Sunday, 19 August 2012

Belief and behaviour

Someone posted this on Facebook the other day. I hadn’t read it before although I am sure it is quite a well known saying. It is generally true that how we behave is much more important than what we believe. The measure of people’s Christian faith is more easily gauged by how they treat other and whether they exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control, than whether they subscribe to a particular set of theological tenets. I hold a fairly distinctive set of beliefs, some of them conventional, others less so, but I don’t see why others should necessarily subscribe to my understandings. As someone said to me today, God is so huge that it would be strange if we did not all have different understandings because we can all only glimpse a little part of God and maybe it takes many different views for us to grasp him/ her. This acknowledgement does not prevent anyone from sharing their particular view of God. There is no point believing you have good news if you do not wish to share it. Enthusiastically sharing a belief is not the same as insisting someone else must accept it is valid.

The statement about belief being unimportant and behaviour all important is not, however, that simple. It does not address the problem that what we believe changes what behaviour we consider right or wrong. One individual might see certain behaviour as inappropriate or wrong which another sees as right and good. Behaviour which in the past was seen as acceptable, such as enslaving other human beings, is now universally condemned as a moral evil. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet concludes, “Nothing’s good or bad but thinking makes it so.” To some extent a post modern world grapples with the question of whether good and evil are moral absolutes or simply social constructs, at another level it settles for the easy belief that the prevailing view is right and views held by different times and by dissenting individuals are manifestly wrong.

Furthermore, it is difficult to say that what we believe does not matter because belief and behaviour is usually linked. Beliefs are powerful. Beliefs can be dangerous. If beliefs did not matter, people would not fear and oppose them. Our beliefs can lead us to act in ways which are selfless or selfish, to perpetrate acts of atrocity or sacrifice. Even if we do not act directly on our beliefs, holding and expressing certain beliefs might create a climate in which either hatred or justice can flourish. We should generally try to respect the beliefs others hold, even when we disagree. We should always ask ourselves, “Could they be right and could I be wrong?” Sometimes we do have to oppose a belief – the wisdom is knowing when to do so.

I think Jesus taught more about behaviour than anything else. He linked belief and behaviour, because to hear his words and not act on them is like building a house on sand, not rock. His teaching was about a way of life, a revelation of the nature of God and the Kingdom of Heaven rather a list of  theological tenets. Also, if you believe that He was the Son of God, or as in today's reading, the bread of life, then Jesus himself was the embodiment that linked belief and behaviour. Jesus was a “doer”; he touched, healed and transformed. In Jesus the distinction between concept (belief) and concrete action (behaviour) melts away because he is a living embodiment of belief - the word made flesh. Jesus did not just bring a revelation; he was that revelation and its practical application in the world.

And, to my mind, still is.

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