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What Do We Actually Mean When We Say "I Believe"?

by Chris Tong, Ph.D.

Excerpted and adapted from:

Beyond Believing
Dr. Chris Tong

When I talk to people about my wife, I never say, "I believe my wife exists!". Instead, I talk to them very concretely about her her qualities, what she did this week and about our relationship how much her love and support means in my life, for instance.

It's something worth examining, then, when we find one of the things we say most commonly in reference to the Divine is: "I believe in God." Let's really consider what that means!

I don't say, "I believe my wife exists." I don't say, "I believe the sky is blue." I don't profess belief in things that are tacitly obvious to me. But I might say, "I believe in freedom for all people." Or "I believe we'll all make it through that hurricane that will hit the coast tomorrow." Or "I believe Joaquin Phoenix will win the Oscar for Best Actor." Or "I believe the economy will rebound in the next quarter."

What should become clear from these examples is that "belief" is a word used to refer either to something that is uncertain, or something that is so intangible that it is difficult to describe in concrete terms ("freedom for all people").

Now this is very curious to discover that when we say, "I believe in God", we actually mean, "I'm not certain of the reality of God!" or "God is not very tangible to me!". Not least because this is probably the single phrase most commonly used by people to describe their own relationship to the Divine. And "religion" is generally equated with "belief system".

Understanding this, we can see the real cause of "holy wars": if you have a different belief than I, and are actively promoting it, then I must wipe you out, so as to reduce your influence, and not increase doubt (either my own or that of others) in my own belief.

If what we believed in were truly obvious and tangible to us, we wouldn't need to eliminate the unbelievers. If someone says, "No, the sky is green", when it is obviously blue to us, we just laugh and consider them a little daft. We only go the further step of declaring a holy war when we ourselves are already (though generally unconsciously) in doubt about our own belief. If one blind person in a world of blind people says "I believe the sky is green" to someone who believes the sky is blue, they might very well get into a fight over it, because neither has ever seen the sky themselves.

Now if you are a "believer in God", perhaps what I've written may bother you. But how certain are you of the reality of God? Our certainty can be measured concretely by what we do in response. Some of the most impressive people who claimed the direct experience of (and love for) God demonstrated it through their actions. These men and women the stories can be found in every religious tradition devoted their entire lives to God: to the love of God, to the glory of God, and to the service of God. Some of them were able even to die and still proclaim their tangible experience of God and love for God while they were being subjected to every imaginable mortal horror: being burnt at the stake, hung on the cross, boiled in oil, etc. All of us who have loved deeply our intimates, our children, our parents, dear friends have a taste for what we do, if push comes to shove, for those we love. But is God on our list of loved ones? Is God that real to us? Is God first on that list? If not, what kind of "God" is it that we believe in and love?

I am by no means advocating that we intensify our belief in God. What I am advocating is that we find God for real. And I am advocating that we find God now, not after we die. If we have a belief that we will find God after we die, even though we have never found God while alive, we should seriously consider whether that belief is justified. All the great saints, yogis, and Spiritual Masters who spoke of God did so on the basis of a direct Revelation of the Greater Reality, which they received (some even continually) while they were alive. Many have declared to questioners that God is as real to them, even more so, than the people to whom they were talking. Like love for our children, love for God is only real when God is as present to us as our children. To say we love God otherwise is much like all the ridiculous things we say when we are fans of a Hollywood movie star. We're intrigued with the man or woman, but in reality, we've never met him or her. What we have is an imaginary relationship.

I wouldn't write any of this if finding God for real were not my own direct experience. All the saints, yogis, and Spiritual Realizers from the world's spiritual traditions are further evidence that finding God while alive (to different degrees, depending on one's Spiritual Realization) is possible. It is to the people who in past centuries have found God, and even better to those who are finding God in the present that we should be paying very close attention, and not merely to those who would admonish us to "deepen our faith or belief", as though that were our best or only option.

Does finding God (or not) have practical implications for the quality of our lives? You bet! As has been said in all the wisdom traditions of humankind, God is love. God is perfect happiness. To find God for real is to be immersed in that Perfect Happiness, to the point where It overflows as real and unconditional love of others. "What do the saints know about finding God that I don't?" This should be the burning question for every one of us who is not already perfectly and eternally happy, and who would like to have the most profoundly positive impact on this world.


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