What Can We Believe In?


What Can We Believe In?

P A U L E. J O H N S O N This is a question of many moods and meanings. T o c o m p r e h e n d such a question, we need to face the questioner and know the m o o d in which he asks. T h e Editor, as I understand him, is not asking for an abstract statement of theory but a confession of personal faith. I take beliefs seriously as the guiding force of personal and public life. T h e question, what can we believe in? reveals the complexity of our situation. No serious belief can be simple. Who can believe what he is told? Even the newborn has to sift the evidence to make sense of the signals that come to him. If basic trust vs. basic distrust is the most important crisis of the first year, as Erikson shows, m a n y factors tip the scale toward trust or distrust. T h e infant soon learns that actions speak louder than words: the tone and tempo of the voice, the m a n n e r of picking him up and holding him roughly or gently, the response to his cry to comfort or neglect h i m in his distress, the faithful loving mood of the mother or the p u n i s h i n g and rejecting attitudes. T h e THE REV. PAUL E. JOHNSON, PH.D., Danielson Professor of Psychology and Pastoral Counseling Emeritus in the School of Theology, Boston University, spent 1963-64 teaching pastoral counseling in Japanese universities and seminaries and consulting with pastors and teachers in the development of counseling and mental health in Japan. He was Director of the Indianapolis Pastoral Counseling Center in 1965-68 and, with Lowell G. Colston, developed a pastoral counseling service and the NIMH program in continuing education of pastors in community mental health. From 1966 to 1971, Dr. Johnson was Visiting Professor of Pastoral Care in the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He has written many articles and books on religion, psychology, and pastoral training. He is now retired and living on Cape Cod.


Journal of Religion and Health

ever-widening experiences of growing-life complicate and revise our beliefs as new evidence strikes us with increasing force and we consider the beliefs of others. T h e explosive force of social change in our time tends to erode the landmarks by which we hold life on a steady course. We are uprooted from the past and swept out u p o n the changing waves of the future. Under the stress of this "future shock" we struggle for beliefs as firm ground on which to stand. We are confronted, as the question implies, by necessity and choice. The necessity is to consider the facts and take account of the evidence. This requires ardent search, the sifting and the weighing of contradictory evidences to form a clear view of the total situation. Yet sooner or later each person will decide for himself what he believes. This may be an intense struggle coming to a crucial decision in a leap of faith with his whole being. Or he may yield to whatever pressure of public opinion or clich~ is the line of least resistance and the easiest way out. Yet in one way or another our beliefs arise from choice in the face of necessity. T o speak for myself, here are some of the beliefs on which I stand. They are not the whole of my credo, for no words can state the whole truth or convey all of our beliefs. Yet these are basic principles in which I believe, as they emerge from my experience and rise to significance through my years of living.

We live in a responsive universe From the tiny atom packed with dynamic energy to the vast galaxies of stars moving in their orbits, the whole universe is interrelated and interacting. Our planet earth is part of this interacting system, from which light and warmth, soil and water, chemicals and atmosphere sustain myriad forms of life. All of this is intricately related to us, and we live by interacting with this amazing system. You and I with every organism live by mutual response in the giving and receiving of life. What is this Creative Mystery around and within us? H u m a n minds

What Can We Believe In?


for millenia have been probing and exploring this mystery, through the sciences and philosophies, the religious and revealing experiences of our shared life. Yet with all our knowledge the mystery is vaster than ever, and the more we know the more cause we have to wonder. We find a unity and order in this mystery o n which we rely in all our systems of knowing and believing. We find this mystery responsive to us, and to the actions of all systems within our sustaining universe. T h e mystery is creative. T r a c i n g as far back as we can to the beginning of cosmic history, we see a vast moving stream coming toward us. From "nothing" has come everything we know and have and are. Is that possible? we ask. No raw materials? And no Creator to draw the "empty" space into forms of being with expanding order and unity as we behold it today? Is n o t h i n g behind, above, or within the whole system to guide the process from that distant past to the responsive system in which and by which we live today? What shall we say of this Creative Mystery so constantly responding to us? Do we meet God person to person? Or do we meet a Process that Whitehead calls the Principle of Concretion? T o me, the Creative Mystery is T h o u , before w h o m I stand in reverence and devotion. My childhood portrait of God in the image of m a n has expanded to an Ultimate Being vaster than space and time, a Creative Spirit moving forward steadily and faithfully along the stream of events shaping the course of history. Why ask for an image of God? Picture-thinking and word-thinking are very limited symbols like the primitive idols of local deities. Mystery speaks to me more than images or definitions. T o meet T h o u anywhere and everywhere is the reality I seek in the vast order of the universe and the intimate presence within. I believe in God. There is hidden greatness in every person In our haste or indifference we pass by most persons w i t h o u t a second glance. If they are n o t h i n g to us, it is because we do not know them.


