There seems to be a great wariness these days in spiritual circles around the notion of "belief." Belief strikes us as being at the heart of so much of what is wrong with traditional religion. We have seen people embrace beliefs that seem more like primitive mythology than ultimate truth. We have seen the power of institutional authority draw masses of people into these mythological beliefs and thus into a kind of surreal alternate reality. And we have seen our own attachment to beliefs. We have seen ourselves clinging to and defending beliefs as if they were our very identity.
Central to our issue with belief is the recognition that beliefs are not the truth. At best they are representations of the truth, and therefore stand at a distance from the truth. Thus, to the extent we identify with them, we stand at a distance from truth. And we spiritual seekers don't want that distance. We don't want a representation; we want direct experience. In light of all this, it can easily seem like belief itself is of the ego, something to be set aside in favor of direct experience.
This widespread sentiment was captured perfectly in comments made by Oprah Winfrey during her massively popular 2008 book study with Eckhart Tolle on his book A New Earth:
God, in the essence of all consciousness, isn't something to believe. God is. God is. And God is a feeling experience, not a believing experience. [Tolle: That's right.] And if your religion is a believing experience, if God for you is still about a belief, then it's not truly God. [Tolle: No.] That's what you're saying. [Tolle: Yes.]
There is no question that this articulates a widespread sentiment, but I think it clearly goes too far, for it actually collapses in on itself. Every one of Oprah's sentences has an implied "I believe that" in front of it. She is really saying, "I believe that God is a feeling experience, not a believing experience." She is expressing her belief about God while simultaneously denigrating belief about God. And Tolle is expressing his belief, too. If both had acknowledged that, then I think they would have been pushed to come up with a more nuanced and internally consistent stance about the role of belief on the spiritual path.
As a student of A Course in Miracles, I want to know what the Course has to say about belief. When I go to my Course search program, the first thing I am struck by is the number of references. "Belief" shows up 406 times, while "believe" occurs 617 times. Together, these are more than the total number of references to cognates of "forgiveness," which is 836. Of course, these references could all be negative, and many of them are, but a surprising percentage of them are positive, emphatically so.
I have collected a few of these positive references and have included them below. I encourage you to read them slowly, with an eye to what they imply about the role of belief on the Course's path:
Believe this and you will be free. (T-1.VI.5:9)
You are released from all errors if you believe this. (T-3.I.7:11)
If you believed this statement, there would be no problem in complete forgiveness, certainty of goal, and sure direction. (W-pI.126.1:2)
Believe this thought, and you are saved from years of misery. (W-pI.128.1:2)
Try to believe, however briefly, that nothing can harm you in any way. (W-pI.68.6:6)
The way will open, if you believe that it is possible. (W-pI.41.8:4)
Let the Voice for God alone be Judge of what is worthy of your own belief. (W-pI.151.7:1)
I gave only love to the Kingdom because I believed that was what I was. (T-7.I.5:1)
If you will believe it, you will help me teach it. (T-6.I.5:6)
Believe with me, and we will become equal as teachers. (T-6.I.6:11)
A good teacher must believe in the ideas he teaches. (T-4.I.1:4)
You cannot perform miracles without believing it. (T-6.V(A).4:6)
You cannot go beyond belief until you believe fully. (T-6.V(C).7:7)
What do these passages say about the role of belief? To me they say that belief is the way in which I join myself to either reality or unreality. Through wrong belief, I join myself to a world of unreality. But through right belief, I approach and make contact with reality itself. As a result, all its blessings flow into my experience. I am freed. I am released. The way to God is opened up for me. Then, having laid hold of these blessings myself, I can pass them on to my brothers. I can teach like Jesus. I can perform miracles. I can give only love.
Right belief, then, is a holy thing. Yes, it is still only belief. It is still only a representation of reality. But by joining fully with the representation, you are really choosing to join with what it represents. Imagine, for instance, that you are looking at a picture of a faraway place. If you hate the picture, what are your chances of ever going there? If, however, you love the picture and gaze at it often, aren't you more likely to go beyond the picture and actually travel to that place? It is the same with beliefs. Rejecting the conceptual picture of reality equals rejecting the reality depicted, whereas embracing the conceptual picture means embracing reality itself, which then draws you beyond all pictures. Indeed, from the Course's standpoint, we have to join fully with the picture before we can go beyond it to join with reality: "You cannot go beyond belief until you believe fully." That one sentence says a world about the role of belief on the spiritual path.
The Course is not alone in disagreeing with the popular sentiment that we should dispense with beliefs in favor of feeling and experience. In Integral Spirituality, philosopher Ken Wilber says that this orientation is part of an intellectual virus that he calls "boomeritis" and says that this virus has seriously infected Buddhism in the West, making it a "strange Westernized Buddhism" that he calls "boomeritis Buddhism." In response to this perspective, Wilber quotes (p. 109-110) Tibetan master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche who, as someone at home in both East and West, Wilber considers uniquely qualified to comment on this issue:
Buddhism states that our normal views inhibit us and chain us to the limited condition of samsara….We should not conclude from this—although modern Western Buddhists often do—that meditation is all about getting rid of views, or that all views will hinder us from attaining our spiritual goal. This assumption is based on the legitimate premise that Buddhist teachings emphatically identify the need to develop a non-conceptual wisdom mind in order to attain liberation and enlightenment. However, many people mistakenly think that this implies that we do not need to believe in anything and that all forms of conceptuality must be dispensed with right from the beginning. It is only incorrect views that we need to overcome. The correct and noble view is to be cultivated with great diligence.
Traleg sums up his point by saying, "Correct views have the ability to lead us to liberation." How similar this is to the Course's statement, "Believe this and you will be free" (T-1.VI.5:9)!
Yes, beliefs are, at best, merely pictures of reality. But until we actually travel to the place depicted, until we are permanently immersed in the direct awareness of reality, we need those pictures. They are our manner of approach. And yes, people have believed a lot of crazy things, especially in the name of God. But this underscores the need for right belief, not the need to dispense with beliefs. At this point, we can't dispense with beliefs. We can only believe in dispensing with beliefs, which of course is just gobbledygook dressed up as wisdom.
Right belief is a beautiful thing. It is the compass of our minds ignoring the distorting magnetisms of egoic bias and pointing to reality itself. And when our minds point there long enough and truly enough, they pass beyond mere pointing and abide in pure knowing. If we want that knowing, then, let us cherish that egoless act of our mind's compass pointing the way home. To switch metaphors, belief may be just a finger pointing at the moon. But if you cannot point there, you certainly cannot go there.