[Vision2020] The Gospel of Weak Belief

nickgier at adelphia.net nickgier at adelphia.net
Mon Apr 3 13:02:31 PDT 2006


This is my KRFP Radio commentary for tomorrow morning at about 8:05.  Nancy Casey has moved to Tuesday mornings so I have to go with the best Morning Mixer.

The Gospel of Weak Belief is my answer to Religious Fundamentalism and will be the general thesis of my book "The Origins of Religious Violence," the meager beginnings of which you can read at http://users.adelphia.net/~nickgier/orv.htm.


Today I will be preaching the Gospel of Weak Belief.  Don't worry, I'm not going to start a new church.  Besides, I don't think too many people would come.

Jerry Falwell is one of my favorite preachers of strong belief. He once declared that God does not answer the prayers of Jews. Not only is Falwell claiming to know God's mind, but he is also undermining divine freedom.  Surely God can decide to answer any prayer that she chooses to. 

Others of Falwell's ilk appear to make God a real weakling.  I love the cartoon in which former Sen. Jesse Helms, after trying so hard to get prayer in the schools, asks the Lord how Christian values can possibly survive. God's answer is simple: "Don't worry, Jesse, I can take care of it."

If there is a Gospel of Weak Belief, who are its prophets? I submit that the Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Mahavira, Gandhi, and Jesus are the saints of weak belief. 

The Buddha initially disappointed many when he refused to answer basic religious questions. Sometimes he would just sit in silence as a sign that the questions were inappropriate. When pressed for an explanation, the Buddha answered that these questions do not promote "right conduct,  purification from lusts, nor the tranquillization of heart. . . ."

When Confucius was asked about the existence of spirits and divine retribution, he, too, answered as the Buddha did: develop your virtues and treat others as you would have them treat you. 

Laozi, Confucius' elder contemporary, thought Confucius was arrogant, claiming far too much knowledge. This illusive sage may have said this: "Time will show that the humblest will attain supremacy, the dishonored will be justified, . . . those content with little will be rewarded with much, and those grasping much will fall into confusion." 

Mahavira, an elder contemporary of the Buddha, promoted the doctrine of "many-sidedness," and his followers, called the Jains, explained this view with the parable of the Five Blind Men and the Elephant. Each man had a hold of one part of the elephant, so to one reality was tail-like; to another it was trunk-like, and so on. Each man had a different, but equally valid perspective on the same reality. The Jains use this story as a lesson for universal tolerance of all beliefs. 

Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Jainism as can be heard in this confession: "Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa."  One would think that weak belief leads to impotence, but the power of Gandhi's agnosticism and active nonviolence undermined British rule in India.

Jesus' commitment to weak belief is found primarily in his parables. Parabolic language is the perfect medium for the Jain doctrine of many-sidedness. Parables are open ended and offer many levels of meaning, and they preserve the freedom of the respondent. 

In his support for the dispossessed Jesus loved the dialectic of reversal just as much as Laozi did. "So the last will be first, and the first last" (Matt. 20:16); "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk. 18:15). 

There is another less noticed, but equally powerful reversal in Jesus' rebuke of Thomas: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have faith" (Jn. 20:29). Jesus' point, I believe, is clear: Thomas was wrong to demand the evidence of strong belief.  In this verse Jesus is condemning the first Christian fundamentalist and essentially saying "Blessed are those of weak belief." 

Paradoxically, the partner of strong belief is weak faith, and God's rebuke of Jesse Helms is a good example of strong belief but weak faith in what God is able to do.  
The Scottish philosopher David Hume is usually portrayed as an enemy of Christianity, but I believe he was correct when he said that "the true believing Christian must first of all be a skeptic." 

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