Monday, January 30, 2006

The Weight of Belief

Again from God's Debris:

They say that they believe because pretending to believe is necessary to get the benefits of religion. They tell other people that they believe and they do believer-like things, like praying and reading holy books. But they don’t do the things that a true believer would do, the things a true believer would have to do. If you believe a truck is coming toward you, you will jump out of the way. That is belief in the reality of the truck. If you tell people you fear the truck but do nothing to get out of the way, that is not belief in the truck. Likewise, it is not belief to say God exists and then continue sinning and hoarding your wealth while innocent people die of starvation. When belief does not control your most important decisions, it is not belief in the underlying, it is belief in the usefulness of believing.”
Annie Dillard recounts some similar sentiments in "Teaching a Stone to Talk":
On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
And this isn't new. It was the same in 1927, when Bertrand Russel first gave his "Why I am not a Christian" lecture:
I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.
As Karl Rahner put it:
The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny him with their lifestyles are what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.
There's an "apocryphal" story about Rahner as a missionary, living out this ideal:
[...] shipwrecked at sea, who was washed up on shore and taken in by some natives who nursed him back to health. He lived among them for 20 years, the little story says, and during that time he confessed no faith, he sang no hymns, he preached no sermons. But when they were ill, he took care of them. When they were lonely, he was there to talk with them. When they were hungry, he shared food. There was no condition with which he could not identify. And then after he had been there for 20 years other missionaries finally came to the village and began to talk about Jesus. After hearing the stories the natives said to the missionaries, "Come, we will introduce you to the man about whom you have been speaking."
And, of course, Jesus reiterates this in Matthew 19 and the beatitudes:
"Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand--shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

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