Friday, April 04, 2008

What and How I Believe

Recently, I read two chapters from Marcus Borg's book, Jesus and was particularly interested in his discussion of the two paradigms of contemporary Christianity: the belief-centered and the emerging paradigms. I don’t read Marcus Borg often but when I do I find that I often agree with his analysis, but when it comes to interpretation/application he and I go off in different directions. When I begin to think that I might be becoming a theological liberal, Borg reminds me I really am not. However, I was also struck by the absence of a third, much more compelling, paradigm.

Borg first talks about what he calls the belief centered paradigm of Christianity. In that context he discusses the effect the Enlightenment had on the Christian understanding of belief. Prior to the Enlightenment belief or faith was synonymous with trust in and loyalty to God. The Enlightenment challenged the factual basis of Christian faith with its scientific worldview and critical stance toward anything that was not able to be grasped by the five senses. Thus, he says in Christian circles there was a shift from "belief in" to "belief that." In other words the trust/loyalty view of faith gave way to an affirmation of certain “truths’ and doctrines. I think that is a helpful discussion, and today it is true that for many churchgoers a "belief that" approach to faith is all that seems to matter. Many churchgoing folks seem to think that as long as they believe certain truths, that is all there is to being a Christian.

However, for most evangelicals this is a false dichotomy because the "belief that" leads to and supports the "belief in." So for instance, my belief that Jesus is a savior, leads me to entrust my life to Jesus; belief in a doctrine leads me to seek a relationship with God thru Jesus Christ. Borg rightly stresses the trust/loyalty dimension of faith as most important, but for many theologically conservative Christians, they are two sides of the same coin. Borg believes one can have a belief in God without a belief that certain things are true about God. I find it is sort of like building a house without a framework; one hangs on the other.

However, I was reminded recently at how middle class, educated and white this whole discussion is. Quite by accident I came across an article called "The Christian Revolution" (someone left it on the copier at work) from a book by Philip Jenkins called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Jenkins points out that the plurality of Christians has shifted from Europe and North America to Africa, Latin America and increasingly Asia. He points out "beyond the simple demographic transition, there are countless implications for theology and practice." For instance, a major implication is that moving into the future the vast majority of Christians are and will be relatively impoverished and live life on the edge of material sustenance. As a result, their world and worldview is much closer that of the first century Christians. They know what Howard Thurman means in Jesus and the Disinherited when he says that the message of Jesus was a "survival strategy" for the oppressed. Writing as an oppressed person Jesus speaks out of and into their situation much more readily. Jenkins says that for the vast majority of Christians in the world, this is a truth that literally sustains them day to day. He calls those of us in North America to take notice that our way of thinking is not the only game in town and isn’t even the biggest or most important game. He calls us to reconsider our Enlightenment-based arrogance and blindness to the reality of the supernatural.

Jenkins points out that for most of the world’s Christians belief in the supernatural and the possibility of miracles, healings and other examples of God breaking into the natural order are not a troubling intellectual dilemma, but a life-affirming and life-saving strategy. Their testimony is that God is at work in the world in these ways. I see this same mindset in some of my students, who come from the underside of U.S. society. God's movement in their lives is real in a way that as an educated, white, middle class intellectual I find hard to accept. Even so I find their testimony compelling.

In the end Jenkins causes me to reconsider my framework --- have I so bought into Enlightenment thinking that I have become blind to what Jesus and the people of his day saw as a natural part of reality, and which people in the developing world have come to see is their lifeline to God? It is a question I can not shake.


Mystical Seeker said...

There are other ways of believing that God works in the world besides believing that "he" does so by breaking through the natural order from the outside and performing miracles. One could instead believe that God is active in the world through the natural order.

It is possible that the attraction of the downtrodden to belief in miracles has a simple and direct cause--they are suffering, and they want a quick and magical end to their suffering. And who wouldn't? But this seems to be a way in which religion can be the opiate of the people. This may reflect a natural human reaction, but why cater to it? Instead relying on the hard work of building a just social order, it is easy to fall into the trap of hoping for some rescue by a powerful force from the outside. Unfortunately, as the victims of the Holocaust saw only too well, outside help just doesn't come in that way. If instead we seek to allow God to act through us and our actions, we have a more realistic hope of solving our problems.

boydwinton said...

I really appreciate the way you have connected “belief in” and “belief that.” What I find helpful about Borg is that he points out that fro many, the beginning place is “believe in.” The reason this is helpful is that many of the “belief that” concepts are rightly beyond our grasp. If I believe in Jesus, I may find myself, without even realizing it, coming to believe that Jesus is savior. Clearly these two approaches to faith go together. But just as clearly, Borg is speaking to those who have found the starting point of “you must believe that…” to be troubling for many reasons; they can’t get their heads around the object of such a belief, asking people to “believe that” has been a method of naming heretics in cruel and unnecessary ways, demanding people “believe that” has been a smokescreen against dealing with real issues in our lives. These are just a few of the reasons.

I wish I could “bottle” the faith that has been inspired by Borg’s unpacking of this. I wish I could “bottle” the sense of freedom and openness to the Spirit that has emerged in people who otherwise have kept the Christian faith mostly in their heads. His ministry, as it were, has been to help unleash the Spirit in such a way that leads to living differently; as well as the embracing of mystery, miracles, and all sorts of other non intellectual things. We had a healthy conversation last Sunday (in Java and Jesus) about the difference between intellectualizing the faith, and using the intellect to lead to deeper faith. When these concepts are used in service to faith, I think it is beautiful.

To your other point. I hope that such discovery will also open our eyes to the emerging (a bit of a pun) global Christianity. I have come to see, based on travels with Christians in both Palestine and the Dominican Republic, that Global Christianity will be most vibrant if it involves a healthy and honest exchange. I, and we, have a great deal to learn from those living on the underside of the global power structure, absolutely. But I also think we bring some important things to the exchange - including our embrace not just of our global brothers and sisters in Christ, but also in the way we seek to push the boundaries of what constitutes the grace and love of God known in Christ. I had a fascinating conversation with our Dominican Habitat host while there and after I came back – wishing there was room in the church in her country for someone like her who is passionate and full of doubts, seeking but independent of mind and spirit, a lover of the community she has known in the church and also on the receiving end of its rather harsh judgment.

For me, the work of Borg AND the Christian witness and music of the developing world’s churches with their raw witness and strength and hope are BOTH part of the package. What I am reminded of every time I use Borg is how many people remain trapped in their earlier Christian paradigms with little language or experience to help them move off center. He is not the only way to get off center, but he remains a viable one.