|Seeking faith and belief|
|Written by Peter Johnston|
|Wednesday, 03 November 2010 17:15|
I finished reading Marcus Borg's novel Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith last night. I was very intrigued to know what the novel would be like. If you have never heard of Borg, he is a very well known scholar with numerous books about the Jesus and the Bible. I have read most of his popular books and easily recommend books like The Heart of Christianity or Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time. His co-authored books with John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright have been challenging and uplifting, and I am always interested to know what Borg is working on. I was frustrated last month to miss a visit by Borg to Edinburgh, but alas I was just too busy to attend.
All of which is to say that I have found a kindred spirit on the faith journey with Borg and appreciate his wisdom and insight on matters of faith. So, while I came to Putting Away Childish Things with a gracious spirit, there was a part of me that was a bit concerned about a move to a fictional novel. While clearly a first novel, I must admit I enjoyed reading it a lot because there were so many resonances to my own experiences. [There's more...]
The book reminded me a lot of Jostein Gaarder's sublime Sophie's World that I read as a student at Aberdeen. Both are "teaching novels". While Gaarder's novel explored the history of philosophy, in Borg's novel we get an exploration of theology.
The book has two locations: a typical liberal arts college and a progressive seminary. The three main characters represent three generations: a successful professor in his 50s, a younger upcoming professor on the way to receiving tenure, and a young student. All, in their own ways, are exploring their faith journey, and through the discussions and conversations in settings from the classroom, the local bar and dorm rooms we enter the world of the academy with its easy exchange of ideas, and also needless to say the internal politics of educational institutions.
This brought back many fond memories as I remember the long, long discussions we had about a particular theological point all those years ago - but also helped me understand some of the angst and fear that some of my friends felt during our time of study when we were encouraged to question everything in order to come out at the other end with a clearer understanding of what or who it is that we have faith in.
The youngest character, Erin, in the book attends a Christian student group, The Way, that sounds much like the Christian Union that I remember, in which she was told to be careful of the religious studies department because they would try to destroy her faith by raising so many questions. Their constant refrain when difficult questions arose was to resort to the old nugget, "you just need to have faith and believe! If you are questioning it is because you are being tempted by Satan."
While not in those stark terms, this same idea has come up a couple of times at our recent Church Membership classes that we are holding with Hillhouse Parish Church. Quite understandably, some have offered the reason for their attendance is to explore whether faith is just a crutch to make us feel better, or if there is something real to it. There is a desire to know what it is we believe, and then to decide whether it makes sense or not. This is totally natural, don't get me wrong, but I wonder if this is really what faith and belief should be about.
It would be so simple just to give a ten point plan, or a five point plan if you are a Calvinist, which explains what Christianity is, and then the decision is just whether or not you assent or agree to that plan. In a sense this is what a creed is, a simplified condensate of the faith outlining what it is we believe. All you have to do is to agree to it. But I have a deep suspicion of anything that oversimplifies a commitment as deep and important as the one we make to follow Jesus, particularly if assent to this one statement then necessitates a denial of all others.
In one of the discussions in Borg's book we have exactly this issue being raised. It is argued that the understanding of belief as being an assent to a set of statements about God and faith is a relatively modern development arising from the Enlightenment and the dominance of scientific thought by which, whether we realise it or not, the truth is equated with facts. If something can be factually proven then it is true, if it can't be factually proven then it is false.
This is what drives so many recent vitriolic disagreements between, for instance, creationists who uphold a six day creation (because that it what the Bible literally says in the first chapter of Genesis) and evolutionists who have studied the facts and find that evolution makes most sense of the observed facts. Creationists are forced to uphold the Bible as factual truth to counter the scientific truth. And as a Christian we are told that we have to assent to the Biblical truth, or the clear teaching of the Bible as it is often put, even when that seems to fly in the face of all we know of the world from other sources.
When this happens, our belief becomes a test of how serious we are in our faith - and thus, the more seemingly impossible the statement, the more impressive is our faith and belief if we accept it. But is that really what faith and belief is supposed to be about: that we are able to suspend our doubts and questions and accept what seems incredible? And, of course, this begs the question: what are the right things to believe? What is correct doctrine and orthodoxy? Who decides?
