I surf a lot of sites and listen in on a lot of discussion threads about what people choose and choose not to believe. What is interesting is that both sides deny they are making a choice about what to believe. Dogmatism swings both ways, and many loud voices on both sides of the argument state as “fact” what is blatantly nothing more than opinion. Very few people “know” what they have never seen, and just as few can “prove” a negative. No evidence is not evidence, and depth of feeling doesn’t make something more true. We choose to believe in God or we choose not to. But WE CHOOSE.
One of my former associates, a professor at Vanderbilt University, adamantly refused to believe in God or any divine force, yet he is convinced of multiple parallel universes. He mocks me for believing in something I can’t see, but he also chastises me for not allowing the possibility of unseen universes. He has chosen — for his own reasons — to disbelieve in God; he has chosen — again for his own reasons — to believe in unseen worlds. He calls me irrational.
A lovely young woman left the church because she said she could no longer “believe in fairy tales.” This from the same person who believes that she has seen ghosts, and refuses to accept that she might have hallucinated them.
Some people read the Bible and see only the limited human descriptions of the divine detailing an angry God, and they decide that this invalidates anything God might actually be. They choose what to accept and what to reject. Christians pick and choose the parts of the Bible they like to agree with, and they toss out anything they dislike. Then, all too often, these same Christians take their customized version of the faith, and pretend that it is “universal truth.” No wonder others (with their own universal truths) get annoyed.
One of my best friends in New Jersey was a rabbi who knew our Christian scriptures as well as most of my pastor friends. We had long discussions of our respective faiths, and he was always very clear that he understood the evidence presented in the Christian scriptures, but that they simply were not compelling or convincing to him. He chose not to accept what millions of others did. But he was honest to admit that it was a choice.
Even within Christianity, belief is a constant chain of choices. Believe or not believe? Follow Christ or merely believe? Become a disciple or merely a follower? Live as a faithful steward or merely a disciple? Seek mastery or stay satisfied with where one is? There is no Christianity that escapes dichotomy. One cannot go both East and West at the crossroads. Sometimes we have to choose (or get stuck). In The United Methodist Church, we face a dilemma. For centuries we were a faith for “believers,” but the “powers-that-be” declared that belief is no longer an acceptable baseline — we are to become a denomination of “disciples.” The denomination made a choice for the whole church that a majority of church members have no intention of making for themselves. The discipline, sacrifice, intensity, commitment, and challenge of discipleship is indeed an important choice to make, but it cannot be a forced choice. Never in our history have we expected so much (or much of anything) from our members. Now we have declared that to be United Methodist is to choose to become a disciple of Jesus Christ for the purpose of transforming the world. It’s a great vision, but a hard choice.
And sadly one that most of our leaders aren’t willing to model. We are so bent on preserving our own institution that the world is left pretty much to its own devices. We want our warm, cozy churches and our bright shiny windows and screens and our fancy sound systems, ooh, and maybe a coffee bar. We need to pay our apportionments, though if other things come up we may not pay them in full. The mission of the church may have to wait until the economy gets better. We need to spend millions on getting more people to come to us before we will consider spending thousands to equip people to go out to others. There may be ten thousand doors, but way too many of them are entrances rather than exits.
The United Methodist Church has some hard choices to make in the immediate future — to become disciples or to stay church members, to serve God or prop up the institution, to share Christ or to shoot recruitment videos, to be the body of Christ or become an irrelevant carcass. Will we stay fixated on our possible death, or will we choose life. It will be interesting to find out.