All change!

Josh asks a fascinating question over on his blog. In the context he is talking about how people who convert to Eastern Christianity read church history, but it’s a question with far broader application:

My big question these days is, “What fuels belief?” I am quite convinced that it is neither reason nor fact, those these things can play a part. I think that for a formed belief to change, there must either be some sort of crisis event to shake it, or prolonged immersion in an environment that chips away at it.

My way of expressing much the same question is, “What causes people to change their beliefs? How are people persuaded to abandon one set of beliefs and adopt another?”

This question interests me partly because of my own personal history of frequent changes in belief (from Christian to atheist and back to Christian, from Reformed to Lutheran, from climate change non-sceptic to sceptic to non-sceptic, from evolution to creationism to ID and round and back again, from Conservative to Labour to Conservative to Labour, and so on).

None of these changes has arisen purely from “reason and fact” (though reason and fact have never been wholly absent, either). Rather, there seems to be some prior change of sentiment or allegiance that precedes a change in conviction. Equally there have been flirtations with other beliefs at various times (Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) which have never reached that point of persuasion. To adopt Josh’s terminology, the typical pattern seems to be for a “crisis event” to complete (or make manifest) a process that has taken place during a more prolonged “period of immersion”. Process followed by crisis, in other words, rather than just one or the other.

So I’d be interested to know what people think. What are your own experiences of undergoing (or witnessing) changes in significant beliefs, and how do you consider these to have arisen?

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17 Responses to All change!

  1. Chris Jones says:

    John,

    … how people who convert to Eastern Christianity read church history …

    I’ll repeat here the comment I made at Josh’s: the author of the article is not a convert to Eastern Christianity, but a liberal Episcopalian using themes from Eastern polemics to promote a rather squishy liberal Christianity. Dr Ellen Charry is a professor at a liberal Protestant seminary (Princeton) and an official theological adviser to the (hyper-liberal) ECUSA House of Bishops.

    That doesn’t take away from Josh’s point. But Dr Charry’s article is less an example of how factors other than “reason and fact” unconsciously colour our beliefs than an example of how history can be tendentiously read (quite consciously, I believe) in support of a hidden agenda.

    Just so I can be sure I read your post correctly: the current version of your peripatetic belief system is confessional Lutheran, Labour-voting, climate-change believer, and evolution-friendly. Correct?

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Aw, you mean you never flip-flopped into the Liberal Democrats’ camp? 😉

    Becoming a Christian was a very slow process for which I could not, to this day, provide an adequate account. The only real change of opinion I can think of and explain which is pretty clear-cut is going from a sort of baptistic view (although not consistently so) to paedo-baptist, and even that was a long process, the end of which occurred long before my realisation of it.

    That episode was precipitated by a sort of a crisis in confidence in Baptist theology of the Lord’s Supper. I realised, sitting in a communion service at church, that there were people here who thought that absolutely nothing special was happening; as I always acknowledge, that’s true of every Baptist but it’s true of a lot.

    Now, the Bible teaches that God is at work in believers in the Lord’s Supper (that was about as developed as my expression of it was), and that’s something which has been confirmed in my own life. So I found myself realising that Baptists couldn’t be trusted on the sacraments. The natural direction to go was to check whether they could be trusted on baptism. I looked into the Reformed argument for paedo-baptism and found it made sense, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it thoroughly.

    Until, one day, reading a comments thread in which the baptism debate was being played out, I found myself composing the counter-arguments to the baptistic side in my head. I think the clincher, in that sense, was a rather obstinate Baptist insistence that infants cannot be regenerate. “Yes, but what about John the Baptist, and David, and…” I thought. Followed by, “Oh, so I probably do actually believe in this paedo-baptism thing, then, don’t I.”

    It was the simple realisation that all the arguments I believed lined up with paedo-baptism but I wasn’t ready to, um, take the plunge.

