Belief Is Choice

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.

17 replies

  1. First,

    To Ericpo… No, only the Council of Bishops can call a special session. And that session can only deal with the specific proposals before it. My own sense is anxiety is driving too many decisions right now and calling a special GC is a panic move. The sky is not falling. We can make far better decisions for the institutions we have if we reduce rather than increase the anxiety level.

    To Dan:
    Thanks to neuroscience I see choice as both something that happens without our awareness AND also something we do after some reflection. I can’t see it as either alone if I actually do also “follow the facts” (which I admit I also choose to do in the second sense).

    I don’t think the move toward discipleship is problematic for Christians or United Methodists to attempt. I do think that expecting congregations as such to be the “basic missional unit” capable of doing that work best is problematic. So did John and Charles Wesley and every monastic movement and most renewal movements before and since. Even Societies prove ineffectual in Methodism until they became support systems for systems small enough to engender both hands on action and real accountability– the class meetings and bands. Likewise, the power of monastic movements to transform lives is primarily in chapters or smaller units of the same.

    So congregations won’t do this well. But we have in our history good examples of structures and processes that can ALONGSIDE congregations and other ecclesial superstructres.

    • We’ve had this conversation before. I do believe that small congregations are capable — as evidenced repeatedly in the research I did for Vital Signs. However, virtually none of the healthiest churches are “large,” and the larger ones that are vital and truly equipping disciples are those that have “sub-divided” into smaller cells (classes??). I do believe we can become centers of discipleship — regardless of our history and the limits thereto. But we need a very different model of church than is popular in the consumeristic, materialistic, and ego-driven culture that defines us today.

  2. Excellent article, just great stuff.

    I’m stealing this: “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.”

    And this: “There may be ten thousand doors, but way too many of them are entrances rather than exits.”


  3. Dan — Again — Great Work !!

    I especially like the phrase “there is a future for Methodism and it is NOT The United Methodist Church” — our “institutionality” need a serious overhaul — perhaps even disassembly — and retooling.

    Along this line of thinking I have to say I agree with David too in what he says about ‘Fr’ John — after all wasn’t the movement originally designed to operate/transform parallel to the CofE ? Maybe there’s some wisdom in that line of action today.

    Also — the CHRIST(y) woods article was very heart warming.

    Blessings of the Season

    Todd Anderson
    Racine, Wisc.,

  4. Dan, how much of this is pastoral arrogance and overreach? I am really questioning right now if the pastoral leadership is truly seeking the mind of God concerning these issues. The UMC seems in utter chaos right now lacking any form of coherent direction.
    The last GC made few concrete strategic decisions instead we had middle age and elderly delegates extreme conservatives and liberals fighting over issues that frankly had little to do with the lack of direction.
    Pastors seem really happy when someone comes to visit but awe c’mon that team or person is there 40 hours plus. We have committees that should be doing the business and as a former local pastor I know that these hours are rarely focused on going out and fishing for people.
    I don’t think that the Bishops and DS’s let alone pastors buy into their own vision. There doesn’t appear to be a sense of urgency to equip for the mission. Most folks simply see discipleship as another pastoral fad that will go away.
    Meanwhile…. young people are coming back to Christ. This is awesome!!! The problem though is in many cases they are flocking to healthy churches……that are not UMC. There are exceptions to this but our demographics cannot deny reality.
    We need leadership that believes in what Christ has done on the cross and that is excited to tell the story in a way that doesn’t achieve the effect of nightquil. We need leadership who are willing to go out into the streets themselves first to model the behavior that they want to teach. Jesus was an easy leader to follow because he went out and modeled the kingdom. I see few pastors willing to do this nowadays.
    And that is why the folks in the pews or seats or comfy theatre seating think that while personal salvation is important, discipleship is just a really good idea.

    • Today’s mainline churches are among the least spiritual institutions in existence. We run ourselves as a business by modern cultural values spending more time and money on marketing than mission. We are enamored of buildings and the cult of personality. We turn helpful metaphors like “fruitful congregations” into cheap, prepackaged products and we hold indefensibly expensive meetings that produce very little benefit or value. We have corporate minded leaders making short-sighted and defensive decisions that are all about US, and have virtually nothing to do with gospel. I have, for years, taught that there is a future for Methodism and it is NOT The United Methodist Church. We are the drying seed husk from which new life and growth will emerge — as long as we don’t suffocate and rot under the current load of fertilizer being spread upon us.

      • Dan, you write in part: “Today’s mainline churches are among the least spiritual institutions in existence. We run ourselves as a business by modern cultural values spending more time and money on marketing than mission.”

