The Importance of What I Don’t Believe

John - Holland, Michigan
Entered on April 28, 2008

I believe in the importance of what I don’t believe. I say this, not because I have no beliefs, or because I think all beliefs are equal. I say it because I have found it to be true.

I believe in God, and for a variety of reasons, my belief consists in what Christians in particular believe about God. This may be surprising, because I’m a college teacher, and many college teachers don’t believe in God. A particular college teacher who was raised, as I was, in a religious household, has written that belief died in him forever when he was a college freshman. He is perhaps the most influential thinker of his generation in my particular field, and I have learned more from him than from almost anyone else. I can’t say I’m glad he doesn’t believe, because my belief is an unparalleled source of hope to me, but I am glad he thinks so well, because his ideas have enabled me to learn what I could hardly have learned any other way, even though I often disagree with him.

My favorite example of the importance of what I don’t believe is the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared that God is dead. I don’t believe that, but I think I understand why Nietzsche said it, and he has helped me understand the twentieth century—the century in which I was born—in a way no one else has, so he has helped me understand myself a little better. To me, Nietzsche is a prophet. He sees clearly what other people refuse to see. He smiles sardonically at self-deception. He resists the tempting claim to have an explanation for everything. He exposes empty pretension. He challenges inflated claims. I think he often overstates, but I think I know why he does. Trying to understand what I honestly owe to Nietzsche, as well as why I disagree with him, is the most rewarding part of teaching him.

Speaking of teaching, when I think about my friend who lost his faith as a freshman, I think of my students. They aren’t all Christians, by any means, and even those who are don’t seem to think the way I do. I don’t believe I have an obligation to destroy the faith of my students who believe, or to try to instill faith in those who lack it. I believe I have an obligation to help my students think as well as they can about the particular field I teach. In this way, I hope they will find a little corner of the truth. “Where there is much desire to learn,” writes the poet, John Milton, “there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Milton compares the search for truth to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, who was torn apart and his pieces scattered to the four winds. His lover Isis set about the task of finding his mangled body, piece by piece. Isis, says Milton, is like lovers of truth. “All truth,” says St. Augustine, “is God’s truth.”

This I believe.