  3. John H says:

    Chris:

    [T]he current version of your peripatetic belief system is confessional Lutheran, Labour-voting, climate-change believer, and evolution-friendly.

    Correct. This week. 🙂

    Actually, quite a lot of those follow from the first one, oddly enough. Calvinism is more of a totalising system than Lutheranism, and my embrace of Calvinism was a factor in leading me in new directions in terms of politics and science. On becoming a Lutheran, I was free to revert to type in these other areas, though this was quite a gradual process – which makes for some interesting (not to mention embarrassing) reading in my blog archives…

    There were other factors, but becoming a Lutheran was a large part of the “change of sentiment or allegiance” that underlay those changes/reversions since 2004.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Having undergone huge changes myself and watched others recently make changes of their own I can say I agree completely. I don’t know if this makes me postmodern or not (as if I even know what postmodern means) but I simply do not believe we arrive at beliefs from a purely objective, rational point of view. From what little I’ve read our brains aren’t even capable of such a thing. Emotions and life experience colors everything we do.

  5. JS Bangs says:

    My journey from Charismatic Evangelical to East-looking Anglican is definitely marked by both processes you mention here. I was hit by crises in my late adolescent years, then moved to an environment (Mars Hill) that slowly chipped away at whatever survived the crisis. I find it interesting that, for some reason, the rejection of mainstream evangelicals that was in the air at Mars Hill was very effective, but the emengent Calvinism didn’t take. (I did identify as a Calvinist for a short while, but that went away as soon as something better came along.)

    Anyway, your main point is completely true: what drives conversion is rarely intellect, but a combination of environment, emotion, and events. I used to fight this, thinking that it meant that my conversion was tainted, but I think I’m just going along with it now.

  6. joel hunter says:

    It’s a great question. One way I’ve heard it asked recently is this: Do we choose what we believe? Now you may think that I indulge my calvinian sensibilities to the point of intoxication as I contemplate that question. But here’s where my intractable existentialism intrudes. Even if my beliefs (and fears and hopes and feelings) are determined by physical, organic and/or “spiritual” forces, the moment I dare mumble “I believe…” I am asserting that this “I” chooses to become those beliefs. And therefore I am responsible for them. The danger in trying to trace out and delineate the “causes” of my beliefs is that I may be, in the active investigation of those causes, trying to shirk responsibility for my beliefs (and my attendant actions). Take the questions to their ultimate point. Suppose as I wrestle with the question “What fuels belief?” or “What brings about a change in belief?” that I succeed in producing a complete account of the causes, conditions, or contributing factors for such change. I manage to produce a Universal Law of Belief Change such that anyone’s beliefs can be scrutinized and the causes for them known in full determinacy. Now: is there a surd–a remainder that eludes all analysis and comprehension? Yes: I am. I exist. I may believe things that are entirely determined beyond my choice; my deepest commitments may be involuntary. Nevertheless, they are mine and I choose to be responsible for them. It is that distinctively human gesture, the freedom to become my choices, to demand that the safety net of a human “essence” or fixed nature be removed, that, I think exposes the inadequacy of limiting the question to the domain of “right beliefs” and “the correct set of dogmas” (which I think is often implied when we focus on the role of the intellect as the locus of the problem).

