It doesn’t matter what I believe

This is the first in a series of posts over the next few weeks in which we’re thinking about engaging with the way non-Christian people think about life.  We’re doing this in preparation for A Passion for Life. We’re going to use them in church each week, including them in our five minute ‘thinking about an issue’ slot. Posting them online is part of the honing process. Exposed to the intense heat of the comment facility I’m hoping that the dross will rise to the surface so that I can cleanse it away to leave an argument of purer quality!

‘Half of them wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them in the face with a wet kipper’

Geoffrey Boycott, Test Match Special 4th January 2010

Boycott’s epistemological musings were prompted by a discussion of Golf’s handicap laws. He may be right. But his comments come straight out of a modernist approach to truth. He thinks it exists, it can be known and that it matters. But increasingly people are saying that it doesn’t really matter what the truth is, whether it involves a wet kipper or not.

But where are people coming from when they say ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’ In other words, what do they mean when they say that?

  • They mean that they should be left alone to believe what they believe and that Christians especially shouldn’t bother them!
  • They mean that they’re not going to use up their time and energy thinking about something that in the end is irrelevant!

But why do people say that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

Probably for some of the following reasons

  • We’re fundamentally lazy and we just don’t want to think. We do that at work, why would we want to do that at rest?
  • We’ve unthinkingly adopted fervently held convictions. But Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living!
  • We’ve inherited a way of life that works. And so we think ‘if it ain’t broke why fix it?’
  • We’ve confused style for substance. We value the style or manner of belief over the substance of belief. We think that sincerity and tolerance is enough. The content of what we believe is irrelevant. In other words it’s more important that we’re accepting of others’ views than that they’re views are wrong!
  • We’ve swallowed the lie of relativism. We think that there’s no such thing as ‘true truth’ just ‘my truth’. And so, if we believe that truth is relative then this is the ideological foundation for the conviction that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe’.

What’s wrong with saying that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

It’s unbelievably shallow!

1. When we say that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe’ we’ve failed to recognise that at the very least it matters that we believe that it doesn’t matter!

2. When we say that we’ve failed to distinguish between the subjective and the objective.

We’ve failed to realise the distinction between matters of truth and matters of taste. Let me illustrate. Here are two sets of three statements.

Set one

  1. Chez Bruce is the best restaurant in London
  2. Waggle Dance is my favourite bottled beer
  3. You should never wear socks and crocs; ever

Set two

  1. I was born on 20th October
  2. I have three sisters
  3. I grew up in Northamptonshire

Which set are matters of taste and which set are matters of truth? Though there may be universal aggreement that no one should ever wear socks and crocs it’s still a matter of opinion. It’s not objectively true. That I was born on the 20th October is. Whatever your opinion of that fact is, it remains a fact. You can’t change the truth by believing that I was born on the 19th. You’re allowed to hold any opinion that you want. But just don’t go the next step and claim that it’s undeniably true.

When we say that ‘it doesn’t matter what I believe’ we fail to recognise the difference between opinion and truth.

3. When we say that we’ve failed to recognise that ideas have legs.

What we think affects what we value. And what we value affects what we do. At a simplistic level if I think that money is more important than family then I’ll value cash more than children. That’ll mean that I’ll do all that I can to earn more money which may mean that we spend all our time at the office. It’s the same in spiritual matters; whether we think that there’s a God or not is going to impact the way that we choose to live.

It’s very easy to show that there are consequences to what we believe. For example, imagine a conversation with a bus driver on the 137 as he stops in Sloane Square.

Me:        What are you doing heading to the West End? I’m supposed to be in the City.

Driver:  Well you should have caught the 133 then, shouldn’t you?

Me:        But I believed that the 137 goes to the City.

Driver:  Well you’re an idiot, because it doesn’t.

Me:        But I believed with all sincerity that this bus would get me to the City.

Driver:  I couldn’t care less what you believed, the truth is another matter.

What we believe does have consequences. It has moral consequences in this life. It has eternal consequences in the next. Jesus said that he is the way the truth and the life. He was making a truth claim. It’s either right or it’s wrong. If he’s telling the truth it has consequences. It means that only he is the way to God for people who have lost their way, only he is the truth about God for people who are confused and only he is the life from God for people facing death.

What could we say to someone who said that ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe?’

If we want to advance the conversation a little bit further there are some things that we could say in response.

1. Do you think that applies to all of life? People seem happy to accept that what we believe does matter when it comes to the 137 bus and so why do they think that it doesn’t apply in the spiritual realm? Why do you think that spiritual issues are matters of taste not matters of opinion.

2. Are you happy for me not to believe in Henry 8th? Is it OK not to believe in his existence? Because the truth of Christianity can be validated through empirical evidence. The nature of its claims is historical.

10 thoughts on “It doesn’t matter what I believe

  1. Ernest January 5, 2010 / 12:56 pm

    I am happy to believe that Jesus Christ is alive and well and working in my life. I do not need to check the facts as I have the evidence in what he has done to turn around a total agnostic (nearly atheist) in 18 months to the point, where I cannot envisage life without him in it.

    Lots of what I thought I believed before, have been proved to be wrong or a misunderstanding of the “Being” and purpose of God.

