[Vision2020] The Gospel of Weak Belief

nickgier at adelphia.net nickgier at adelphia.net
Tue Dec 18 16:19:55 PST 2007


I'm still behind one week on my radio commentaries, so this one is going out to the Idaho State Journal and The Los Cabos Daily News.


Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have faith (John 20:29)

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

Conservative Christians condemn secular humanists because they believe they substitute their laws with for God's and generally taking over divine prerogatives.  I've called this "Spiritual Titanism" and I believe that preachers who speak for God and tell us what God wants us to do make great little Titans.

With his concept of "weak belief" Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne has offered an attractive way of responding to the strong belief of fundamentalism. In "Faith and Reason" Swinburne states: "For the pursuit of the religious way a person needs to seek certain goals with certain weak beliefs." For Swinburne all that a good Christian needs is a "weak" belief that Christianity is probably true and other religions are probably false. 

In the context of a comprehensive world theology, I prefer to revise Swinburne's proposal along more universal lines: some sort of divine being probably exists and that all religions at their best are in tune with the divine. 

If we are truly serious about being all inclusive, the following might be the most diplomatic: none of us know whether a divine being exists or not, so all religious belief and unbelief must be tolerated.

If there is a Gospel of Weak Belief, who are its prophets? Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Mahavira, Gandhi, and Christ are the Saints of Weak Belief.

The Buddha was frequently asked questions such as the following: Is the world eternal or not eternal? Is the soul the same as the body or different from the body? Is there life after death or no life after death? Usually the Buddha would say that answers to such questions were irrelevant for right conduct, but sometimes he would just sit in silence holding a flower. 

When Confucius was asked about the existence of spirits and divine retribution, he, too, answered as the Buddha did: we cannot know about such things, so develop your virtues and treat others as you would have them treat you. As the Dalai Lama says: "My religion is kindness." 

Laozi was a master of the dialectic of reversal. He believed that when power is used to "shock and awe," it becomes impotence; whereas soft power is amazingly effective in reaching one's goals. 

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. 

In the story each man has a hold of one part of the elephant, so to one reality is tail-like, to another it is trunk-like, and to another reality is like one gigantic ear. 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 religious beliefs. 

Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Jainism as can be seen 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 soft power of Gandhi's active nonviolence undermined British rule in India. Therefore, weak belief definitely does not mean weak conviction or passivity; rather, it means humility before the unknown.

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." 


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