Monday, March 31, 2014

Belief & Behavior

The two of them stood side by side, steaming drinks in hand, as they pondered the choice before them.

"I'm not so sure," the Younger finally admitted. "It's the end of March, it's technically spring, and the sun is shining..." his voiced trailed off as he gazed out the front window of the Cafe.

"It's too soon," the Elder finished, shrugging his shoulders. "Sitting outside on the patio, much as I would prefer it, will just have to wait for a warm sunny day."

With one unintentionally choreographed motion, they resolutely turned their backs from the view of the outdoor patio, and retreated to the welcome embrace of a booth adjacent to the rear fire exit.

"Now, what were we talking about in the lineup for our coffees?" mused the Elder, as he hung his rain coat on a hook beside the booth, the Younger mirroring his action with his jean-jacket-and-hoodie ensemble.

"I was just commenting on the 'chicken & egg' argument that some of my friends and I have been having," the Younger reminded him as they slid into the booth. "Debating how much belief shapes behavior, versus behavior shaping belief."

The Elder chuckled as he wrapped his hands around the warm ceramic of his coffee mug. "Behavior shaping belief -- ah yes, I remember how we used to accuse some people of allowing their experiences to shape their beliefs more than the Bible."

The Younger took an appreciative sip of his latte, peering over the rim of the bowl at the Elder. "Okay, I get how that's a problem, but at the same time, you've got to admit: there are times where our behavior definitely does influence our belief. "


"Do they now," countered the Elder, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "or does the behavior rather result from practicing the belief?"

 The Younger leaned forward on the wooden table, unconsciously frowning in his concentration. "Okay, here's an example: in charismatic churches, whenever worship or prayer is happening, people raise their hands to bless God or at least hold them palm-up-and-out in order to 'receive'. It's mostly a learned behavior -- and so it's neither good or bad -- but it's become so automatic that some people believe it's necessary."

The Elder nodded as he placed his empty mug on the table, sliding it to his right (out of reach of his oft-animated gestures). "Yes, but I would still go back to my original statement. Their behavior might reinforce their belief -- and knowingly or unknowingly result in a kind of performance-based approach to worship and prayer -- but I would argue that their belief undergirds both their actions, and their expectations of how these actions 'work' in spiritual reality."

Reaching for a napkin, the Elder took out his pen and began writing. "It would look like this," he suggested.
  1. A Core Belief in a God who is personal, and who interacts with His people. Based on this, we would find...
  2. Behavioral practices which in and of themselves are neutral (like raising hands) that act out these beliefs, which over time may (but not necessarily must) result in...
  3. a performance based assumption that unless (A) happens -- raising hands --  then (B) cannot -- receiving."
The Younger looked at the list -- upside down from his vantage point -- before conceding the point. "So, what you're saying is that our behaviors that appear to be shaping our beliefs, are actually rooted in even deeper-held beliefs."

"Exactly," agreed the Elder, clicking his pen shut for emphasis. "Now, as your example pointed out, we can and do tend to create almost a superstitious mindset even out of reasonable beliefs. We can believe that God wants to bless and to answer prayer, and opening our hands is certainly a reasonable bit of body language. But if we begin to think -- or instruct others to think -- that the person with open hands is more likely to 'receive' than the equally faith-filled person beside them with his/her hands in their pockets, then we're getting into trouble."

The Younger sat straighter in his seat as another thought occurred to him. "Okay, so then instead of saying 'behavior shapes belief', we could say that while belief shapes behavior, we can easily turn that behavior into a superstition (can we say that about Christians?) that to some degree twists our beliefs?"

"Into idolatry, you mean?" asked the Elder softly. Noting the Younger's sudden silence, he laughed out loud. "That's a stronger word than 'superstition', isn't it? But ultimately, it's an error in belief that can lead to superstitious or even idolatrous assumptions of how God works among His people. So, the question that needs an even closer look is: does my behavior reflect beliefs that are rooted in the Bible, or not?"

"Okay, okay," protested the Younger, as he rose to his feet. "I think I get it. And now if you'll excuse me, I believe I'll get another cup of coffee. Would you like me to get you one as well?"

The Elder nodded with a smile. "Thank you; I will wait with open hands to receive it." The Younger walked away, shaking his head and reaching for his wallet.

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