Another tool – why we believe

In previous posts I have described rules of practical wisdom which are really not wisdom at all. The posts endeavor to show what these rules are and why they are so faulty. By analogy I compared them with using the wrong tools for a project, and suggested that we could all profitably set them aside.

Today I extend my analogy to another bad tool, but first, here is a recap of the previous rules.

  1. Don’t offend anyone – suitable for pleasing men, not suitable for delivering the gospel, especially unsuitable in America today.
  2. We don’t need to talk about sin – excellent for preserving self-righteousness, suitable for those already consciously convicted, a good strategy to employ if we wish our society to be aware only of caricatures of the gospel.
  3. The fiction of moral ignorance – ideally suited for maintaining our comfort, directly contradicts the scripture, poorly adapted for applying God’s revelation in our times.
  4. Just deal with the spiritual things – a good tool for fakes and phonies, for Christians it ranges from useless to harmful.

Beliefs are arrived at intellectually rather than morally

This tool doesn’t seem to hold the same destructive potential as some of the others. It seems primarily to be a time waster. On the other hand, the time wasted could be profitably employed if we had a better understanding of the issue at hand.

The essence of this rule of thumb is thinking that people arrive at their beliefs by only by intellectual processes. This is true in part, but we make a mistake if we overlook the moral impulses that inevitably direct the intellectual reasoning. We tend to believe what we want to believe. It is not unusual that our reasoning is actually merly justification for what believing what we want to be true. Changing our beliefs then, often requires addressing what we it is that we want or fear.

When we decide what we will believe about God, the nature of reality, or the meaning of life, the implications of such a decision are huge. Sometimes we spend time pondering the implications at length, at other times we simply see the rough outlines and react. If you’ve spent much time arguing with people you may have noticed this in yourself or in others. It is not at all uncommon for human beings to simply refuse to concede a point even when it is logically refuted. Sometimes the gyrations we go through to defend our chosen position have making self-contradictory statements mere moments apart. When this happens, it is clear that intellectual reasoning is not the determining factor.

As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. This is more true concerning how and why we believe things, than in any other facet of life. If we want badly enough to believe, we will find a way.

The will to believe is a crucial factor in the reception of the gospel, as Jesus himself told us.

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
John 3:18-19

Others have noted this phenomenon as well, including the humanist Aldous Huxley. Huxley had this to say of his decision to believe life was objectively meaningless.

For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.
Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, p. 316

Imagine that, quoting both Jesus Christ and the ungodly Aldous Huxley to make the same point! I do this to demonstrate that this type of behavior is understandable and observable, as well as being attested to by the words of scripture.

The Ray Comfort movie The Atheist Delusion features numerous interviews with everyday atheists. In one poignant example of how the will controls the intellect, an atheist confesses “I’m lying to myself.” Even the interviewer Ray Comfort seems a bit surprised with the sudden admission. But it isn’t the intellectual impossibility of atheism that produces this realization. Instead it is the gentle but accurate way in which Comfort exposes the motives of the young man’s heart.

If we are to have honest dialogue and debate with one another or with those outside the church, we will be well served to remember this characteristic of human nature. Don’t ask intellectual logic to do the work of moral reasoning. Debate and logic goes only so far.

It will also help us to remember to be gracious to those with whom we disagree. We may see clearly the faults in their reasoning, but trapping them in their own logic may not achieve a change of heart. Ultimately it’s the heart that determines what we believe, although it can be influenced by persuasion and rhetoric.

Addressing the motives that lie behind our intellectual positions is a wise tool for everyone to use, including Christians. In some cases we can address the concerns of an unbeliever in a way that satisfies them and leaves the door open for them to believe. At other times, they will simply prefer evil over truth, and no amount of evidence will change their heart’s decision.

So, thinking that beliefs are determined only by logic is not a good “tool” for the Christian. Who does it serve then? Two groups: those who want to hide their real motives, and those who prefer to spend their time debating intellectual questions rather getting to the heart of the matter.


tiny lantern


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