Quaker Universalist Conversations

More on “belief”

Breakfast at the Victory

The ego is the dualist in us. It is the habit we have of seeing ourselves over and against someone else. As ego, my inwardness remains inward because it is completely closed off to you by my outwardness…

In fact, belief and unbelief are strictly issues for the ego; you can’t be an unbeliever unless there are some believers against whom you are an unbeliever. All such oppositions are creations of the ego.

From the perspective of soul, however, we see each opposing either/or as a conjoined both/and… I can be separate from you only because at a deeper level we are joined in something inseparable. I cannot be alone alone…

As soul, we do not act; we are…. When we become aware of the still-point in a person, of a deed that has no doer, we are aware of soul; we are in the presence of presence. (11-12)

—James P. Carse,
Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience
(Review By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat)

In What is ‘belief’?, we began to explore the connotations of this deceptively simple term and the ways in which conceptions of belief might inform the practice of universalism.

In the conventional world, answering “What do you believe?” is often understood to mean answering “What belief system do you confess?” The John Carse passage above addresses this usage of the concept in terms of the opposition of believer to unbeliever.

However, readers of our January 23rd post tended to use the concept differently in their responses to the queries:

AlexBelief is that which does not succumb to reason. In this sense, belief is unreasonable. However, not all beliefs are equal…. [One’s] belief may not affect her/his life while the other’s may change it profoundly. Religious belief, I believe, is the latter.

JoanneBelief is an evolving life force. It is born in the form of nascent concepts revealed to us, and as we develop and experience life, so too do our beliefs change and morph into our growing awareness of the meaning of life, itself.

RolfI found [an amazing] revelation in [Barclay’s] An Apology for the True ChristianDivinity…. Namely, the universalism of John 1:9 that the Lord/Light/Spirit is He “who enlighteneth EVERY man that cometh into the world.”

LibbieMy belief comes from prayers being answered. My belief comes from life’s hardships that help me grow in my maturity and well-being, especially in forgiving those who may have caused these hardships. My belief grows out of the caring of others and the caring for others. Following the words of Jesus Christ in how I deal with others makes me grow in my belief. This is my proof of the Lord’s existence.

LarryBelief: Tentative assertions of truth in light of recognition of continuing revelation…. Faith: Recognition of trust in the tentative assertions of truth (belief).

What resonates for you in the various comments excerpted above? How might your own use of the concept of belief be informed by their offerings?

In his writings, James Carse emphasizes the contrasts between “belief systems,” which he describes as conceptual efforts to define boundaries, and “religions,” faith communities which transcend time and space and focus on a shared sacred mystery. How well does this distinction work for you?

How about Carse’s contrasting of ego and soul?

What do you understand by his phrase, “in the presence of presence”?


I suppose that Carse is contrasting the aspect of each person which is universal (the soul) with the aspect which is particular (the ego). If so, then I take the presence of presence to be that universality of which the ego may be aware.

Should ego be confined to a definition of itself in contrast to its opposite? Although that may be a part of its definition, I’ve always thought of ego as the organizing “self,” which is considered to be the “adult” in us. Too much ego, however, can be destructive when it does not take others into consideration. So I can see why communities, especially religious communities, advocate for the subduing if not the complete eradication of the “self” or ego, so that the needs of others as well as those of the self can be better served.
Deepening this concept into the unifying force of the soul or the spirit was rather edifying to me, since I’ve not thought of the individual soul in that way. I’ve thought that the Oversoul unites all the individual souls, and so the unity of the spirit through the unity of our souls is a concept I have yet to assimilate.

Friend Alex: Your reading of the Carse phrase “presence of presence” is close to mine, with a distinction—perhaps too fine—which I will describe below.

Friend Joanne: I welcome your wariness of defining ego only in terms of its opposite. Carse would probably agree with you that ego is “the organizing ‘self’” and, as such, a necessary tool of effective adult action in the material world.

As to the notion that some religious communities advocate the “subduing if not complete eradication of the ‘self’ or ego” in order to attend to others, I’ve come to suspect that of being a misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

The brain uses the device of “pairs of opposites” as a tool for labeling those recurring aspects of inner and outer reality with which human beings must work in order to survive.

The tradition of the West has increasingly been to misperceive that duality as reality, rather that as an abstraction from reality created by the brain. This embrace of dualism began long before Descartes’ codification of the notion. Hence, the West tends to teach that the ego stands in the way of the soul.

Eastern traditions do not actually deny the ego or insist upon subduing. They recognize the biological construct of “ego-self” as a useful beast of burden for journeying in the material world. However, that term “construct” is crucial. Ego does not actually exist. It is merely an “idea of self” which the brain creates. Hence, we are not asked to subdue or eradicate ego, only to observe the flow of constantly changing sensations and thoughts which the brain labels as “ego.”

Given this different perspective on consciousness, ego is not seen as opposed to soul, and it only stands in the way of soul if we pretend—as most human beings do—that ego is the sum total of what is real about us.

The key question is this: what is it which notices and observes ego? At its best, Western tradition says “the soul,” which is a small spark of the awareness of the divine (the “Oversoul,” as you called it). The East says, when That Which is Aware lets go of the pretense of ego, what remains is not ego’s opposite. What remains is the unnamable Presence.

How do “belief” and “Universalism” connect?

Beliefs Defined: Beliefs are perceptions, cognitions, emotions or memories that a person assumes to be true or to exist and makes a basis for behavior, consciously or unconsciously, with varying support of evidence. Most of our convictions are beliefs with varying degrees of evidence to support them, but nonetheless, they form the basis for our action in our intimate lives or in our social, collective and cultural lives.

Universalism is a Belief: Universalism is one belief. Universalism as a belief can be conscious or unconscious. This belief is unproved by evidence, but there is both evidence for and against its truth. Yet we are convinced of its truth and try to act on the basis of its truth about reality around us.

Powerful and Distorted Beliefs: Beliefs affect every part of our lives and we must be constantly challenging them. The human brain is a believing machine. Beliefs have tremendous power and impact on our lives in health, culture, politics, morality and religion. (The placebo effect demonstrates that our beliefs have large and practical consequences in our health.) Humans need beliefs to help us navigate effectively through the world. (Refusal of the Draft would contribute to peace in Vietnam.) The brain likes to fill in perceptual gaps and sometimes we make mistakes in our perceptions. (Visual mirages and the truth that America is the greatest country in the world) Since our behavior is informed and guided by beliefs, the consequences are significant. We need a reliable process for discernment of beliefs. Beliefs may not be true, but they matter and we have a responsibility for constantly formulating and scrutinizing beliefs, with the help of our friends and continuing revelation.