What could it possibly mean to “believe” in God and why should it make any difference at all? How could a mere mental state take precedence over acts? Even Peter Pan required not merely belief to save Tinkerbell but an actual action: namely clapping hands. Moreover, how can one possibly compel oneself to believe?
—Theophrastus, the pseudonymous blogger
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become
Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one. I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing.
—Michael Cunningham, the translational novelist
This difference between these two kinds of writing can be stated in terms of the body. In [scientific] expository writing, you want to get to your reader’s brain. In [novelistic] creative writing, you want to bypass the brain and go for the stomach or heart.
—Alan Lightman, the “spiritual atheist” scientist
I’m interested in how anybody can “come to believe.” Is there a formula for “faith”?
It seems that there is something about the body, and terms of the body, that go hand in hand with belief and faith. Yes, with the hand metaphors, I’m punning some. So let’s continue. In terms of the body, on the one hand, belief and faith may be a head thing. On the other hand, faith and belief may be a heart and stomach thing.
But I’m not so sure I like the decapitation of the body, in anybody’s description. Once, I suggested this to novelist Alan Lightman; and he graciously went along with it. He admitted that he believed that the translators of his novels should be both scientists who use their heads and artists who use their hearts. Another way of saying this is that the human being named Alan Lightman wants anybody else who’s going to translate his writings to be complete persons. In terms of the body, it’s all the parts that come into play, that make adjustments, that come to believe, to belief. It’s not just a certain body part, differentiated from the others and abstracted and labeled and named as if in Grey’s Anatomy scientific textbook.
Right, some of you are objecting already. Talked about reality is not reality, you protest. Lightman was using head or stomach and heart metaphorically. Well, I’ll give you that. I’ll also remind how embodied our metaphors are. How Hélène Cixous urges l’ecriture feminine as writing the body. Likewise, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson also have suggested we start, with our metaphors, from our bodies.
So let’s return to abstract science, to the heady stuff. Let’s go back to mathematics, to physics.
Here’s what Anatol Rapoport objectively observes with respect to belief and to bodies:
Once when teaching elementary physics, I was impressed with the resistance of mature intelligent students to some fundamental facts and concepts. For example, when a man falling in a parachute has reached constant velocity, the forces action on him add up to zero. Beginners almost invariably resist this conclusion. “If there is not resultant force action on a falling body,” they ask, “why does it fall?” Proof by appeal to the fundamental equation of motion is of little avail. They “believe” the equation, but they believe their preconceptions. (as quoted in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, by Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, p. 239)
What I’m suggesting is that naive “preconceptions” are grounded in the body, in what it’s experienced, in where it’s been and how it’s been there. Fundamental equations and formulas and abstractions? Well, they can be “of little avail.” Belief is already in the body, but what belief? And can it be turned off or turned on just by a formula, by a proposition of some truth?
Philosopher (and protestant Christian) Dallas Willard critiques this sort of notion of dis-em-bodied and abstract belief for some Christians. In his book Divine Conspiracy (pages 36 and 37), Willard remembers hearing “a prominent minister” insisting the following:
… that “justification,” the forgiveness of sins, involves no change at all in the heart or personality … [but is] something entirely external to you, located wholly in God himself…. [T]here is something about the Christian that works like the bar code [on merchandise sold in a store]. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner. Perhaps there has occurred a moment of mental assent to a creed, or an association entered into with a church. God “scans” it, and forgiveness floods forth. An appropriate amount of righteousness is shifted from Christ’s account to our account in the bank of heaven, and all our debts are paid…. And the payoff for having faith and being “scanned” comes at death and after. Life now being lived has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the bar code does its job.
[update: Here’s what a barcode looks like; scan it but it has no necessary connection with what’s inside you:
Notice how Willard suggests, instead, that belief is not external to the body but is in the body, in “the heart.” Willard elsewhere illustrates (in his essay “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” p. 12).:
Sometimes I will half jokingly say to [my Philosophy 101 students] as they hand me their tests after an exam, “Did you believe what you wrote?” And they all smile. Because they know that the important thing is not to believe what you write but to write the right answers.
Here the face of the students betrays a different belief: that they are not graded on belief. And they could not be. How is there an academic formula for faith, for belief?
Belief and faith and change intrigue me. Willard compares deep change to language learning, which I really like. He also sees profound conversion in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (which he contrasts with the church generally, saying “how utterly superficial the consumer Christianity of our day is” in comparison to AA). Likewise, Philip Yancey, an editor of Christianity Today, says:
In earlier times, some theologians wrote “natural theologies” by first explicating the wonders of nature and then gradually moving toward theism, revelation, and Christian doctrine. If I were writing a natural theology today, I think I would start with recovering alcoholics.
Yancey gets at what’s going on in the body, in the heart and head here. So now I’m just going to end with another conversion story. No not mine. Not C.S. Lewis’s or Joy Davidman’s or anyone else who I may have already mentioned at this blog, at this particular blog of mine, Mind Your Language.
Rather, I’m going to end with the autobiography of Anne Lamott. Let me warn you of the language already. Hers is a rough background, with language to match it. So stop reading now if you don’t like people who don’t mind their language. For the rest of you, please notice the body, the lack of belief barcodes and faith formulas. There’s another version of her story with Anne Lamott’s same words all over it; it’s fleshed out better there, if you ask me, in her book called Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. But the following will do for now, from her diary essay for Salon. Again, the only formula, perhaps, is the storytelling. The rest is a coming to belief:
I did not mean to be a Christian. I have been very clear about that. My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time 12 years ago, were, I swear to God, “I would rather die.” I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing non-believer friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.
But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn’t experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up , mewling outside your door, you’d eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, you are fucked, and the next thing you know, he’s sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push.
I resisted as long as I could, like Sam-I-Am in “Green Eggs and Ham” — I would not, could not in a boat! I could not would not with a goat! I do not want to follow Jesus, I just want expensive cheeses. Or something. Anyway, he wore me out. He won.
I was tired and vulnerable and he won. I let him in. This is what I said at the moment of my conversion: I said, “Fuck it. Come in. I quit.” He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn’t shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right? Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, he picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church across from the flea market in Marin’s black ghetto. That’s where I was when I came to. And then I came to believe.