Error: Substituting positive thinking for existential
believing; seeking salvation through mental activity, such as, thinking favorably about
Fact: Only the existential experience of being in Christ--the
way, truth, and life-leads to fullness of life.
Belief: Religious Placebo
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever
believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16
Andi, my two-year-old granddaughter, bumped her head on a chair and ran crying to her mother, as her mother had run to her own mother many times long before. Tela gave her a tender kiss, said, "Now, it'll be alright," and in a few seconds a smiling Andi was back at play.
Here I want to affirm the magic of a mother's kiss but also the danger of the religious placebo called belief.
The verse quoted above is perhaps the most widely known of all Bible passages. The doctrine of belief to which it points is, I submit, one of the least understood of all religious doctrines, with possibly the most far-reaching and damaging results. The error has eternal consequences.
The Christian version of this popular error goes something like this: if you think positively about Jesus, agreeing that he is the all-powerful only son of God, that he died for your sins; if you are sincerely convinced and have no doubts about it, then you will be saved. Some attach the rider requirements of "living right," trying to be like him, and being faithful to the church; however, the crux of the matter is a blind faith in Jesus. Often it is called "giving your heart to Jesus" or "letting him come into your heart." While the Billy Graham type evangelism, plus the current TV religious "clubs," most blatantly demonstrate the practice, mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic, often preach basically the same doctrine in a toned-down version.
I submit that this is a gross error, doing violence to Jesus' teachings and to the reality of salvation. The error is to reduce a profound spiritual experience (believing in Christ, that is indeed the path of salvation) down to a shallow mental act of thinking positively about Jesus and then expecting to be saved thereby. Even when the requirements (leading a "clean life," going to church, etc.) are added, the phenomenon remains but a religious placebo. Modern churches and many Jesusgroup variations on the theme contain deeply disillusioned and existentially lost persons who have been led astray by this error. There is, so far as I know, no kind of mental activity called belief, no "right thinking" about Jesus or any other object which will save a person.
Which is not to say that such magical belief does not work within its own sphere. Much of our dis-ease of body, soul, and business is mentally induced. Confused thinking causes many bodily woes. Mixed-up minds result in emotional pain. Shortsightedness leads to low business productivity. Consciously or unconsciously we think our way into many problems; we can also think our way out of them. This is the sphere of magical belief. Any accepted procedure or object will help as we think our way out of mental traps we have fallen into. If we believe in mother's kiss it will help us stop clinging to the memory of pain after the actual pain has gone. The doctors's sugar pill, if we believe in it, will help us relax our self-induced tensions of brain or bowels and thus get "well." Carrying a rabbit's foot or whistling in the dark will relieve our imagined fears of the unknown, if we think they will. Many of us are poor and failing in business not because we lack ability but because we think we cannot produce. Our problems are in our minds. With a bit of magical belief, "Think and Grow Rich" might save us. Dr. Peale has illustrated this well in his book, The Power of Positive Thinking.
It does work. All self-induced limitations can be removed by magical belief in any chosen object, including Jesus. We can make significant changes in our health, happiness, and productivity within-and this is the crucial issue--certain real limits. The problem is not in the use of magical belief within its legitimate sphere, but in trying to go all the way with it, pretending that germs, human limits do not exist. Faith healing and Christian Science are effective in a large number of cases. A doctor I know estimates that 75-90% of his patients could be helped by placebos. Because so many of us are doing so much less than we can, fantasizing that we "can do whatever we want to if we try hard enough" will certainly increase productivity. There is enough false-guilt rampant in our society to allow for considerable magical forgiveness.
However, germs, limits, and sin are real. Much disease is not all in our heads and hence subject to the magic of placebos--secular or religious. No positive thinking can extend our actual limitations. And our damnation that is not self-imposed cannot be escaped by magical belief in Jesus. Real problems require real solutions.
To summarize, I wish to affirm the utility of mother's kisses, rabbit's feet, and Jesus--secular and religious magical belief--for helping us out of imaginary woes (self-induced mental ills). But I also wish to affirm the reality of real human ills which are not subject to magical belief. Such bodily sickness requires medicine. Actual limitations require acceptance, and spiritual dis-ease requires believing in Christ--not to be confused with positive thinking about Jesus.
