Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Does it Matter what we Believe?

This is the first in a series of posts over the next few weeks in which we’re thinking about engaging with the way non-Christian people think about life.

We’re doing this in preparation for A Passion for Life. We’re going to use them in church each week, including them in our five minute ‘thinking about an issue’ slot. Posting them online is part of the honing process. Exposed to the intense heat of the comment facility I’m hoping that the dross will rise to the surface so that I can cleanse it away to leave an argument of purer quality!

‘Half of them wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them in the face with a wet kipper’
Geoffrey Boycott, Test Match Special 4th January 2010

Boycott’s epistemological musings were prompted by a discussion of Golf’s handicap laws. He may be right. But his comments come straight out of a modernist approach to truth. He thinks it exists, it can be known and that it matters. But increasingly people are saying that it doesn’t really matter what the truth is, whether it involves a wet kipper or not.

But where are people coming from when they say ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’ 

In other words, what do they mean when they say that?
  • They mean that they should be left alone to believe what they believe and that Christians especially shouldn’t bother them!
  • They mean that they’re not going to use up their time and energy thinking about something that in the end is irrelevant!
But why do people say that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

Probably for some of the following reasons
  • We’re fundamentally lazy and we just don’t want to think. We do that at work, why would we want to do that at rest?
  • We’ve unthinkingly adopted fervently held convictions. But Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living!
  • We’ve inherited a way of life that works. And so we think ‘if it ain’t broke why fix it?’
  • We’ve confused style for substance. We value the style or manner of belief over the substance of belief. We think that sincerity and tolerance is enough. The content of what we believe is irrelevant. In other words it’s more important that we’re accepting of others’ views than that they’re views are wrong!
  • We’ve swallowed the lie of relativism. We think that there’s no such thing as ‘true truth’ just ‘my truth’. And so, if we believe that truth is relative then this is the ideological foundation for the conviction that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe’.
What’s wrong with saying that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

It’s unbelievably shallow!

1. When we say that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe’ we’ve failed to recognise that at the very least it matters that we believe that it doesn’t matter!

2. When we say that we’ve failed to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. We’ve failed to realise the distinction between matters of truth and matters of taste. Let me illustrate. Here are two sets of three statements.

Set one
  1. Chez Bruce is the best restaurant in London
  2. Waggle Dance is my favourite bottled beer
  3. You should never wear socks and crocs; ever
Set two
  1. I was born on 20th October
  2. I have three sisters
  3. I grew up in Northamptonshire
Which set are matters of taste and which set are matters of truth? Though there may be universal aggreement that no one should ever wear socks and crocs it’s still a matter of opinion. It’s not objectively true. That I was born on the 20th October is. Whatever your opinion of that fact is, it remains a fact. You can’t change the truth by believing that I was born on the 19th. You’re allowed to hold any opinion that you want. But just don’t go the next step and claim that it’s undeniably true.

When we say that ‘it doesn’t matter what I believe’ we fail to recognise the difference between opinion and truth.

3. When we say that we’ve failed to recognise that ideas have legs. What we think affects what we value. And what we value affects what we do. At a simplistic level if I think that money is more important than family then I’ll value cash more than children. That’ll mean that I’ll do all that I can to earn more money which may mean that we spend all our time at the office. It’s the same in spiritual matters; whether we think that there’s a God or not is going to impact the way that we choose to live.

It’s very easy to show that there are consequences to what we believe. For example, imagine a conversation with a bus driver on the 137 as he stops in Sloane Square.

Me: What are you doing heading to the West End? I’m supposed to be in the City.
Driver: Well you should have caught the 133 then, shouldn’t you?
Me: But I believed that the 137 goes to the City.
Driver: Well you’re an idiot, because it doesn’t.
Me: But I believed with all sincerity that this bus would get me to the City.
Driver: I couldn’t care less what you believed, the truth is another matter.

What we believe does have consequences. It has moral consequences in this life. It has eternal consequences in the next. Jesus said that he is the way the truth and the life. He was making a truth claim. It’s either right or it’s wrong. If he’s telling the truth it has consequences. It means that only he is the way to God for people who have lost their way, only he is the truth about God for people who are confused and only he is the life from God for people facing death.

What could we say to someone who said that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

If we want to advance the conversation a little bit further there are some things that we could say in response.

1. Do you think that applies to all of life? People seem happy to accept that what we believe does matter when it comes to the 137 bus and so why do they think that it doesn’t apply in the spiritual realm? Why do you think that spiritual issues are matters of taste not matters of opinion.

2. Are you happy for me not to believe in Henry 8th? Is it OK not to believe in his existence? Because the truth of Christianity can be validated through empirical evidence. The nature of its claims is historical.

3. Given what I believe do you think that it makes a difference to how I live? This one is risky because it opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy. But at least it'll lead to a discussion in which we can clarify that what we believe should make a difference even if it hasn't yet!