Are Your Beliefs My Problem? | Liberal Belief in the Transcendent

by , under Politics, Theology

I spent a fantastic New Year down in Devon with a great group of people – open fires, good walks, food, drink… and opportunities for ‘deliberate’ conversation too. In one such session, pretty late one night, a bunch of us had been thinking about ‘life in a post-truth era.’ It was fascinating stuff, but just as we were about to close, we hit on something quite powerful.

What it boiled down to was this: having been challenged a fair bit about the nature of my beliefs, I asked a question in response:

If you believe in some ‘force’ – call it what you will – that transcends your existence, that exists ‘outside’ of you/us, then it seems to me that you have no choice: the existence of that force must have an implication for me, whether or not I believe in that force. So my question is this: what are the consequences for me of your beliefs?

We quickly got past the old tropes – no, people didn’t believe that I was going to burn in hell. OK. Fine. But then what?

The issue that this began to probe at is, I think, absolutely fascinating, and hugely important. The ‘liberal’ end of belief wants, from what I understand having been in it, to enjoy a sustained belief in a transcendent God/Force/Whatever… but gets very uncomfortable when this local-relative belief begins to have universal-absolute implications on others who don’t share that belief.

But I just don’t think that you get to do that. You don’t get to believe in a transcendent force without that necessarily having some consequence for other people. This caused some considerable discomfort, and nobody in the discussion who was in that place of belief was prepared to offer an answer.

So, from those who still believe in ‘something,’ what I’d love to know is this: what is the consequence – however broad – of your beliefs for me?

I don’t mean this as an antagonistic confrontation. I’m genuinely interested. But more than that, it seems to be a profound and fundamental question that one really ought to have some thoughts on if you’re going to continue to believe in, as I put it in Getting High, ‘some force tending the light’ – however it is that you phrase that.

Without wanting to reference hell again, fire away 😉


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  1. Lori

    Brilliant question. Would have loved to join that conversation!
    Seems the responses you get will, more than anything, tell you something about the responder, and just what sort of God/Force/Whatever they believe in. A sort of theological Rorschach test? I’ll play. 🙂
    Within my own (admittedly provisional) frame, the implications for you are potentially narrow enough. We live together in a universe that is shaped by our choices, where goodness and suffering exist side-by-side, where the systems in which we participate hold great sway over us all, animate and inanimate alike. Our freedom is a powerful thing, indeed.
    But not the only thing.
    Woven through all this is a force (I call her “God”) working for redemption, beauty waiting to awake, goodness longing to come to life. She does not work alone; she invites us all (believer or not) to participate in this work. If we refuse to join her, the work goes undone. So it’s up to you, just like it’s up to me, to find the current of this loving work and step into it.

  2. KB

    That podcast sounds really good Josef – I’ll have to check it out. I like the idea of reflecting on what we’ve ‘left behind.’ Thinking about that, Lori – I wonder why it is that you’re still wanting to use the idea of God, when it seems as if there’s nothing left for that God to do, no place for that force to act, nor any consequence of that God not acting without us?
    In the original conversation we had, what was fascinating was how determined people were to cling onto theism, even though they were pretty much unprepared to make any claims about what that theism meant. I understand that, but I want to try to encourage people to take that final step, and see how that looks.
    It’s a tough step – but not I think because it changes anything in us, but because it tends to change the catagory that others place us into… by saying the unspoken, we step outside of where they are comfortable, and this leads to issues of exclusion and reclassification, which can be very very difficult.