I shall focus now on the difference between the spiritual experience of believing in Christ and the mental phenomenon of magical belief in Jesus. The error I am attempting to amplify is confusing these two distinctive events which unfortunately bear similar names. My point is that whereas temporary relief from mental illness is possible through magical belief in Jesus (or other selected objects), salvation is only possible through believing in Christ.
The initial problem addressed here is one of our language. Since we are using similar words (belief/believing, Jesus/Christ) to refer to distinctive experiences, we may pause to note that the difference is more than grammatical. The word problem emerges from the error in understanding, not vice versa. In fact we are grammatically correct in using the words belief and believing interchangeably. The first is but the noun form of the verb. Then when we add an object--Jesus or Christ--again they are grammatically interchangeable. However, because these are our available words, I will attempt to point out the error through distinctive definitions of the words now used synonymously. Aware that English dictionaries and popular thought do not make these distinctions, I will try to separate "belief in Jesus" (magical belief) from "believing in Christ" (saving belief). Although the fables are similar, the experiences so named are distinctively different.
I begin with a distinction between belief and believing. Although the difference is not apparent in English the Greek words of the New Testament ("whosoever believeth in him") were, I think, more revealing. The Greek verb, pisteuo, translated "believe" in English, meant "standing in a similar or right relation to." The noun form of the word (pistil) is translated as "faith." Believing is the same as "faithing." The event is a deep and profound spiritual experience. To "believe in" is to existentially "be in"--to find one's existence in that which is believed. In contrast, the popular understanding of a "belief" today is a religious tenet or doctrine--an idea. To "believe in" is to agree with the tenet, to accept the idea as true. If, for instance, I "believe" the earth is flat, I agree that this idea is true. If I "believe" God created the earth in six days, I accept this notion as correct. If I "believe" that Jesus is the son of God, I agree that the statement is accurate.
The New Testament spiritual experience of believing has thus been reduced to a Twentieth Century mental activity of thinking a certain way. "Being in" has become "agreeing with." The profound existential event is replaced by a shallow mental association, perhaps accompanied by emotional reactions but not requiring them. The noun (pistil) naming the event has likewise been distorted to mean accepting the irrational as correct. "Faith" today popularly means "believing something you can't prove." Thus, "I take it on faith," means I accept it without evidence. The more irrational an idea is, the more "faith" it requires to "believe" in. "Faith" accordingly is pitted against reason. We may accept something on the basis of evidence--it is reasonable. Or we may accept something on the basis of "faith"--it is unsupportable by reason. In either case, the event is primarily mental--an accepting with or without evidence. To say "I believe. . ." today, is to say "I think. . ."
As I understand the Greek concepts of faith and belief, today's popular understanding completely misses the point. Believing falls within the realm of existential experience, not mental agreement. Faith is in a distinctively different category from thought, rather than being a type of thinking (unreasonable as opposed to reasonable). Even when this thinking called "faith" is accompanied by emotionalism and acted out in prescribed behavior ("being good"), it is still essentially different from the New Testament experience of believing.
Before amplifying this experiential difference I note the second word problem related to the object of believing (in what?). Today "Jesus" and "Christ" are used synonymously, as though Christ were the last name of Jesus. "Jesus Christ" in popular usage is comparable to "John Smith." When we say Jesus or Christ or Jesus Christ we refer to a man born in Bethlehem, just as John or Smith or John Smith might refer to a man born in Boston. We may assign different qualities (supernatural or natural) but the naming procedure is comparable.
Not so in biblical language. "Christ" in the New Testament (Greek: Christos) is a verbal adjective meaning "anointed." The Hebrew word with the same meaning in the Old Testament is the participle mashiach, from which the English word "messiah" is derived. The biblical words are about a function, stance, or role--not a particular person. Any person might be anointed and function in the role of a "messiah."
