04/09/2012 07:30 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Do We Really Need Beliefs?

We know very little about God.

This is hardly a new idea. Most of the best-known faith traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, view God as utterly shrouded in mystery. The traditional Christian belief about God -- one essence, three persons -- is enigmatic to the core. Meanwhile, the Divine behavior is just as mysterious: in the stories of many sacred scriptures, God often acts in ways that defy just about any description of God you care to make.

Yet, Christianity touts specific beliefs about who God is and what God does, encapsulated in the historic creeds. Moreover, the Church (in most of its manifestations) has spent centuries insisting on adherence to those beliefs, often to the point of violence. Some critics of the Church look at this and conclude that beliefs about God do more harm than good.

Are they right? Is it time to imagine a Christian faith without specific beliefs? I don't think so, but it may be time to approach these beliefs differently.

In at least two ways, specific beliefs about God serve a valuable purpose. First, in summarizing millennia of accumulated wisdom, they capture something about God and the way God acts in the cosmos. That gives us a direction for our lives, a rough sketch of how to live well in God's eyes.

Consider the most basic Christian belief of all: "I believe in God," which many Christians assert daily when they recite the Apostles' Creed. Believing in God, particularly a God who cares about people, can change the way I live. It can, for instance, liberate me from an obsession with achievement and success to validate my existence. Rather than strive to make myself "amount to something" from a vague cultural perspective, I can simply live in response to God's imperatives, giving myself away in service to others.

Second, specific beliefs give people of similar mindsets a common language to share their experience of God. That enables an entirely different conversation about God than one might have with someone of another belief. As a Christian, I learn a ton from Buddhists and Hindus and atheists. But if I want to dive deeply into the implications of the Incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus), I can do so in a uniquely fruitful way with someone who shares that belief and my enthusiasm for it. With so many layers and aspects of God to explore, we need the perspectives of everyone -- people inside and outside our faith tradition -- to make the journey.

So specific beliefs have value. Throughout history, however, they have been used in another way entirely: as litmus tests for determining who should be "in" and who "out." This taxonomy of human beings seems directly at odds with the Jesus of the Gospels, who makes next to no mention of creeds or belief statements. Instead, he is all about inner transformation, living according to God's will, pursuing a vibrant connection with the Divine.

So what do we do with these beliefs?

I have come to think of my beliefs not as settled facts or eternal verities, but as starting points. I live out of them because, at this phase in my life, they are what I understand to be true. I cherish them and take them seriously: I have invested many years in exploring them precisely because they speak profoundly of God to me. At the same time, I am open to hearing from others. If something comes along that speaks differently of God, my light hold on my own beliefs frees me to explore it, consider its truth value, and -- if it is compelling -- allow it to reshape what I believe.

One strength of this approach lies in our relationships. If my beliefs are starting points for the journey rather than certainties to be defended, I am free to hear your beliefs and so connect with you. Because I communicate openness and welcome to you, you are free to respond from your own experience with God. We can exchange our thoughts, not to score points or defend ourselves, but out of curiosity, even love for each other. Together we can learn more than if we had walled ourselves off from each other's worldviews. Most of all, this approach fosters peace rather than the conflict that clashing certitudes bring.

In short, holding beliefs as starting points enables us to be gentle with one another, to live in peace with one another, to foster loving relationships -- strengths of character that St. Paul lists as the fruit of God's Spirit. That alone might be reason enough to give it a try.