Journal of Religion and Health

H o w m a n y persons do we k n o w really well? If we have n o time, it is because we are p r e o c c u p i e d w i t h other things a n d n o t giving o u r w h o l e attention to the persons we meet. R a t h e r than persons, we see masses of people a n d classify them by stereotypes as old or young, rich or poor, black or white, bright or dull, o u r k i n d or n o t o u r kind. Yet we do n o t begin to use o u r full capacity of h u m a n potential. Psychologists from W i l l i a m J a m e s to G a r d n e r M u r p h y a n d H e r b e r t O t t o show that most of us are u s i n g scarcely ten percent of o u r p o t e n t i a l . W h y are we so uncreative a n d unfulfilled? It m a y be that we expect too little of ourselves and e m p l o y j u s t e n o u g h to keep g o i n g w i t h o u t exp a n d i n g the u n u s e d potential. Very likely we have not yet discovered the greatness of this hidden potential. We m a y n o t be m o t i v a t e d a n d encouraged to develop these larger u n t a p p e d resources. A n d we m a y n o t learn h o w to be the creative persons we m i g h t become. We live in the m o s t inventive age in h u m a n history. Scientific research a n d technology are c h a n g i n g the natural resources of o u r w o r l d into new products and procedures that we call an e c o n o m y of a b u n dance. Yet in the midst of this vast p r o d u c t i v i t y we see h u m a n relations breaking d o w n in destructive wars w h i l e the m a j o r i t y of the world's people live in poverty. A n d those w h o have n o t are ignored or scorned as u n w o r t h y to achieve the favored p o s i t i o n of those w h o have. Do we k n o w them well e n o u g h to see their great h u m a n potential or k n o w h o w to call it forth? Do y o u believe in the potential greatness of every person? Here we may differ. I do believe that every person, whatever his c o n d i t i o n m a y be, has greater h u m a n potential than he is using. Is this a matter of faith or fact? For me, it is a faith based u p o n such facts as we can discover. Living and w o r k i n g close to persons as a teacher a n d counselor, I a m constantly amazed at the hidden potential c o m i n g forth in t h e persons I know. H o w deceptive are first impressions w h e n we k n o w persons in depth. W h e n o u r blindness yields to this n e w light, we begin to see h o w a person has been crippled by anxiety or distrust to repress the potentiality n o w breaking forth.

What Can We Believe In?


But how can we believe that all persons are born equal when we find them so unequal? In the Declaration of Independence our forefathers were affirming a paradox. They, too, could see the inequalities; yet they did not accept them as inevitable. T h e y saw that persons were not free to be equal, and hoped for a new democracy where everyone m i g h t be free to develop his potentialities. So in counseling and teaching, we do see the inequalities, but not as final. We seek to free each person to develop his hidden greatness. It is not sound education to take the I.Q. as a final measure of a person's capacity. We know how m a n y social and emotional factors may depress the intelligence. T h e fact is that these tests are culture bound, and limited in what they can measure. Retesting has often shown students who raise their I.Q. by as m u c h as 20 points on the scale, with improving culture and e m o t i o n a l growth, Who can know for sure the limits of any h u m a n capacity? I believe in man and the hidden greatness of every person. Persons need each other

No person can develop his h u m a n potential alone. We may idealize the lonely thinker and the hero who achieves so m u c h by his own genius. It is true that each person has a u n i q u e potential that he must discipline himself to develop. But let us not overlook the socialcultural background enabling him to learn, or the teamwork of all who share and enlarge his growing life and work. Who could become a person at all without other persons? A lost child adopted by animals will not become a h u m a n person, but a feral child limited to the life of animals. Other persons are needed to call forth the hidden greatness of our h u m a n potential. Each person has his own destiny to fulfill, yet always in relation to other persons for w h o m and with w h o m he lives. In many ways we are bound together in the Creative Mystery of our responsive universe. Born of h u m a n parents, we become h u m a n by the developing genes of the father and the mother so ~marvelously guiding our growth into the design of our humanity. From breath to breath and day to day we are nourished into growing life by a world of


