like tines on crystal.

But belief is not supernatural sleight of hand designed to save us from the exigencies of life. “There are those who say in winter,” the Sufi story teaches, “ ‘I shall not wear warm clothes. I will trust in God to keep me warm.’ But they forget,” the story says, “that the God who made winter gave human beings the power to protect themselves from it.” Belief is not fantasy. Belief is not an excuse for irrationality. Faith is not what gives us the tricks it takes to control God. Belief is a basis for personal development and a topographical map of life that signals a way through the valleys and plains, raging rivers and vast oceans of experience in which we grow. Belief makes of life more a quest than a place. Belief is not what makes it possible for us to settle down complacent in our goodness, certain that if we keep the rules we will have life without having to live it. “I went to church every week, I did everything I was told to do, I believed in God,” people say. “How could this divorce have happened?” As if belief were some kind of insurance policy against life. On the contrary. Belief is what enables us to weigh our options in the light of what is real, what is really important in life and, in the end, stay the course.

To be without belief is to lose sight not only of where we’re going but why we’re going there. We become confused not only about where we are now but about where, as one more human heartbeat in a sea of life, we’ve been. Unbelief becomes the ground of confusion, fosters a sense of meaninglessness in life and leaves us with a feeling of bone-weary loneliness in the universe. Without belief in something greater than ourselves, answers to the questions of why we’re here, what we’re doing and how we are to live fade like grey ghosts on a white horizon. Then life shrinks to the dimensions of our own petty little world. Then we become prisoners of our own small selves captured and trapped in an even smaller box. Then life becomes just one more anthill in space. Belief in God may not be provable, true, but it is hard to imagine anything more senseless than unbelief.

There is, nevertheless, a senseless kind of belief, too. There is a dependency that masks as faith. This kind of belief thrives on absolute answers to the absolutely unanswerable, demands proofs for the unprovable, traffics in magic rather than mystery and calls it Christianity. This is the kind of religion that sets out to control God. Masked as virtue, it conjures up rules and regulations, admissions policies and trials by fire to measure a person’s right to heaven. It binds God to our laws and confuses being correct with being holy. It makes God as small as we are. It copes by convincing itself that it is possible to achieve perfect security by manipulating the cosmos. It uses God as a crutch for living. I know that kind of faith. I’ve been there. I’ve collected indulgences, too.

The weakness in a spiritual life that rides on rules and regulations, definitions and doctrines, is that it knows only as much of God as authority defines for it. People who rely only on predigested answers know the rituals and canons of the faith, perhaps, but they may know far too little of the God who dwells within them. They look outside themselves for answers to the spiritual life and bind God to bargains that God never made. They miss the God who is everywhere. They do not really believe, protest as they might. They simply seek to exchange compulsive compliance for perfect collateral. It is a kind of spiritual insurance plan. They may practice religion but they run the risk of ignoring the God who does not exist to be bound into therapeutic service.

The truth of life is that life is not a given. We are its co-creators. The globe is in our hands. Life is at our mercy. We must be impelled by the vision that inspired it, committed to the glory that created it and confident in the beauty that sustains it. To say “I believe” is to say that my heart is in what I know but do not know, what I feel but cannot see, what I want and do not have, however much I have. To say “I believe” is to say yes to the mystery of life.

(Reprinted from In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, 1999, with permission from Liguori Publications. Web site: www.liguori.org. To order, call 1-800-325-9521 and mention NCR.)

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2000