Saturday, June 1, 2013

Do you need to believe to belong?

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?  (Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto)

"Belonging before believing" is a trendy term in the emergent church movement, that argues for community to come first, and establish the connection; belief will then follow.

Or will it?  Is a firm sense of belief an essential part of religion? Is it even necessary?

Dr Primrose points us to this column in the NY Times, by T.M. Luhrmann (whom we have met before) exploring this concept.  Luhrmann is a social scientist who has study evangelicals. A non-believer herself, Luhrmann helps bridge the distance between secularist and religionist.  She tells a story:
One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”
So faith is not necessarily belief.  That makes sense:  we use the term "to have faith in", which generally means trust in something for which we may not have rigorously logical or empirical support;  something ineffable, or transcendent.  Like love.  We consider to be faithful is to be loyal, and steadfast.

So then, what is belief?  
In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church. [IT's emphasis]
[S]ecular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first. 
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold. 
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
It would come as a surprise to many secularists to find that there are religionists who don't necessarily believe;  yet I would argue that those doubters still have faith.  So, clearly there are a lot of people who have faith but perhaps, not so certain belief?

Here are some data from Gallup, that support a notion that belief is not so absolute.  The break down that would be interesting, is what fraction of people have doubts but go to church anyway. (Probably they would be less likely to admit it to a pollster).

Now, I would describe myself as someone with neither belief nor faith; and so in some way I'm stalled permanently on the belonging-before-believing path.  Yet I'm welcomed anyway, and I've argued here for people like me being actually useful.   As you know, I cheerfully admit to getting quite a lot out of the community that is church (although I am taking more breaks from the worship services, especially when BP is up there serving rather than sitting next to me in the pew).

It seems the emergent church folks have it right: you can build church with belonging first.  Perhaps you then need to be open about doubts in belief, while still maintaining faith.  It's smug certainty  that put most people off.

So, would you agree that belief often exceeds one's grasp?  

1 comment:

it's margaret said...

Yes. Belief often exceeds one's grasp. Even for "believers".

--and yet, what prevents belonging from becoming tribal? --if there is not a faith component?