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Where Do Our Beliefs Come From?

Have you ever considered where your beliefs come from? Although many people assume their beliefs are the result of their own reflections on life, this is often not the case. Many of our beliefs are acquired through osmosis from our environment.

For instance, a study conducted by Christopher Ojedaa and Peter K. Hatemia in 2015 called Accounting for the Child in the Transmission of Party Identification concluded that if a child feels loved and accepted by her parents, then the child is more likely to mirror the political beliefs of her parents. In other words, if you know your parents hold liberal political beliefs, it is likely that you will hold liberal political beliefs as a result of that parental support. This is true regardless of whether those beliefs are conveyed overtly or absorbed by observing conversation and example.

Interestingly, Ojedaa and Hatemia point out that when a child absorbs political beliefs by observing conversation and example, the child may guess wrong about the political beliefs of their parents. Your parents may be very conservative, but because they never talk about their political beliefs overtly, you misread their cues and assume they are liberal. Therefore, you are still taking on a political stance because of the support of your parents, it’s just the opposite of what they might have preferred.

Even though most of us come to a point in our adolescence and adulthood where we actively make a choice about what we do and do not believe politically, we are often only affirming the beliefs that have surrounded us since childhood. The same pattern holds true for religious beliefs. The way you were raised religiously will often be reflected in your adulthood. If you were raised within a traditional Christian church, then it is likely that you will adhere to those values as an adult if you had a positive experience with the church. Positive experiences often result in belief retention, while negative experiences often result in belief rejection.

All this to say, the idea that we are choosing our beliefs is somewhat of an illusion. In order to really make a choice about a belief, you have to become disconnected from it. You have to break the belief down, examine it as an outsider would and then assess its validity. This process is what happened to me when I entered seminary. Every belief I held true coming into seminary was questioned and broken down.

For instance, Christians believe Jesus died to forgive the sins of the world. For the average lay person who has grown up in the Christian faith, the source of that belief are the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. However, in seminary you learn this is not entirely true. Yes, the concept that Jesus died for your sins is found in the New Testament (1 Co. 15:3), but the belief in the way we know it today is derived from the theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 A.D.).

Anselm developed this doctrine of atonement in his writing Cur Deus Homo ("Why God was a Man") in 1098. Prior to Anselm, the dominate view was that Jesus’ death was necessary so that Jesus could descend into hell to defeat Satan. My professor of theology explained to us that this idea that Jesus died for your sins was only fully developed 1100 years after Jesus’ time on Earth.

This information upended my world. I thought Jesus dying for our sins was a universal belief held by the disciples from the very beginning of the Christian faith. If something so central to Christianity was developed so late, what else do I believe was original to the Christian faith, but was developed centuries later? As I discovered, quite a lot. Every belief you hold about the Christian faith can be traced to a theologian who brought that belief into prominence.

Through my seminary training, I came to find that my beliefs were a patchwork of various theologians from different eras of history whose thoughts had come to define the modern Christian belief system. Most of my peers at seminary were fine with this reality, but not me. This discovery is what began my quest to redefine my belief system.

I wrote down all of my beliefs. Then, one by one, I researched the theologian(s) who defined that particular belief. I would ask myself, “Does this belief make sense? Is it a reflection of Jesus’ original movement?” Sometimes the answer was yes, often the answer was no. By the time I was finished, I had constructed an entirely new belief system.

The difference between my belief system before I entered seminary and after I left is that I knew exactly where my beliefs came from and, more importantly, I knew exactly why I believed what I believed. This is why my views on Christianity are so different and unique compared to other pastors you may have encountered.

I am a firm adherent to the philosophy that knowledge is power and this is particularly true when it comes to our Christian beliefs. One of the main purposes of this blog is to provide you with the roots of the Christian belief system so you have the knowledge in your hands to make the same decisions I was able to make. Remember, everything is on the table. The question you have to continually ask yourself is, "Does this make sense?" If it doesn't, then leave the belief behind and move on to find the ones that do make sense.

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