What is faith for?

This is the fourth in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

There is a long tradition of apologetics in Western theology, which is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse- as if it might be possible to cancel out any doubt or heresy by a convincing debate. That is not my point here. I have no interest in defending one narrow definition of faith because I think that this might miss the point of faith entirely. Let me say more.

What if the point of the faith that grew amongst those who called themselves followers of Jesus was NEVER about the defintion and codification of correct belief?

What if the point of faith was only ever the degree to which it set us free to live lives of love and service?

What if the depth of our spirituality is measured not in terms of the clarity and depth of our personal knowledge and enlightenment (despite all of the lovely ego rewards that would surely bring) but rather by the way that spirituality works out in our actions.

To put it another way, love is verb, describing an action. It is not an abstract concept that can be detatched from the messy business of shared humanity. Love has relevance for everything we do or say, or it has no relevance at all.

Or I could put it this way; Christian faith, divorced from active, engaged, sacrificial love has almost certainly lost it’s way.

I have lost my way.

Moralistic, therapeutic, deism.

This is the term coined by Kenda Creasy Dean in a new book describing research into American Christian teenagers.

Defined as follows-

…a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

It is religion reduced to ‘feeling good’ and ‘personal success’; faith that fits neatly into a lifestyle that values most the attainment of a life full of ‘me’ experiences, ‘me’ relationships. God is employed as a talisman, or a life coach for our attainment and to develop our consuming power. Casey suggests that it is this kind of faith that American teenagers are learning from church and from the Christian families that they grow up in.

Does it sound familliar? If we look below the surface of our own experience of Christianity in the UK, might an impartial observer not draw similar conclusions? But then this too is incomplete. There are many examples of people whose faith has driven them to acts of radical engagement; people who have placed themselves alongside the most needy, or made them seek careers of service.

Nevertheless, it is a constant matter of amazement to me that a religion that grew from followers of the poverty stricken prophet who gave the Sermon on the Mount could co-exist so comfortably with imperialism and capitalism- not just in the sense of religion turning a blind eye, but rather in providing the very philospohical and spiritual underpinnings for both. It is this that seems incredible. How ever did it come to this? It is as if Christianity has be co-opted to act as justification for a thousand acts of conquest and consumption; even genocides.

Take slavery as a case in point, and remember how the words of the Bible were used to justify the fact that black slaves working in cotton fields or sugar plantations were doing so because of the will of God. Author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that this tradition remains strong within American Evangelical Christianity. In his book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, he describes it like this;

“After the South lost the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but slaveholder religion never went away,” he says. “It never repented. And it is with us still.”

In another article about his book Wilson-Hartgrove said this;

…another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be “too political.” So we also have to face the silence of white moderates as a vestige of slaveholder religion. It’s not just the Trump defenders who got us here. It’s also all the good Christian people who did nothing when a man who was endorsed by the KKK became a candidate for president.

To return to the question asked at the head of this piece, what is faith for? Despite the important cricitsms above, in my experience growing up in charismatic and evangelical protestantism, the point of our religion was clear. It was to save souls from eternal damnation in hell.All other activities were then measured according to the degree to which they facilliatated this goal.

What happened to us when we had been saved (although I always had trouble believing that I actually was) was never well defined in this evengelical mono-focus. Of course, we knew that we had to save others, but understanding what living a good Christian life looked like was more problematic. What were we to atually do with ourselves?

The world was essentially divided in two- the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’. Salvation was so important that we were taught to be deeply suspicious of eerything from ‘the world’, which had been given over to Satan. This included art, music, science and partiularly other religions which were all deceptions of the devil. Service to the poor and needy was all well and good but unless it resulted in saved souls, it was a distraction.

What was left for Christians to do (when they hd been saved) was something called ‘worship’. We were to tell God how great he is, repeatedly, mostly in the key of G. I got very good at it, spending most of my spare time playing worship music. What else was a good Christian to do? Along with the rest of our faith, our worship reinforced our seperate-ness. It was an exclusive thing that took place in church buildings. We might have talked about seeing God in sunsets and rainbows, but we talked about it in church. Faith was validated and lived out through the public act of worship, and the correct study of the Word of God which was the climactic event of every gatheirng.

It was a faith that often over-employed its activist followers – to the point of absolute burn-out and beyond – in the support of the institution. I have heard it described as an elaborate wedding ceremony in which the same couple get married at the same time each and every Sunday. We did this because we thought it was a good thing to do. WE thought it served God. We thought it was the only way to live out our Chrsitian lives, short of going off into ‘the mission field’, which was only for a hallowed few.

Perhaps some of you will think this harsh. Perhaps you are right. Churches up and down the land are running food banks, night shelters, AA meetings, debt counselling, mother and toddler groups, even inter-faith dialogue meetings.

