Saturday, May 8, 2010

Beautiful faith

- faith that looks like Jesus Christ

(The following text is an edition of my final paper in the Interpretation and Argument class at Carnegie Mellon. The topic for the class was religion and power, and this is my simple attempt to contribute to the discussion. Even though it is written for a Christian audience, I hope it can bring some light to the secular discussion as well. Keep in mind that this text is a result of a young man's reasoning, who himself is slightly hesitant towards some of the conclusions he reaches. So please comment in a friendly tone.)

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

- Mahatma Gandhi

This blog post argues that Christian faith should be understood as trusting that Jesus is Lord, as opposed to a commitment to believe everything in the Bible. To the extent that believers understand their faith otherwise, their faith quickly becomes something ugly that righteously falls under the critique of modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. The paper examines the difference between the two definitions of faith through examples from modern scholars, personal experience and excerpts from the Bible itself. It concludes that faith understood as trusting that Jesus is Lord is how Christians should understand their faith. It also argues that such faith is not ugly, but as beautiful as Jesus himself.

Christians should all be able to answer this important question; what does it mean to be Christian? Now, if you ask this question to an unsorted array of Christians, you quickly discover that there is little unity among the answers. But of the many answers you can get, let me draw your attention to two of the answers in particular. One is that being a Christian is to submit to Jesus in humble service to others; the other answer is that being a Christian at its core is about believing in such and such doctrines. These different definitions of being a Christian may of course be phrased in different ways, and to most believers, they both make up a component of their faith; nevertheless, I will argue that there is one answer that is better than the other answers. That would mostly fall into the first category: Being a Christian is to trust that Jesus is Lord.

I think this answer is crucial in order to have a beautiful faith. And already, I find much beauty in the church. Impressive individuals like Mother Teresa for instance, or the homeless ministry ran by Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community here in Pittsburgh; people devoted to follow Jesus’ example of healing the sick and befriending the poor and rejected. Not to mention Jesus himself, who is the rock on which all this is built. (Matt 7)

But unfortunately, Christians are not always that beautiful. For instance, the church has been supporting numerous which-hunts and wars throughout history, and still there are congregations that loudly support such measures, for instance the war on terror; others are caught up in a judgemental state of mind that makes them shout 'sin' as loudly as possible in the face of sinners, and homosexuals in particular. Neither is beautiful. In fact, it was straight out ugly when televangelist Jerry Falwell proclaimed his support for the Iraq war: “You've got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. And I'm for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord.”

Of course, the church is made up of man, and man usually is pure in neither spirit nor action. Thus, I will never expect it to be perfect; but I argue the church can still be beautiful, and that a mistaken perception of faith is an important factor why it sometimes is not. The mistake fundamentalist Christians do (apart from discarding Jesus’ teachings about humility in Matt 7) is to make their faith focused on doctrines.

Instead, what beautiful Christians should be focusing on, is hope and confidence in God himself. We should focus on faith as submission to Jesus and trust in God to provide as we follow him. Believe that God’s kingdom is beautiful, and live in hope that it is coming. If faith is to make Jesus king, then faith is as beautiful as Jesus himself.

Faith is doctrine
One of the most compelling works on the significance of assumptions about faith is in Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. She describes two different ways to understand faith, namely mythos and logos. The two words did in the old Greek tradition use to represent two different forms of knowledge, she explains, one that concerned itself with practical issues and the improvement and development of those (logos), and one that was more in the psychological sphere of competence (mythos). The distinctive merit of mythos was that “people had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons,” and it was not meant to be understood literally. However, she continues, since the early modern period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mythos has been reduced to something that is not true at all. She concludes that this disparage of mythos has “resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism.”

It seems, then, like religion today has become caught up in a logos understanding of their faith, even though there is little defence for such a position in the academic sphere. But within the religious sphere of Christianity, many argue that the word of the Bible is supposed to be interpreted literally. The most prominent example of this is creationism, which is based on a literal interpretation of Genesis:

We believe in creation, first of all, not because of scientific evidence, but because of our faith in Jesus Christ and in His Word the Bible. The Lord Jesus is revealed in the Bible to be the Creator of all things (John 1:3, Hebrews 1:1-3), and He is for Christians the Lord of all and the Head over all things, including science (Acts 10:36, Ephesians 1:22). Our Head has said something about science in John 5:45-47, namely this: If we believe in Jesus Christ, then we must believe Moses' writings. What did Moses write about first of all? He wrote about the creation of all things by God. So we judge science by the Bible and not the other way around. "We walk by faith, not by sight." (I Corinthians 5:7)
Creation-Science Research Center

Such logos interpretation of the Bible in many Christian communities is also what critics like Richard Dawkins assume, discarding any mythos understanding of religion as a “lonely creek.” In fact, this assumption is at the very core of Dawkins argument: “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” To him, faith is this mental exercise in believing something factual one really has no reason to believe, and it is represented by stubbornness and arrogance, deafness to reason. Dawkins does not recognize anything beautiful about that, and subsequently discards faith as evil altogether.

