As a believer—for present purposes, defined simply as one who believes—I have often wondered what and how I would believe differently had I been born into a family and culture with different beliefs. Obviously, I believe what I believe because I believe it to include truth, but would I have believed in this same truth if I had not been raised and taught in the way I have? Is what I believe so “true” I can reassure myself that if I had not “inherited” it I would still have searched for it, found it and embraced it?
Of course, for my belief to be of value to me, I have had to make it my own, not merely “inherit” it. In its own way, this is a kind of conversion—moving from one belief to another—but perhaps a gentler process than many. But how would this process have been different and how would it have changed the way I believe if I had come to the set of beliefs I now hold from a background further removed? Indeed, would I—or even could I—have arrived at this same set of beliefs?
And perhaps the most difficult decision for believers to accept is when fellow believers choose differently. So, what about friends with whom I have shared various aspects of my faith tradition, experience and education but who have chosen to be less committed to it—or even chosen other beliefs to pursue?
What in their experience or circumstances has made the difference? Not only does it strain the friendship that existed and had been reinforced by shared belief, but it must also critique one’s own belief. Are they less committed and less focused, or do they demonstrate greater courage in stepping away from the safe and the assumed? And is my belief somehow diminished without the community support offered by the former fellow believer?
These are big questions—or, at least, key questions behind the big questions of life.
But even the fact that we wrestle with such questions points to some kind of existential impulse for something more than we can see or touch. One of the ancient wise men of the Bible suggested that God “has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11*) and, even if we are not ready to acknowledge God as the creator of this human drive, most of us will recognise something like a seed of eternity somewhere in our being.
But my initial string of questions focuses on what causes this seed to sprout and grow in a certain way, and at different times in our lives. Let me point out we are still talking about belief generically and changing or growing from one group of beliefs to another without—for the purposes of this reflection—necessarily identifying particular beliefs or addressing their respective merits.
Undoubtedly, life circumstances have an impact on the formation of our belief. Psychologists, life coaches, salespeople and evangelists of all kinds know that when people are going through major life changes, they are more open to different ideas and beliefs. A death in the family, moving house, divorce, serious illness, the birth of a child, a change in career—whether planned or forced—and other such circumstances and events can trigger reflection, questions and faith experimentation.
Perhaps almost cynically, some have used these times of searching as opportunities to pitch their formulation of belief to the newly dislocated, recognising they may “catch” them at a time of greater receptiveness. But these are also occasions when it is appropriate for caring neighbours, family and community members to reach out in support. The key element is authenticity. We should help each other through the difficult times of life and, if we find our beliefs helpful in working through the challenges of life, part of helping is to share what is valuable to us.
But the questions remain. While such life events prompt a response, similar circumstances do not necessarily prompt similar responses. A family tragedy can prompt one believer to cling more tightly to their belief as a source of hope amid sorrow, while another believer enduring similar grief may abandon their existing belief entirely.
So, circumstances are no guarantee of one or another kind of belief. At most, we might argue that faith is circumstantial to each of us individually. But if faith were merely circumstantial in this way, we would need to demonstrate that either conversion or confirmation of belief must be in some way beneficial or positive to the individual. And, at least superficially, this does not seem to be how it works.
Perhaps it often takes such jolts to move us in our belief precisely because change in our belief system is difficult at any time and not always an obviously positive or pleasant experience.
Any conversion requires loss. Some existing beliefs, habits or priorities must be given up in the process of embracing something new.
Oxford scholar, writer and Christian C S Lewis described his midlife conversion as a less-than-joyous event. “That which I most feared had come upon me,” he wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. “I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Some years later, writing to a friend undergoing a similar experience, he commented, “For whatever people who have never undergone an adult conversion may say, it is a process not without its distresses. Indeed they are the very sign that it is a true initiation. Like learning to swim or skate, or getting married, or taking up a profession.
There are cold shudderings about all these processes” (Letters of C S Lewis).
Many people do not describe conversion experiences in such daunting terms but there is a refreshing element of honesty in Lewis’ description.
However, there is a more “natural” process of life changes that also seems to have an influence on the development of belief. Like anything that grows, our lives and faith have seasons—times of growing and resting, sprouting and harvesting, dryness and flood—and these impact on the acceptance or rejection, development or decline of belief.
In this way, we recognise something organic in the nature of belief. It is not an automatic process and it is unreasonable and unhealthy to expect unwavering, unchanging belief. At different times in our lives, different aspects of belief will be more important to us. Belief rejected at some stages of life may be embraced in other seasons.
And whether belief grows in joyous or reluctant conversion—almost imperceptibly or with great flourish, prompted by a dramatic life event or absorbed as if by osmosis from our family and culture—belief cannot remain as just a set of ideas, good though they may be. It must take some form in our lives. Writer Robert Wuthnow argues that “the quest to know God may arise from existential yearnings, from illness and loneliness, or from moments of wonder about the ultimate mysteries of life. But these vague yearnings and experiences have to take shape. They have to find carriers, vehicles of expression to help people make sense of their feelings” (All in Sync).
And the most common “vehicles” for belief are found in religion in its various forms. The religious community, spiritual practices and mentoring from more experienced believers help us form our vague yearnings into living responses.
In this sense and at its best, religion pools our common belief, helping each of us to grow our piece of “eternity.” It provides a foundation to move beyond a faith based merely on our respective and changeable circumstances and seasons. As a believer, I must recognise the value in such aggregations of belief.
As a Christian believer, I believe God is the source and goal of our impulse for belief. I believe He planted eternity in us and “His purpose in all of this was that the nations should seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27, 28). Though usually invisible, I believe He is active and present in our world and our lives, wanting to build a partnership with anyone who—responding to the echoes of eternity—chooses to make the kingdom of God a life priority (see Matthew 6:33).
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But that still leaves a lot of my questions unanswered—and perhaps raises more. Apart from acknowledging our freedom to choose, I wonder how and why so many people turn away from Him, even when they seem to know the theory of belief in God—if it really is that “simple.” And I still wonder if I would believe in God in this way if my circumstances of birth, culture, education and life were different.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.