Friday, October 9, 2015

Belief or Pratice - What Makes a Christian?

For most of the last 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, denominations in Western Christianity have been obsessed with making sure they have the right doctrine. The assumption in western Christianity has often been this: Being a Christian is about having the right salvation plan and your very salvation plan depends entirely on the right set of beliefs. 

Beliefs are the meat & potatoes in this model while actions are treated as the optional gravy side dish. Having the right beliefs is the foundation in this mindset, and on that foundation, a church community has some flexibility in the way those truths are lived out. Various styles and charisms follow. The beliefs are absolute; the practices vary. We are sympathetic when people do not live into the difficult prescriptions in the Gospel for our lifestyle, but we hold as absolute our beliefs. 

Jesus called on us to be "salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13), but he seemed to imply something much more essential than just an optional flavoring. 
This belief-centered approach is promoted even when the language goes to theological extremes that few can understand. Even the most educated theologians struggle to understand slim nuances of difference between theological arguments. Nevertheless, many churches have not hesitated to claim that your eternal life depends on having the right beliefs and joining the right club.

I have an advanced degree in Theology, and yet I still do not understand the differences between any number of hot button church dividing issues.

Those nuances DO matter. But is it possible that we may sometimes obsess over the finer points of theology as a distraction from actually changing our lifestyle in light of the revelation of Christ?  

The belief-first model makes sense on some levels: For example, we can all agree on the belief that feeding the hungry is important. How we feed the hungry can legitimately change shape depending on the circumstances. Still, not all methods are equal, and therein lies the rub.
We also know that humans are imperfect, and we believe in a God of compassion and forgiveness in our mistakes to manifest this truth we have come to know. We may fail to freed the hungry but still affirm that feeding the hungry is important.

I am suggesting something more symbiotic: 

The truth impacts the way we live, so having different beliefs will definitely bring about different practices. It goes the other way, too: The way we practice the Christian faith informs our beliefs. By practicing mercy, for example, we come to know God and therefore expand our beliefs, not to mention demonstrate what we actually mean by those beliefs. By getting to know the world better through servanthood, our beliefs broaden, deepen and develop.

Left: Traditional Model - Belief Centered
Right:  Symbiotic Model

I liken it to the way Scripture and Tradition have a symbiotic relationship in Catholic theology--bouncing off each other, informing each other, each providing a lens to see the other.  

I would be hesitant to suggest that practice is more important than belief. For now, I am comfortable saying that the two should be kept in balance.

The relationship between belief and practice would follow in a similar way:

Our knowing helps us to do --
and our doing helps us to know.
"The medium is the message," as philosopher Marshall McLuhan said and my Theology advisor always reminded me. Belief and practice are expressed as one phenomenon. How something is conveyed is just a part of the message as the explanation that may accompany it. There is a oneness here. Thought cannot be divorced from action. 

Telling someone you love them while punching them in the face gives at best a mixed message, if it is not an outright contradiction. It certainly calls into question your definition of love and your meaning, intention and conviction behind it. You may believe in love, but do you really know love? I am using "know" here in the Biblical sense--a whole-person experience rather than just a detached intellectual experience.
Obviously, we will all have ideals that we fall short of realizing. I am suggesting something more than simply "practice what we preach." I am saying that the way we understand the faith could benefit greatly if we understood the Christian life as being as much a verb as a noun.

The famous love passages in 1 Corinthians 13 backs this up. Grace--as understood as faith, hope and love--is the only thing that is eternal or coherent, according to the passage. Knowledge, prophecy--everything, really--all pass away, but faith, hope and love endure. All else is only so much senseless noise. It is only God's grace which brings order out of chaos, which turns that senseless noise into music and which brings something that dies to life. Our participation in this is a more energetic relationship than an intellectual, contractual agreement.

