What we believe may have to do with who we belong to. If you have ever disagreed with a family member or even found yourself at odds with a congregational leader, you know that it can be difficult to think differently while maintaining the relationship. The good news is that there is great variation among family members and congregations. Some are able to do this better than others, so there is hope that we can all do better when it comes to the interplay between our beliefs and our relationships.
I recently heard a story from the Moth Radio Hour titled “Sunday School Dropout.” You can listen to the 6-minute story by clicking here.
Jen Lee tells the story of taking a weeklong vacation with her two young daughters to see her parents. One of the highlights for the girls is going to their grandparent’s church and attending Sunday School. While Jen no longer shares her parent’s faith, she and her husband agreed it’s okay for the girls to go to Sunday School. One Sunday, after church, the eight-year-old goes upstairs to her grandparent’s bedroom and starts reading a Bible. In the back of the Bible she finds something called “the sinners prayer.” That night, the eight-year-old and her mom talk about the prayer. Jen explains to her daughter it’s not true that if you magically say the prayer, you get to go to heaven. There are other ways to get to heaven. Her daughter cries and says, “I don’t know what to believe anymore. I don’t know what’s true. I just want to believe what you believe, and what dad believes, and grandpa and grandma and the Christians religion.” It turns out that at Sunday School, when the teacher asked her if she goes to church back home, half of the kids in the class gasped when she said, "no". She immediately realized she was outside the circle of belonging, and she desperately wanted to be back in.
Jen observed that beliefs have a way of creating a circle of belonging. Her daughter was working hard to fit into a circle because she wanted to belong, especially when it came to her family. What would it look like for circles of belonging to shape naturally, she wonders? Do we get to belong to the family even if we don’t belong to the same circle of belief they belong to?
That’s a great question. What role do beliefs play in shaping the circles we belong to? Can you belong to a relationship circle without sharing identical beliefs?
The beliefs we hold serve a function in the relationship system.
Beliefs have a way of keeping people together or keeping them apart. A community of people can form a strong bond around shared beliefs. In the extreme, people will take their own lives. That was the case for the people who followed Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. They were drawn together in their belief in Jones, even to death. It’s a powerful reminder of the connection between beliefs and relationships. In my community, the United Methodist Church, people have different beliefs about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The intensity of these differences has become disruptive to the denomination’s ability to remain a global community. These different beliefs may end up keeping us apart.
Whether it’s a congregation or a family, the essential question is: what is driving this process? When you listen to people talk, it appears that it is the beliefs that are influencing the relationships. But is that really the case? Is it possible that it is the relationships system that is actually driving what we do and don’t believe? Does the level of tension in the relationship system have an impact on our beliefs?
Where do beliefs comes from?
While we would like to think the beliefs we hold are our true convictions, Dr. Murray Bowen observed that beliefs function as a reflection of the family emotional process. “Pseudo-self” is what he used to describe beliefs we adopt based on the relationship system.
"The pseudo-self is created by emotional pressure, and it can be modified by emotional pressure. Every emotional unit, whether it be the family or the total of society, exerts pressure on group members to conform to the ideals and principles of the group. The pseudo-self is composed of a vast assortment of principles, beliefs, philosophies, and knowledge acquired because it is required or considered right by the group. Since the principles are acquired under pressure, they are random and inconsistent with one another, without the individual’s being aware of the discrepancy. . . . [It] is a 'pretend' self. . . . The joining of groups is motivated more by the relationship system than the principle involved.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 365.
Beliefs function to either bring people closer together or keep them at a distance. The extreme version of how a belief functions to create distance is the rebel. Sensitive to the tension in the relationships system, the rebel develops beliefs contrary to the group in order to maintain distance.
"Opposing viewpoints appear to be related more to opposing the other than to real strength of conviction . . . The opposing viewpoints seem to function in the service of maintaining identity. . . The more clearly one states a viewpoint, the more rigorously the other raises the opposition." Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 78
Because beliefs can be created and influenced by emotional pressure, they are vulnerable to anxiety. As anxiety increases, the belief system can be hijacked. Because our fear response is hard wired into us, the functional response of fight, flight, and freeze is connected to our belief system. As anxiety increases and we become afraid, there is an increased need for people to agree. At higher levels of anxiety, disagreement means you are against me. As the current U.S. presidential race has shown, people feel a strong need to draw a line in the sand between what they believe to be right and wrong in order to draw this distinction. In situations where the fear response is low, it is possible for individuals to do a better job of maintaining the relationships even if they don’t agree.
