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Neil Webb

Conundrums

Does it really matter what we believe?

By Harold Wells


A poster used to hang in my office showing Linus from the Peanuts comic strip with the caption “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.”

As a theologian, I didn’t agree at all, but I loved the irony. I hung it up as a kind of joke. To my surprise, visitors to my office often liked it. One said, “Oh, that’s so true. Beliefs don’t matter so much. It’s our values, and what we actually do, that count.”

I recognize that church members often feel that the fine points of doctrine are unimportant, and, quite rightly, that people of other religions, atheists and agnostics may be good people. So some conclude that one set of beliefs is as good as any other. It’s also common today for the “spiritual but not religious” folks to distrust creeds and dogmas they feel organized religion imposes on them. It’s values and spirituality that count, they say.

I sympathize. Yet if we dig deeper, we may find that their values and spirituality are undergirded by implicit beliefs about God and the world.

It’s true that actions speak louder than words. But ideas and beliefs are powerful. In fact, values are intimately connected to beliefs. Our creedal statements of faith are communal assertions about what we think is true, and they tend to underlie our values. 

“Faith” and “belief” inevitably go together. Faith is a relationship of trust; it involves believing in somebody or something. Believing in implies believing that. For example, the United Church creed says, “We believe in God, who has created and is creating.” This implies an assertion: the world is no accident. It is the purposeful creation of God. Christianity is not just anything that anyone says it is. It has historical and ecumenical content.

Believing, however, can be destructive. If we believe some biblical texts uncritically, they can lead to dangerous or harmful attitudes. Some texts would lead us to believe that women are inherently inferior or subordinate to men. Other texts teach us to believe that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful. Such beliefs bear bitter fruit in sexism or incline us to despise people who are LGBTQ. Tragically, some Bible verses have been used to legitimize ruthless violence, hatred of Jews and slavery. 

That’s why such texts need to be read critically in view of contemporary knowledge and understanding. But most importantly, they must be interpreted in light of Christ, whose bias for all those marginalized, oppressed and disabled is basic to the Gospel.

Today, the belief that God is an all-controlling “Man Upstairs” who pulls strings to control the weather undercuts human responsibility for climate change and encourages people to deny or be passive about it. Our doctrine of God also must be anchored in the Christ of the Gospel.

On the other hand, beliefs provide order and meaning. They offer dignity and hope and inspire loving action. In times of personal crisis, believers testify that the God they believe in is their “strength and shield.” The United Church creed asserts that Jesus, crucified and risen, is “our judge and our hope,” that “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.” These are powerful beliefs — claims, even — about the identity of Jesus and the strength and hope he gives for living. And what follows? “We are called . . .” 

Does it really matter what we believe? You bet it does. Values and actions, joy and hope follow, “as long as we’re sincere.”

Rev. Harold Wells is emeritus professor of systematic theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto. 



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