The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Belief and Knowledge

Belief and Knowledge

Moving toward knowledge

When I first began my deep dive into the work of Dallas Willard one of things that struck me was his specificity around the definition of words that I had often taken for granted. How many times had I asked someone, “What do you believe?” Or said to someone, “I love you,” without having a concrete definition of either “believe” or “love.” In fact, I spent a year trying to define love after someone asked me what it meant, and I found myself at a loss for words. But I digress. Willard’s definitions have been a way of aligning my thoughts (through language) with my actions. In particular, his definition of the word “belief” have been helpful.

Belief is something that we act upon as if it were true.

A Story

I’m sitting at Swing 46, a supper club in midtown Manhattan. It’s Sunday afternoon, and Dr. James “Buster” Brown is holding court. Dr. Brown, affectionately address as Buster, is an octogenarian, and one of the recognized elders of the tap dance community. He is in his 2nd year of what would turn out to be a five-year run of hosting this weekly Tap Jam. Buster is a generous host, calling up new tap dancers, giving them the opportunity to play with live musicians (often for the first time in their life!), in front of a real New York City audience. The vibe is encouraging. Local dancers could be counted on to shuffle in every week. Cats from out of town – as far away as Japan – would make pilgrimages to meet Buster and say they performed in New York City. Broadway performers – sometimes the entire cast of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk – would swing through to pay respects to Buster and dance a little. It was a magical time and place.

Growing up as a tap dancer I was trained to believe certain things about dancing. It was to be done in a certain way, with particular intention. The kind of person who dances should act in a certain way, especially on the stage. This approach is in respect of the craft, and the elders of the craft – folks like Buster. One summer, I found myself engaged in a kind of curriculum of comparison. I had all of my beliefs about tap dance intact. They were given to me by trusted dancers who walked (or rather danced) the talk. But I wasn’t sure I, as a dancer, had the same level of integrity. Were my beliefs evident in my dancing? What I decided to do was to use my beliefs against myself by way of my judgement of others.

Every Sunday, I would make it a point to be at Swing 46. I would allow myself to be as judgmental as possible as I watched other dancers. I would take note of all the things I didn’t like in their dancing. I may not have been able to express the dislike with words, but there was a clear sense of grating against my sensibilities. During the following week, I would apply the same judgement on my own dancing as I practiced. Of course, I never told the dancers I saw at Swing 46 that I didn’t like what they were doing. This wasn’t about them. It was about sharpening my own embodiment of what I believed. It was making sure that when I came to dance, I didn’t do anything that I didn’t actually believe in. It seems that I couldn’t get to my goal solely by envisioning – out of thin air – what I wanted. Seeing parts of what I wanted from my mentors, and in this case, what I didn’t want from other dancers was necessary to clarify my vision. Checking myself against both seemed to work well. After all, I hadn’t seen the complete vision of what I wanted – I was working that out.

I spent many hours in the studio trying to train out of my own dancing anything I saw that grated against my beliefs about what was good in Tap Dance Land. In that time, I came to more closely embody the beliefs I held. I say, “more closely embody,” because the beliefs I held at the time were aspirational. Also, and notably, the judgement of my own dancing would come from a combination of my perception and the perception of others. This is the reality of tap dance in a relational context. I might consider myself the most amazing dancer, but if the people that I am around don’t resonate with what I am doing, questions arise. This line of thinking opens up an entire set of questions that are quite important, like, “Who’s perspective on my dancing do I trust?” Or, “Can I trust my own perception of my dancing?” These are worthwhile questions to pursue but will have to wait for another note. Here we must remain focused on the nature of belief and not the context.

Belief fills the chasm between what we know to be true by way of interactive experience and the vision of what we think is true. Imagine living in a world that was filled with evil, for example. One would have to believe that good was possible. In that world there wouldn’t be many, if any, examples of goodness to witness or mimic. However, one’s belief that good was possible may be just enough to begin to act as if good was possible. The belief in a possible good would be the fuel behind the affirmations, “It doesn’t have to be this way,” or “I believe good is possible,” and the follow up questions “What would a different way look like?” or “What might good look like?” Believing that good was possible would be the fuel behind the significant effort of imagining, experimenting, and sharpening – the actions necessary to see if the belief was true.

From Belief to Knowledge

Belief grows into knowledge. This happens on journey from never witnessed before, to believed, to witnessed sometimes but inconsistently, to known. Once a belief is known it is not a belief anymore, it is something that you know. Instead of saying, “I believe good is possible,” I say, “I know good is possible.” We are not acting as if it were true. We are acting because we know it to be true. Notably, as I work out my own beliefs, I contend with the fact that some of the things I believe may turn out to be not true. That can be a hard thing to face.

So, how does a belief turn into knowledge? Through action. In order to test whether or not I believe something, I can observe my actions in a particular situation. Like looking at my own dancing, I can ask myself, “Do I act as if I believe what I say I believe?” Remember, beliefs are things that I don’t have the confidence of knowledge behind. My actions may be tentative, misaligned, inconsistent, stumbling even. As I give attention to the connection between my beliefs and my actions, I can work on what I can do to get them together. My actions can become more confident, aligned, consistent, and sure.

Let’s take an example belief like, “It is possible for a conversation about politics to be civil and good, even productive.” There is a lot of evidence to the contrary. Without a model, one may have to imagine how they might act, if they believed such a thing. We might imagine that a person who believes that conversations about politics can be civil and good would begin by not avoiding such conversations – staying in the room. We might imagine that person practicing and finding ways to make their part in those kinds of conversations civil and good. That person may even research what others have found or discovered. Because of their belief, they engage in preparation, learning, and practice towards the vision of their belief. Their journey is fundamentally different than the person who believes every conversation about politics is overly dramatic and destructive. The person who takes the evidence of destructive conversations as the truth eliminates any possibility of something different.

In our example we may hope that the practice yields conversations that were all amazing. But that would be wishful thinking. In fact, our person will encounter many conversations that would be hard. Some might even become dramatic or destructive regardless of their intention or attempts to the contrary. This is good and to be expected. When we begin to work out our beliefs, our attempts will bump up against other’s beliefs. Our beliefs, like our lives, do not exist in isolation. As we encounter resistance, we might rethink our belief. What has formed this belief? Is it worth pursuing? Is there an easier way? In our example we might think, “Is the possibility of civil and good, even productive conversations around politics worth the effort I need to put forth to become the kind of person whose contribution to such conversations increases that likelihood?” As we work out our beliefs, we are often the ones who change.

The Change

Could the commitment to work out a belief be the beginning in the long arch to change? I think so. The action is the key. We must be willing to experience the process of change that comes with working something out – the ups and downs, the bumpy and smooth days. As we work out our beliefs, we engage in a life that is consciously creative. It is a life in which that which we believe is worked out in real life, in real time. There is excitement and drama, as the outcomes are hoped for, but in a real sense unknown. Taking on such a pursuit is for the brave at heart, for it requires quite a lot. The upside? The assurance that what we hold to be true, is actually true. The beliefs which undergird the actions of our life are actually true. How might we know? Because we’ve worked them out.

This turns us back to Dallas’s definition: A belief is something that we act upon as if it were true. A belief is not just something that we say is true, it is what our body is ready to act upon. However, unknown outcomes are risky. I don’t know about yours, but my body is quite hesitant to act upon things that are unknown, risky. With this line of thinking, the process of believing is a process of training the body to act as if what we are thinking or saying is actually true. Then we may come to know the kind of practice, even commitment that can turn our beliefs into knowledge.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.