What do our beliefs say about us?

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Like many people, I was troubled when I heard about the recent shooting outside of a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan. According to several news accounts, the perpetrator—Frazier Glenn Cross—yelled, "Heil Hitler" at onlookers as he was being carried away in a police car. Cross also has a long history of anti-Semitic behavior and has publically declared a hatred of all Jews.

In addition to being troubled by this act of hatred and violence, I was also troubled by the quick response of CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Daniel Burke, who made it a point to emphasize that Frazier was not a Christian but rather allegedly an adherent of Odinism, a "neo-pagan" religion which, according to Burke, "has emerged as one the most vicious strains in the white supremacist movement."

While the annals of Christian history—ancient and modern—are full of accounts of violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity, my objective here is neither to defend Odinism nor to criticize Christianity. Instead, I want to highlight the socially constructed nature of beliefs and beliefs systems and emphasize how these socially constructed beliefs say far more about us than they do about the "gods" we claim to accept or reject.

I don't know and really don't care if Frazier Glenn Cross was an adherent of Odinism or Christianity because at the end of the day his beliefs reveal more about him than they do about the "religion" he practices.

Beliefs are social constructs. They are constructs that we as human beings have to take responsibility for rather than attributing them to "higher powers" or religions that are often used to legitimate our socially constructed beliefs and the consequences that result from those beliefs.

Unlike the dogmatic and argumentative Professor Radisson in the current Christian movie "God's Not Dead," I'm making no particular claim about the existence or non-existence of God. Instead, I'm suggesting that regardless of the existence or non-existence of God, we as human beings have to take responsibility for our beliefs and recognize and acknowledge what it is that our beliefs say about us.

As a professor of religion, I often encounter people who make comments, like "The Bible says X." or "The Bible says Y." Most of the time however, they are rarely quoting the Bible. Instead they are giving an interpretation (even when we quote the Bible we are still engaged in the act of interpretation). A perfect example is when people say, "The Bible says, 'accepting Jesus as Lord and savior is the only way to heaven.'" When I ask, "Where does the Bible say this?" they often quote John 14:6.

When I respond, "that verse does not say, 'Accepting Jesus as Lord and savior is the only way to heaven.'" They will usually ask me, "What does it say then?" I typically respond, "It says, 'Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."'" They will then often respond, "Okay, sure… but what does it mean?" It is at this point I emphasize the fact that we are now engaging in the process of "constructing" meaning.

Socially constructed meanings both inform and are the product of our beliefs. As it relates to John 14:6, the meaning that I construct emphasizes the importance of the term, "the way." 

The earliest followers of Jesus were identified as people of "the Way" (Acts 9:1-2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Before it was identified as "Christianity," the Jesus movement was identified as "the Way." "The Way" represented a "way of being," "a way of living." The earliest followers of Jesus were identified as people of "the Way" because of their way of living.

If Jesus represents "the way" to the father, one reasonable interpretation would be that "the way of life" taught and lived by Jesus represents "the way" to the father. In other words, I can live the way of life Jesus preached when teaching about the "Kingdom of God," and NOT have to accept the idea of Jesus as Lord and savior nor believe Jesus is God or the divine "Son of God."

Throughout the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Mark, Matthew, and Luke) Jesus emphasizes a way of living, and it is this way of living that represents "the way to the Father." Many people can embrace and/or embody the moral and ethical "way" of living that Jesus taught without claiming to be "Christian." Gandhi embraced the moral and ethical way of living that Jesus taught without claiming to be Christian. The Dali Lama embraces the way of living that Jesus taught without claiming to be Christian. There are tons of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and yes, even "neo-pagans," who embrace and embody the "way" of living taught and exemplified by Jesus without believing Jesus is God or the divine "Son of God."

I'm sure there are many who will disagree with my socially constructed meaning of John 14:6, but their rejection of my socially constructed meaning is not because they are accepting the one true meaning of the verse; rather it is because they are accepting a different socially constructed meaning. The question is, what does the acceptance of their socially constructed meaning say about them and their beliefs? Ultimately, every socially constructed meaning we embrace says something about us. I'm sure my socially constructed meaning of John 14:6 says that I have a tendency to promote and embrace inclusion far more than exclusion, and I'm okay with that.

Why is it important for there to be only one correct religion (or belief)? And why does that one correct religion (or belief) have to be mine? What does it say about the kind of person that I am when everyone in the world has to be "converted" to my way of thinking in order to be welcomed and accepted by God?

I'm fine with people having different beliefs, as long as we are willing to acknowledge that the beliefs we embrace are socially constructed, and we are willing to take responsibility for the implications and results often associated with our beliefs and socially constructed meanings.

While leaders and adherents of religions should critically reflect on the beliefs their religions promote, at the end of the day it doesn't really matter if Frazier Glenn Cross was an adherent of Christianity or Odinism. If the beliefs we embrace oppress, marginalize or diminish people (all of which are acts of violence), we have to be willing to take responsibility for that and not blame certain acts of violence that may result from our beliefs on fanatics, God, the Bible, Christianity, Odinism, or any other socially constructed belief system. If our beliefs contribute to or result in violence, we may need to reconsider our beliefs…

What do your beliefs say about you?

