Is it possible to correct someone’s beliefs? Is it even desirable or “right” to attempt to do so? It’s certainly not a popular concept.
Early in my years as a hospice chaplain, I met a kind, welcoming woman who summed up her beliefs by saying, “God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.”
I asked where that was from; she didn’t know–it had been handed down a generation or two, and she liked how it formed her sense of things.
Well, since I ended up conducting her funeral, I had to figure it out. It’s from Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes.” (anyone guess that before I told you?). Pippa Passes becomes this woman’s scripture. Seems pretty unfortunate to me, partly because it’s pretty inadequate.
God’s in his heaven; sure. But what about the omnipresence of God? If God’s in his heaven, do I have to knock on the door to be granted permission to enter God’s presence? Doesn’t that contain God a bit much? It seems a lot like the “deus ex machina” idea–God’s in heaven, the world runs as a machine as if God wound us up like a clock…and lets us go. Tick, tock.
And “all’s right with the world.” Well, Calvinist that I am to my core, this is exactly the opposite of total depravity. Since when is all right with the world? Have things EVER been right? I think not.
All of this is to say that a phrase like this, “God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world,” is a pretty lousy faith statement.
And now I’ve just committed the American unpardonable sin: I’ve called a belief wrong. Really wrong. How narrow-minded of me to do a thing like that. Our culture is so predisposed toward “letting go and let God,” and “everything works out,” and “all paths lead to the same place/God/end,” that challenging someone on their belief statement is like committing slander. We want chaplains to be laissez-faire, and pastors to “warm our hearts and souls,” and religious leaders to be kindly disposed toward…everybody. This American value has captured our demeanor such that if someone claims 2+2=5, we’re almost afraid to call them out on it.
I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have a sufficient structure to my beliefs, with a high regard for the scriptures in addition to theological training, that you might think I have some merit to being able to correct someone’s beliefs. I certainly don’t go looking around for errant statements as if I’m the belief-police, but when a person says, “this is what I believe,” and hasn’t really critiqued it or challenged how it fits with their other values, then I believe we do them no good by accepting their so-called cherished beliefs.
There have been some excellent blogs written about the fallacy of the phrase,“God never gives you more than you can handle.” For example, I like Nate Pyle’s blog post about a year ago on this particular phrase. I deeply appreciate Nate’s thoughts here, because they often help move us from a blanket, mis-informed, mis-translated text to the very difficult realities that many people face. If God never gave us more than we can handle, then how come we get frustrated? Or depressed? Or discouraged, even? I could say more, but the point at the moment is how we might help someone to see how lame some belief statements can be.
I’d be interested in some blog dialogue on revising beliefs to align with our values. I know that this can be touchy, but would appreciate some ability to process how folks have had a belief changed over time, or challenged in a way they could hear the concern behind engaging someone in such a difficult conversation.