Why we believe what we do  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

There is a simple story we usually tell about the things we believe: we were presented with the alternatives, carefully examined the facts, and came to a studied conclusion about what is true. The truth of the matter, of course, is far more complicated.

For one thing there is an essential link between knowing and doing that we must never ignore. It is why St Paul can speak of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) without for a moment suggesting that the Christian’s relationship to God through Christ is based on works, or on meriting grace in some way. Rather, we are embodied creatures so what we know and what we do is inextricably tied together. What I truly believe is evident in how I live, regardless of what I claim to believe. How I live effects what I believe because beliefs that do not resonate with the give and take of life are for that reason suspect.

Once we begin to reflect on this, it is clear that what is involved is far more richly nuanced than we might initially imagine. In i told me so: Self-deception and the Christian Life, philosopher Gregg Ten Elshof (professor of philosophy at Biola University) examines one aspect of the process of belief more carefully. He argues that one thing we do is selectively give attention to things—we have to since there is far too much going on to give full attention to everything. But he also argues that this thing we do so naturally and subconsciously has an effect on what we believe.

            In The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor’s Tarwater is a man busy about the task of suppressing his knowledge of Christ. O’Connor's description of Tarwater's inner life is worth quoting at length:
In the darkest, most private part of his soul, hanging upside down like a sleeping bat, was the certain undeniable knowledge that he was not hungry for the bread of life. Had the bush flamed for Moses, the sun stood still for Joshua, the lions turned aside before Daniel only to prophesy the bread of life? Jesus? He felt a terrible disappointment in that conclusion, a dread that it was true… He tried when possible to pass over these thoughts, to keep his vision located on an even level, to see no more than what was in front of his face and to let his eyes stop at the surface of that. It was as if he were afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something—a spade, a hoe, the mule's hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him—that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it. He did all he could to avoid this threatened intimacy of creation.
            William James said that “my experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items I notice shape my mind.” The most common strategies for long-haul self-deception involve the management of attention. Through habitual and systematic management of my cognitive gaze, I can come to believe things that I wouldn’t believe were I to attend indiscriminately to my surroundings. Through attention management, I exercise a degree of control over what comes into my mind. And this, in turn, affects what I believe.
            I first came to the study of philosophy through an interest in apologetics. I found philosophically trained Christian apologists handling with some care the difficult questions that others in my Christian context seemed to gloss over. Is there good evidence for God's existence, for the reliability of the Scriptures, or for the historical resurrection of Jesus? Can the reality of evil be squared with the existence of the Christian God? I read books on these and other topics by Christian apologists. I found the evidence supporting the truth of orthodox Christianity impressive, and that was a source of great comfort and increased faith.
            Before long, though, I also noticed that the people most impressed by the arguments favoring orthodox Christianity were the orthodox Christians. Now this in itself isn't at all surprising. I suppose the people most impressed by the arguments for anything will be the people who believe in that thing, whatever it is. The people most impressed by the evidence for extra-terrestrial life, for example, will tend to be the people who believe in extra-terrestrial life. Arguably, it’s because they’ve found the evidence compelling that they now believe what they do. So a correlation between people who find the evidence for Christianity compelling and people who believe that Christianity is true is not surprising.
            What struck me, though, was the seeming infrequency of a change of mind in either direction upon initial confrontation with the evidence. Christians I knew who carefully considered the evidence for the first time tended to find it impressive. Non-Christians I knew who carefully considered the evidence for the first time tended to find it wanting. And if they didn’t, they’d likely fault the person articulating their side of the issue for a less-than-adequate presentation of the evidence. I’ve found it almost as unlikely that people will change their minds about Christianity at a debate as it is that they will change their sports loyalties after seeing their favorite team lose.
            But how do we do this? How do Christians manage to find the same body of evidence supportive of Christianity that non-Christians find to discredit Christianity? How do Christians and non-Christians alike manage to remain unimpressed by the evidence against their position? The answer, in part, is that we do this by managing our attention. To a significant degree, we control the character of our experience by deciding what to attend to. Those experiences, in turn, result in our having the beliefs that we do.

This reality has profound implications for our own faith, and for how we engage in conversations with non-Christians over what beliefs are best supported by the available evidence. And I’d love to hear people’s thoughts about that.

Source: i told me so: Self-deception and the Christian Life by Gregg A. Ten Elshof (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2009) pp. 31-33.

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Very well stated! I was just asking myself the other day, "Do I believe what I do because I am unquestionably convinced of the truths of scripture or, after having gone through intense questioning and self confrontation, did I again resort to that place where I felt most 'safe' without honestly considering the options?" On the other hand, I have had experiences that have given me solid reason to affirm what I have believed. (I, who have said that experience cannot shape theology...) Now I have to wonder; what, really, has shaped who I am and what I believe (that being and belief being a unit)? Am I failing to focus on perspectives that would bring clarity and peace? Is it possible to at least focus on enough to arrive at a right conclusion? (Of course, it's obvious that I'm running on the presupposition that there is one.) I cannot convince anyone else that yes, it is possible. I can sincerely say that I personally am convinced of the truth of scripture. My doctrine dictates that I am far from capable of convincing anyone, anyway; it has to be the work of God's Spirit. Have I focused on the right things? I am staking all of eternity on this. In all of my wrestling, I repeatedly come back to the LORD. I am at rest in Him. Still, I wonder how my perspective will change as I'm able to focus on other things.

November 2, 2011 at 12:45 AM

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