Thursday, July 15, 2010

Truth and Beliefs

Faith requires that we accept some things as truth that we cannot prove to others. As a Christian I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that he was born to a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross as a sacrifice for my sin, and was raised from the dead to eternal life. There are things that have proven to me that these things are true, the transformation in my life and that I have seen in others for example, but I cannot prove to anybody using facts and evidence that what I believe is true. However, one of the proofs that I believe this to be true is that I apply what I believe about Jesus in the way I live my life.

I am not saying nor in anyway claiming that I am a perfect man or even that I come anywhere near applying the truths of Christ all the time or even in a completely accurate way. I am simply saying that as a Christian I believe that my life should model that of Jesus and I try to do so while allowing the power of God to continually transform me into the image of His son. While I have come a long way in this process from the beginning I know that I have a very long way to go and that I will not ever reach the goal of being completely like Christ. It is a journey and not a destination.

One of the requirements of faith that I have found baffling is that so many people seem to be offended when they find out that one person’s beliefs make it impossible for them to accept that another person’s beliefs are equally true. Believing that something is true carries with it the requirement of believing that those things that are contrary to the truth are not true, and in fact are false. For a simple example, adding two plus two renders the sum of four. I believe that to be true and the proof of my belief is that when adding figures any time I am required to add together two plus two I always determine that the answer is four. If I accept that as being true then I also accept that any other sum to two plus two other than four is not true, but is false.

I know that using a math problem to illustrate this point is maybe overly simplistic but please bear with me as I try to make a point about beliefs and truth. I believe what I believe and offer as proof the application of this truth in my life. While I respect other people’s right to believe whatever truths they might accept, I cannot accept that their truths, when they are contrary to my own, are equally as true. If I accept and apply the truth that two plus two equals four then I cannot also accept another truth that says that two plus two equals five, or six, or ten, or any other number. Simply stated, a truth cannot be truth for one person and not for another and also cannot be two opposing things.

Say a person with opposing believes offers that they believe what they believe and offer as proof that they also apply what they believe to the way they live their own lives. Could they not say that the fact that we both believe things, even if they are contradictory, and apply what we believe to our individual lives, is proof that both things are equally true? My response to this would be no, two opposing things still cannot be equally true and what is proven by the fact that someone applies what they believe to the way that they live their lives is not that something is true but that the person sincerely believes it to be true.
Back to the math example, say someone sincerely believed that two plus two equaled five and the proof was shown in their checkbook register. Every time they were shown to have had to add two plus two, they rendered five. So here we have application as proof of sincere belief but does the sincerity of the belief make the equation true or does it simply show that the person sincerely believes?

I am sure that we can all agree that two plus two equals four and that this is a universal true that applies to all people. Does that mean that someone else cannot believe that two plus two equals something else other than four? No, it does not and cannot. Real truth is true even to those who do not believe it to be so. However, a person has the right to believe whatever they choose to believe and may also act according to those beliefs but must also accept whatever consequences are produced by acting on their beliefs. Respecting the right of others to have belief in truths that are contrary to our own is not the same as saying that all beliefs and truths are equally true and valid.

If someone did choose to believe that two and two rendered something other than four and applied what they believed in how they lived their lives, it would not be possible for them to do so and not have it create conflict with others with opposing views. If for example I went to a store purchase four gallons of milk and was charged for five, that would create a conflict and a discussion about what is indeed true and who gets to decide.

In the case of the mathematic problem it would be fairly easy to prove to a rational and logical human being that two plus two was indeed four and that this truth was pretty much universally accepted throughout the world. In the case of religious beliefs these truth are not so easily prove nor universally accepted. Therefore, we should strive to respect another person’s right to believe or not believe whatever they choose to believe and expect the same from them. The things that I believe to be true make it impossible for me to believe some things that other people believe to be true. If something is true then things contrary to this truth cannot also be truth, one negates the other.
Does this mean that two people with opposing beliefs cannot like or at least be cordial to each other? While it should not that is often the case as what we believe inside in shown in our actions, our attitudes, and our motives and when people are operating on opposing truths this can create a lot of opportunities for conflict. What we believe is true determined our morality, our belief of what is right and wrong, and has to do with our character. It also shapes our ethics, they way that we apply our morals and a statement of our character as expressed in the way that we treat other people.

Conflicting beliefs render conflicting morals, which produces conflicting character and treatment of other people. That is why conflicting beliefs often produce conflicts in people. However, a good basis to reducing this conflict is to accept and respect another person’s right to believe whatever it is that they believe and to expect that their beliefs will be displayed in their actions, attitudes, and their motives. Just like the example of the person with the incorrect belief in the math problem it is not possible to avoid conflict when one person’s belief leads them to conduct themselves in a way that affects another person or is creates safety concerns for others. If someone’s belief system lead to an expression that involved driving their car on the wrong side of the road while they surely have the right to believe that, putting it in practice would be both illegal and in violation of the law. There is an old proverb that says, “My right to swing my fist ends at the beginning of another person’s nose.” As a person we have rights that we are free to express but our expression of our rights are limited at the point where they cause harm to another person. The same is true with our beliefs.

The conflict inevitably produced by conflicting beliefs isn’t just confined to conflict between individuals but also create conflict between individuals and government. The preamble of our constitution starts out by saying, “We the people….” Our government derives its power from the governed and therefore the conflict inherent in conflicting beliefs of people will also be codified in our laws since the people make the laws. This creates situations where some people have to make a distinction between what is legal, according to the laws of the land, and what is right based upon a believe system.

Faith requires that we accept some thing as universal truth and that they apply to all people whether they believe them. While we should be understanding of other people’s beliefs and accepting of their right to believe whatever it is that they believe, that does not mean that we have to accept that what they believe is equally true and valid to our own beliefs. In fact, someone who would accept opposing truths as being equally true and valid has no true beliefs. The fact that we live in a pluralistic society with many opposing believe systems also does not mean that we have to keep our beliefs to ourselves. Truth should not remain silent in the presence of non-truth. These things should be examined, discussed, debated, and compared. While many have core beliefs and values others do not and should hear the basis of various beliefs as expressed by those who believe them, not by force or compulsion but as a free expression of ideas.
It was in such a spirit of free expression that the Apostle Paul was taken to the Areopagus by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers so they and other could hear what Paul had to say about his beliefs. Paul asked them about the significance of their alter to the Unknown God and then said; “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands." The Bible doesn’t say that even one person was convinced by Paul’s speech but they allowed him to speak and listened to what he had to say. And Paul, for his part, spoke to them respectfully while firmly proclaiming that which he believed to be true. The Book of Acts records that, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." That is a good example for us, to respect others beliefs while not fearing to proclaim our own.