The New Christianity, Part 2: Faith

February 1, 2004



The New Christianity, Part 2: Faith (2/1/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

My favorite metaphor for life is life as a journey. We are travelers in this world, making our way through our days form birth to death, trying to make the most of the trip. As people of faith, we do not consider ourselves accidental tourists. There is meaning behind our lives. We are here for a reason. And we embrace this beautiful and mysterious journey with faith, hope and love. And that makes our time in this glorious creation a faith journey.

Last week, we began a series on what we are calling The New Christianity. The problem we face is simple enough. The language of faith that has been handed down to us over the centuries contains great truth, but sometimes we have to dig beneath the language itself to find that truth. The fact is, our forebears in faith did not look at the world through 21st Century eyes. They envisioned a three-tier universe. We human beings stood on the middle of these three levels—a flat and stationary ground. Somewhere up in the sky was God, and somewhere beneath our feet was death and decay.

When these inspired men and women experienced the glory of God—when they had personal and intimate encounters with the eternal—encounters that words simply cannot capture—they expressed themselves the only way they knew how. The wonderful stories they told involved a heaven above and a hell below; a sky filled with angelic spiritual beings; a subterranean world haunted by demonic forces.

The images they used to express themselves don’t fit in well with our modern view of the universe. And the world seems to have divided into three factions. The first faction hides its eyes from the truths of the modern, scientific world, and claims we must literally believe all the poetic images expressed by the faithful of the ancient world. To do otherwise is to turn away from God. The second faction says the modern world has outgrown God; that science answers all the questions that need to be answered, and the ideas of faith and religion are things the human race must outgrow.

And then there is the third group, made up largely of the types of people who come to this church. This third group believes that we can look truth squarely in the eye and still have plenty of room for faith. As I like to say, we should never hide from the truth. God will always be waiting for us right in the middle of any truth we find.

Consider, for example, Copernicus and Galileo, who recognized the earth was not the stationary center of the universe. Most people in the church believed that to accept such a notion would be the end of God. There would be no room for God in a universe where the earth was just a tiny spec in a seemingly endless cosmos.

Did it serve God well to insist, against all evidence, that the earth remained the center of the universe? Was it necessary for us to protect God from the truth? Of course not! The only God who disappeared when we accepted the truth about the universe was the false God humanity had placed on a little cloud up in the sky—the manlike God who looked down from his cloud and moved human beings around like puppets.
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But that never was God—not really. All that happened when we accepted the truth about the universe was that our concept of God got a whole lot bigger. Humanity got smaller and God got bigger. And I don’t think we should have a problem with that. The implications for such subjects as evolution clearly come into play with this subject. Once again, there are those in the church who believe God must be constrained by their understanding of God, and of their understanding of how God does things.

But once again we must ask ourselves: Do we need to protect God from the truth? Must we believe that God snapped his fingers and poof—Adam suddenly came into existence? Does it make God something less to believe God took billions of years to bring forth these amazing and miraculous bodies and minds of ours? I mean, God has plenty of time—all the time in the world, so to speak. Do we really want to insist that we get to make the rules for how God does things?

Of the three factions of modern people I mentioned, the first two do not wrestle with these questions. One group—the unquestioning religious—simply accepts the ancient worldview as accurate, and blames the devil if their brains start questioning things; and the second group—the narrowly scientific—simply throws out the baby with the bath water, claiming all of creation is a meaningless accident.

And maybe they are the lucky ones! I must admit, I envy them at times. Everything is so black and white to the people of those first two factions. For the rest of us, the universe is filled with shades of gray, and the answers just don’t come that easily.

But you know, this is the universe we’ve been given to deal with, and many of us just can’t pretend it is something other than what it is. Our minds tell us we cannot reduce the universe to simplistic ancient views of a three-tiered universe, and our hearts tell us that life is filled with meaning, and purpose, and is anything but an accident.

So we seek to find a New Christianity. We don’t want to throw away our history—we want to embrace it. But we want to embrace it honestly, with open minds. And there are many among our number. One of the members of this congregation gave me a book several weeks back by Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is one of the most important voices in the New Christianity. She said she enjoyed Spong’s book, but that it left her “unsatisfied.”

