Several years ago, I went to Hungary to speak at a Christian Arts Festival attended primarily by young people from Eastern Europe. In the evenings, we held concerts for them. One evening between performances, one of our U.S. volunteers was chatting with a small group of teens, when one of the teens pointed to a young man smoking outside the tent and said, “He’s going to the hell.”
“Because he smokes,” said the teen.
“And why would he go to hell because he smokes?” asked the volunteer.
The teen shrugged and nodded toward his youth leader at the far side of the tent. “That’s what he told me.”
Was the teen wrong? Was he right? Would he know? It was a blind belief. It wasn’t his. But if he decided he didn’t believe it, would that mean he had lost his faith?
We all begin life with blind beliefs, accepting as truth whatever family and friends tell us and show us. But as we come of age, we usually discover a dissonance between some of our beliefs and our experiences. There’s a mismatch: What we’ve been told and always believed does not match our experience. It doesn’t ring true to what one writer calls our “inner pilot light.” That’s the image of God within us, the heart of us that, unadulterated, knows and craves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, balance, self-control, grace, mercy, hope . . . Author Diana Butler Bass says, “[T]he path of Christian faith in a post-religious age must be that of experiential belief in which the heart takes the lead . . . It is only in the territory of the heart where faith makes sense.”
The point is not to drop everything we were ever taught or to cut away everything we ever believed. The point is to figure out if we truly believe what we’ve been told or what we’ve read – in other words, someone else’s thinking. Are we letting someone else’s beliefs about God define our beliefs about God?
If our bodies are temples and we hold sacred space within us, then faith is the music that fills that sacred space. Faith is the hum of the choir that reaches to the highest rafters and seeps through the deepest cracks and can be heard or sensed by all who pass by. Our beliefs give the faith-music of our sacred space a tenor, a certain mood. So, if my beliefs change, the tenor of the music changes, but the music is still there. The faith is still intact.
Let me switch metaphors for a minute. My own artistic style seems to involve marks that swoop upward. Even when I’m creating a free-flowing abstract with no subject in mind, my marks resemble tall plants or flying birds or dancers with arms raised. I can change colors of paint, I can sketch with pencil or charcoal, I can create a collage, but whatever I do, my marks are there, flowing in my style. Our faith, too, flows in our style and becomes as distinctive as the marks of an artist.
Changing our beliefs does not mean losing our faith. Adjusting our beliefs affects our faith, yes, but in my experience, if beliefs change because we are taking responsibility for them and making them personally ours, then faith expands. As I said before, we may assent to certain beliefs or live in a certain belief system, but we don’t believe unless we really, personally believe. The more we take personal responsibility for our beliefs, the more likely we are to find our faith becoming stronger, richer, and livelier. In fact, that’s to be expected if we have a living, thriving, growing faith, a faith of integrity and grace.
Choosing what to believe requires us to occasionally pause on our journey, take our beliefs out of our pockets, hold them at arm’s length, turn them around, and inspect them – topside, underside, front and back, asking, “Is this belief something I was told and simply took for granted? Or is it truly what I believe? If it is, why?” If we don’t believe it, then we can’t assent to it with any kind of integrity. If we do believe it and know why – or we’re figuring out why – we put it back in our pocket and journey on. Either way, we move forward with open eyes and open hearts, more intentional about who we are and what we stand for.
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Text and painting © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Other photos courtesy pexels.com.