If we’re to make any sense at all about belief words and god-talk, we’ve got to sort out what beliefs have to do with experience. Dictionary definitions of belief mention “acceptance that something is true,” “convictions about truth or reality,” or “faith in something.” Behind these truisms there is an important insight: beliefs are simply images we hold in our memories about what is true or real. Beliefs as images enable us to see what is in front of us—or not. Months after new models of the VW Beetle appeared some years ago, for example, I noticed a new model for the first time. Once I had an image of the new model, I noticed them everywhere. Beliefs as images also prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. If I believe, for example, that homeless people are all shirkers, addicts, or mentally ill, I’m less likely to notice the homeless people on the streets who are sane, bright, and engaging human beings whose lives, through no fault of their own,have gotten terribly messy.
Kenneth Boulding, in his classic The Image, wrote about this property of images to both give us eyes to see and to blind us to reality. This feature of our minds turns “Seeing is believing” on its head to “Believing is seeing.” I can see what an image of something in my mind suggests is present in the world. Two experiences illustrate the insight.
During July 1984, the Institute of Cultural Affairs convened an international conference in Chicago to explore emerging new patterns in community life, education, health, spirituality, and other key arenas of human development and social change. In one of the plenary sessions, a Canadian woman who was a member of a Christian religious order was leading several hundred participants in a chant—a very moving experience. I was taken aback though when I teared up in the middle of the exercise. I approached the leader after the session and asked, “What was that? Out of the blue, I burst into tears.” She answered simply, “That was ‘coming home.’” I was left with questions: Why tears? Why out of the blue? Coming home to what? I filed the expression “coming home” in the “pay-attention-to-this-phenomenon” cubby of my mind as an image that tears can signal something taking place that is deeply personal and meaningful. I might even say “soulful.”
Ten years later, my wife and I watched the four episodes of the TV mini-series “Lonesome Dove.” We slid the video cassette into the VCR, propped ourselves up in bed, and over a couple of weeks were drawn into an epic adventure: two former Texas rangers and their neighbors seeking their fortunes in a long and dangerous cattle drive from Texas to Montana. The titles of the episodes—“Leaving,” “On the Trail,” “The Plains,” and “Return”—hint at the mythic character of Larry McMurtry’s story. After the final episode, I sat silently for a long time, wonder struck by the story. Then I began to cry. Great heaving waves of tears welled up. But the tears were suddenly overtaken by great gales of laughter. Then the tears welled up again. Then the laughter. For several minutes I was swept off my feet and carried away in what can only be called an ecstatic rush of deep, deep emotion—a spontaneous, heartfelt reaction to a moving story. I relaxed and “went with the flow.” I was fascinated with what was happening. The deep emotion eventually subsided and I settled into an easy calm. I had never experienced anything like it before, but I think, in retrospect, that the image of tears as a signal of coming home allowed me to remain in the moment and to experience the experience.
Both the tears and the laughter came as great relief. But one has to ask: relief from what or about what? Over the years more clues appeared. In 2001, both of my elderly parents died: my 88-year old mother, and, nine days later, my 90-year old father. My dad, who had been keeping himself alive through sheer strength of will, relaxed when mother died. For at least a decade his mission in life had been to be her companion as she dealt with cancer. His mission had been fulfilled and he could complete his own life journey. The minister at his memorial service remarked, “It’s kind of romantic, isn’t it!” During the months before and after their deaths I cried and laughed many times. It was sad to anticipate and recall death. But there was also deep laughter. Exhilarating levity followed the tears. A pattern was becoming apparent.
I had been crying about many kinds of sadness: estrangement as an adult, the injuries and losses of childhood, missed opportunities for healing, and indeed, the loss of two of the most important people in my life. The tears of grief came from a deep pool of loss and sadness. But as I cried, watching myself crying and noticing the deep pool of sadness, I was also aware of the wonder of simultaneously feeling sad, crying deeply, and observing myself crying. Whenever I focused on that awareness, a sense of wonder and amazement arose and the laughter began again. I imagine a porpoise swimming beside a ship just beneath the surface, then leaping into the air, then splashing back below the surface. The tears and laughter were like a descent into grief followed by an ascent into exhilarating awareness. The tremendous energy flowing in this descent and ascent were released by experiencing and noticing both the grief of death and the joy of life. The two seemed to rise and fall in an embrace like lovers.
What was this up and down, this in and out, the tears and laughter? The tears of grief were accompanied by feelings of awe, wonder, fascination, and relief that led to laughter as high and light as the levity of connecting with long lost friends. Were these idiosyncratic experiences, peculiar to my personality and unique history, or my particular cultural heritage? Or had I experienced something elemental and foundational about the way life works. And what, if anything, did my experiences have to do with beliefs and god-talk? This question is where I go next.