Is Christianity about the journey or the destination? This and a set of related questions ring in my mind of late. They all aim at a general rethinking of faith. Some of the related questions include
which should have priority: a set of propositions one believes or a way of encountering the divine?
is faith nothing more than propositional belief?
why is the loudest quadrant of Christianity self-circumscribed by violent imagery?
what is truly necessary and sufficient for being a Christian—what can be stripped away as superfluous, legalistic additions?
where is the line between true persecution and that reaction that comes from one’s being unnecessarily annoying?
where is the line between standing up for the truth and closing one’s mind to the truth?
The other day I was a marginal participant in a conversation between two of my colleagues. Mickey is an atheist, Cory a fundamentalist. We’re all writing our dissertations. We’re all philosophers. Mickey and Cory were discussing a recent book that Paul (another in our department) co-edited, a book that is the subject of a reading group in which Cory is involved. The discussion began on the general content of the book: the role of Christians in academia. But it quickly devolved into the typical arguments about the ir / rationality of Christianity.
I tend to keep afield of such conversations—they really bother me. In fact, I’ve avoided the philosophy of religion mostly because I find the whole arguing about proofs for or against God’s existence, or about God’s attributes, or about other metaphysical issues regarding the divine, wholly beside the point. Please don’t misunderstand me. Such issues are important and merit analysis. Such issues are important and worth discussion. But I strongly believe that many of these debates are wholly beside the point because they rely on a false conception of God and Christian faith.
Hence my set of questions. In his argument, Cory drew a distinction between “active” and “nominal” Christians. The former are the “real” Christians, the ones willing to “go to battle for their faith.” The latter, Christians in name only, don’t adhere to the all-important doctrines as literally interpreted by a certain set of religious leaders who wrote the Fundamentals in 1908 and 1914. I wondered aloud whether anyone before 1914, who hadn’t any notion of the fundamentals, could then be considered a real Christian. Indeed, whether anyone in the early church, who had only Paul’s letters and nothing else (or even before, who had only word of mouth and each other), could be real Christians.
These Christians called themselves followers of the Way. What of those Christians who were around before the writing of John’s gospel (where a lot of the propositions germinate), some 70 years after Christ’s death? What of those followers of the Way who died before any (canonized) gospel was written? Who died before the canonization of anything as the “Word of God”? Before the scholastic development of Catholic doctrine or the Protestant Reformation? Jesus said his disciples would be known by their love, not by their dogma. Yet somehow, especially in the past 80 years, Christians like Cory insist we who try to be known for love not doctrine are Christians in name only, that the true Christian is one who unquestioningly embraces a set of theological propositions, many of which rely on a scientific worldview that requires a flat earth with a dome-ceiling sky from which hangs the sun and moon. With this as the loudest viewpoint, is it any wonder atheists argue Christianity is irrational?
Early Christians focused on daily living, on the Way. They focused on encountering the divine, as they saw humanized in Christ. Faith in the works of Paul is not solely propositional: faith is many things—trust in a person, a way of living one’s life, and yes, belief in certain propositions. But the latter was of the least importance. Jesus never said “believe in xyz” but “believe in me.” Jesus was not a proposition, but a person. Thus, the faith he spoke of was not some belief in some dogmatic set of statements, but a trust. When I was a kid, I had to memorize the Assemblies of God’s Statement of Faith. Jesus wouldn’t have had me do that. Jesus would have asked me if I trusted him, if I believed in him. Indeed, the rich young ruler came to Jesus saying he’d held all the right beliefs, and even obeyed all the right laws. But when Jesus challenged him to live according to the Way—to sell all his belongings to the poor and follow Jesus—he couldn’t do it. The point here wasn’t poverty but priority. The Way of Christ is to follow Christ in being the servant—however that cashes out in one’s life.
Cory spoke not in terms of love, though, but in terms of war. But in Ephesians it says our battle isn’t with people; our battle is spiritual. And our example regarding how to “battle” is Christ himself, whose only recorded violent outbursts took place when people were being manipulated in the name of God by false regulations and profiteering. Jesus never “took on” his opponents; rather, he answered them. He didn’t start useless arguments. He demonstrated love, then showed how this love transcended the accepted propositional statements of faith held by the religious elite. He said his disciples would be known by their love.
Everywhere I look, love comes before propositional belief. And everywhere I look, when Christians are persecuted in scripture, it isn’t because they’re being holier-than-thou jackasses. Cory, and many, many others like him, claim to be persecuted for Christ, which is then evidence of their true status as Christians. But the majority of this so-called “persecution” is simply the predictable consequence of their unjustifiable attacking of people and then being slapped back, either in self-defense, or in the defense of established social norms (like politeness and respect). Granted, some persecution comes from one’s merely being a Christian around certain sorts of people. But these instances are far rarer in the US than fundamentalists and evangelicals believe. And much of the “persecution” they experience would fade if they would only be known by their love, if they would only focus on the Way instead of their set of propositions, which have become an idol to replace Christ in their faith.
It makes me wonder—is it that we are all stumbling through life, all of us as Christians, following Jesus howsoever well or poorly—or is Cory right, that there are “active” and “nominal” Christians, only it happens that the criterion of distinction is not whether we’re willing to do battle, but whether we are following the Way, known by our love?