Faith is life
In response, Christians thinkers like Harvey Cox are developing theologies that hardly have any doctrines at all. Cox describes faith as a hope and trust in God to just work, as opposed to belief, which he describes as certainty of details and factualities. Like the priest Unamuno suggested, “you don’t have to believe in God to pray.” Cox strongly emphasise faith (mythos) over belief (logos), even to the point where he subtly questions the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus as factual events. And even if that might be reading too much into Cox’ words, at the very least the factual components of those events appears less important to him, as they seemingly deal with belief rather than faith.

We find a similar interpretation by Gene Robinson, a practicing gay bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire. He does not attribute authority to the Bible as much as he attributes authority to God and Jesus himself. “The Bible is the best and most trustworthy witness to [Jesus' life, death and resurrection], but it neither replaces Jesus as the Word [of God] nor takes precedence over Christ's continuing action in the world through the Holy Spirit.” Of course, Robinson is forced to such an interpretation in order to practice homosexuality with a pure conscience. But also the morally far more conservative bishop N. T. Wright writes along the same lines:

The regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is – a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas

Wright continues to explain how the Bible has the authority of a story – an unfinished play where we are currently in the process of playing out the last act. The authority lies in that we should stay true to the preceding acts of the story. “Appeal could always be made,” he explains, “to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material.” Clearly, Wright is here not preaching anything close to an ‘unquestionable’ faith. Rather, Wright and Robinson, as well as Cox, Armstrong and many others, are all arguing that faith primarily is about living. And living is all about asking questions, like, ‘what do we do now?’

There are in other words influential scholars that prove Dawkins terribly wrong in his assumption that unquestionable doctrine is the only sizeable form of faith we find in Christianity today.

The role of doctrine
Of course, most Christians have some form of basic doctrine that is important to them, including myself. It is for instance difficult to make Jesus Lord if you think Jesus was just an ordinary man with a good heart. It is easy to make an ordinary man with a good heart an inspiration or a hero, even though you may think he is insane. But it is quite different to make him Lord. So to have such faith, it is very helpful to intellectually believe that Jesus actually is God, in a very objective sense. And if not with an absolute certainty, at least consider it plausible and hope that it is the case.

This doctrine, if you will, is of course important to the believer. But neither this is a question of creed as much as it is a question of living. In its most basic form, this is a part of trusting that Jesus is Lord. This trust, or acknowledgment if you like, does not always come with an absolute historical certainty, but it should always come with confidence in the forgiveness of sins and a subsequent change in behaviour for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

In fact, the creed of Jesus’ Lordship itself is nothing more than empty words if not a result of trusting that Jesus is Lord. You can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ as much as you want, but if you don’t trust it – that is, with your life – it is all useless. To insist on the creed of Jesus’ Lordship while not living it is actually straight out hypocrisy. It is like proclaiming that everyone should be warm and well fed without giving as much as a penny to those cold and hungry.

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.
James 2:14-19 (TNIV)

The core of faith ought not to be creeds and doctrines but a confidence that Jesus is Lord. The core of faith is not ‘works’ and being nice to other people either; but the core of faith should be to trust that Jesus is Lord. I will examine more closely what this trust looks like.

Faith is trusting that Jesus is Lord
What is trust? Let me explain what I mean by using an example from the infantry. A soldier must trust his fellow soldiers to cover him as he advances to the next pit. He trusts that his brothers in arms are shooting at the enemy – and not at him. He also trusts that they in fact do shoot at the enemy, so he is ‘covered’ when he moves. He is hence giving his life at the mercy and skill of his team. This is trust.

Similarly, to trust in Jesus is to have a sense that Jesus forgives your sins and watches over you. To use the analogy of a soldier, trusting Jesus is to move forward to the next pit with confidence. It is to live with the assurance that he is covering you so that the forces of Hell can’t get you. To further capture the sense of Jesus’ Lordship, you can expand the analogy to make Jesus your squad leader. The squad leader is active in giving cover, while he also gives instructions on where to move forward.