    An example being, “God does not exist”

    or,

    “I am not sure whether he exists”

    or,

    “If I don’t need him, it shows he does not exist”

    or,

    “I can rely on my own strength to do this – its about me and no one else”

    When I got to the stage, where I could not function anymore, morally and spiritually bankrupt, without something more than the things available to give me strength – he came to me in a chance encounter and made me whole.

    The truth of that has a huge moral impact on me and my life and proved to me that you need to be a seeker of the truth and, not to accept anything at face value, but to be receptive to what the truth tells you.

    I wish you well in this new ministry – seeking and understanding the truth and what is real or not is so important to all of us. Anything you can do to help it will be a bonus.

  2. Pete Matthew January 5, 2010 / 1:27 pm

    I think for the majority of my mates your 1st reason “We’re fundamentally lazy and we just don’t want to think.” is the key one for them. It’s apathy – their reasonably well off, happy with their lot. Why worry about anything that might change their status quo.

    A good number of them go so far as to attribute my change from a drunken rugby idiot to your assistant minister as due to Nicki’s influence. It’s easier for them to say that then to spend time contemplating that I may have changed becasue I believe there is a God who wants me to. Basically they avoid thinking about belief, possibly subconsciously because they’re worried it might be true.

    Important addition 1 – Nicki does of course get some credit for my change!!

    Important addition 2 – it’s worth adding that your birthday is on 20th October 1969 which makes you closer to 50 than 30!

    • theurbanpastor January 5, 2010 / 1:46 pm

      And that’s just the sort of information I want posted on the internet, do you want to publish my pin number as well!!

  3. Phil C January 6, 2010 / 12:19 pm

    I think most people say this as a get-out!

    I think there is actually some truth in it if we see it as an implied criticism of hypocrisy. A lot of Christians live pretty similar lives to their peers. What real difference, tangible to others, do our beliefs make? If someone says to me that what someone believes doesn’t really matter, should I take it as a rebuke of how my faith in Jesus apparently makes little difference to my life?

    To remove it from the Christian context, look at politics. It’s a common refrain to say that there’s no difference between the major parties. That may or may not be true – but that impression reflects why people might say it doesn’t matter what you believe.

  4. Tom Stanbury January 6, 2010 / 6:09 pm

    Trying to think of something constructive to say but for the record crocs should be worn by children under the age of 10 and preferably whilst on the beach.
    I once had a similiar conversation with a bus driver for some idiotic reason I did think I knew the route where he should be going.

    I think my friends are wary of certainty when it comes to religion because they equate it to scary extremism.
    And despite their claims to freedom in the way they choose to live are often clutching at straws. And mercifully there are still christians straws to grab in the memory of our culture.

    It is true to say I wouldn’t be a christian if Jesus didn’t walk this earth as a man, die on a cross and rise from the dead. But there are many other factors that have shaped my christian faith outside of this fact. I am not sure it is enough to get people to look at the facts. As humans we learn things from each in so many other ways.

  5. Lauri January 7, 2010 / 6:03 pm

    Perks I think your outline is very good and touches on the classic epistemic confusions people have about reality and hopefully will address the people you will engage with at their level of questions.

    I can only add that the epistemic distinction you are making between the objective and the subjective is a dangerous one to simplify, especially as it relates to style and substance.

    Tom’s point about truth claims and faith is case in point, as is Pete’s in relation to his witness as drunk-come pastor.

    Phil’s question about rebuke reminds me of a guy who came to faith in eastern Europe in a L’abri type setting. He said, “I don’t want to be called a Christian, I want to be called a man of God”. What he was talking about is, style as well as substance, not just substance over style.

    In other words I am saying that style matters. So in addition to talking about matters of truth and matters of taste, I would add matters of delivery and context. I think that’s sort of what Pete may have been getting at when he mentioned your age.

    How that is negotiated, and how we apply that truth is important as well. You know about this problem it seems anyway since you mention it in the kipper quote and your critique of it. I just thought I would add it as a part of the overall structure of your approach.

    Relationships include ambiguity and trust. (ambiguity is ok, and trust as it relates to community and God and the unbeliever.) I think we tend to overlook (in our tradition) that ambiguity and trust belong to the apologetic framework as well. I’m just not sure how that should be added to the way you frame the structure of the above, or if it should be mentioned. (my hunch is that it should, and often does.)

    I am told that in Hebrew the word for knowledge relates to experience rather than statement. So when the acronym For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, was used on the stocks people knew what the guilty was being punished of. Equally, it was a matter of sexual knowledge that they should not have had, which goes against the paradigm we currently have that “everybody should try everything once.”

    Finally, there is truth, my perception of the truth, and my description of the perception. In both the perception and the description errors can occur. This doesn’t mean the errors are because of sinfulness, but it might mean that the effects of sin have weakened our capacity to either understand, or transmit “truth.” More could be said… But I am sure you will cover elements of this later.

  6. Phil C January 8, 2010 / 11:49 am

    I’d also add that the relationship between belief and knowledge is complicated.

    What’s the difference between saying I know the 319 goes to Clapham Juncion, and that I believe it does?

    And does it matter if I think Henry VIII was a woman dressed as a man, or that he didn’t exist? I can’t imagine what practical difference that would make to my life – in that case, maybe what I “believe” doesn’t matter?

  7. Pingback: The Bridge Church

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