  3. Jesse Turri

    I think you make good points here, Kester, and you sort of hit on what is also my personal hang-up with more liberal/mystical/perennial philosophies/theologies which, when it comes down to it, seem to insist on a sort of false universalism…

    Perhaps one goes off track by beginning with the notion that Divine Reality exists “out there” somewhere (transcendence, as you’re describing it and in which it exists in traditional Christian theism) and that we merely experience it in our minds occasionally somehow, like a camera taking a photo or something… But if we instead start with the notion that we create our forms of knowing by experientially participating in the Divine Reality then we end up with something that looks a lot more like Williams James’ metaphysical pluralism, which I really like. So instead of a “universe” we now have a pluriverse. And rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, which reductionisticaly lumps all religions together into some sort of generic universalism, we can now posit that, perhaps, most great wisdom traditions share a common starting place—a rocket launch pad, if you will—and that as these spiritual astronauts in these many different traditions participate in the divine process in their own unique ways, their trajectories create new realities, new destinations, new planets, new space stations, different universes, where, perhaps, they even encounter different beings. As James said, “variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress.”

    Now it’s important to note that these realities, these universes, aren’t necessarily discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. So as to your specific question, “what is the consequence – however broad – of your beliefs for me?,” I would paraphrase Rabbi Brad Artson: one can’t love trees in the abstract, if you don’t love particular trees then you actually don’t love trees (this is Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness, btw). In other words, one consequence of this view might indeed be a greater realization that as we learn to love and honor these particulars that are all around us, well, then we are simultaneously learning to love the whole (more on this below). Whitehead’s consciousness/subjective-centric definition of evolution sums this up nicely, imo: Evolution is the “increase in the ability to experience what is intrinsically valuable.”

    http://turri.me/?p=2764

  4. John W

    What I hear from these liberal believers is that I am not open minded. I can handle that, but the worse consequence is, if you leave the door open to belief in something, you leave the door open to much more consequential forms of belief, the fundamentalist forms. The Pope can only critique an Imam so much before he starts stepping on his own beliefs and arguments for the existence of the supernatural. Even the most liberal believer has the same problem.

  5. Brandon Carleton

    Fun question to ponder. I would like to think my beliefs make me rather apathetic about what other people believe. I feel like the journey I am on works for me but definitely doesn’t work for others. I feel like I’m taking the easy way out with this answer and I don’t like that, ha!

  6. Marty Carney

    Kester, thanks for these provocative thoughts and your question. I’m not sure how to categorize my beliefs at this point in my life journey. Perhaps a “panentheist”. I’m not sure. Here’s how I summarized them once:

    Somehow
    the practice
    the mission of Jesus
    captivates me
    calls out to me in life
    as the “Christ”
    the Human One
    and somehow this humanity
    resonates
    with the humanity of God.
    And this God who emerges
    in all this is
    as the Jewish people say
    the Spirit of Life.
    So here’s to Life!

    As you see, I still use traditional Christian language like “Christ” and “Jesus” and “God” but somehow “life” and “humanity” for me are now the fields in which something happens–in which I am learning something. Perhaps.

    So, I don’t really know you, except through reading your books, your posts on FaceBook, and a few online interactions. But somehow, through these hints of you, I have seen something of your humanity and your life. I see the joy that you find in your children. I saw your deep grief at the loss of your beloved friend. I see that you like California and its sunshine–though, for some reason, the frozen tundra of Wisconsin where I live apparently doesn’t call out to you. I want your life as well as mine to thrive in this time of living and to see you and I in our own ways and fields of being fulfilled somehow in all its shit. Somehow “God” is within all that wanting and wishing and hoping. And somehow the humanity I hear echoed in the historical life of Jesus wants me to work for your thriving and for the thriving of all earth’s suffering creatures. So I don’t know, is my hoping and writing here in this blog response consequential to you in any real way?

  7. KB

    If we instead start with the notion that we create our forms of knowing by experientially participating in the Divine Reality then we end up with something that looks a lot more like Williams James’ metaphysical pluralism…

    I want to like this Jesse, but I’m still wondering if this is a complex linguistic form to enable those who once believed to carry on believing in a metaphysical reality that one may as well call ‘God.’ I totally affirm that we need to begin with loving/caring in the particular, but I’ve found that reference to a ‘whole’ can lead away from that, rather than towards it, perhaps partly because the language – again – is still infected with the old forms of religion.