A comparable use of language is the English word "clown." "Clown" is a verbal adjective about a function, or role--a way of being. In reality there is only the activity of clowning (playing the fool), but to name this role we make the noun clown. It is impersonal. Any particular person may become a clown when he lives accordingly. If, for example, John Smith starts clowning around, we might call him John the Clown, or shorten the title to John Clown. Actually "Clown" is not his name, but a label for what he has become.
So it is with the biblical title, Jesus Christ. Jesus the person, became Jesus the Christ, which we often shorten to Jesus Christ. So far, so good. The problem emerges only when we forget that omitting "the" is a language convenience, not an actual fact. Both "Clown" and "Christ" are names for functions-ways of being--rather than the name of a person. Clowning and Christing fall in essentially different categories from John and Jesus. Johns and Jesuses (people) may become crowns or Christs, but the proper names and the ways-they-become remain inherently distinctive categories.
This may appear to be quibbling over words at this point. However, the theological issue is crucial. I point out the language distinction in order to clarify the problem with the object of believing. In reality we may believe in Christ (in the New Testament sense) but cannot believe in Jesus. Jesus was a person, a proper noun; Christ is a verbal adjective, a way of being. Grammatically we may mix proper nouns and verbal adjectives (John, Clown and Jesus, Christ), but when it comes to existential experience we can only be in (find our existence in) verbal adjectives, not proper nouns. We can think about (agree or disagree with) proper nouns (John or Jesus) or any facts about them (where or how they were born, for example), but we can only believe (be in, be committed unto) some verbal adjective which stands for what they become.
Technically, thinking is applicable only to things (objects and events) and believing is applicable only to experience (ways of being). I may think about (e.g., agree or disagree on the reality of) a person or historical event--say, Jesus or his virgin birth, or believe in Christ--the Christian way of being. But I attempt the literally impossible when I try to believe (be in) an object or event, as Jesus or his manner of birth.
Once this technical impossibility is assumed, then it becomes logical to speak of believing in Jesus or believing in the virgin birth. In reality one can only think about these things. He can believe in Christ or in being Christian, but not in any things (persons or events). Thinking applies to things; believing applies to being. Not vice versa. The popular error is in confusing these distinctive categories.
To further clarify we may note that thinking and believing--the mental activity and the spiritual experience--may be in contradiction to one another. Although one's thinking would normally correlate with his believing, the opposite is often true. One might think favorably about the idea of loving and yet believe (be in) an opposite way (unloving). Or one may think positively about Jesus--agree with all the church-approved ideas-and yet not believe (be in) Christ; that is, he might be quite unchristian. Or one might mentally reject the person Jesus, even disagree on his historical existence, and yet believe (be in) Christ in contrast with his thinking.
To this point I have tried to distinguish between thinking (popularly called "believing") and the biblical understanding of believing as an existential experience or way of being. I have noted that believing (in the New Testament sense) may or may not be reflected in compatible thought, but is in either case an essentially different matter.
Now I will amplify the specific nature of the Christ symbol, understood as a verbal adjective for a way of being, rather than a proper noun for Jesus of Galilee. How can the Christ-way of being be distinguished from other ways of being? What is the difference between believing in Christ and believing in, for example, evil?
We may begin with-Jesus' own words. He said, "I am the way, the truth, the life" (John 14:6). The Christ, what Jesus was--the way-of-his-being--he summarized in these three symbols. Jesus (the man) became "the way, the truth, the life" (Christ). Jesus = person; Christ = way, truth, life. The New Testament also describes him as love. In becoming Christ, Jesus also became loving. "Christ" then becomes a symbol for these ways-of-being: in the way, in truth, in life, in love. As Jesus the person came to be in the way, truth, life, and love, he came to be Christ.
In "the way" may be contrasted with out of "the way." In reality there is a way-things-are, in contrast with a way-they-are-not. Jesus came to be in the way they are. In reality there is truth in contrast with falseness. Jesus came to be truthful rather than phony. In reality there is being lively as contrasted with the merely existing. Jesus came to be truly alive instead of just breathing. In reality there is the possibility of loving or of not caring. Jesus came to be loving. In these ways-joining how-things-are, getting honest, coming alive, and being loving, Jesus became the "Christ," that is, he became Christian.
