Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Matter and Manner of Christian Belief

A common criticism leveled against Christians by postmoderns (or responded to by Christian apologists) is that it's somehow intolerant, arrogant, or narrow-minded to claim that your religion has "the One Truth", that it is true and all other worldviews are wrong. Who are you to make such a bold claim and invalidate the experiences and beliefs of billions? The standard apologetic response goes, then, that truth is necessarily exclusive. By the nature of the claims they make, the religions of the world cannot all be true at once. Believing one is really, absolutely true necessarily means believing that all the others are therefore false. (And, of course, absolute truth does exist--to deny this is to utter a contradiction) Christian faith means clinging to the truth and rejecting falsehood. All of this tolerant mumbo-jumbo about all the religions being "different, equally valid paths to God" is then nothing but wishful thinking, a refusal to see the reality of "how truth works".

Is this really how truth works?

Large swaths of Christianity seem to believe so. Creeds, statements of faith, confessions, and so on have been an integral part of Christian tradition since the very early church. These can be deep, heartfelt expressions of a sincere faith in God, but (I think especially today) they can also act as definitions of what we believe. Agreement with a statement of faith is often a condition for membership of a church or denomination. A common confession serves to unify churches in their affirmation of what they believe to be true, against arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5).

All this to try to paint a picture of how much emphasis Christian churches, historically and certainly in modern evangelicalism, place on what Christians believe. Perhaps you can think of other examples. In light of this, I'm going to make a statement that may be provocative: What you believe is not as important as how you believe it. Surprisingly, when I first had this thought I was unintentionally echoing the 350-year-old words of the Puritan theologian John Owen, who wrote in his treatise Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, "The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing."

Of course any number of alarming implications can be drawn from this. If what Christians believe is not the thing of greatest importance that really makes them "Christians", then, in theory, someone could belong to Christ while professing to believe things that are antithetical to Christian tradition. It would mean that doctrines, creeds, and statements of faith aren't as central to Christian belief as we think. It might mean that those postmoderns in the first paragraph were right all along! Maybe I don't exactly mean all of these things. Remember that I didn't say that the matter of belief is not important, only that is is less important: the manner of belief--how you believe what you believe, whatever it is. Let me try to support this with three of the apostles.

James writes in James 2:14-26, a passage that often makes reformed Christians uneasy:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
What he is saying here is that simply believing certain things is not enough for the Christian: those beliefs must be of a kind that lead to changed action, changed lives. This doesn't just mean adopting a new "Christian" worldview and then consciously, rationally deciding to live differently according to it. As James K.A. Smith argues in his book Desiring the Kingdom, most of our outward lives are not the result of conscious decisions we make but of our habits, desires, and loves, which all strive toward a certain telos (goal) of our life. James (the apostle) is speaking of a belief that may manifest as a certain set of conscious beliefs (a certain "creed"), but primarily extends deeper than this--a turning of our hearts, imaginations, and habits to God. He is getting at a distinction between words of profession and action or affection that is easily forgotten in Christianity where it is highly influenced by modernism, which values consciously held, well-reasoned, propositional beliefs most highly (with the assumption that if we believe rightly in God in this way, He will change our hearts to align with our profession).

Or consider 1 John 3:16-18:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Dare I suppose that John is talking about the same thing as James only with love rather than faith--that the love that is the true mark of Christian love consists not teaching people to believe true statements but in real, physical action--and this not out of obligation or to meet legal demands (which I think he would say is not really love) but a heart that has been transformed by belief in Jesus.

Lastly, Romans 2:25-29, where Paul writes to convict Jewish Christians:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
So an inward orientation of obedience to God is more important than outward signs or professions of faith (which is just what circumcision was--not just a "ritual" as Protestant interpreters often construe it). And so we get more of an idea of what I mean by "how you believe something": with love, gentleness, and consideration (see James 3:17), not bitterness, pride, smugness, the need to be right, or a fear of bad theology.

I, for one, see a lot of the problems of the church as proceeding from this insistence on what is believed over (and even against) how it is believed, emphasizing humans as primairly being thinkers or believers of truth rather than lovers of ultimate good. Agreement with certain creedal statements (or even with a certain stance on hot-button socio-political issues) can effectively become the defining mark of a Christian rather than Christlike love (John 13:35); meanwhile, serious character flaws can be overlooked in someone with all their theological ducks in a row. Worse still, churches can and have split acrimoniously over doctrinal issues (up to and including the first major and biggest split in church history over the filioque), which may sometimes be justifiable but is often due to nothing more than elevating matter of belief over manner of belief.

We may try to minister to peoples' deep-seated emotional needs with bare doctrine, assuming that teaching people to think and believe rightly about God will be enough (hint: it isn't). Even if I have in mind exactly how the Gospel applies to some sin I'm struggling with, but no matter how much I tell it to myself it doesn't seem to make a difference. Knowledge of facts alone cannot save us. We cannot simply assume that telling people the (propositional) Truth about X (homosexuality, God's sovereignty over evil, evolution, fill in the blank) is automatically loving. The way in which we hold these beliefs and share them with others is more important and may even act as a guide to what we believe. (For an extreme example, does believing that God hates gays and wants them to burn in hell along with all who tolerate them make you resemble Jesus more or less?)

So how we are to address our token postmodern? I would qualify the critique as pertaining not to which beliefs we hold but how we hold them, a distinction which is easily forgotten in knee-jerk responses in defense of absolute truth. We are quick to point out the hypocrisy (literally from the Greek, "under-judging") of criticizing claims to absolute truth, but what if we were to trust postmoderns to be more consistent than this and actually try to understand what they are saying?

What I think this critique is getting at is the distinction between viewing yourself as a God-appointed prophet-teacher to the unenlightened masses, with a one-way flow of Truth from your mouth to their ears, or as a humble servant who has been entrusted with a message that has the power to transform lives and is a living case study of it, still undergoing the transformation of that message. One way really is arrogant, assuming that we ourselves are infallible because we possess an infallible gospel; the other resembles Jesus and realizes that God has placed His perfect gospel into fallible, finite human vessels as if to maximize the contrast (see 2 Corinthians 4:7). There is nothing wrong with simply believing that the Christian gospel is true (as I believe it is), but how we believe it is another crucial and oft-overlooked dimension.

As I was writing this, I was convicted to close with one last point. I said that the manner of belief is more important than the matter, but the most important thing is neither of these but the object of belief itself (existing "objectively", independently of the things you believe about it). Whatever you believe about him/her/it, the pivotal question is: toward what or whom is your belief (think the desire of your love, your greatest love, the fulcrum of your imagination, vision of the "good life", foundation of your identity, etc., not just doctrinal assent) directed?


  1. Very Kierkegaardian. Truth is proven in its subjectivity (who is it directed toward) not just its objectivity. Good stuff!

    1. Realizing that God has a reality and an existence completely independently of what I think about Him takes some pressure off me to have Him all figured out.

      Incidentally, I am writing a (positive) response to your latest post that is also shaping up to be a follow-up to this one.