    Sorry this is long. Just a bit more. Here’s how I would characterize Josh’s hypothesis about the crisis or prolonged immersion as the two likely catalysts for a change in one’s beliefs. A “crisis” is typically some event that exposes our surd to the anxieties which it always faces, but usually submerges. The crisis throws our existence into question: the dark abyss of the future rushes up to our toes and we find ourselves facing Nothingness, Absurdity, Meaninglessness. We must act. But what we have been up to the point of the crisis is now uncertain. Not changing may be a cowardly act if it is a retreat from the possibility of despair back to the life before the crisis as if the anxiety of responsibility was just a passing phase. But change may be a cowardly act, too; that is, I engage in a cognitive make-over so that one moment what was wrong is now right. So change of belief in and of itself is not sufficient to determine whether my change is an ethical one: in either case, I may be trying to escape responsibility. Consider the other catalyst: prolonged immersion. Why would I remain involved in a party, in an ideology, in a communion, unless I already knew in advance that I wanted the answer or perspective they were going to give me? Why does the young man trying to resolve a dilemma (should I leave my home and go to Great College halfway across the world or should I stay and care for my sick mother) by seeking the counsel of his pastor? Is it because the young man doesn’t know what the pastor will tell him? No, of course not. He goes to the pastor because of the anxiety of making the choice alone, of being abandoned to bear the responsibility for the choice all on his own. If you are immersed with others you already believe what they believe. If you don’t think so, then it’s probably because you’re afraid. You’re not a coward by nature, but by not taking responsibility for being involved with what you are engaged in, you are making yourself a coward by deferring a choice you have already made but don’t wish to be conscious of.

    Now, where did I put my beret, cigarettes and black turtleneck…

  7. Steven says:

    I have made a few major changes; more shifts than whole paradigm’s being changed.

    I went from being raised a non-believer to accepting buddhism as more or less the way.

    After a couple of years in anguish I realized I could not free myself from internal or external attachments, enlightenment was far from my reach, and overall I found buddhists to be large hypocrytes, I abandoned any confidence in that or myself.

    Perhaps my true religion was DeadHead, becuase I pursued that for 5 years, traveling often. As I traveled, I started reading scripture and very slowly it began to cause me to question everything. I started calling upon the “god” of the bible, though I wouldn’t be considered a christian at this point.

    Reading scripture caused me to understand Jesus a little better, but to be honest, I still don’t have a grip on what it means to be a believer.

    I confessed my commitment to Christ, acknowledging my sin, and requested baptism in July of 2002 in a small african american church in the south. After that I went to highly dispensational, conservative, semi-attanomous baptist churches.

    In trying to understand eschatology, I came to realize the scriptural weakness of dispensationalism, and disdained it. I didn’t replace it, just got rid of it.

    I started struggling with the idea of the alter call, after seeing countless people get emotional and show no transformation afterwards, and started to feel it was manipulative.

    I started reading luther, and he put a bug in me…causing me to reevaluate everything to both scripture, and look at historical trends. At first I tended to be a fundamentalist reactionary, in part due to the ultra-liberal school I was attending.
    I have attempted to let Grace change me, and depend on Christ to shape me, and repent when I don’t attain it-which is never.

    I go to a PCA (Presbyterian Church) now, read Luther like crazy, and still have some ties to the Southern Baptist Convention-but desperately want to be Christ-centered.

    I have found that abrubt changes are very difficult for my wife, so I tend to not make them externally until I have taught certain things from scripture for a while. We are still working out baptism issues with our two children, the meaning and substance of the sacraments, and loving each other as Christ has loved us.

    So, unbeliever, buddhist, hippie, Christian-baptist, Christian-fundamentalist, and now Christian-reformed with a bent toward Luther.

    I am a changing person always trying to modify myself on scripture and its implications. I am also a sinner who sometimes doesn’t get it. I struggle often with my own depravity and the glorious nature of Christ who was punished in my place.

    Thanks,

    Steven

  8. John H says:

    Joel: I agree there is a danger of a type of determinism, of excessively downplaying the “chosenness” of one’s beliefs.

    However, there’s more than one way of making a choice. I don’t think an awareness of these sub-/non-/pre-rational aspects of belief-formation is necessarily “postmodern” (as hinted at by Jeremy); it can lead to a good old-fashioned Puritan emphasis on the importance of the Choice of Friends, Redeeming the Time, Godly Company and Godly Living; of not having the arrogance to think one can place oneself in a place of different sentiments and different allegiances and then expect to maintain Christian beliefs by an act of personal will.

