“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -G.K. Chesterton.
What do you believe? What do you know to be true? These are two very different questions if you ask me. For a long time I was under the impression they were asking the same things. It has been only recently that the difference became clear, now blindly vivid in my mind. To understand the nature of belief is critical. Far too many have it tangled up with truth, I fear.
Many people believe in God, obviously. But what does that mean? Does this mean they know there's a God? Of course they may not claim to possess empirical evidence, yet many feel in their heart of hearts that God is real. God exists. They know it to be true. More importantly, they live as if the existence of the divine is understood. They speak in terms of certainty. When discussing God, they make no disclaimers like "Well, if we could know God exists," or any other agnostic tendency. They speak of him like an old friend or a close relative. The matter of existence has been settled. Instead, they skip right to debating who God voted for in the previous election.
Others do no believe in God, or at least popular notions of God. They equate believing in God to believing in unicorns, leprechauns, or dragons. Why believe in something without evidence? To claim God exists would somehow make all these other absurdities viable beliefs, right? To the atheist, imagining a dragon is no different than imagining God.
I have recently battled with the concept of "belief" quite viciously. I am not an atheist (although some fundamentalists may argue that point), but I cannot say with great certainty what I believe. At least, that's what I thought. I have equated belief with knowing for the majority of my life. If you asked me "Does God exist" a few years ago I would say "Yes." A few years earlier than that I would have said "Yes, of course!" If you ask me today I'd say "How in the heck would I know that? That's freaking impossible to know!" Why did I say "Yes" before and not now? For the same reason many still do today.
We equate belief with truth.
If someone says "I don't believe in God" then, for them, God literally doesn't exist as far as they're concerned (and vice versa). But this is silly. We know it's silly, yet this is how we've been taught to filter reality. Somehow, we have this crazy idea that whatever we believe is how the universe actually works.
(Spoiler alert: What we believe isn't the same as what is real. Also, Dumbledore dies).
Now, that is not to say that everything we believe isn't true, it just means our beliefs have no bearing on what is actually true. True is true. Believe it or not.
Personally, it has been tough adjusting to this new revelation. I am coming to terms with the fact that I can believe something but know I might be completely wrong. But maybe it only feels so strange because we have missed the point of belief itself. What if "belief" means (or should mean) something radically different than what we've been told?
I have a certain agnosticism about my faith these days. I don't want to say I believe in anything for sure, yet this is not being honest. For example, if someone asked me "Was Jesus fully human and fully divine?" I'll go into some long discussion about "Well, what do you mean by divine?" or "I think it's a mystery" or some other reflective motif that is more or less a fancy way of saying I don't know, but here are some cool thoughts I have about Jesus. But if someone asks me, "Do you believe the earth was created in six literal days?" I have a clear answer. "No, I do not believe that." If someone asks me "Is there life after death?" then I'll discuss my differing views of the Kingdom of God, social justice, consciousness, the universe, life, love, etc. More examples of me saying "I don't know." But if you ask me "Does God send Muslims to hell?" I would respond with "No, I do not believe that."
When I am honest with myself, I admit that I am not agnostic about many things. I know, with everything in my being, that certain things are not true (as far as I am concerned).
So why do I do this? Do I just believe what I want to believe? No.
When I say I believe something, it is me stating that I believe it could be true, not that it is actually true. If you ask me if God is real, I can say "I believe in God, but I don't know he exists." I can imagine God. I can look around and imagine that he is in everything. Therefore, I can believe. This, however, in no way means God exists merely because I want him to.
On the other hand, I refuse to believe certain things could even possibly be true, therefore I do not believe in them. Could a loving God send me to hell? No. That could not possibly be true, given the definition of love itself (again, as far as I am concerned). Therefore the answer is no. Now, maybe God is a comic jerk who will end up sending me there anyway. My disbelief in hell has no bearing on him doing so.
If we can learn to let go of the burden of defining what is true, we may finally discover truth has been with us all along. The real significance of belief is, what do we allow to become real? What kind of life do we choose to live? What do we believe is possible? What battles are we willing to wage?
What dragons are we willing to slay?