These questions have absorbed vast amounts of energy and time spent arguing about what are the "right things" to believe. Churches, denominations and individuals have traditonally split from each other over such points of doctrine as infant baptism, communion, predestination, and so on.
What is worth remembering is that the word 'belief' was used pre-1600 almost always in relation to a person. In other words it was used in the sense of "I believe in Jesus (or God, or my brother, or whoever)". After 1600 and following the Reformation the word 'belief' was used more and more about statements of doctrine: I believe that the world was created in 6 days; I believe that Adam and Eve were a real couple; I believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, etc.
The difference is that faith before the Enlightenment was about belief in God and Jesus. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the Church's attempts to bulwark itself against the threats of outside influences, faith became about believing statements about God and Jesus.
In Borg's book I love the simple description of the roots of the word 'belief'. This word comes from a medieval English word that means 'to belove'. So really, in its original meaning, when we say we believe we are saying we belove. That makes a lot of sense to me. What is my Christian faith about? Is it really assenting to a set of statements and doctrines, helpful though these are?
I don't believe so. What my faith means to me is that relationship with Jesus, it is far more than believing statements about Jesus. It is about beloving him and beloving God. This is what is at the heart of my faith. It is funny to think this is actually the origin of that simple word 'believe' that we use so often.
Is seeking faith about seeking certainty? A creedal statement and salvation history plan provide some sense of that, but they don't speak to me as strongly in my experience as Jesus himself. It is Jesus that I believe in. It is him that I trust. When asked a difficult question last Sunday afternoon about eternal life and who would receive it, it would be easy to fall back on points of doctrine and statements to defend one position or another on who may or may not be present in heaven, or to describe what heaven would be like. To be honest, I have no idea. None. But, I do trust Jesus. I believe in him.
Don't mistake me here, I still think the statements and doctrines that have been developed over the years are important and can help us think about and understand God better, but they are not a replacement for God.
When doctrines and statements are used as tools and guides for helping us to know God, then that is great. When my brow furrows is when these doctrines and statements become the gate-keepers for God's grace: you have to believe just this exact same thing that I do and then I will consider you a Christian - it just seems another form of justification by works.
Even when I am not certain, I still trust Jesus. I have my doubts and questions, but ultimately I find a peace in that beloving of Jesus, in that believing in Jesus and what he describes about God and his relationship with God. The truth is not always found in stark literal facts, indeed I sometimes think the truth can get lost as we argue about factual details and forget the fundamental truth.
In Borg's book the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is used with reference to the work of David Friedrich Strauss: there have been arguments for many, many years over what actually happened - was it a miraculous multiplication of the food whereby fishes and loaves suddenly appeared in vast piles, or was it the case that the example of the wee boy and his packed lunch encouraged everyone else to share their own packed lunches with those around them? Does it really matter? More and more, I find myself agreeign with Strauss's view and trying to look beyond these cold and sterile arguments. The truth of that story is nothing to do with the delivery mechanism of the food. The truth in the story for me is what it says about Jesus - that he is set in the context of the exodus people in the wilderness needing guidance and sustenance. Jesus is put in the place of Moses, but where Moses had to ask God for help, Jesus himself is the one who provides the nourishment we really require.
A story does not have to have actually happened just the way it is described for it still to be a true story. Jesus himself used stories all the time in this way. What are his parables but stories that express truth - we learn from them whether or not a Jewish man was beaten up on the Jericho road and helped by a Samaritan!
It is good to write about this, particularly when brought back to thinking about my own faith journey as happens when talking about the Christian Way with people who are questioning and thinking about whether making a commitment to Jesus is what they are being led to do.
If you pick up Borg's book, I'd be interested to hear your responses to it.
To end, here is a poem about faith called The Avowal by Denise Levertov that is quoted in Borg's book by the main character, Kate, just after she tells her students about Kierkegaard describing faith as being "like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water". If you trust the buoyancy of the water you will float serenely, if you believe in the water you will be suspended, but if you panic and flail helplessly or else go rigid with fear then you will sink beneath the surface.
As swimmers dare