Things are never that simple; there is not good and bad, rather there are varying degrees of both/and. God was always willing to work with us in our incompleteness and imperfection- whilst drawing us forward into new encounter. I can testify to my personal similtaneous experience of both.

But Jesus never told us to worship him, he told us to FOLLOW him

Think about that for a moment. Can it be true?

As Richard Rohr puts it;

“Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything” (see the full context of the quote here)

The God Jesus incarnates and embodies is not a distant God that must be placated. Jesus’ God is not sitting on some throne demanding worship and throwing down thunderbolts like Zeus. Jesus never said, “Worship me”; he said, “Follow me.” He asks us to imitate him in his own journey of full incarnation. To do so, he gives us the two great commandments: 1) Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that our “neighbor” even includes our “enemy” (Luke 10:29-37).

So how do we love God? Most of us seem to have concluded we love God by attending church services. For some reason, we thought that made God happy. I’m not sure why. That idea probably has more to do with clergy job security! Jesus never talked about attending services, although church can be a good container to start with, and we do tend to become like the folks we hang out with. The prophets often portray God’s disdain for self-serving church services. “The sanctuary, the sanctuary, the sanctuary” is all we care about, Jeremiah shouts (7:4). “I hold my nose at your incense. What I want you to do is love the widow and the orphan,” say both Isaiah and Amos (Isaiah 1:11-17, Amos 5:21-24), as do Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Micah, and Zechariah in different ways. The prophetic message is absolutely clear, yet we went right back to loving church services instead of Reality. I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives. There is Sunday morning, and then there is real life.

The only way I know how to teach anyone to love God, and how I myself can love God, is to love what God loves, which is everything and everyone, including you and including me! “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “If we love one another, God remains in us, and [God’s] love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12). Then we love with an infinite love that can always flow through us. We then are able to love things in their “thisness” as John Duns Scotus says—for themselves and in themselves—and not for what they do for us. (This from here.)

What I (and I think Richard Rohr) am proposing is not that we ‘set worship at war with works’ rather that we do the absolute opposite. We make them the same. They always were the same anyway We just forgot. Faith without action is… utterly pointless.

We forgot that the point of faith was never about our need for personal validation and security. It is not even about inspiring our our own moral correctness. It was certainly never about empire or the conquest of other countries for private profit.

What about all the saving of souls? Those of us brought up in the evangelical tradition will find it almost impossible to concieve of a Christian faith devorced from what we would regard as ‘the Great Commission’. It is our job to convert the world, right?

Or is it? This is something else that many of us have found our thinking undergoing a remarkable transition on. The Great Commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel says absolutely nothing about saving souls from hell. This is what it actually says;

God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.

(The Message)

Who is Jesus talking to here? Certainly to his disciples, probably extendable to us. He was telling them/us that what he had shown them and taught them was the way forward. He had set them free from narrow religion and reminded them that there is a better way, characterised by grace and love. He had planted hope in the gutter and showed us that our focus should always be on the poorest and most needy. He radically included the outsiders and those whose his own society excluded and hopes we will do the sae.

Jesus called this new way of living out life ‘The New Kingdom’. (Yes, the idea of a New Kingdom had other implications too, but we’ll get to these later.) The point of the Great ommission was to send out agents of the new kingdom, not to make converts to a religion called ‘Christianity’. This distinction may seem subtle, but it it not.

My point here is to ask again about this saving-souls-through-getting-them-to-say-the sinners-prayer stuff that many of us grew up with – what if this was a gross distortion of the message of Jesus? What if salvation is here-and-now thing, not just something reserved for the hereafter?

What if salvation is a intended as a kind of reconnection and restoration of the whole world, not just the chosen few?

I would go further still. What if many of the agents of this new kingdom are not ‘Christians’ at all? What if Christ ‘...plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his‘ as the magnificent Hopkins poem would have it?

What if some of those eyes and limbs are attached to people of other faiths, or none? I am afraid I no longer doubt this. Quite simply nothing else makes sense. Wherever love and grace are, there is God because S/he is the source of all love and grace.

What if Christ is another name for everything, so is in fact the world we are sent to love? Surely then it is our job to recognise him and join him there. It is not difficult to imagine that the Living God would be the breath in all living things and the electric spark that holds every atom in tension. It might be even more special than that though because this is where science and faith become one. What if that force that is the breath of all things and the spark that holds atoms in tension and the energy that sent the galaxies expanding outwards in to unimaginable vastness could actually be called by another name?

I think that name is love.

I believe that Christianity, if it is to be a religion at all, must be one that sends out, rather than only gathers in. It must be the place where agents of the kingdom of the living God are inspired, enabled and commissioned. These agents have a mission that arises from the very stones and soil on which we stand; they are called to find ever more creative ways to love the world. They might do this through missions of peace and justice, or missions of healing and restoration of relationship Because Christ is another name for everything, the mission might also call us to the ends of the earth, to every last species of animal, tree or spider.

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