To believe in Christ, again, is not necessarily synonymous with thinking positively about Jesus. It is to be committed unto or be in what Jesus was in, namely, the way, truth, life and love rather than to be out-of-it, dishonest, spiritually dead, and unloving. The believing which saves us is the spiritual process of actually becoming truthful, lively, and loving. We come to believe in-literally, to be in--Christ when we come to exist in what Jesus was, that is, to also find our being in the way, truth, life, and love.
Note again the distinction between believing (being in) and thinking (agreeing with). They may go together, but not necessarily so. One may agree heartily with the idea of being truthful, yet exist as a dishonest person, deceiving not only others but himself as well. Even though he says he believes in honesty, in the New Testament sense of the word he believes in dishonesty, since that is the way he exists. Or one may affirm the idea of love, declaring "I believe in loving everybody," while actually existing in an uncaring manner. Despite his thinking, such a person believes (New Testament meaning) in not-caring.
Conversely, one may mentally disagree with the idea of Christ (as say, truth) and yet believe (be into) living truthfully. Or he may think that love is only a sentimental idea for weak people, while he exists lovingly with others. Contrary to his thinking, he believes in loving. The point again is that mentally favoring Jesus or even the forms of Christ, bears no necessary correlation with the spiritual experience of believing in Him.
To summarize these distinctions I will use the phrase "saving-belief" for the spiritual experience which I understand the New Testament to be about, and the term "magical-belief" for the popular understanding. Technically, this English word "belief" does mean an idea or doctrine, and "believe" means to accept or agree with. However, if we are to apply the same word to the biblical concept, some distinction must be noted. "Saving-belief" I use to stand for the experience which saves us from real sin; "magicalbelief" is the kind of experience which relieves us from self-induced or imaginary limitations.
Saving-belief is a spiritual experience, an existential happening for the whole person. Magicalbelief is mental phenomenon, a set of the mind, a freezing of thinking. This mindset on particular ideas such as "Jesus was the son of God," may be accompanied by emotional reactions and behavioral modification, but it remains an essentially mental stance without spiritual roots. Saving-belief is literally a being-in, a particular way-of-being. Magical belief is a way-of-thinking and actually a way of not-being. The frozen mindset required by magical-belief--where doubting is not permitted-prevents the open-mindedness which is the nature of being. Saving-belief involves fluid thinking, a continual mental openness to reality, a flexibility of thought allowing constant correction. It can never be prejudiced. Magical-belief, in contrast, is essentially prejudiced. The mind is made-up, closed on all those subjects deemed important. For example, there can be no debate about Jesus' supernatural powers or resurrection from the dead. The mind is also closed on prescribed behavior patterns accepted as inherently "right."
Saving-belief can only be in being (God, Christ, Being-itself); magical-belief can only be in objects (persons, such as Jesus, places, or things--tangible or intangible). In reality the two are not reversible. Saving-belief, by nature of itself precludes an object; magical-belief, by its nature, requires an object. The word, object, is used here for anything which can be literally represented by the pronouns, he, she, or it. It may be material or immaterial, such as, an idea, doctrine, or belief.
Saving-belief is in Christ; magical-belief is in Jesus. By nature of these differing experiences bearing the same name they cannot be reversed. One cannot have saving belief in Jesus since it is literally impossible to be in this man who lived long ago. Nor can one have magical belief in Christ since Christ is no thing (love is no object). Magical belief can be placed in the idea of Christ (reducing the experience to a notion) but that is to remove the potential event from reality, making it a mental object. Specifically, saving-belief is in the way, truth, life, and love. Magical-belief is in Jesus of Nazareth. With the first, the historical man is relatively incidental except as an expression, personification, and example of the Christ. With the second the experiences of truthfulness, living fully, and loving are relatively incidental in comparison to the physical facts about Jesus' birth, life, and death.
