School of Life

by Tricia Gates Brown

Lately I’ve stumbled upon articles, books, and interviews about the origin of belief, about why we believe what we believe. It seems to be a conversation in the air these days—at least among readers, in this era marked by denial of human-caused climate-change, or the apparently widespread belief that mass shootings have nothing to do with gun access. Many are left wondering how people can hold strong beliefs that seem to defy the evidence, or defy logic as we personally define it.

Social-scientists who study how beliefs are formed find, in fact, that beliefs have little to do with reasoning or logic. Basically, we adopt our beliefs from those we love and trust, then we seek out ways to rationalize those beliefs. Beliefs are essentially born out of relationship, not reasoning (for an interesting conversation on the topic, see this OnBeing interview with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman). Moreover, relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one. We have relationships with authors, with fictional characters, with radio commentators, with teachers or preachers we may not know personally. And when we admire and trust people in relationship, we—and our beliefs—are shaped by them in far-reaching ways. Only after we have adopted our beliefs do we seek out logical explanations that undergird our belief systems. So to restate: our beliefs are not necessarily rational, they are relational. If you think you are an exception, and your beliefs are purely derived from reason, perhaps think through your life-story and do a bit more investigating.

As I have reflected on this topic and its implications, I recognize the importance of forming relationships—including media relationships and those with fictional characters—who are of strong character; in other words, those who manifest lovingkindness in their lives in various ways. Is this something we consider when we choose our relationships, when we tune in to our favorite news anchors, when we choose the stories we consume—whether via film or written text, when we expose ourselves to different teachers? I’m not being moralistic here. I’m talking about all-around goodness—in all its complexity, not squeaky-clean, legalistic priggishness. In fact, complex, real-world characters whose struggles blossom into deepening lovingkindness, are far more reliable than people with saccharine, white-washed lives devoid of struggle who secretly dominate their partners, bully their dog, and insult people behind their backs. I’m talking about finding teachers with character, in contrast to those who simply put on a show of goodness.

It is simply a practical consideration when we recognize how our beliefs are being formed. Do you really want your formation to be left to someone who is, at their core, is unreliable? Do you want to entrust your very worldview to someone you would not trust to take care of you if you were stranded together on an island?

Another consideration that comes to mind as I reflect on social-scientific discoveries about belief formation, is this: If we want to make a difference in the world, the only place to start is in relationship.

I happened to read the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus this week. I was struck by the way this transformative encounter took place. Zacchaeus was a tax collector who admitted to defrauding the poor. But Jesus didn’t excoriate Zacchaeus about his practices when they met; rather, he invited himself over for dinner. And something in Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus compelled Zacchaeus to radically alter his ways, proclaiming that he would give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back those he defrauded four-fold. This interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus is typical of how Jesus seems to have related to people. He sat down with them and shared food, he told stories (a key component of social gatherings in ancient times), he asked questions, he met people where they were and had compassion for their circumstances—basically the essence of lovingkindness. (In the gospels we read passages where Jesus is depicted accosting people, but some of these passages reveal more about the arguments and circumstances of the gospel writers and their communities than about Jesus’ words and deeds. Take, for example, Jesus’ rants against the Jewish sect of the Pharisees. Pharisees were far more likely to be opponents of early Christians in the mid- to late-first century than opponents of Jesus himself. In other words, they were opponents of the gospel writers and their communities who are cast as Jesus’ enemies).

The Jesus stories reveal some level of intuition about the way learning takes place. They are an important reminder of the importance of human interactions at a time when people are more isolated than ever, more inclined to rescind into echo chambers of familiar voices than to get out and rub shoulders with people different from themselves—even to rub shoulders with people of like mind! Nowadays, loneliness, isolation, and social anxiety are almost pandemic. Yet the solution is not to become social butterflies and partake of shallow interactions more frequently. Think quality, not quantity.

Being widely and well read is also key—or exposing ourselves to different perspectives. Those who study Alzheimer’s find that contemplative nuns have exceptionally healthy brains. The nuns’ exposure to a wealth of learning in different areas may play a role in their neurological healthfulness. They have lives peppered with quiet and solitude, yet choose relationships based on substance, and expose themselves to good teachers via the unbounded classrooms of the inner life.

Like everything, it is a balance. My times in solitude and reflection are no more important than my times of deep sharing with a friend at the local whiskey bar. As a favorite theologian said, “We have to have more than textbooks. We need text-people” (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Both are necessary and nourishing. Both shape our beliefs and views of the world.