These days we have world-wide communication over the internet and through television. I, like many more of us, live in a multi-cultural society – having some sort of contact with people whose forebears originate from other continents. In other words I can see or hear most of the world’s spiritual beliefs either in the home, on the street. With so many different cultural ideas, I do wonder does it matter what I believe?
As a result of this variation people can ‘pick and mix’ different ideas about life that might seem sensible. At the same time I am aware there is a growing ethos of not discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.
Does it matter what I believe about life?
No wonder then that we have a pluralistic mentality that has infused our social consciousness and a spreading attitude that there is more than one world-view or way of thinking that leads to everlasting happiness.
Less and less people these days identify with any one system of belief and fewer affiliate themselves to any one organised religion. I suspect quite a few others ask my question – Does it matter what I believe? What is seen as narrow-minded dogmatism is out. There is a realisation that no-one knows it all and that we all get some things wrong from time to time.
So we even hear the attitude that it doesn’t matter what you actually believe as long as it suits you and you find it helpful.
Does it matter what I believe less than what I feel?
Many psychodynamic counsellors assume that their clients’ emotional life is primary in defining who they really are and that what counts in whether therapy is successful is their feeling of self-acceptance and self-responsibility. According to this view the sort of person one becomes is determined more by how one feels about things than how one thinks; one’s concerns and sympathies rather than one’s ideas and beliefs. So, the question ‘Does it matter what I believe’ becomes less important.
Certain sanctimonious characters portrayed in Dickens’ novels come to mind. Uriah Heep clerk of Mr Wickfield’s believes in his humbleness – and is continually boasting of it! Heep’s writhing and scheming, and his cold, clammy nature, makes one’s skin crawl in David Copperfield. Readers see through such hypocritical behaviour and judge a character by his or her inner feelings and desires rather than by what they say they believe.
Does it matter what I believe about right conduct?
But another school of counselling takes a very different line. The extent to which thinking affects behaviour is central to cognitive therapy. Here what you do is thought to be affected by your beliefs. Challenge unrealistic beliefs and you can change the problematic feelings they give rise to. If you believe in honesty, fairness, and generosity then you may try to improve your behaviour to act according to these principles.
So perhaps what you think and believe does matter after all. There does seem to be a huge variety of beliefs around; ideas concerning the meaning of life, one’s final destiny, human suffering, and so on.
Does it matter what I believe about the perennial philosophy?
Despite this apparent divergence of beliefs, however, a well-known scholar Roger Walsh, has pointed out there are actually 4 basic spiritual beliefs that have endured across centuries and are found in all the world’s main religious traditions. These have come to be known as the ‘perennial philosophy’. These are belief in :
1. Two realms of reality – a realm of physical objects and a realm of consciousness or spirit, not limited by space or time.
2. A divine spark within us usually said to be inseparable from the source and foundation of all reality
3. The improvement one’s spiritual nature as the greatest aim of one’s human existence.
4. Our ability to recognise these claims testing them against our
Some people may believe in none of these assertions. They may think they have no religious beliefs: but isn’t that in itself a belief? Many people seem to be attracted to similar ideas without putting their thoughts into words. They have intuitions but no clear thinking to clarify their perceptions.
Does it matter what I believe about the spiritual?
Students of human development have said that we need to learn about civil and ethical ideas before deciding which ones to conform to or rebel against. Likewise I would like to claim that most of us learn some spiritual ideas – for example those of the ‘perennial philosophy’ that Walsh has written about. Ideas such as that of a consciousness of spirit that goes beyond time and space, a ‘golden rule’ of doing to others as we would wish them to do to us and the concept of a divine source.
Believing in civil and ethical standards enables you to behave well. Perhaps in the same way acknowledging the spiritual dimension enables you to find a new personal orientation in life’s journey.
Unless you acknowledge a divine source why else would you try to meditate deeply or pray? Without a belief in an eternal life why else would you try to live life now as you mean to carry on doing? Without belief in a ‘golden rule’ why else would you play fair by others even if you could get away with deception?
Without believing what is ethically right, how could we recognise the wrong-things we get up to, our bad actions that we hide from others?
So what’s the answer? Does it matter what I believe? I’m still not sure. However I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Yes, in that my beliefs can guide my life — what I do, how I do it and how confident I can be I am on the right tracks. But no in the sense that in the end it is not what I think and believe that will save me from unhappiness but rather the feelings I have towards others and whether I love to live my life according to my lights.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
Posted on29th January 2012