Hiding-in-Plain-Sight Christianity

The spiritual path can be hard, and it is easy to hide from it. There is no better way of fooling people--and yourself--than hiding in plain sight. We do this by talking about Christianity. We may practice a few core disciplines that our tradition mandates--we may go to church and abstain from certain behaviors, for example. But do our lives actually give witness to what we claim to believe? Is there even an attempt made to express the radical reality of Christ? Do we know Christ only in our thoughts but not elsewhere?
The western mind is the descendent of the Ancient Greeks. Their heavily analytical style broke apart reality into pieces for study and comment. The human person in its wholeness became thought of as mind, body and soul. This kind of fragmentation is great for analytical study so long as we do not lose sight of the integrated whole. The Greeks may have inadvertently paved the way for the way we nowadays often see belief and practice as so distinct as to be virtually unrelated to each other. 
The Letter of James attempts to remind us that the human experience is whole: "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead" (James 2:26).

The great Reformers cautioned us with this. They wanted to quell the idea that humans are in charge of our destiny and that somehow we can "earn" salvation from our own efforts. It is a fair point, but they miss an even bigger point: Grace itself is a holistic experience of faith, hope and love that is not limited to the mental affirmation of belief. When we say that faith is crucial but works are not, we are acting like attendance in the locker room is essential but participation in the game itself is optional. Good works become a kind of optional victory lap in the Christian life rather than the race itself.

James challenges us more than most Christians are willing to consider. Consider this often ignored line: "Even the demons believe--and shudder" (James 2:19). Belief is not enough--the Christian experience must be more than that.

Faith without works is dead not because we earn salvation, as many in the Reformation argued. It is dead because the Christian life is not merely an intellectual head game--it is a whole-person endeavor.
A lot of people like to talk about religion. It is like theology is a puzzle to figure out, and they brood over it deeply. Indeed, many people have the spiritual calling--or burden--to be theologians. Their minds are unceasingly pondering the great mysteries and trying to glean what we can know of God from what has been revealed. Still, one of the great hiding places for the westerner is to hide in her/his own mind. We need thinkers, but when thoughts are too separated from a lived expression they fall short.

Defining Ourselves By Orthopraxy

Christians tend to group themselves along lines of belief. What if we were to group Christians along lines of practice?

Take something like the peace movement—very united in practice, but not always united in dogma, as people come from a variety of traditions. Yet at the same time, the practice of peace does bring about a sense of who humans are and our place in the cosmos—an implied theology is there. The peace movement is a kind of "church." Perhaps according to the test of Matthew 25, maybe we need to remove the phrase "kind of" and say "is"--it is a church in the sense that it is doing what Christ says to do.
The same is probably true of other movements, such as the charismatic movement or missionary movement(s). Movements have a theology. 

My colleague Dr. Rick Stern noticed that there is a unique and identifiable theology in the lyrics of bluegrass music. The practice of the music, the community which has formed around it and the revelations discovered through its practice have give it a distinct charism, or theology.   

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
—John 14:6 NIV

This is a verse most Christians have heard over and over again. It just becomes part of the wallpaper of daily life—it is so central, yet it can be so overlooked.
Jesus announces that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  In other words:

* No one comes to the Father except through the Truth of Jesus. 

* No one comes to the Father except through the Way of Jesus. 

* No one comes to the Father except through a Life in Jesus. 
Practicing Christianity may be just as important as believing in the right Christianity. To this point, many early Christians were referred to as followers of the Way (Acts 9:2).
Even the word "truth" itself is not necessarily about intellectual assent but about the Mystery of Jesus as the Incarnation of God. It is how we are in relationship with this Mystery and the impact it has on our lives that matters.

Merely identifying the Truth alone is only part of the equation, and I believe this is what James was warning us about. James was not fostering a "salvation by works" theology as much as he was reminding us that the challenge of Christ is a whole person endeavor, and he was trying to call us out of one of our favorite hiding places: Our mind.

For Further Reading

Saving Souls, Not Dogma, is the Heart of Pastoral Church Life discusses a paradigm shift along the lines of this post and was helpful in constructing it.

The First Canon: Mercy offers the quote by Pope Francis below which I believe also speaks to the relationship of faith/works and orthodoxy/orthopraxy:

"Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude,
but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus."
-- Pope Francis

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