A good read on this topic is Robert L. Williamson’s book Family Thoughts: Studies of the Functioning of Beliefs within the Family Unit. He writes:
“Understanding that beliefs can be the product of the family unit raises questions as to whether such explanations can always hit the mark. Some beliefs are fashioned through an individual effort to take in information, think about it, and decide what is most reasonable or best fits the facts through a process that is largely free of the influence of relationship pressures. These beliefs are not attractive in that they have some function in the family unit or other group, but because they make the most sense. This is what Bowen called “solid self.” It is my view, however, that many of our beliefs are adopted, modified, or abandoned in ways driven largely by family process. Does this distinction matter? I think it does. Beliefs which are the product of the family unit or other group can be brittle. When relationships change, beliefs which function to express and support the patterns which marked the relationship can become unnecessary or undesirable. On the other hand, such beliefs can be defended rigidly in a way which is impervious to new learning. Doubts can be experienced as threat to the relationship which a belief functions to support. Or such beliefs can simply leave a person confused, embarked on a life course that, at some point, comes to make little sense. Solid beliefs, on the other hand, can help someone set and maintain a life course. Or, they can be freely modified when new information is available.” Family Thoughts, page 73-74.
Those who are more mature are able to develop what Bowen called a “solid self.” The beliefs of the solid self are shaped over time. They are developed through a thoughtful, reflective process based on the best available facts and one’s best thinking. Most importantly, these beliefs are a resource for the individual as tension increases and the relationships system because less flexible. In fact, the ability to act on a solid self belief during times of anxious reactivity from others can provide a more stable pathway forward for the person and for the relationship system, over the long term. Effective leaders can stick to their core beliefs without defending, attacking, or withdrawing. They are less influenced by the anxious reactions of others, they decrease the level of chronic anxiety in the relationships system, and provide an arena for others to pick up the effort to do better.
In addition to not defending, attacking, or withdrawing, effective leaders know what others think and can respect their beliefs without effecting the relationship. When there is a change in the relationships system, it is a reflection of the level of immaturity in the system, not just in the individual.
What’s at stake is not the belief but our willingness to defend a belief despite evidence to the contrary.
Scientific communities can seem to be places where individuals do their best research and thinking. In reality, they are just as vulnerable to these emotional processes as families and congregations. Confirmation bias and other variables play a key role in blocking scientists from embracing new discoveries and new ideas. Bias is influenced by the relationships system, which means the way a scientist views their findings has something to do with the influence of the relationship system.
Like scientific communities, congregations have their set of core beliefs that drive behavior. These beliefs are based on writings/scripture and the reasoned teachings of the community over a long period of years. But in the heat of the moment, beliefs are susceptible to the emotional process, as discussed above. While it is possible to hold a belief that is contrary to the teachings of the congregation, when tensions are high, it’s a challenge. Likewise, when there is a heightened level of anxiety, individuals may react in a more automatic way, not based on a core set of beliefs.
Today, there seems to be less flexibility among congregational leaders to articulate beliefs which run counter to the teachings of the congregation, and there appears to be less flexibility within congregations to respect the variation in beliefs among its members. One can see this emotional process at work when one publicly agrees with the group even though they really don’t personally agree, when one remains silent about their beliefs even when they run contrary to the group’s public stance, when one attacks those who think differently, or when ones leaves out of a congregation over a belief.
There are alternatives for individuals to develop mature beliefs that are easily accessible.
I have this idea for a small group but haven’t yet set out to implement it. The idea comes from Bowen’s practice of writing belief papers. The exercise invites individuals to describe a belief, how one arrived at the belief, how the belief has changed over time, how one has changed their behavior based on the belief, and how this belief is consistent or inconsistent with other beliefs and actions. Individuals would have 5 minutes to present their belief to a group. In order to address the emotional process, there would be no interaction between group members regarding the presentations. It would simply be an effort to articulate a belief to a group of people in an environment where the leader of the group works to disrupt the emotional process that attempts to criticize or applaud a specific belief.
In this age of heightened anxiety and polarization, we are in desperate need of places to do our best thinking about what is really going on around us. Congregations are uniquely poised to do this important work because of their long history of understanding the dynamics of beliefs. No other institution better understands the impact of beliefs on determining a life course. Understanding the influence of the emotional process on beliefs is essential, if congregations are to once again flourish and regain their health and vitality.