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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  • April 22 2014 at 5:22 pm
    Judith Nave

    Excellent read.......I actually understand what you are saying, and agree that we as human beings have to take responsibility for our actions, (exclusion, killing, slander etc.), rather than attribute them to a "higher power" or religion.

  • April 22 2014 at 9:32 pm
    Stephanie Riles
    I feel that your analysis of the situation with socially constructed meaning and religion are correct. We should take responsibility for what we do and not blame our religion or say 'My religion says I have to do this'. My beliefs are not significantly toward any one religion so I call myself spiritual. Under my beliefs though I try and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, see the good in everyone, treat people how I would want to be treated(even if I feel I have been wronged by them), and much more. If for some reason I am found to not be adhering to these beliefs of mine I get upset with myself. I know I cannot blame anyone, but myself for any actions of mine that wrong another. Your point also about our socially constructed meanings I feel is also well put and true. This tends to be one of my problems with religious texts too. Since, every person has their own socially constructed meanings I believe it creates conflict not only between religions, but within the religion itself. I believe this can also be a reason for denominations forming. Anyways enough of my rattling on, this was a very thought provoking and well written blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas in connection to the recent event.
  • April 22 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and share your views. I appreciate reading them. I think there are a lot of people leaning toward the label "spiritual" rather than "religious." While I completely understand, I hope organized religion can regain the emphasis on spirituality rather than religious dogma.

  • April 22 2014 at 9:56 pm
    Guy D. Nave

    Stephanie, the previous comment is actually my response to your comment. Sorry for the confusion!!


  • April 23 2014 at 5:52 pm
    Shirley V.
    Very well written blog....one of the reasons I am a UU, to explore many beliefs of world religions and find the common good in them all.....love. Thank you for sharing!
  • April 23 2014 at 8:04 pm
    Kathy Kientzle

    Wow. Well said. I am sharing with my family and friends.

  • April 24 2014 at 8:16 am
    Guy D. Nave

    Shirley and Kathy, thanks for taking the time to share your comments. I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts. Thanks also for sharing the blog with others.

  • April 24 2014 at 8:37 am
    LouAnn, class of '71

    This is a helpful in thinking about the many meanings and interpretations people give to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Thanks. 

  • April 24 2014 at 8:43 am
    Guy D. Nave

    You are welcomed, LouAnn. Thank you for taking the time to share!!

  • April 26 2014 at 8:17 am
    Emily Mueller

    Thanks for sharing your input on this relevant topic! I'm curious about what your opinion is on the difference between individually constructed meaning and socially constructed meaning. Is there a difference to you? I agree that we should take responsibility for the actions propagated by our beliefs, if you are indeed claiming that actions are caused by beliefs. However, a question I have is: if beliefs perpetrate violence (or cause any actions that require responsible reconsideration), is it implied that those beliefs are "wrong?" If so, why shouldn't we label certain beliefs as "correct" if we can label others as "wrong?" In the same vein, do you see a difference between taking responsibility for beliefs versus taking responsibility for actions? I am curious to know what you think and I hope that I am not misinterpreting or extrapolating your arguments. As a student, I really appreciated this blog as a way to see your perspective as a professor. Thanks!

  • April 26 2014 at 10:21 am
    Guy D. Nave

    Emily, I greatly appreciate your response and your questions. Thank you for taking the time to respond with such thoughtful comments and questions. My use of "socially" constructed meaning may in fact be somewhat confusing. I believe our individual beliefs are often influenced by our social surroundings; therefore, our "individual" beliefs are "social" (as well as individual) constructs. For me the individual exists socially. While I am not sure if this is part of your question, I do think that societal beliefs often exert far more pressure/influence than individual beliefs. As individuals, however, we do have to consider how our individual beliefs contribute to societal beliefs. Regarding your question about the relationship between beliefs and actions, I do indeed think there is a symbiotic relationship between beliefs and actions: beliefs often fuel actions and actions often fuel beliefs. I tend to shy away from the use of "right" and "wrong" language. While there are things that I believe are "right" and "wrong," it seems to me that it is often more beneficial to consider the ethical and practical outcomes of our beliefs and actions. While I do personally think it is "wrong" to believe and promote the idea that only heterosexuals are welcomed and accepted by God, I think it is more important to consider the implications and actions that might result from such a belief and to take ownership and responsibility for both the belief and implications/actions resulting from that belief. I hope this addresses your questions and thoughts. Please feel free to let me know if there is anything else I can clarify for you.   Thanks again!

  • October 24 2014 at 12:33 am
    Jonah Luebke
    Dear Dr. Nave, I must say that your analytical writing is exquisite. Your words flow from smoothly from technicalities back to the general topic. Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking post. Romans 10:9-"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Honestly, I think that this is a better verse for confirming that accepting Jesus equals salvation, which also equals heaven. So, based on my words, do I have a social construction here, because I think that these words are much more direct? I really would like to know what your social contruction of this verse is if you have one. Sorry, my thoughts are all over the place. I am just interested in your response to the verse. Thank you, once again, Dr. Nave. In Christ, Jonah Luebke

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