    It also has value in terms of how we seek to bring people to faith, in terms of a willingness not to despise the day of small things, to avoid snuffing out smouldering wicks, to tolerate people who “belong” before they “believe”, and all the other cliches. Again, I think there is a tendency among “thoughtful”, theologically-minded Christians to think that people come to faith in a very rational way, and to reconstruct our own stories in that mould (something I have been known to do).

    As for the young man seeking advice from his pastor, that reminds me of the example I came across of how young women who find themselves unexpectedly and unwelcomely pregnant then seek “advice” as to what to do. Whether a girl pitches up at the Marie Stopes Clinic or Life for “counselling” will normally depend on her prior commitments and the answer she (or those around her) want to hear.

  9. fW says:

    Phil Walker:

    I just posted to your blog on your recent baptism thread. so I feel like i am stalking you. sorry for that.

    It sounds like you believe in baptismal regeneration.

    Are there any other christians besides Lutherans who believe this doctrine (besides those who wrote the Nicean Creed that says “I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins”)?

    I know roman catholics seem to agree with presbyterians for different reasons. Neither believes (for the same reasons) that an infant can have saving faith. Both believe that children are brought into the church by baptism but (oddly to me as a Lutheran ) not as believers. For presbyterians this is baptism replacing circumcision as covenant. for catholics it is the baby being connected to mother church.

    Is this your understanding of what the different groups believe who practice infant baptism?

  10. fW says:

    Now to respond to the original post:

    for me it was the pain of my life. i simply seemed to have no other choice than to believe in Jesus. sort of like the apostles who said “lord to whom shall we go, you alone have the words of eternal life.”

    so for me to come to Jesus was sort of not flattering to Him in human terms. it was an act of desperation after I had thoroughly exhausted all other options I could find.

  11. Phil Walker says:

    Frank: My position is at times murky even to me. I believe it probable that God regenerates believers in/through baptism, although not necessarily at the same time as baptism; and that in any case, the more normal function of baptism is assurance. I don’t believe God regenerates unbelievers. I don’t normally claim the phrase “baptismal regeneration” because most people—I include myself—would understand it to mean that God regenerates every single person baptised, which I don’t believe.

    I suspect the key difference lies in our respective views of extent. It’s notorious in respect of the atonement, but I have a suspicion that it carries across everywhere where there’s a promise to be found. So in the sacraments, we view the promise as being for those who receive it (equivalently, the elect), whereas the Lutheran view seems to be that the promise is for all and reception is by faith.

  12. The Scylding says:

    Well…

    Secterian (hyperstrict pelagian evangelicalism) – Calvinism – Lutheranism…. and some EO’s I’ve met want me to continue eastward….. And so far, the changes were more less to do with the Sacraments, although the initial jolt that started the slide from sectarianism came from the Lutheran side, and had nothing to do with sacramentology.

    Politically? Well, much more difficult, but the some of the movements was probably leftward.

    Climate? Slightly alarmist to realist, but never sceptic.

    Creationism? Hyper creationism to modified creationism to I don’t know, and don’t get perticularly excited either…

    But I’m also changing nationality, so what about that, John? Care to try that one?

  13. Phil D. (from Ohio) says:

    Dear sir,

    I am an American Lutheran who visits your site from time to time. I do enjoy your articles. However, I would have put Arcade Fire higher up on the list of bands.

    I thought about your article and meandered my way into the following diatribe.

    Sincerely,

    Phil

    Perhaps the most amazing character in all of literature is that of Sydney Carton, who allows himself to take the place of another, innocent man. Throughout A Tale of Two Cities we see Mr. Carton as completely unwilling to do the deed he will do at the closing of the book. Yet he makes a choice and sticks by it.

    Other works of fiction such as: Crime and Punishment or For Whom the Bell Tolls offer us explanations about the psychological reasons behind the change of heart or mind. On the other end of the spectrum we see cheap cop-outs and a deus ex machina from lesser novels and pieces of literature that leave the reader scratching his or her head in wonder.

