What do you believe?

I’ve listened and watched it so many times. Someone states what they claim to believe. They say something like everyone has value. Or they state that children are the future. Or that education is important. Or a whole host of other claimed beliefs.

And then when you watch what people do, their actions do not match with their stated beliefs. Often, their actions are in direct opposition to their stated beliefs. And their actions comes through in what they do, how they treat other people, themselves, and the rest of creation. It comes through in how they vote and who they align themselves with ideologically and theologically. It comes through in how their resources are used as well.

I have a working hypothesis about humanity based on observation related to this. I haven’t done any official study on this. So maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe it’s just an observation of what I witness in South Central PA. Maybe it’s partially true and partially false. I don’t know and I don’t know how to test the hypothesis out.

My hypothesis is this – what people state is their belief is not really their actual belief but rather an aspirational belief. It’s something they wish was true, but recognize as not being true. It’s something they want to believe.

If you want to know what someone actually believes, watch what they do. Our actions reveal our actual beliefs. I remember reading that our core actual beliefs drive our actions and that we will not violate those beliefs except in rare occasions in which our lives are in danger.

There are plenty of Christians who state all sorts of beliefs about following Jesus. Yet, when you watch their actions, what you see is a core belief in the ends justifying the means, that the strong survive, and that might makes right. Those beliefs are in direct opposition to what Jesus called on his followers to do and be like. Yet, here we are.

It’s not just Christians of course. You can see the same thing going on in politics. Conservatives claim to value order and slow change, yet have fallen in line behind a candidate who is chaotic and changes policies and ideas on a whim without thinking through the long term consequences. Progressives claim an openness to ideas and people but more often than not find ways to exclude ideas and people they disagree with. All of this is enough to drive a person crazy.

I recently started reading “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt. It was published in 2012.

Here’s part of a paragraph that relates to this whole idea:

“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense. Keep you eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.” (pg. xx-xxi)

So this leaves us with the question of what do we do?

We are coming to the close of Lent. Lent is a time for self-reflection. Often we think of self-reflection as looking at our beliefs and what’s going on in our mind. Maybe we’d all be better off examining what we are doing. Not to bring judgement on ourselves and determine if we are a good or bad person, whatever that might mean. Rather look at our actions to see what they reveal. Look at our actions to see what they are telling ourselves and others about what we actually believe.

And then to ask ourselves a few questions: Why do I believe this? What benefit do I gain from believing this? Why is this important to me? Does this match with what I claim to believe? If not, then why do I keep claiming what I believe when I don’t act in accordance to it? What needs to change? How am I going to do that? Am I ok with my actions and what they mean?

We can’t change anyone else. We can observe what others say and do. We can pay attention to actions. We can hear the aspiration that others and ourselves have. But we can’t change anyone else. We are invited into a different set of core beliefs. But to embrace those, our current core beliefs have to die off. And that’s not easy. It can be scary. So many see their beliefs as a part of who they are, a part of their identity. Who are you without your current set of core beliefs? Do you have value without those beliefs? You are not your beliefs. Beliefs can change. Your value is inherent in the fact that you exist. That doesn’t change. Just talk with someone who has changed what they believe and hear what they have to say.

Often, they will talk about truth, but in a different way than most people have heard. So many talk about truth as something to obtain, to have, to discover, to own. The focus is on themselves and using truth for their own purposes. It’s similar to what Jonathan Haidt was writing about. But there are some who talk about truth in a different way. They talk about encountering truth, being open to truth, to learning from truth. It’s not something they can claim. It is something that requires people to adapt to, to be transformed by, to be changed by. And something that continues to shape us. It’s not a once and done thing. It’s an ongoing process that we aren’t in control off. We participate in it.

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