Journal of Religion and Health

persons and resources given to us. O u r p e r c e p t i o n of o u r w o r l d a n d ourselves is formed by interchange with others. All that we k n o w and learn is shaped by interaction w i t h other persons w h o call us forth to become more than we were. Persons m a y resist each other a n d cause anxieties and limitations to constrict o u r potential greatness. Yet even so we find h o w m u c h we need persons to love a n d appreciate us, to trust each other e n o u g h to release the creative potential hidden a n d b o u n d w i t h i n us. In such a responsive universe, the course of o u r life a n d destiny is shaped by h o w we r e s p o n d to each other. We k n o w h o w oppressed we feel to be scorned or rejected by other persons. We k n o w h o w some persons turn us off and others turn us o n by their responses to us. We can sense the joy of e x p a n d i n g potential w h e n we are respected a n d w a n t e d by other persons. We r e s p o n d in the g l o w of creativity to o u t d o a n d outg r o w ourselves w h e n we are loved a n d appreciated, challenged a n d a w a k e n e d by others. We k n o w , too, h o w anger a n d fury arise in us w h e n other persons treat us unfairly, attack us unjustly, or depreciate o u r w o r t h a n d dignity. Agreeing that we need some persons, we m a y deny that we need all persons. We m i g h t feel we c o u l d get a l o n g very well w i t h o u t some people w h o are so u n p l e a s a n t or difficult to deal with. We choose o u r friends and a d m i t that we need some persons m o r e than others. W h y n o t live in a smaller w o r l d w i t h o u r kind, a n d enjoy those w h o interest us most? Yet I believe we need all kinds of p e o p l e to make a c o m m u n i t y and a world. Variety is the spice of life. We can learn m o r e from o u r differences than from uniformity. Every culture a n d religion, every race a n d nation has a distinct c o n t r i b u t i o n to b r i n g to g r o w i n g life. T o accept, appreciate, a n d w e l c o m e all persons is to be enlarged by g e n e r o u s sharing with each other. Life is deeply enriched by caring for other persons. T h e goods o f life are m u l t i p l i e d in the sharing of them. T o k n o w h o w other persons feel, to listen tO their concerns, a n d appreciate their searching for a better life is a g r o w i n g experience for all of us. T o suffer w i t h those w h o

What Can We Believe In?


suffer is as profoundly revealing as to rejoice in the joys of others. T o bear the burdens of life with other persons is to make the burdens lighter and be more responsible than before. T o open the heart to other persons is to find new greatness within ourselves. I believe in persons caring for each other. We can learn to be one people

Who can doubt that we face a crisis at this time in h u m a n history? When the needs of people go unheeded and remedies are long delayed, there is a mood of desperation. When persons are deprived or denied h u m a n rights, patience wears thin and hope is lost in despair. When existence becomes so intolerable, persons feel we have n o t h i n g to lose and life is cheap, so let us hurl ourselves at our enemies and welcome death. In the m o u n t i n g frustration of anger and despair, we explode into destruction. It is their life or mine, so destroy them and "go for broke." This suicidal mood of today is highly dangerous. When hope is lost and basic trust is dissipated, we do desperate things, hating life and the whole system we find so frustrating. Rate of crime and suicide climb to alarming heights. Hatred smolders in bitter resentment or bursts forth in riots and police brutality, c o m m u n i c a t i o n breaks down, and we destroy each other in violent conflict. National leaders talk o f peace while preparing for war, a r m i n g other nations and rushing to troubled areas with fire power to overwhelm and demolish the "enemy." Every year wars become more destructive. Obliteration bombing kills all life with no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. Women and little children suffer most, as homes are destroyed, and families broken up, pouring hoards of starving refugees into a barren world unable to sustain life. Starvation becomes a cruel tactic of this heedless destruction to force helpless survivors into submission. Is it not appalling how recklessly the great nations are depleting the resources of h u m a n survival in endless wars in remote areas like Indochina for shadowy goals? We are destroying the good earth in peace as


Journal of Religion and Health

well as war by reckless pollution of air and water, exhausting mineral supplies and threatening all forms of life with extinction. We have neglected replenishing the soil and the forests. We are threatened by the population explosion, but long-range p l a n n i n g is slow to be adopted and implemented. We are defeating ourselves by pride and self-centeredness. We are resisting instead of co-operating with peoples of other nations, races, and classes. Yet we can, if we will, be one people. "fie are warmed by one sun and nourished by one world. We have c o m m o n needs, and ultimately we seek the same goals. We are united by more than divides us. Persons are naturally interested in each other and want to be together. W e are drawn into one life by the Creative Mystery of our responsive universe. We are highly sensitive and competent to respond to other persons. We can learn to negotiate our differences. At this m o m e n t of history, when the tides are moving against reconciliation, it is imperative to learn the true value and fine art of negotiation. We have been learning otherwise to hate and resist each other within the family, the community, and the world. This is a time of unyielding demands under duress and threat of destruction. Highjackers hold the airplane and threaten to blow it up with all crew and passengers unless demands are instantly and completely met. Militants occupy a university building, refusing to release it until their unnegotiable demands are met. Prisoners take hostages and threaten to kill them unless all demands are granted within a limited time. Police and national guard arrest marchers, abuse and shoot them down, or detain them in prison w i t h o u t trial or due process of law. I do not agree with those who say this is h u m a n nature and cannot be changed. I believe that all h u m a n behavior is learned, and so it can be unlearned and relearned. Psychologists since Pavlov have demonstrated this again and again in an endless variety of situations where conditioning is shown to change h u m a n and animal behavior. It is evident that persons learn unconsciously as well as consciously to love or to hate, to