    Marty… I’d love to get to Wisconsin 😉 I’m for hope too, but I’m cautious about denominating that as ‘God,’ because again it feels like a hangover from something we are unwilling to shed. Couldn’t you affirm all that you’ve written about life and humanity without that reference? Perhaps not, and it’s not for me to insist that anyone does. My concern in writing the post is that the move to the transcendent, to that-which-exists-beyond-all-of-us, can take us to very complex places when it comes to the consequences of that, and that the (very) liberal ends of belief that so many I know are at – where they want to hang onto the concept of God, but little else – can run into rocky ground.

  8. Rick Morley

    Fascinating question, KB. Sounds like a wonderful conversation to ring in a new year.

    The thing that I find myself thinking about in response to this is that of course my beliefs will have some sort of effect (positive or negative) on others (like my kids who have to attend church…) – but, what qualitative difference does faith have with any other cause of “ultimate concern?” (ala Tillich)

    I was a vegan for about a year. (Cheese and bacon eventually eroded that short lived foray.) My veganism absolutely impacted people around me. They had to cook differently when I came around. They had to put up with me ordering the quinoa-burger. They had to listen to me talking about the evils of factory farming.

    If I were to take up political activism – say, against Trump or Brexit – I would impact people, especially those I’m closest to. If I took up environmental activism I could impact people lightly – with speeches about compact fluorescents and fossil fuels. I could also impact people in far greater ways if I took to my kayak to block oil tankers from docking and unloading their crude.

    I guess I don’t see much difference between causes of ultimate concern. I could be interested in faith or activism in mildly annoying ways, or I could be a real nuisance about it.

    If I say that I’m not going to be a nuisance, then I’m probably not going to effect many people outside of my immediate social circle. (I’m thinking of the time honored tradition of street preachers starting up a loud sermon on a long subway ride, where the audience is captive, and eventually pissed off.) And then, it’s a matter of my relationship with that person being of general use to them in ways which that she is willing to overlook my annoying faith habits. My best friend is a confident atheist, and apparently the rest of my personhood is so incredibly amazing that he’s willing to put up with my Hail Mary’s and genuflections. But, that’s a choice that he makes. And I, in turn, make a choice to stay in relationship with him in spite of the effects his unbelief has on me.

    So, in short I think it comes down to relationships, and those we are willing to give energy to, and those we just aren’t.

  9. KB

    I guess I’d want to distinguish between impact and consequence. Being a vegan has an impact on those around you, but believing in a transcendent force has – I think must have – a consequence, an effect that I have no choice over because that force is outside and above each of us. Relationships and tolerance are fine… but do you believe that your friend’s lack of belief has any consequence for him? If not, why? And if so, what are those consequences?

  10. Susannah

    Right! As one of the 2 people Kester was aiming these questions at, (quite forcefully – I blame the wine) I would like to respond. Firstly, you didn’t give us much of a chance to respond to you because you were just asking the question on repeat and talking over the answers and secondly, the answer I was trying to give was: Yes I believe in a ‘transcendent’ God and that an afterlife exists but I HAVE NO IDEA what that looks like for you. Or me. Or anybody. I don’t know whether heaven or hell exist and won’t have the proof until I’m there (or not). If you were having this conversation with a more fundamentalist thinker who believes there is an absolute universal truth of a heaven and a hell and that it is God’s choice for sinners to go one way and good Christians the other, then I get this would have an implication for what you believe. Of course it would. But I just don’t think we have the right to assume what the consequences will be for you. Who knows? Who knows what the consequences will be for me? It’s all unknown. I know thats not satisfying and doesn’t put up a good fight (which is what you love) but that’s all I know right now.

  11. Jesse Turri

    “but I’m still wondering if this is a complex linguistic form to enable those who once believed to carry on believing in a metaphysical reality that one may as well call ‘God.’”