    I am not a big fan of Dickens, but I think he should be commended for writing such a character. We feel that we make our peace with the unexplained. We make our peace with the smallest and most important part of our decision making process.

    It would seem that the smallest things make the greatest difference. I would imagine that ninety-five times out of an hundred, we humans (Christians included) do not do things based on any sort of spiritual leaning. If we are hungry we eat. If we are tired we sleep. Here we listen to what our body tells us to do. It is our nature. Conversely, we may have been brought up in an house of historians or political activists, and thus we study history or politics because it is our nature. If we look at our whole lives we see that most all of our actions fit neatly into these two spheres: Nature & Nurture.

    However we have a third aspect of ourselves that dictates more heavily what we do, though it is apparently smaller. That is the nature of the conscience. It sways us to what is “right”. It may be that it is against one of the two other forces, and like a minority party, throws its vote in with that which it believes to have the best view. We may want to stop studying because we are hungry, but in the end we realize that it is much more important to follow through with some train of thought. We may feel that we should stay out and talk with our friends, but we do have to get a good night’s sleep for work in the morning. The “right” decision is always the conscience’s first priority. You can say that it is neurons or chemicals firing in such and such a way in the brain, but there are points where the most normal, average, and basic human brain would never in a million years be wired to violate it’s own self-interest in the way that the conscience violates nurture and nature.

    A bigger example of the way conscience sways us is the chance for us to not commit sins against friends and family. We really shouldn’t have anything to do with a certain friend, but we can’t abandon them in their time of need. We would really love to be with a certain person, but we have already committed ourselves to love our significant other and God. Our conscience is like the vocal minority who seem to be all the rage in the media today, with the exception that our conscience holds a moderate viewpoint that we believe to be right.

    Our conscience forces us to do things we don’t want to do. It forces us to love our neighbor, be honest, serve others, and admit our sins. It is not powerful on its own, but, in its way, it is stronger than anything else. It knows right and wrong from the beginning, but when it attaches itself to faith, it clarifies itself. It can be muted by our judging in favor of the other two parts of our soul when it is offering a dissenting opinion, or strengthened when we give it a fair hearing.

    Perhaps the oddest thing about our conscience is the fact that it can’t be trusted…I mean fully trusted. Bonhoeffer talks a lot about our conscience being the manifestation of our desire to be like God, to judge right and wrong I mean. However, the conscience, like our whole being, must submit itself to God and His omniscient judgement. We have all probably heard the saying, “There have been just as many martyrs for bad causes as for good causes.” We know of people who do the “right” thing because of a stirring of their conscience; but ultimately make bad stuff happen. I am sure that many who wanted Luther dead or appeasement with the Nazis did so because of a stirring of their conscience.

    However, a conscience leads us to do that which makes the great historians write about us. It is why fact is always stranger than fiction and why a good biography has more twists and turns than a great work of fiction. Fiction is too organized and too sterile to properly factor in the sea changes that occur with conscience. It is the conscience that is involved with change on a level we humans will never truly understand.

  14. Andrew says:

    “So in the sacraments, we view the promise as being for those who receive it (equivalently, the elect), whereas the Lutheran view seems to be that the promise is for all and reception is by faith.” (Phil W.)

    I would say there’s no actual difference in these two; the promise IS for ALL who are far off (Acts 2:38-39), but the promise is this: “REPENT (i.e, BELIEVE) and be baptized . . .” Thus it is only realized in the lives of the believing and repentant, and these must necessarily be the elect, because no one can believe unless regenerated. So Peter can say, ” . . . for all those whom the Lord our God will call.” Calling is tied to foreknowledge and predestination and is inseparably linked with justification and glorification (Rom. 8:29-30), so it’s fair to say that the promises held out in baptism are truly for all people yet only savingly received by the elect.

