Human beings have an unusual capacity to rationalize our behavior. There are the dramatic examples of facsist collaborators, violent abusers or Wall St swindlers. But there are relatively prosaic examples too. Me, for instance, a Christian that doesn’t believe in God.
I don’t believe in God, but I participate in church. And not just as a silent pew sitter, but actively, vocally and in leaderly ways. At the Farm, I do everything that everyone else does, because that is the work ethic of that community. At Trinity, I lead worship and run our blog. I am (at times) literally the voice of the church.
But yet, I am not a believer.
This brews up significant questions for the church. Questions around how much non-believers can be allowed to participate? What roles are only for people who abide by the Statement of Faith?
These questions concern me too, but they only affect my activities. They don’t really pose a deep, personal problem to me.
Because what they allow me to do is not nearly as important as what I choose to do. The questions that I ponder are: what Christian roles can I participate in without betraying my integrity? And: how do I make sense of my beliefs when they are incongruent with my behavior?
For at least the past three years I’ve been a weekly regular at church. But I haven’t been a Christian in a conventional evangelical sense. I don’t believe in the deity of Jesus. I don’t believe in an afterlife of heaven or hell. I don’t even really believe that God is a person. Maybe something more like a lifeforce, pushing the universe forward. Something like the Tao, or the Jedi Force.
In psychology, we think of experiences like this as fertile ground for cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we do something that contradicts our beliefs. So, someone might believe in saving the earth ecologically, but then drive a gas guzzling SUV. When he stops to think about it, he’s probably going to feel uncomfortable. He might feel dishonest, a phony. What to do? Well, a common psychological defense mechanism to deal with this kind of discomfort is rationalization.
Humans are remarkably adept at using our intellect to make perfectly logical excuses for our incongruent behavior.
In this case, the eco-hippie SUV driver can think, “Well, I need the SUV because I have to lug around my family and all our stuff, and also it would be more ecologically damaging to buy a new Prius, which would use even more resources and cause even more pollution to build, and besides, I more than make up for it with all the recycling I do.”
And, wa-la! Discomfort assuaged!
I’ve done a similar thing with my religion. My rationalizations began with noble intentions: I’m doing this for my family. My wife and children believe in God. I have no interest in trying to deconvert them. I generally think it’s a healthy coping mechanism to believe in a higher power that has good will towards you and all of mankind. So, I told myself: I’ll go to church for my family. And that grew into: well, there’s no point in going to church if I’m not going to be involved. And eventually, that became: I can be comfortable with all the activities of Church, as long as I don’t have to pretend to believe something that I don’t believe in.
And everything worked out okay. Except the actual tension is not resolved. I am still doing something that I don’t believe in. I am still singing songs, that, as soon as I’m done singing them, I consider no more real than Harry Potter.
Ah, Harry Potter!
Well, not Harry Potter exactly. But more the general experience of movie watching (or book reading). Way back in 1817, the Sammy Coleridge coined the phrase Suspension of Disbelief to describe how a writer can convince a reader to believe in the premise of a fantasy story. He famously noted that if a writer can inject “human interest and a semblance of truth” into her story, the reader will naturally suspend disbelief for long enough to enjoy reading. Meaning that we will accept things as true that we know are not. And we will ignore evidence against that acceptance. But this doesn’t mean that we will permenantly suspend disbelief. Just for the duration of the story.
There are theories for why humans do this. One is that we are “wired for story.” Meaning we have evolved to learn through stories. And a powerful way to pay attention to a story is to believe it is true when we are hearing it.
This is why we can go to the movies and watch Harry Potter and thoroughly enjoy it. Even if, given the time and motivation, we could easily sit down and conclude that the story is ridiculous. But books and films like this work because their crafters have been able to inject enough “human interest and semblance of truth” to trigger our impulse to suspend our disbelief.
And–we can all come up with examples—sometimes movie makers don’t do a good enough job. And we do not suspend our disbelief. And we spend the entire movie seeing plot holes, or scientific inaccuracies, or incongruent behavior. We don’t believe. Not even for a minute. And that ruins the experience.
Suspension of disbelief is the closest explanation I can come to as for why I can lead worship at church. I do it. And for those 20 minutes that I’m singing songs to God, I am a believer. God is real to me. And so is the Bible and Church and Christianity. I’m an evangelical… for twenty minutes.
And once it’s done, I feel great. I feel a lot like I do after a great episode of Breaking Bad. I feel like I spent time with someone I care about, who is real and important to me. I feel like I have learned something about myself and my life. I feel closer to the other people who also shared in that experience.
All that is a real experience, not just a rationalization. Something amazing and precious, so profoundly deep and human, that I often feel compelled to weep or laugh out loud. And yes, there is in that experience, the possibility, each time, that it will last and translate and permeate more and more of life. At least in those twenty minutes, I sure believe this can happen.