"Believing in being" (God, Christ) can be expressed in secular language as "trusting in reality" (God is the ultimate in reality). In this language "trusting in reality" is to be distinguished from trusting in any of the forms of reality--persons, places, things. Saving-belief is trusting in reality itself--that is, existing openly, responsively, in the presence of reality in any of its forms. In this state of existence one is openhearted--sensitive, emotional, thoughtful, as contrasted with being uptight--insensitive, cold-hearted, and closed-minded.
Such trust is not in--placed on--any particular part of reality, including oneself, but is in the totality of reality itself. It would be equally correct to say that the trusting person "trusts everything" or "trusts no-thing ('nothing,' taken literally)."
To believe in being (trust reality) is thus an experiential way of existing, characterized by openness and exposure rather than closure. To have any object of belief or trust is to close oneself off to other parts of reality. To believe in any "it" is to exclude other "its i" and saving belief is in the presence of all that can be grammatically represented by the pronoun "it." For example, to believe in the person Jesus is to exclude belief in Buddha. To believe in the idea that Jesus will take care of you is to exclude the possibility of failure. To trust in a person is to exclude his possibility of being dishonest.
To believe in reality--God as the ultimate in reality--is not to exclude any possibility. In reality anything can happen; to trust in reality is to be open to whatever happens. In contrast, magical-belief selects certain ideas ("Everything will turn out swell," "Virtue will be rewarded," "Souls last forever," etc.) and in so doing excludes any other possibilities ("If anything can go wrong it will," "Good guys may finish last," "This is all there is," etc.).
Saving-belief makes no such closures. It trusts in reality, which includes all these possibilities. To believe in Christ is to believe in life--where sometimes things go well, but often not so, where virtue may or may not be rewarded, and where the grave may end it all. To believe in Christ is to believe in truth but not in the honesty of a person. To be in Christ is to believe in loving but not in a particular lover. Believing in truth and love is quite different from trusting a friend to be honest or a lover to be true. When one believes in truth and love, the success or failure of a friend or lover may be disappointing, but is not disastrous. One's trust was in Christ, not people.
To trust Christ is to be trusting in the presence of people, but not to trust people themselves. To trust Christ is to trust life, but not a particular idea about life, such as, that souls live forever. To trust Christ is to be in all that Jesus embodied--way, truth, life, love--but not to place belief in Jesus himself. To trust Christ, in summary, is to trust the ultimate in reality (God), as distinguished from trusting any object (person, place, thing, idea)--that is, any of the forms of reality. The error to which I point is reversing the order, trusting objects rather than God, Jesus rather than Christ, the forms of reality rather than reality itself.
Beliefs are particular ideas, intangible objects, but still "its." Saving-belief is not in any objects, including ideas (doctrines, beliefs). Rigid beliefs represent a closure of the mind and as such are antithetical to the openness of saving-belief. To believe in Christ is to be distinguished from being closed-minded about any idea or belief, including particular notions about Jesus. One who is believing in Christ will, in the openness of his mind, have ideas which express the current state of his thinking, but all such thoughts will be loosely held temporary opinions, not dogmatic conclusions resistant to change. Believers in Christ think but do not cling to thoughts made sacred, as do believers in Jesus. Thinking, as one of the human capacities, is a significant part of believing in Christ, yet only one of many. In magical-belief, rigid thought about the object of belief is crucial. In fact it only works when the mind is firmly set, convinced without doubt, on the inherent powers of the object, be it a rabbit's foot, placebo, witch doctor, or Jesus.
Believers in Christ have thoughts which formulate their present awareness of reality, but no inflexible "belief" in the popular sense of the word. Any rigidly held belief is an escape from believing in Christ. The more one "believes in," the less he believes; a full set of beliefs about everything eliminates all believing. Conversely, the fully believing person is fluid in all his thinking, continually open-minded to new insight and experience, constantly subject to a new revelation of God which might supersede all previous knowledge. It is unfortunate that the term "true believer" is applied only to the most prejudicial of magical-thinkers, leaving a real believer in Christ with the label "non-believer."
To summarize: the single word "believer" is applicable to two distinctively different human activities: 1) a commitment to being; and 2) a mind set on a particular object. Though they share the same title and the results appear temporarily similar, the events are contradictory: to believe in the first sense is to disbelieve in the second, and vice versa.