    Maybe so, yes, I won’t deny that making mind or psyche a fundamental aspect of nature (I’m a special type of panpsychist) opens up all sorts of possibilities, but if one adopts this “complex linguistic form” they won’t be believing in the same God they once believed in, that’s for sure!

    “I’ve found that reference to a ‘whole’ can lead away from that, rather than towards it”

    You must have missed the part of about the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (http://turri.me/?p=2764), Kester, and the bit about evolution being the “increase in the ability to experience what is intrinsically valuable.” Humans have improved their conditions most dramatically by improving their definition of what counts as improvement — by evolving their values and their worldviews into more inclusive frames of reference. As we learn to love particulars we simultaneously learn to love the whole.

  12. KB

    Ha – there wasn’t that much force, or wine was there?! Or was there? 😉 In some defense the reason I was repeating the question was because there wasn’t much of an answer coming… though I hate thinking that I was talking over anyone! Actually, as I said on the night, I very genuinely appreciated your response that our conversation about my move away from faith had left you ‘gutted.’ That is a good thing to hear, because it means that you’re being upfront about the possibility of some consequence (even if you have no idea what that is), that your truth isn’t just local to you, but has to have a universal element if it’s to make any sense. So I’m very very happy to hear that; what I find more difficult is the view that, trying not to tread on any toes, that transcendent belief doesn’t matter to those who don’t share it. This ‘polite plurality’ I just don’t think stands up. But I don’t think that’s where you are…and that’s a good thing 😉

  13. Matt Valler

    Hey Kester, the question has niggled at me. I’ve been reflecting on it in the light of my own journey. I read After Magic after asking you about the ‘infinite demand’ (via Skype) at Pete Rollins’ first Wake in 2013. I’d spent a good decade living with the rejection of the interventionist God of my upbringing, but if you’d asked me did I believe in God I would have given some kind of carefully threaded yes in which God reframes power through love and sacrifice. My academic background is in postcolonial theory and biblical images of God, so ideas of demand and surveillance and the consequence of sovereignty are familiar to me. What After Magic and Wake did, in combo, was to force me to encounter the extent to which I had existentially still internalised that demand, and its surveillance, even while rejecting it intellectually.

    But a consequence of that – and my engagement with Radical Theology more generally – has been a slow-cooking reflection on whether I had simply been engaged in intellectual gymnastics with the idea of God in order to (probably subconsciously) protect myself from the existential loss of God. I’m pretty sure that’s a yes.

    The thing I don’t think I have really yet worked out for myself is how to relate to that conclusion. Radical Theology, for example, can become a demand – a transcendental force with which to strip others bare from their belief. So can belief in a politician, or cause, or even all-consuming love. And yet these things all have the potential to open up creative space, to hold back demands, to empower, etc.

    So I appreciate the question, because I am aware of the need to consider the impact of my unspoken beliefs on others. And yet I don’t know if makes sense to say that belief necessarily = demand. The implications of some kind of transcendental force do not necessarily have to be universal. The love I share with my wife transcends us as individuals and compels us to live in the world differently. But I don’t think that has universal implications.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if one of the key insights of Radical Theology is that human psychology forms our conception of the divine (and that therefore better psychological health can unform – and perhaps reform – them) then the how of my belief has as much effect on its implications for you and others as the what. I hope that makes sense.

  14. Steve

    Kester, been mulling this over a lot, as a lot of people have I am sure.
    In one of your replies regarding the identity change in moving from theism/Christianity into ‘something else’ is a big factor in this discussion.
    Personally I always struggled to clasify myself as a Christian when I believed as the label came with so much baggage and required me to caveat it in so many ways to my non-believing friends it wasn’t worth the bother. This works the other way for people who identify with and as Christians.
    Ultimately one of the main reasons I stopped believing was that I could find no evidence whatsoever of any actual intervention that could be ascribed to God either at the behest of believers or not.
    I think that there are events that occur that one could describe as acts of God, i.e. unforeseeable, life changing and completely beyond our control, but I see little point in using that term as it is too misleading and vague in meaning.
    Great question, thanks.

