A few times in this blog, I have mentioned that I think Christianity focuses far too much on what you believe. Theological differences in our beliefs have served primarily to divide us into separate denominational tribes. The central activities of following Christ, on the other hand, tend to be a broadly shared heritage that unites. What we do to follow Christ matters more than most theological beliefs.
(Before I get too far into this, I’ll anticipate an objection from readers of the Book of Ephesians, who would remind me that salvation comes from God’s grace and not through any work that we do. (2: 8-9) The activities I’ve been discussing so far in this blog aren’t the kinds of moral “good deeds” that we typically mean when talking about Christian “works.” We are called to love God, to pray, to be grateful, and to engage in Scripturally-connected study. If we don’t do these fundamental activities, then we lose our vital connection to God, and so I argue that these are more life-supporting and spirit-sustaining than many theological “beliefs.”)
In my previous blog entry about what the word of God is and how it works, I left out a pat statement many Christians profess about Scripture: “I believe the whole Bible.” Frankly, I don’t think anyone does, at least not in any deep form of “belief.” The Bible is too big, too varied, too complex to keep fully in our minds at any given time. For me, if the word “belief” has any spiritual meaning whatsoever, it has to mean more than “I can accept this idea mentally.” Spiritual belief has to mean something more than cognition; it must mean “this idea is so important that I am living by its precepts.” I am unable to do that with the whole Bible; at best I can hold only a subset of its teachings in my little mind. That’s one reason I go to listen to a sermon; I am looking to be reminded of the parts of Scripture I’ve been personally neglecting lately.
All followers of Christ carry with us our own personal version of the word of God, the parts of Scripture that have been most present and important in our lives. If you’ve been paying attention to the tags on my blogs (and I’m sure you have!), you’ll note that the religious blog entries are tagged “the Gospel according to Greg.” That’s not (purely) hubris. I think that all followers of Christ actualize a portion of the word of God and that part of “evangelism” is to share that version with others. Each follower of Christ has put certain personally resonant parts of the Bible into action. That is your “gospel.” Those are your lived spiritual “beliefs.” It’s not simply a matter of being convinced that a belief is right or wrong. It’s not about what beliefs you hold; it’s about what beliefs take hold of you. It’s about revelation, not argumentation.
The process of gaining such deep beliefs cannot be rushed. Let me give an example of someone who modeled the slow careful growth of spiritual beliefs for me. Many years ago I did a months-long group study of the whole Bible entitled Kerygma. One of the members of that group didn’t speak much during the class sessions, but when he did, his participation was always showed deep insight, so I grew to respect him greatly. At the end of the class, the leader asked us what we had learned, and various people (including me) blathered on about all we had discovered. When it came time for this man to speak, he said, “I have learned two things. One: God is. And two: God is powerful.” That’s it; months of study, and those two short sentences of belief were the only result. But those sentences were spoken with strong conviction; he believed those things in the deepest sense of the word. I respect how careful he was with his mind and heart. Unlike the rest of us loudmouths in the class, he wasn’t about to go further in his words than his convictions.
The church often calls for us to do just that. I attend a creedal church where we regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, and I start off like everyone else: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” I do believe that. But then my voice trails off from there. There are just too many things in those words that I don’t believe with my whole being, that aren’t central to who I am as a follower of Christ, at least not at this moment. I understand why “born of a virgin” is in the creed, but the Virgin birth just isn’t a vital part of how I practice Christianity (this might be different if I were Catholic, not Protestant). And there are just weird choices made in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus descending into hell only appears in one gospel account; why is it front and center here? Whose spiritual practice has this as a vital belief?
And so rather than awkwardly blurt out only the phrases that I do believe in (“the forgiveness of sins!”), I keep quiet thereafter. There may come a time when those other ideas (including the Virgin birth) become important to how I follow Christ. Then I will expand the “gospel according to Greg.” In the meantime, I just can’t see how saying things I don’t deeply believe out loud on a regular basis can be good for my soul. I am protective of my soul. You can get by on very few beliefs (for example, “God is” and “God is powerful”). I’d much rather say aloud an aspirational list of what we should do rather than a list of what we should believe. (More on that next time)
You won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite Bible verse comes from the story in Mark about the father who asked Jesus to heal his convulsive son if Jesus could do so. “What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ All things are possible for one who believes.” “Lord, I believe,” the father replied. “Help my unbelief.” (9:24) (That couplet makes a great mantra for meditative prayer when you’re struggling with your faith.) Jesus lowered the bar for those of us who find belief difficult, accepting those whose faith fit the smallest imaginable measure in his day (the size of a mustard seed). Mature faith is capable of admitting its limits as we work to enlarge that faith. Like my friend and the father in Mark’s gospel, we can be confident about the beliefs we truly hold central to our practice, and we can ask for divine help to see a larger vision of God’s kingdom.
