Why do we believe certain things and not others? I know, I know . . . we are Christians. Therefore, we have a slam dunk answer to that softball question. It’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and activates it in our lives. While this is certainly true, there are often details that He works through. After all, the Holy Spirit uses many mundane things to bring about our faith. He uses our minds, godly influences, our circumstances in life, and deep conviction.
When I became a Christian, I was very young. I don’t remember a time when I did not believe in Jesus. So, I don’t have any grand conversion story. I just believed what my mother taught me from birth. And as I grew up, I wanted everything she had taught me to be true. She was my guide, serving for a long time (even until today) as a sort of referred conviction. I believed because she believed. And I wanted her to be right. Statistics tell us that this is almost always the case. For many of us, it is the case that we believe what we grew up believing. If you were reared as a Buddhist, you will likely be a Buddhist. If your parents were Muslim, chances are you will be a Muslim. Atheists produce atheists, Hindus produce Hindus, agnostics produce agnostics, and . . . Christians produce Christians.
I remember what John Hannah, my Historic Theology prof at seminary, said one time in class, “We are going to teach you all kinds of great and wonderful things. But, in the end, you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy told you.” There is a lot of truth to this. None of it makes anything right or wrong. The objection that we just believe what our parents taught us, or that our culture defines our beliefs, while important in understanding how we believe things, only says so much. It does not address the rightness or wrongness of said beliefs. Perhaps we only believe what our parents taught us. . .and perhaps they are wrong (as is implied in the objection). Then again, perhaps they are right. The objection only speaks to our epistemology (a big word which simply refers to how we know or believe what we know or believe).
With this in mind, I want to introduce a graphic I constructed to help work through what can be a very complicated issue.
The three circles at the bottom represent three primary sources of influence. The first is REASON (or the INTELLECT). The second is EXPERIENCE. And the last is TRADITION. Each of these has a different level of influence on each of us. They, in turn, feeding into the circle that represents our EMOTIONS. Our emotions then feed our WILL. And from here we make our choices or take actions. Your emotional disposition at any given moment will determine your choice.
For example, I talked about the influence our parents have on us. Tradition, as we will later see, is much more complex than just what mommy and daddy taught us, but for me, as a child, this was pretty much it. I did not use too much reason or experience in making my choice for Christ. Mom told me it was true, therefore it was true. After all, I had no reason not to trust my mother. At that time, my chart would have looked like this:
Again, this makes nothing right or wrong or true or false. As well (I remind you again), it does not represent all that can be and should be involved in the tradition circle (as we will see later, I place the Bible in this circle). It merely demonstrates how I, as a young boy, believed.
As far as my emotional convictions, they could not have been higher. In fact, if you had an emotional barometer to gauge how I felt at this time with regard to my faith, it would have been at one hundred percent. It would look like this:
Again, this is just how I felt about Jesus, the Bible, and religion. It does not mean that there are not other factors pulling at our emotions (especially factors of sinful human nature). Nor does this mean I always chose correctly. I do believe we choose according to our greatest desire of the moment (I got that from Ronald Nash), but just because we feel one hundred percent emotional conviction does not mean that this will translate into an act of the will.
There is more to come on this discussion of the anatomy of faith. I will try to break down each one of these. But before this, we must see how each of these (Tradition, Reason, and Experience) engage and influence each other.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]