Her remark was right on target. I think very highly of Bishop Spong. Thanks to the people of this congregation I was able to go to New York and hear him lecture for a week about three years ago. And Leigh and I were privileged to have dinner with him when he was in town this past fall. But he epitomizes the problem with The New Christianity. He justifiably takes apart some long-cherished but illogical elements of our faith. But he doesn’t give us much to hang on to! In other words, he takes that first faction of people—the unthinking believers—to task; but he doesn’t give us a lot of reasons to keep coming to church.

That is why I am so fond of the writing of Marcus Borg, whose new book, The Heart of Christianity, seeks to find some spiritual anchors for those of us in that third faction. We are following the general outline of his book in this series, as we take a new look at some old ideas—ideas like the Bible, faith, sin, salvation, and so on.

For example, what is faith? Marcus Borg tells of a woman he met on an airplane who told him she didn’t care much for Christianity, and preferred Buddhism and Sufism. Why? Because, she said, those other religions are about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing. We all know what she meant. For many, Christian faith is all about believing the right things. We must proclaim loudly and boldly, “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I believe Jesus died for my sins. I believe Jesus rose from the dead. I believe Jesus will return to earth. And that makes me a person of faith—a Christian.”

There are good Christians who believe those things and good Christians who question them, but I wonder what Jesus would think of that definition? The really ironic thing is that Jesus got quite upset with people who thought they had figured out how to please God with their beliefs. Jesus became very frustrated with those who thought their practice of religion placed them in God’s good graces.

It is a recurring theme, in story after story. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan. Who does what is pleasing to God? The priest who follows the religious rules and does not touch a bloody body, which would make the priest ritually unclean; or the Samaritan, who knew little of religion, but who came to the person in need? Remember the story of the person who goes to the Temple to make an offering, but who has had an argument with a brother or sister. Jesus tells them to lay their offering aside, and go make things right with their brother or sister. Likewise, what does Jesus say to those who spend all their time praying at the Temple and making sacrifices to God? He says, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

For Jesus, faith was not a matter of what a person believed. Faith was all about the way a person lived. Faith wasn’t a matter of belief—it was a way of life. And yet, it is not surprising that the woman on the airplane rejected Christianity. We are confronted daily with the message that the Christian faith is all about believing the right things—believing the right things about Jesus, about the Bible, about how to be saved. We are even told that we must believe that those who do not make a proper confession of faith—those who do not believe the correct things—will be sent off to eternal damnation. Think about that. We are told that, in the name of the one who said judge not, we must make the ultimate judgment and believe our loving Creator will send to hell anybody who does not believe the right things.

This notion that belief is the central tenet of the Christian faith does something terrible to our faith. It makes our faith purely a matter of the head. It surprises many people to learn what Bible scholars have long known—there are four basic meanings of the word faith. Three of those meanings have to do with the heart, and only one has to do with the head. The New Christianity must reclaim the full force and meaning of that word—faith—if it hopes to become a way of life, and not just a set of beliefs.

The four meanings of faith are traced to four Latin words: faith as assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio. I will assume that your experience with Latin has been as painful as my own, and follow Marcus Borg’s lead, modifying those words to their nearest English equivalents: assent, trust, faithfulness, and vision.

The first meaning—faith as assent—is the only one of the four meanings that involves belief. The emphasis the modern church places on this intellectual type of faith can be traced to the Protestant Reformation. As the church splintered into hundreds of different groups, each group was identified by the things that made them different from the others. Denominations developed doctrines and confessions of faith to distinguish themselves from one another.

So this form of faith—faith as assent—is a mental assent to a set of ideas. I believe the right things, and that makes me a Christian. Before I move on, I do not want to entirely dismiss this form of faith. In my mind, there are some beliefs that make people Christians. We’ll return to that idea in a few moments. But for now, let’s get out of our heads and into our hearts.

