The Recklessness of Faith

(William Sloane Coffin)

On this blog you will find several articles and sermons on “faith.” In those articles you will see that most of the time the word “faith” in the Bible has the basic meaning of “trust.” For centuries the church has often understood faith to be what one believes. Consequently, faith became a matter of the mind and not the heart, an intellectual assent instead of a way of life. Of course, what Christians believe intellectually can vary from person to person and from group to group. In some denominations and churches, members are required to give intellectual assent to certain beliefs. Anyone questioning or denying these doctrines is expelled from that group. The assumption is that anyone who does not hold these beliefs is lost and doomed to hell.

Those who hold to this rigid belief system are often called “fundamentalists.” The Christian fundamentalism present in the United States largely developed in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century as a reaction to what many saw as the threat of modernism. Fundamentalists rigidly assert that one must believe certain “fundamental” tenets of the faith to be saved. Originally there were five fundamentals:

  • The inerrancy of the Bible
  • The literal nature of biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ’s miracles and the creation account in Genesis
  • The virgin birth of Jesus
  • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
  • The penal substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross

You can believe all five of these tenets and still be unloving, bigoted, hateful, abusive, cruel, violent, greedy, and self-centered.

Please notice that you can believe all five of these tenets (as well as many other beliefs fundamentalists expect you to embrace) and still be unloving, bigoted, hateful, abusive, cruel, violent, greedy, and self-centered. I’m not saying that all fundamentalists have these characteristics, but a religious faith that sees the above “fundamentals” as critical for salvation will often have no time or inclination to focus on love, compassion, forgiveness, joy, grace, tolerance, and peace.

I have also known Christians who would label themselves as progressive and liberal and yet lacked any evidence of love and compassion in their lives. Years ago there was a professor in the seminary I attended who was liberal and erudite. However, he was also cruel, petty, revengeful, and as far as I and most of the students (and even some of the professors) in that seminary could see was utterly lacking in compassion. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg wrote convincingly that the most important characteristic of God according to Jesus as well as the one we are called to emulate the most is compassion. If Borg was correct (and I believe he was absolutely on target), then apparently one can be a fundamentalist or a liberal and miss the whole point of Jesus’ message as well as the essence of the God Jesus came to reveal.

What we believe is not nearly as important as how we live and whom we trust.

If “trust” is the basic meaning of faith in the New Testament (which it is), then what we believe is not nearly as important as how we live and whom we trust. What we believe is important. As I point out in other articles about faith in this blog, what we believe does matter. Wrongheaded and “wronghearted” beliefs can hurt both us and others. But intellectual beliefs are not the essence of Christianity. If God is love and if the primary characteristic of God is compassion (which we are to emulate if we claim to follow Jesus), then love and compassion must be primary and evident in our lives and our dealings with others. I doubt if any of us will be judged for having the wrong theological beliefs. But I do believe we will be confronted by God who may say something like this: “It’s right there in that book you seem to worship more than you worship me. I AM LOVE. Go on. Look it up. I John 4:16. And if you don’t love others in concrete and compassionate ways, then you don’t know me or love me. Look it up. I John 4:20-21 The whole book of 1 John is about this topic! How could you have missed it? My Son Jesus was very clear that the entire Bible can be summed up in these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” And he told and showed you repeatedly that your neighbor is anyone—yes, ANYONE you meet who needs your compassion, presence, and resources. It can’t be any clearer. Now what part of that do you not understand?” I wonder what my response will be to such an encounter with the One I call Lord.

He told and showed you repeatedly that your neighbor is anyone—yes, ANYONE you meet who needs your compassion, presence, and resources. It can’t be any clearer.

Faith at bedrock is trust, and trust by its very nature is not a matter of absolute certainty. When we trust, we take a chance. As Pascal said, “We bet our lives. We make a wager. We take a leap of faith without knowing for sure what the result may be.” Such faith takes a lot of courage. We all want certainty, but certainty has nothing in common with faith. In fact, certainty can become a smug arrogance and a lethal impediment to the growth and transformation necessary for a vibrant and mature discipleship. The kind of faith/trust we are called to in following Jesus at times may seem absolutely foolish to those around us and perhaps even to ourselves in our moments of doubt and questioning. As Paul says, for now we all see with limited clarity and distorted vision. Even the best of us know only in part (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). None of us can know for sure. But we take the leap and bet our lives that God is love and that Jesus knows the way to a life worth living. And almost always, as we take the leap, we grow the wings necessary to complete that particular journey. Those wings may come later than we want or later than we think we need them, but the testimony of countless saints over the centuries is that those wings do sprout—perhaps in ways we never expected, wanted, envisioned or thought possible. But they do come. However, we will never know that before we leap. Christian discipleship is not a spectator sport. It’s fully participatory. That’s why so many people who are so hung up on beliefs never grow in the likeness of Jesus. They think their faith is fundamentally a matter of the intellect. They have never learned or experienced that authentic faith is always a matter of the heart. It is the heart which is the seat of the will, and it is the will which determines whether we leap or stagnate. One thing is for sure: if we wait until we grow wings, we will never leap.

Christian discipleship is not a spectator sport. It’s fully participatory.

(Brian McLaren has another way of expressing this profound truth. He says, “WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING.” Perhaps McLaren’s metaphor is not as exciting as leaping and then growing our wings. But “making the road by walking” may reflect more accurately our daily and common experience and opportunities to live a life of uncommon love and compassion.)

(I highly recommend three books, written as a trilogy, by biblical scholar Peter Enns. They were written to help people with their faith and their struggles with the Bible. They should be read in the order that I list them since they build on each other. The first in the series is The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. The second is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. The last book in the trilogy is How the Bible Works; In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, And Diverse Book Leads Us To Wisdom Rather Than Answers—And Why That’s Good News. I promise that you will enjoy reading these books and you will learn a lot. Enns has an excellent way of communicating difficult concepts in easily understood ways. He’s also very funny. My wife and I repeatedly laughed out loud as we read his books. But don’t let the humor fool you—this scholar is top notch and knows what he’s saying—and what he says is profound and helpful for anyone and everyone.)

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