Believing Is Seeing

The world is not always as it seems.  We learn to believe particular things, and those beliefs then shape the world that we see and experience.  In ancient times, believing the earth was the center of the universe appeared perfectly reasonable.  If you studied the sky, you could watch the sun rise in the east and set in the west, just as the stars rotated around you at night.  What else was a person to think?  All those lights revolved in a circle above us.  Or so it seemed, because people saw what they believed.

When Galileo published a book stating the opposite was true, and the earth actually revolved around the sun, people reacted with consternation.  Galileo’s writing was banned and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.  By contradicting what people believed, he made them question what they saw with their own eyes.

We’ll often say that we’ll believe something when we see it, but exactly the opposite is true.  We actually see what we believe.  Someone who believes in God sees a world where God is obviously present.  Someone who does not believe in God sees a world obviously without one.  A political progressive sees President Obama’s policies as moving the nation forward.  A tea-party conservative sees President Obama as causing national damage.  Show Americans a picture of planes flying into the Twin Towers and they see a heinous crime.  Show the same pictures to Muslim extremists and they see martyrs in action.  In all three cases, both sides have trouble understanding each other, because they literally see different things.  They have different views of reality.

Consider our perception of gender.  In Western culture, we believe there are two genders, male and female, and we categorize people into one sex or the other.  When we look at the world, that’s what we see.  Nothing seems more obvious.  The birds and the bees begins with Adam and Eve.  People are one or the other.

However, there are cultures where things are not so black and white.  Many Native American societies had three or four genders.  There was a category for people known as “Two Spirits,” who simultaneously manifested traits of both sexes.  They wore male and female clothing, performed both male and female tasks, and were often revered as specially gifted.  A biological male who lived as a woman would sometimes marry a man, just as a biological female who acted as a man would marry a woman.  However, neither relationship was regarded as homosexual.

In these native cultures, Two-Spirits held a place of respect and honor; they were a normal part of reality.  Nature made either, or, and in-between.  In cultures like our own, with a binary division of gender, people who do not fit are rendered invisible, through shaming, deviant labels, and reconstructive surgery.  Effeminate men and masculine women are regarded as failures in God’s design.  Children born with ambiguous genitals are medically coerced into one sex or the other, instead of seeing a world that contains women with penises and men with vulvas.

In the end, our beliefs even affect our ability to see each other as human.  Slave-holders saw slaves as soulless animals, and Nazis saw Jews as Untermenschen, or sub-human.  Atrocities are made possible by such views of the world.  Others become alien, a lower level of life, allowing us to ignore them, exploit them, and abuse them.  Love, by contrast, requires seeing ourselves in others, which also requires believing it to be true.

I once had a client named Antonio.  He was a young Black man who first went to jail at the age of 15 for throwing fire bombs out his apartment window.  Released at 18, he went back to prison for assaulting a man with a knife.  Released at 25, he was mandated by parole to receive counseling from me.  He had no education, no job skills, and no experience working for anyone.  He found a menial job and chafed under the disrespectful way he was treated.  The last time I saw Antonio, we had finally arranged admission into a welding school.  He sat in my office with tears in his eyes; he saw a path out of his hopelessness.  He thanked me.

Later that week, Antonio was arrested for beating a man to death with the butt-end of a pistol.  At the end of a brief trial, after the victim’s father made an impact statement, instead of apologizing, Antonio taunted him.  “I’ll dance on your son’s grave in hell.”  Newspaper photos showed a brute swaggering out of the courthouse in cuffs and shackles.

Antonio obviously saw the youth he murdered as beneath him, as deserving only contempt, and it’s easy to see Antonio in the same way.  But I see a man who was always pleasant to me, a thug who cried in my chair because he briefly saw a possible future, despite everything he believed about himself.

Sometimes, to see the truth, we have to look beyond our beliefs.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

2 Responses to “Believing Is Seeing”

  1. Everyone must believe in future of gaining status in life. That’s what gives us reason to strive for tomorrow. I have a sister who has been a drug addict for 22 years. I have raised her son, I got him when he was ten. I believed that I could change his future by taking him into my home and giving him love and discipline. He just turned 18 and Is going down a path of partying. Did I believe in the wrong thing…No, I still believe that he will adopt a rational way of life due to what I have provided him with in the past eight years. It is subjective, another person might say he will stay on the road that he is on, I believe that he will adopt my way of raising him and turn into a productive adult.

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