A Model for Character Reformation

Part II

    Posted by Admin on September 6, 2008

Changing Core Beliefs
In order for our minds to be renewed, believers must focus on changing core beliefs--our ideas about reality, our worldview. As important as our thought life is (i.e., the recurring thoughts about which we are aware), the primary focus of a mind renewal strategy must attack the false core beliefs and convictions that actually influence how we live. Consider the mind to be like an iceberg. The small visible portion above sea level is the thought life that is conscious to us. But deep below the surface are the correct and false core beliefs and convictions that guide our life, many of which we are unaware.

Core beliefs or convictions are not necessarily what one professes or claims to believe, or what one may express at a Bible study or declare on a doctrinal statement. The convictions under discussion are the actual core values of a person that guide the "automatic" and "reactive" aspects of how we live. As J. P. Moreland explains, "Beliefs are the rails upon which our lives run. . . . When the rubber meets the road, we act out our actual beliefs most of the time. That is why behavior is such a good indicator of a person's beliefs."1 The common proverb "actions speak louder than words" affirms this point. These core assumptions of life then actually limit and bound the scope of our actions. Everyone has a myriad of these core assumptions or convictions that form our character, but usually these are not the focus of our thought life.

But, on occasion, believers may become consciously aware of a core belief by how agitated we become when a core assumption is challenged or questioned, indicating a deep core belief has been exposed. Christians need to engage in the process of forming and re-forming core beliefs toward what is really true about God and his world.2 Thus, contrary to popular belief, the ideas and convictions we hold dear do significantly affect our daily living. As Willard notes,
We often speak of people not living up to their faith. But the cases in which we say this are not really cases of people behaving otherwise than they believe. They are cases in which genuine beliefs are made obvious by what people do. We always live up to our beliefs--or down to them, as the case may be. Nothing else is possible. It is the nature of belief."3 Core beliefs are what in fact we actually do believe at the depth of our character, whether we are aware of them or not.

Then how can core beliefs be changed? A further challenge must acknowledged: We cannot alter our core beliefs directly, just by changing our mind in a moment. Core beliefs are acquired passively over time, formed by the evidence about reality confronted in life. As Richard Swinburne, explains, "We believe our beliefs to be true because we know that we do not choose them, but we believe that they are forced upon us by evidence from the outside world."4 "Beliefs are views about how the world is. . . . But a "belief" would not be a belief if we could change it readily at will (and so realize we are doing so)."5

Although beliefs cannot be changed directly at will--i.e., we lack "inner" freedom--it is possible to influence beliefs indirectly by freely placing ourselves in situations that permit attending to new or additional evidence--i.e., we have "outer" freedom.6 Since the formation of beliefs involves being convinced of truth over a period of time, believers can affect which beliefs are dearly held by directing our thought life through planned and continual study. It is the continual exposure over time to the evidence of reality that results in the beliefs people come to hold.7 Thus, it makes sense, when the Bible urges to renew of our minds by engaging in the regular study and meditation of God's Word (Ps. 1). In addition, working through books like this one offers an occasion to think more about God and his plans, and about which theories and practices of Christian Education may need revising.

Furthermore, every claim in the marketplace of ideas--from television, movies, newspapers, magazines--must be examined so that believers can take "every thought captive" and "make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).8 Consider the following checklist for what should be the regular focus of our thought life: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Phil 4:8).

1Moreland, J. P. Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 73.
2"Many of the beliefs that we arrive at are finally the results of our policy decisions. Although believing itself is not an act, our acts determine the sorts of beliefs we end up with. It is primarily because we judge that our beliefs are to some significant degree the indirect results of our actions that we speak of being responsible for them. . . . If we had chosen differently, if we had been better moral agents, paid attention to the evidence, and so forth, we would have different beliefs than in fact we do have." Louis Pojman, Religious Belief and the Will (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974), 180.
3Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 307. Willard continues: "One of the greatest weaknesses in our teaching and leadership today is that we spend so much time trying to get people to do things good people are supposed to do, without changing what they really believe. It doesn't succeed very well, and that is the open secret of church life. . . . We need to concentrate on changing minds of those we would reach and serve. . . . But in our culture there is a severe illusion about faith, or belief. . . . Thus there arises the misunderstanding that human life is not really governed by belief. This is a disastrous error" (307).
4Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford: Clarendon , 1986), 127. The process is a little more complicated in that our interpretative skills play a role in what evidence we consider. It behooves us to improve these skills so that we can consider the evidence that is relevant and necessary to the issue at hand.
5Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, Clarendon, 1998), 55. "Believing is a passive state; believing is a state in which you are, it is not a matter of you doing something. And it is an involuntary state, a state in which you find yourself and which you cannot change at will. . . . For suppose that I could choose my beliefs, i.e. bring them about by [willing to], I would know that I was doing this . . . . But if I knew that what I called ‘my beliefs' were the result of my choice, I would know that they were not forced upon me by outside forces, that they were not formed by the evidence. . . . But then I would know that I had no reason for believing ‘my beliefs' either to be true or false." Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford: Clarendon , 1986), 127.
6Jeff Astley, The philosophy of Christian religious education. Birmingham, AL: REP, 1994), 218.
7The genius of this system of the passive acquisition of beliefs, which God designed, is that young children are able to learn core beliefs without the need for mature cognitive reflection to supervise the process.
8Of course, the belief formation process is not purely a cognitive venture. Core beliefs also affect desires, attitudes, feelings and actions. It is a complex and holistic process that significantly impacts the core of character. Swinburne holds that, undergirding every desire is a belief, thus suggesting the belief reformation can affect change in both our core beliefs and desires.
Dr. Klaus Issler