The Gospel of Weak Belief


Blessed are those who have
not seen and yet have faith (John 20:29)

The true believing Christian
must first of all be a skeptic.
–David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

The connection between strong
belief and religiously motivated violence can be well documented,
and the early results of my research on the origins of religious violence can
be found at this

The late Jerry
Falwell was one of my favorite preachers of strong belief. He once declared that
God does not answer the prayers of Jews. Not only is Falwell claiming to know
God’s mind, but he is also undermining divine freedom.  Surely God can
answer any prayer She chooses to.

Others of
Falwell’s ilk appear to make God a real weakling.  I love the cartoon in which
former Sen. Jesse Helms, after trying so hard to get prayer in the schools, asks
the Lord how Christian values can possibly survive. God’s answer is simple:
"Don’t worry, Jesse, I can take care of it."

Conservative Christians condemn secular humanists because they believe they substitute their laws with for
God’s and generally taking over divine
prerogatives.  I’ve called this "Spiritual Titanism" and
I believe that preachers who speak for God and tell us what God wants us to do
make great little Titans.

With his
concept of "weak belief" Christian philosopher Richard
Swinburne has offered an attractive way of responding to the strong belief of
fundamentalism. In Faith and Reason Swinburne states: "For the pursuit of
the religious way a [person] needs to seek certain goals with certain weak
beliefs." For Swinburne all that a good Christian needs is a "weak" belief that
Christianity is probably true and other religions are probably

In the
context of a comprehensive world theology, I prefer to revise Swinburne’s
proposal along more universal lines: some sort of divine being probably exists
and that all religions at their best are in tune with the divine. Or, if we are
serious about being all inclusive, the following might be the most diplomatic:
none of us know whether a divine being exists or not, so all religious belief
unbelief must be tolerated.

One might
interpret the strong belief of fundamentalism as a new form of gnosticism (from
the Greek gnosis=knowledge), although contemporary fundamentalists do not
share the esoterism of the ancient Gnostics. The Gospel of Weak Belief could be
seen as a form of agnosticism, or more accurately, as a reaffirmation of
fideism, putting faith before knowledge claims.

Ancient Gnosticism has a continuing presence in India, where the jnana yoga
of the Upanishads is still very much alive. Although the texts and general
teachings are open to all, the tradition of being initiated secretly by a guru
is still very strong. In his works Aurobindo uses the term gnosticism, and his
belief that we can become supermen with perfect knowledge appears to be a rather
Titanistic epistemology. In the following passage from
Aurobindo’s spiritual companion "The Mother," strong belief does not get any
stronger: "What is remarkable is that once we have had the experience of a
single contact with the Divine, a true, spontaneous and sincere experience, at
that moment, in that experience, we shall know everything, and even more" (Collected
Works of the Mother
, vol. 10, p. 34). If this is mystical knowledge of
undifferentiated unity, then the claim is not as egregious as it looks on its

If there
is a Gospel of Weak Belief, who are its prophets? I believe that the Buddha,
Confucius, Laozi, Mahavira, Gandhi, and Jesus are the Saints of
Weak Belief.

Buddha was frequently asked questions such as the following:  Is the world
eternal or not eternal? Is the soul the same as the body or different from
the body? Is there life after death or no life after death? The secret of
the Buddha’s famous Middle Way is to ascertain the difference between desires
that can be fulfilled (they do not bring new karma) and cravings, those that
will lead to karmic debt. One of the most subtle and deep-seated desires is a
"craving for views," typically expressed in metaphysical queries such as the
ones above.

Buddha called such problems "questions that do not tend to edification," and he
usually answered with what I call "neither/nor" dialectic: (1) The world is
eternal nor not eternal; (2) the soul is neither the
same as the body nor different from the body; and (3) there is neither
life after death nor no life after death. This dialectical technique was
perfected by the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, but its effect was just
as powerful in the Buddha’s original words. "Neither/nor dialectic" essentially
destroys "craving for views" by negating it into oblivion.  For more on
dialectic see this link.

the Buddha would just sit in silence as a signal that the questions were
inappropriate. When pressed for an explanation, the Buddha answered that these
questions are "not calculated to profit, [they are] not concerned with the
Dharma, [they do] not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to
detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to
tranquilization of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to the insight of the
higher stages of the Path, nor to Nirvana" (Questions That Tend Not to

Confucius was asked about the existence of spirits and divine retribution, he,
too, answered as the Buddha did: we cannot know about such
things so
develop your virtues and treat others as you
would have them treat you. The Daoist Laozi, Confucius’ elder contemporary,
thought Confucius was arrogant, claiming far too much knowledge.  Legend has it
that Laozi said this to Confucius:

"Rid yourself of your arrogance
and your lustfulness, your ingratiating manners and your excessive ambition.
These are all detrimental to your person" (quoted  in D. C., Lao Tzu: Tao Te
, p. 8).

Laozi was
also a master of dialectical thinking, especially what might be called the
dialectic of reversal: for example, power when exercised to an extreme becomes
impotence; whereas weakness and softness (such as water slowly eroding the
elements) is real strength. As the Daodejing states: "Time will show that
the humblest will attain supremacy, the dishonored will be justified, . . .
those content with little will be rewarded with much, and those grasping much
will fall into confusion" (chap. 22).

an elder contemporary of the Buddha, promoted the doctrine of "many-sidedness,"
and his followers, called the Jains, explained this view with the parable of the
Five Blind Men and the Elephant. Each man had a hold of one part of the
elephant, so to one reality was tail-like, to another it was trunk-like, and
to another reality was like one gigantic ear. Each man had a different, but equally valid perspective on the same reality.
The Jains use this story as a lesson for universal tolerance of all beliefs.

was profoundly influenced by Jainism as can be seen in this confession:
"Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them
because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa"
(Young India 1/21/26, p. 30).  One would think that weak belief leads to
impotence, but the power of Gandhi’s agnosticism and active nonviolence
undermined British rule in India. Therefore, weak belief definitely does not
mean weak conviction or passivity.

commitment to weak belief is found primarily in his parables. Parabolic language
is the perfect medium for the Jain doctrine of many-sidedness. Parables are
open-ended and offer many levels of meaning, and they preserve the freedom of
the respondent.

Jesus and
the Buddhist Zen monks were more radical than the Buddha: the point of a parable
or a koan is not an ethical one, but a provocation for people to
transform their lives spiritually. The early church made the parables into
allegories (for example, Jesus is the sower) and turned rich, polyvalent
discourse into the univocal dogma of strong belief. Even today Christian
ministers too often interpret the parables in a conventional ethical way that
obscures their transforming power.

In his
support for the dispossessed Jesus loved the dialectic of reversal just as much
as Laozi did. "So the last will be first, and the first last" (Matt. 20:16);
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself
will be exalted" (Lk. 18:15).

There is
another less noticed, but equally powerful reversal in Jesus’ rebuke of Thomas:
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have faith" (Jn. 20:29). Jesus’
point, I believe, is clear: Thomas was wrong to demand the evidence of strong
belief.  In this verse Jesus is condemning the first Christian fundamentalist
and essentially saying "blessed are those of weak belief."

Paradoxically, the partner of strong belief is weak faith, and God’s rebuke of
Jesse Helms is a good example of strong belief but weak faith in what God is
able to do.  The Scottish philosopher David Hume is usually portrayed as an
enemy of Christianity, but I believe he was correct when he said that "the true
believing Christian must first of all be a skeptic."


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *