Jeff Cook, a fairly regular commenter on this blog and more importantly the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, asks me to clarify my view on the role of “right belief” and the cognitive element of the religious life. He writes:
It feels like your critiques of a right-belief-is-all-that-counts Christianity (which are normally spot on) diminish the cognitive side of life. Some may think you would hold a position that “right thinking” does not matter at all. I assume you think this is false (otherwise why try and persuade anyone of your position). I would love to hear you comment on this in the future:
What is the proper and good role of the mind in our understanding, enjoyment, and engagement with God? What is a healthy way to conceive of our beliefs that does not make them irrelevant, but so too does not make them an idol?
I appreciate this because Jeff’s right. I do tend to critique the over emphasis of belief without articulating a space for a healthy role of belief. To put it plainly, we cannot escape the cognitive aspect of our faith. After all, if I were to profess that belief is devoid of any value, that would be me articulating a belief. We can’t turn belief or cognitive awareness into a perceived virus that is to be avoided at all cost.
Instead we must strive to give belief it’s proper place, a healthy space that doesn’t short circuit how we experience God. The writers that I often cite like Merton and Rohr aren’t calling into question belief. They are questioning Christianity’s overwhelming tendency to overestimate the idea of right belief and illuminate for those with an ear to hear how this overemphasis is ultimately a obstacle to God’s gift.
The mystics employ common sense and cognitive recognitions as much as anyone. Cognitive awareness is essential and often times helps us nudge open a door open that was previously jammed shut. Even before we walk through the door, just being aware of what’s on the other side reduces our anxiety and gives us a direction, thanks all to the miracle of the mind.
Where belief becomes a virus is when the point of our religious life is to be right. When one religion is pitted against all others and we divide the world up between right and wrong. The center of gravity of Christianity today is ultimately sectarian and divisive. Unless people of other faiths agree with the Christian perspective, they will experience eternal torment. This is a religion that resides in the mind and has little to do with the heart. On the contrary, mystics don’t buy into this religious construction. They employ beliefs but their beliefs don’t rely on dogma and myth, although those can be helpful, and their beliefs are fluid, shaped by their experience and reside in their hearts. Both the heart and mind are absolutely necessary, but greatest of these is the heart, in my opinion.