I am under the impression that many of us are confused about what it means to believe in something or someone. One reason for this has to do with the different contextual settings in which we use the word believe.
For example, if I were to ask you, “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” What am I really asking? In context, it’s fairly obvious that I am asking whether or not you believe that Santa Claus exists. The same goes for the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and other well known mythical figures associated to our seasonal holidays and life events. The question, in this context, is Ontological.
Now for another use of the word believe: in light of the recent Presidential campaign, what would it mean if I were to ask you, “Do you believe in Barack Obama?” or “Do you believe in John McCain?” Most, I have a hunch, would not suppose that I am asking whether or not Obama or McCain exist in reality. Therefore, what I am really asking is, “Do you believe in the message of McCain/Obama?” In other words, do you believe that they stand for the right cause, and have the ability to see that cause through to some end? For, we do not treat a present day politician the same way that we treat mythical figures. This is because the question is no longer posed in an Ontological context. It could be said that the context of this kind of belief is more Existential, as it deals more with meaning and responsibility than reality and existence (perhaps the subject for another post).
This discussion is incredibly important in terms of religious dialogue. It is one thing to ask, “Do you believe that Jesus/Buddha/Mohammed/etc. exists or existed?” But it is an altogether different question, in my opinion, to ask, “Do you believe in the message of Jesus/Buddha/Mohammed/etc.?” This, I feel, is particularly important when approaching the Christian faith. So much effort is exhausted in debates over whether God exists, and whether the words of a certain political rebel from 1st Century Palestine were accurately recorded in an ancient text (if uttered at all). But what about the message of Jesus in the Gospels? What about his teachings on the Kingdom of God? Unfortunately, the message of Jesus is rarely shared in a way that does him justice (at least in my experience).
I invite anyone who reads this to not only consider the existence of whom they believe in (if anyone at all), but also to deeply consider their message. I’m under the impression that there would be many more Christians today if more pastors and congregations were living the message of Jesus, rather than preaching the kind of empty, irrelevant dogma that so easily repells “unbelievers” (when Jesus himself repelled the Temple elites more than anyone else, who were working with Roman authorities to oppress the less privleged majority). The Kingdom of God needs to be revisited, and so does our conception of what it means to believe.