Soren Kierkegaard said the greatest distance in the universe is the distance between a person’s head and a person’s heart. But we must make that journey if we are to understand the deep meaning of the word faith. The second meaning of faith is faith as trust—trust at a heartfelt level. Kierkegaard compared faith to floating in the ocean. If you struggle and flail about, you will sink. If you relax, you will float. This type of faith is the sincere conviction that in this amazing and confusing universe, we can trust God.

How often Jesus talks about this kind of faith! Do not worry about tomorrow. God loves the little birds—will God not surly love you? Marcus Borg makes a great point about how we can measure how much of this type of faith we have in our lives. Simply measure our anxiety. The more anxiety we have, the less trust in God we have.

The third type of faith is faith as fidelity, or faithfulness. We human beings have many layers. We have the outward person we show to the world; the private person we let only those closest to us see; and the real inner self, that we ourselves may look upon only rarely. Faith as faithfulness deals with this deepest level of our being. Are we faithful at our very core? Consider a marriage. It works best if both partners, at the very center of their beings, are loyal and committed to one another. The best marriages aren’t made of people who avoid temptations; they are made of people who are so committed to the marriage that there is no temptation.

With regard to God, this type of faithfulness involves a complete surrender to, and a radical centering on, God. When Jesus was asked to name the most important commandment, he had over 600 to choose from. There are over 600 laws in the Hebrew Bible. His answer? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. Of course, Jesus followed that commandment with a second commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Faith, in this context, means loving God and neighbor, and being loyal and committed to both relationships. Because to love God means to love that which God has created.

Finally, there is faith as vision. Marcus Borg relies on the writing of the great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr to clarify this type of faith. This “vision faith” involves how we see the world—the whole universe—and Niebuhr says there are three basic ways of viewing the world.

First, we can view it as a hostile and dangerous place. And you don’t have to be paranoid to think this way. No one here gets out alive. Not you, not me, not our great-great grandchildren. The astronomers tell us that even the earth itself will one day be consumed by a dying sun. Closer to the here-and-now, we and our loved ones are constantly threatened by disease and accident, and we are among the lucky ones on this planet who are not battling poverty and violence on a daily basis. It is very easy to look at this crazy world and think it’s a hostile place.

A second way of looking at the world is to view it as amoral—indifferent. The universe isn’t necessarily hostile toward human beings—it just doesn’t care. It may be magnificent, and elegant, and in a strange and mysterious way beautiful, but the notion that there is any type of meaning behind it is just human folly. People who view the world this way can find great beauty in the living of their lives, and they may be quite committed to taking care of the world ecologically, but ultimately they are likely to confine their time, energy, and love to themselves and the people who are closest to them.

The third way—the faithful way—of viewing the world is to see it as life-giving and abundant. This way of seeing the world looks at creation as wondrous and beautiful. It sees all life as sacred; in fact, it sees all of creation as sacred. And this “faithful way” leads to a willingness to commit oneself to something bigger—to the greater good—to the whole of creation, and to the God who calls it into being.

Faith—that is a loaded word. When somebody asks us if we have faith, how should we respond? Most of the people who would ask such a question are actually asking us if we’ve given a mental assent to some ideas that they think are important. But they aren’t even scratching the surface of the deep meaning of that word—faith.

I said earlier that we should not entirely dismiss the idea of faith as belief. So I want to close with the things that I believe are important for a Christian to believe. I’m not establishing any rules here—there are plenty of sincere Christians who are more than willing to explain the things we must believe, and I refuse to draw any lines in the sand between who is and who is not a Christian.

But as we shape The New Christianity, these are the things that are important to me. First, God is real. This universe is not an accident, and it is held in being by a power—a goodness—a love—that we can only begin to understand. Second, there is something special about Jesus. People can decide for themselves just what that is, but there is something about Jesus. And third, the universe is good. It is good that we are alive.

That’s it. In my mind, that is what faith is all about. My personal hope is that The New Christianity hangs on to those truths—truths we recognize with our heads because they are indelibly imprinted on our hearts. My conviction is that no matter how crazy the world around us gets, we will always embrace them in this place.