To distinguish the two, I have called the first, saving-belief, and the second, magical-belief. Saving-belief is in being (religious language: God or Christ; secular language: reality or being-itself). Magical-belief is in an object-person, place, thing, or idea. In this chapter I am focusing on the particular form of magical-belief in Jesus. The phenomenon is not essentially different, however, from believing in a friend, lover, magic potion, or four-leafed clover. In each instance one elevates the object of the magical belief to a position of power, sets his mind in a frame of positive thinking, eliminates negative thoughts (called doubt or disbelief), and remains fixed on the superhuman efficacy of the selected object, which in this case is Jesus.
Magical-belief works in correcting those human ills and woes which result from human confusion. Since a large portion of bodily illness and emotional discomfort, as well as reduced productivity, is caused by such confusion, there is a fertile field for magical-belief. However, there are other more serious human problems resulting from real causes, such as germs and sin, which are not subject to the powers of magical belief. Since these problems-infectious diseases and hell--are not "all in our heads" they cannot be cured by placebos and positive thinking. The former require medicine; the latter require believing in Christ.
The error I am confronting here is the popular attempt to substitute magical-belief for
saving-belief in correcting the problems resulting from sin. As a temporary expedient,
like aspirin for fever, magical-belief is effective in the speedy correction of mental
mistakes. However, as a cure for the cancer of our souls it is the tragic misapplication
of an emotional poultice where radical surgery is called for. Nothing short of coming to
be Christ, of learning to trust God rather than man--the ultimate in reality rather than
any of its forms-can open the door to the kingdom of heaven which we seek on this earth.
What To Do?
Confront your magical-belief in objects as openly as your faith will allow. Begin making a list of persons, places, things, and ideas in which you have placed your trust. Recognize your belief in these objects as the mental placebo which it is. To give credit where it is due, respect the temporal changes you have made with these crutches of the mind.
Then start weaning yourself from these mother's kisses. As you are able, withdraw the trust you have placed in friends, relatives, lovers, and Jesus. Your magical-belief, with all its temporary advantages, prevents your deeper spiritual growth as well as any real relationship with the objects of your trust. We can lean on magical objects, but we cannot stand closely with them.
Stop making any beliefs magic. Let go of your sacred doctrines. You cannot believe in God as long as you trust in ideas. For example, if you have closed your mind on any doctrine about Jesus--say his virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, or even his historical existence--refusing to face contrary possibilities, then you are participating in magical belief in beliefs. Start giving up any such prejudicial thinking.
Instead, start believing in Christ--that is, coming to be in the way things are, to be truthful, to be alive, and to be loving. Place your trust only in God, not some imagined sky-father or objectified cosmic image, but in reality, indeed the ultimate in reality. Then, trusting God, you will be trusting in the presence of all objects-people, places, and things. Persons in whose presence you trust God may mistakenly conclude you trust them. So be it; yet carefully evade the temptation to slip from your saving-belief in Christ into a magical-belief in some loving friend or historical Jesus. To do so will cost you, I think, the eternal life which is only possible when you are trusting God.
If you have fallen into the opposite error of a pessimistic disbelief in people, religion, etc., your salvation will lie in abandoning the stark isolation of this reverse side of the coin of magical-belief and then learning to trust God.
In relating to others who cling to their magical-beliefs in Jesus or any contemporary objects, you may respect the advantages of religious and secular placebos, as well as the faith required for believing in Christ. Remember too that magical-belief is, by definition, not subject to reason. Rational argument is pointless with a "true believer." For your own protection you may also respect the inherent threat which saving-belief always poses for magical-belief. One who believes in Christ may, for example, love one who believes in Jesus; yet his very love is apt to challenge the foundations and quasi-security of the magical believer. Expect, at times, the rejection of those who believe in Jesus.
With your belief only in Christ, you will confront the events of life, the coming and
going of all persons, things, and beliefs, with the same silent love of the prophet who
wrote "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the
Lord," or as we might say, "That's life."