        I tend to agree. But what is a way out of this dilemma? Can we remain any sort of institution without some appropriate level of critical mass? Is it reasonable or possible to expect pastors to focus on equipping the saints when we seem to have just too big a load to carry in terms of paying bills and keeping on keeping on?

        The older I get, the more questions I have….

      • My distress is that the way out of this dilemma is to think small. Were we to focus on the United Methodist Church committed to “the transformation of the world” through honest “discipleship” we would be looking at a church of 650,000 members. We would not be financially viable by today’s standards, we could not support the wasteful and reactionary work of our general agencies, and we could not support the current episcopacy system. We would have to become a grassroots movement of those committed to serving the world in the name (and power) of Jesus Christ. Nobody wants that, so we will continue with what we’ve got until we go broke. Ah, well.

        What we have are a large number of clergy and laiyy who want to please God and be the body of Christ. Nothing our denomination does will deter them. Their impact will still be felt a century from now… and they will be the church we should have been all along. I despair the denomination, but I celebrate the faithful visionaries within it, and I have high hopes they will lead us to a much better place than our current “formal” leaders.

      • I do though think that as laity there is an obligation to not accept the lack of vision cast currently. I personally feel that in Minneapolis- St.Paul District or whatever the cabinet is calling it this week has way too many congregations, half to to 2/3’s of the congregations are ineffective and dying.(no matter what the DS says) I have been confused as to why the Conference doesn’t consolidate into 3-4 solid campuses with a few satelights in schools or park facilities. This would allow the congregations to focus more on mission than budget and would allow for full funding of that mission.

        No one wants to hear that though. I think of all of the Churches in South Minneapolis where I worship and they all have similar missions and the level of pastoral talent to run and implement. But the numbers of wasting assets in buildings is simply killing us. It would be so much easier to congregate into one facility with a couple of small community services.

        But that requires executive leadership and there is simply not the will by the Bishop or the cabinet to make the hard calls.
        I would love to see conferences go bye-bye and consolidate to the Jurisdiction level with one resident Bishop per. I would love to see all the fiefdoms consolidated and reduced to support ministries for these area with extremely small nimble staffs.

        It is an emergency and we need a General Conference and that group needs to sit in session long enough to resolve the breakdown of the denomination. I don’t know if waiting til 2012 or 2011 is enough to stem the oncoming diseaster. The Bishops need to do something NOW at a minimum to assuage laity that they are aware that there is a problem to address and to give hope to them.

        Hey does anyone know if a GC can be forced by a grassroots movement at the local level? I don’t see anything in the Discipline that either supports or negates such a movement.

    • See my response to John. I believe that God is deeply interested in the choices we make… and has absolutely no interest in making them for us or for guiding the choices we make. This, in my mind, is the heart and soul of free will — our responsibility to act with integrity on what we believe to be true.

  5. Dan, what do you see as God’s role in our choices – individual and as a denomination?

    In this post, God exists only as the object of some of our choices. I’m curious if that is intentional or just a product of the argument you were advancing in this particular post.

    • God’s role — across the whole spectrum of theological positions and beliefs — is part of the choice issue. I have a friend who frames all her personal beliefs in terms of “knowing the mind of God” (especially about what OTHER people should be doing). Interestingly, the mind of God supports what she supports and disagrees with what she disagrees with (not the other way around). She still chooses what to believe and what to reject.

      I am a strong proponent of free will. I don’t believe in a deterministic God who decides for us or limits our choices for us. And even to honor those that believe that God is constantly rearranging the pieces on the board and that everything that happens is God’s will (rather than ours), I still say we have the final choice whether to believe it or not. Faith is never (in my opinion) an abdication of responsibility for our own choices and actions.

      I do believe in the power of prayer and spiritual discernment — to change us, not God. To constantly seek to understand and follow God’s will is a lifelong pursuit, but we still have to choose how we will function. Many of us are confused and clueless as to what God’s will might be, some of us are clear on what we believe it to be and we choose to ignore it, and some believe they understand it and do everything in their power to be faithful to it. Still, choice.

      • Thanks for the elaboration. My questions were not meant to argue against “choice” as a human response to God.

        My only push back is that you – to my reading – underplay the responsive nature of our choices when it comes to God. God is active and present in the world. We choose whether to see God’s activity as God’s activity. We choose whether to respond to God with an ‘Amen’ or a “Bah. Humbug.”

        I agree with Wesley – and I think with you – that grace can be resisted. We can choose not to see or hear. We can choose – like the rich man in gospel – to walk away dejected rather than follow. But before we offer our ‘yes’ or our ‘no,’ God is putting the question to us – even if we do not realize that it is God doing this.

        I may be fixating too much on something you meant to be taken for granted in your post. I appreciate your effort and time in responding.

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