  15. Andrew says:

    As far as your question to which you wanted replies — what changes have we undergone, and how — I can see a lot in my own life and theology (the inception of my Christian life and discipleship aside).

    I went from a sort of emergent Baptistic evangelicalism to Reformed theology (and paedobaptism) mostly through reading John Piper’s books (2003-05). When I began reading him and other Reformed authors, I found two very appealing things: (1) They seemed to take the actual words and teachings of Scripture much more seriously; they didn’t quote movies or poets, but the Word. (2) The God-centeredness of Reformed theology seems do deal an undeniable blow to any Arminian or anthrocentric, emotional theology. If God is the Prime Cause and Supreme King, then all must come from him and exist for him alone. I could not escape the logic of this.

    “Reformed with Lutheran sympathies” (2005-present) — In 2005 two of my good friends decided to pursue pastoral careers in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod “(LCMS, in the States). Being raised LCMS, I starting asking what it meant to be Lutheran. It began with cherishing the Law-vs-Gospel distinction, because in current evangelicalism (not true Reformed theology), the misuse of the Law is horrible. In addition, the holistic view of Lutheran sacramentalism and the willingness to live with unexplainable tensions or paradoxes in Scripture seemed somehow more humble and faith-full to me. But because I cannot in good conscience yet embrace some Lutheran teachings, I can’t call myself Lutheran (vis-a-vis Rom. 14:23).

    “Open to the East” (2007) — Living for two years (’05-’07) in Istanbul, Turkey, put me in contact with Eastern Orthodoxy, namely, the Armenian Orthodox Church. Throughout the Near and Middle East, the faith that has survived centuries of persecution and ostracism is Eastern Orthodoxy; and something about that made me say, “There’s value in their expression of faith.” Additionally, living in the part of Istanbul once known as Chalcedon, and being just a few hours from former Nicaea (Iznik), brought a much deeper awareness of ecclesiastical history to my senses. I could easily walk into extant church buildings dating to the 6th century, and that left me a little uneasy with thinking that somehow a group of guys in Germany and the Netherlands somehow got everything figured out a millenium later. “Did God really leave the true faith hidden for so long?” I asked. I’ve read some about Orthodoxy, and I’d like to visit a worship service, but after at least a preliminary investigation of Eastern theology, I’m staying planted in Reformation Protestantism.

  16. John H says:

    Phil: thank you for your “diatribe”. I’m sure you’re right about the critical role of the conscience, and its unreliability.

    Andrew:

    I could easily walk into extant church buildings dating to the 6th century, and that left me a little uneasy with thinking that somehow a group of guys in Germany and the Netherlands somehow got everything figured out a millenium later. “Did God really leave the true faith hidden for so long?”

    That’s probably why that “group of guys” were so keen to emphasise that they were not teaching anything new, but that everything the Reformation taught was found in those earlier writers. And indeed, Lutheranism’s Christology is very “Eastern” (being very similar, I understand, to that of St Cyril).

  17. Josh S says:

    Joel, there are other reasons for prolonged immersion. You may move to a country for strictly business reasons where the political or religious climate is decidedly different than your own, perhaps more different than you realized. You might take a job in the philosophy department of a Catholic university because it beats all the podunk community college jobs you got offered and has some relatively smart guys on faculty.

    For me, the question comes up in context of dealing with Catholic apologists who insist that the ultimate reasons for believing what they do is purely rational. On one hand, the Enlightenment Kantian Rationalist living in my head tells me that people do not believe in Jewish virgins imbued with mystical powers to transform souls and prevent nuclear war on purely rational grounds, and on the other, a simple observation of psychological characteristics tells me there’s more to it than that. That of course led me full circle to look at my own transition from evangelicalism to Calvinism to Lutheranism and the motivating factors therein, both intellectual and otherwise. I have come to believe that most purely intellectual narratives of change in belief are actually deceptive self-justifications necessitated by a psychological need to demonstrate that everything you do is ultimately rational.

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