Of course, Jesus’ way of warfare is quite different from that of a worldly war. As Jesus tells his followers to move forward, he only has one command: to love. That is how the Kingdom of God fights, that is how the Kingdom of God is different from this world (John 18:36). Listen to Jesus’ command:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.
John 15:9-13 (TNIV)

To trust that Jesus is Lord, then, is to have confidence in and live as though Jesus was your squad leader. It is always looking to Jesus when wondering where to move forward next. It is to trust that he protects you. It is to be a follower of Christ, manifesting Christ’s character in the world, laying our lives down in humble service. Like Claiborne and Haw sees it in their Jesus for President, a “Christian came to refer to those disciples who saw themselves as ‘little Christs,’ people who were literally the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus alive in the world.” In short, to make Jesus Lord is to follow his example, and to trust he is Lord is to trust that he is covering us. This is the core of faith.

Faith is beautiful
Now that we have established what is our core of faith, the other aspects of faith, though still valid, becomes more secondary. So even though faith understood as believing everything in the Bible is still present, it is not the core. So also interpreting every little thing in the Bible is neither our primary concern. For instance, there is a discussion on in which situations the Bible condemns abortion, opinions ranging from 'always' to 'never.' And sure, there might be a correct answer to that. But finding that answer is no longer our primary concern, much less insisting on the truth to whatever answer we end up with. Rather, our primary concern is trusting that Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is fully beautiful.

If the primary concern of faith is to believe everything in the Bible, then surely a believer will emphasize the inconsistencies he finds between scripture and the world. If his primary concern is to believe in the Bible, it quickly becomes important for him how Genesis should be interpreted. If his conclusion is creationism, then of course he will emphasise this in his life (or he might reach the same conclusion, but subsequently abandon faith completely because it does not make sense to him). And when a Bible-emphasizing believer reads that homosexuality is a sin, of course he emphasises this in his life, even if he has no such tendencies himself. But what is beautiful about that? Nothing is beautiful about being certain of other people’s sin. Nothing.

A relevant example would be the Manhattan Declaration, published On November 20, 2009. It has of today over 430 000 signatures. These signers are all stating that their faith compels them to fight politically for the sanctity of life, the institution of marriage and religious liberty. It seems that the major concern of the declaration is to impose the moral truths they derive from scripture onto society as a whole. But what is beautiful about that?

In the Manhattan Declaration, the signers even explicitly state that they “set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture (...).” Then is not their faith primarily about believing in the Bible? That is not a beautiful faith! That is a faith concerned with the kingdoms of the world; it has little to do with the kingdom in which Jesus is Lord.

I say, we should rather make our primary concern to trust that Jesus is Lord. Then we become as beautiful as Jesus himself. If our faith is primarily concerned with living in the Kingdom of God, then our faith is beautiful. Faith is beautiful if it looks like Jesus Christ, refusing to throw the first stone and turning the other cheek. Faith is beautiful if it looks like Jesus Christ, washing the feet of his disciples. Faith is beautiful if it looks like Jesus Christ, dying for the very people who crucify him... Faith is beautiful indeed if it looks like Jesus Christ. And that is exactly what faith should look like.

Faith can have many different aspects to it, and it is hard to separate one part of faith entirely from another, even though scholars like Cox and Armstrong suggests this is both recommendable and possible. At least I can agree it makes a big difference what we make the core of our faith – the difference between trust in Jesus and belief in the Bible is overwhelming, even as it can be reasonably argued that you cannot have one without the other.

When a trust that Jesus is Lord is the very centre of faith, faith makes people beautiful and gives peace at heart, and it opens the text of the Bible for honest discussion. If, on the other hand, the text in the Bible itself is the most important thing in faith, then being aware of certain “biblical truths” suddenly becomes equally important to making Jesus Lord. That makes it is easy to push Jesus slightly aside in favour of defending the other truths of the Bible. Faith is not all beautiful anymore, and the road to the ugly faith in Dawkins’ analysis is short.

But faith is supposed to be pure and beautiful. Faith is supposed to look like Jesus Christ himself, the one in which we trust as Lord. That is the kind of faith I want to seek for my life, and which I hope everyone will seek with me. If we would all grow in such faith, I cannot believe other than that the church will grow to become the beautiful bride Jesus desires. The church will not be perfect until the day when the Kingdom of God has fully come; but it will still be beautiful.

Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (TNIV)

Read more:
Creation-Science Research Center: The Basics Explained
Richard Dawkins: Man vs. God (Wall Street Journal)
Jerry Falwell: Wikiquotes
Mahatma Gandhi: Wikiquotes
The Manhattan Declaration: A call of Christian conscience
N. T. Wright: How can the Bible be authoritative?

Other literature:
Karen Armstrong: The Case for God
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw: Jesus for President
Harvey Cox: The Future of Faith
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
Gene Robinson: In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God
The Bible: Today's New International Version

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! Well reasoned, well written, right on the spot.