What Can We Believe In?


accept or resist, to help or to hurt, to d e m a n d or to yield, to reconcile or o p p o s e each other. We can learn to listen to each other m o r e deeply to u n d e r s t a n d other persons, h o w they feel a n d w h y they w a n t w h a t they desire. If we can see h o w other persons get this way, h o w they suffer h u r t a n d injustice, w h y they feel as they do and w h a t these concerns m e a n to them, we are in a better p o s i t i o n to negotiate. A n d if they will see h o w we feel and w h y o u r concerns are so i m p o r t a n t to us, we m a y consider their claims as well as o u r own. If so, we begin to negotiate in g o o d faith, k n o w i n g that each side m u s t yield e n o u g h to meet o n c o m m o n g r o u n d . T o u g h b a r g a i n i n g is the style in o u r time, in w h i c h o n e side h o p e s to force the other to yield w i t h o u t g r a n t i n g any concessions. T h i s of course defeats n e g o t i a t i o n a n d leads to threat a n d violence rather than to searching for creative solutions t h r o u g h w h i c h we can live in peace and h o n o r by m u t u a l agreements. T h e highest p o i n t of danger comes w h e n either side refuses to negotiate in g o o d faith. For the heart of the matter is g o o d faith. W h a t is most needed is a w i l l i n g n e s s to forgive o u r enemies a n d let them forgive us. T h i s amazingly h a p p e n e d between the A m e r i c a n and J a p a n e s e people after a very bitter a n d destructive war in 1945. We c o u l d then seek a larger u n i t y of c o m m o n interests and p u r p o s e s to b e c o m e a comm u n i t y of persons caring for each other. T h i s was a heroic choice for both peoples by w h i c h we became o n e p e o p l e in an o p e n society to the advantage of all. I believe in creative listening a n d r e s p o n d i n g to other persons. We cannot afford to retreat into despair

Will we choose to be one p e o p l e in the stresses a n d divisions of o u r time? T h e consequences of this choice will be fatal or fulfilling to every person in o u r family, c o m m u n i t y , a n d world. We do n o t k n o w the answer; nor can we see the o u t c o m e at this m o m e n t . T h e course of o u r


Journal of Religion and Health

future will hinge u p o n the choices of so m a n y people, a n d the divisions are n o w so deep, we k n o w the crisis is acute. T i m e is r u n n i n g o u t a n d delay is fatal, as we race d o w n a road of self-defeat and destruction. Are we c o m i n g to a p o i n t of no return? If we are to change the course of history, we shall need to act now. If we are to save m a n and his noblest potentialities, we shall need to unite n o w m e a c h for all a n d all for each. If we w a n t a better world, we must turn a r o u n d a n d w o r k together in trust a n d love, in sharing and serving. I believe we cannot afford to retreat into despair. It is easy to become discouraged a n d fall into despair in times like this. But t o give u p h o p e is to give u p everything. Yielding to despair is to u n d e r m i n e the motive p o w e r by w h i c h to struggle against the odds for a greater good. We need courage in such a time as this to overcome the defeating m o o d s that sink into a p a t h y a n d inert depression. C o u r a g e is the will to believe. It is the p o w e r to strive o n for a u n i t i n g of o n e people, honoring o u r differences rather than fighting over them. In m o m e n t s of doubt, faith is the d y n a m i c resurging of the will to live and rise above the d o w n w a r d pull of gravitation. T h e p o w e r of the spirit is n o t to be underestimated. At the center of every person is a spirit free to decide a n d able to rise above primitive fears a n d adverse circumstances. T o believe a n d act in this p o w e r of the Spirit is w h a t Viktor Frankl tested in the death c a m p a n d called height psychology. T h e greater the odds, the danger, or chaos, the m o r e creative we are called to be. T h e m e a n i n g of life is to be responsible in each concrete situation to meet the challenge of each hour. T h e potential greatness of every person is to rise, to grow, a n d to give his best w h e n we are in the u t m o s t stress a n d danger. I believe that hope, faith, a n d love are essential to meet the challenge of h u m a n life. In conclusion, I see faith as more than belief. Any n u m b e r of beliefs do not essentially add u p to faith. Belief is a j u d g m e n t of w h a t is true

What Can We Believe In?


or false. Faith is devotion of the total personality in loyal assurance. Faith includes belief, yet it is a larger experience of life as a whole. Faith is c o m m i t m e n t to the m e a n i n g and p u r p o s e of life, a sustaining devotion of all I am and can become to what is most real and ultimate. T h i s is the larger m e a n i n g of faithfulness--a life of willing and u n f a i l i n g devotion. In stating these beliefsl I a m also confessing what goes beyond belief, the faith-full devotion by which and for w h i c h I live.

What can we believe in?

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