Long, long ago, the word “belief” usually indicated trust, confidence or devotion. This was before our general worldview began to shift toward the notion of “belief” = “opinion.” God knows our present age is full of opinions, including mine and yours. The irony is not lost on me that I often write about belief, spirituality, life, hope and loss in an Opinion section.
As I sit writing, our youngest and I are watching Disney’s “Peter Pan: Return to Never Land.” Years after the original tale of Wendy Darling and her siblings, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys and the pirates of Captain Hook, we meet adult Wendy’s family in London in the middle of the Blitz. Wendy’s daughter, Jane, refuses to believe Wendy’s story of Pan.
When Jane is carried away by pirates in the night, she finds out the truth behind the story her mother told. But when she meets Tinkerbell — you remember Tinkerbell, of course, who nearly died were it not for the children clapping and believing in her — Jane does not believe. She refuses to believe in faerie dust. Tinkerbell, stripped of her power, falls to the ground.
Belief is a common thread this time of year. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe in Jesus, born of Mary? Do you believe in the return of the sun as the winter solstice passes by? Do you believe reindeer can fly? Do you believe that on Epiphany/Old Christmas, the animals can speak at midnight? Old Appalachians who go to their barns say they have heard their livestock talking. Do you believe?
“Belief” is an experiential thing. Belief is not about mental assent or philosophical acceptance. Rather, belief is, as author Diana Butler Bass wrote, “a disposition of heart.” More than any other time in history, we see the fruits of engagement in belief. Rather than large groups following the authority of a singular leader or hierarchical set of leaders, people across the globe locate belief in deeply personal rituals, symbols, practices and imagery — that is, “belief” is situated where people find meaning, make meaning or attribute meaning.
It is no coincidence that this shift coincides with the rise of the Nones, those who mark “none” on forms asking for their religious affiliation. I think about how in my childhood, people came together in community for worship and service. Today, people still do. But people also come together with similar passion in marathons, challenges and social media-shared efforts. Think of Sam Heughan’s “My Peak Challenge,” which launches annually in February or Glennon Doyle’s “Together Rising.” Both use the language of “belief” in their mission statements and calls to action.
Prior to his death in 1969, Clarence Jordan, one of the key influencers for the founding of Habitat for Humanity, created a paraphrase of the New Testament — the “Cotton Patch” series — in a way that would be attainable to his South Georgia community of faith. This was language that people he loved could live by. When it came to a discussion on belief, he wrote the following:
“Actually, our English word ‘be-lief’ comes from the old Anglo-Saxon ‘be,’ which means ‘by,’ and ‘lief,’ which means ‘life.’ What one lives by is actually his [or her] ‘belief’ or … ‘by-life.’”
Heartfully, I sense that what we are seeing and experiencing is not about magical thinking or reaction against authority. We are seeing people move into a deeper sense of living. We are seeing communities shift from going through the motions to moving “by-life,” “by-lief.” Living and moving and having our being in something True and Vital.