The practice of Christianity often involves a complicated cocktail of beliefs and experiences mixed with community and identity. You go to church because that’s part of how you define yourself; you see your friends there, and you mentally agree with the church’s statements on what God is. But I have seen such intellectual beliefs shattered by hard times. “Why are bad things happening to me?” All too often, Christian church communities provide only token support for such struggling people. (Churches can make the mistake of assuming they are naturally warm places. If it’s no one’s job in particular to help those who suffer, then that help usually doesn’t happen.) And when the suffering believer misses church services and no one notices, that sense of community and identity can unravel, and intellectual beliefs about God provide cold comfort.
In this blog I have argued that the habits of regular thanksgiving, prayer, charity, and Scripturally-connected study build a better foundation that is far less vulnerable than any system of theological beliefs, and so I think we should concentrate our efforts there. The Psalms are full of cries to God about how people desert you when the going gets tough. That’s the point; if you have developed habits of intimacy with God, you can reach out to God’s comfort when human structures disappoint. Building that oh-so-peculiar relationship with an infinite, invisible, loving God is the best preparation for hard times. Beliefs that become disconnected to the living presence of the divine can crumble quickly.
How did Christian communities get so focused on what we should believe? I blame the professionals: the theologians and ministers. At the same time, I understand their temptations. In many ways, ministers are like my home tribe: academics. (I am reminded that the university is a direct descendant of the church whenever I don my priestly robes for graduation ceremonies.) Everyone goes to school, but those who choose the teaching profession are the freaky students who become captivated by the subject matter and want to devote their lives to knowing more.
A similar obsession/calling creates ministers and theologians. Just as we academics can become fixated on ever more arcane aspects of our chosen subjects, there’s a natural tendency for those professional Christians to delve into the details of theology, about the Christological differences among the terms “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” and “Messiah,” or about grace versus works (whether someone who undergoes a conversion experience and then continues to lead a deeply sinful life will go to heaven). These make for some fun late-night-undergrad-bull-session debates, but no one thinks that it’s a good idea for a Christian follower to do evil deeds. We all believe that grace is necessary and that righteous action is the correct response to that grace. On a practical level these intellectual distinctions don’t make much difference on the way we follow Christ.
In my own field I have seen academics battle bitterly over tiny issues that couldn’t possibly concern any ordinary person, and theologians are susceptible to the same temptation. (Preachers do have a distinct advantage over academics in airing their arguments, however. When I’m lecturing about film, no one is worried that my positions might affect their mortal soul. I only wish I had that kind of motivating factor to encourage my students to listen!).
A congregation is like a blog; you need to keep feeding it if you want people to come back. When a preacher is expected to say something significant every Sunday, it’s tempting to use your authority to weigh in on a theological debate (about whether God’s infinite knowledge is at odds with the notion of human free will, for instance, or about the existence of a literal hell). Such theological pronouncements have been at the heart of many church splits, with the result that even small communities find themselves with a different church on every other corner.
As I noted in a previous blog entry, my father led a church split in my small town over the issue of whether the church should elect deacons. He believed in a strongly egalitarian version of the “priesthood of the believer” in which no one should be placed in a position of spiritual authority over another, and that belief was enough to divide the church (if there’s anything we know how to do in the South, we know how to secede!). Looking back on this, I think about what a waste of spiritual energy that was.
The history of the Christian church (large and small) is the history of division. Sometimes principles of structural organization/authority are at issue, but usually the schisms are about theological beliefs. A certain minimal amount of belief is necessary for Christianity, but we need to recognize how an overemphasis on beliefs can rip Christian communities apart.
(In the next blog entry, I’ll suggest an action-oriented alternative to Christian creeds about beliefs.)