  15. KB

    Matt, I think the issue of ‘demand’ is an important one, and I’m glad you’ve connected this thread to After Magic, which is a (little) book I’m really proud of that often gets eclipsed by Mutiny and Getting High.
    What belief in a transcendent, supernatural, ‘outside the material’ force does, I think, is force us into a place of infinite demand. That is to say, the demand the existence of this divine force places necessarily spills over from the individual believer’s life to bring consequences into the lives of those who don’t share that belief. However you frame that belief, I just don’t think that you get to escape that conclusion, so the thrust of this thread is simple: if you do hold that belief, it’s worth thinking about what those consequences are for those who don’t share it. That’s not an insistence that that belief is relinquished, but simply an encouragement to reflect on – and share – what those consequences are, because clearly they are important because of their absolute-universal, rather than relative-local, nature.
    But you’re absolutely right: those who have shifted from that belief into a Radical Theological sphere do, I think, have a tough time liberating themselves from that infinite demand. Very often (as I proposed in my post on alcohol) what happens is that that mourning of some greater demand leaves us latching onto something else – whether that be academic study, philosophical gymnastics, beverage fetishes or social media. I’m as guilty as anyone on this, and have had to think deeply about what my grief after the death of God has affected me.
    As I suggest in Getting High I think one of the burdens we have to bear from the miracle of our consciousness is that our minds are always looking for some next-level explanation for their own existence. It seems too much to bear that this has all just evolved, and a far easier world if there was some force that was ultimately responsible. That we keep generating these forces is, I think, a means by which our unconscious is resisting responsibility for our existence. I quote Maddi towards the end of Mutiny:

    There are definite signs indicating when the psychotherapeutic process is complete. […] The capstone is when the client assumes responsibility for their own lives, despite all the outside pressures that can easily be blamed for what happens to them, accepts that they are ultimately alone in their subjectivity, despite wonderfully stimulating efforts at intimacy, and faces that they will die, despite the heroism involved in creating meaning by choosing the future.’

    That’s something I’ve found very important in my reflections on my own situation… and how that choice of a different future impacts on a root level empathy and care for others as we all struggle to accept our subjectivity. In other words: my beliefs do not have an absolute-universal consequence for those who share or don’t share them, but I want to live so that my own subjective-local life has a positive consequence for those I interact with. I know that I’ve failed at that in so many ways, but it’s a touchstone nonetheless.

  16. Lori

    Kester, thanks again for posing this question. It’s not often that web-based content catches my attention and holds it for this long. (!) Thank you for the challenge.
    My thoughts have followed (and will continue to follow) a number of threads on this, as this question plays out daily in a number of my closest relationships. (fwiw, I find this to be operative in both directions – with dear ones who’ve abandoned any belief in the divine, as well as those who hold to much more classical notions of God than do I.)
    For now, I’ll just add one note, one that surfaced when you referenced Susannah feeling “gutted.” There are many reasons for one to feel that way, but at least one of mine is a profoundly incarnational one (or, simply, subjective.) At one time we shared this belief, and, perhaps more importantly, shared the practice of wrestling with it. When this common ground erodes, the relationship must find other venues for connection – now across difference rather than affinity. The challenge to human connection in this context doesn’t really reflect transcendent concerns, so far as I can tell – it has more to do with what we talk about around the dinner table and where we spend our time together. A challenge I don’t believe to be insurmountable, but is nevertheless a painful new reality to be named. The “consequence” in this sense, is that now we have to assume responsibility for the work of building a relationship around this disagreement, respecting the different places in which we have landed, finding new points of connection. In my experience, this can be hard and painful work. And I’m more than a little nostalgic for the shared space we’ve lost.
    I’ll carry on thinking about this on the more theoretical side, I’m sure. Today, again, thanks for the opportunity to process the on-the-ground experiences.