Belief and Faith
In modern day America, we often equate religion with belief. Charting a profile of beliefs is the most common way to account for the variance between the major historical religions, or to represent denominational differences in Christianity. This is what Hindus believe. This is what Christians, or more particularly, Episcopalians believe. Missouri Synod Lutherans believe everything on this list, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s list of beliefs is a little different.
In my previous post, Being in the World, I unwittingly followed this pattern of equation. I said God died for me because I could no longer believe the things I’d been taught in Sunday school. I said I lost my faith. And for a long time (ready for it?) I believed just that. But slowly and gradually, over the last decade or so, the realization came to me that faith and an articulated set of beliefs are not the same thing. My faith, I can now state with certainty, never left me. My beliefs, on the other hand, went through a sea change, a metamorphosis or broad transformation over time.
Yet even that description is not quite the way it happened. God died for me, and I quit all those old beliefs. It was a sudden split, an existential rupture. It was later that my sea change in belief began. The transformation was gradual, at first unnoticed by my always active mind. Then I slowly became aware and soothed by the swelling of the waves. At times, a storm blew in, the waters became rough and turbulent, and it was all I could do to stay afloat. I have not yet reached the shore, but it is in view. Now, as I am trying to write my way to the clarity of terra firma, I anticipate I will first land on a sandy beach, where the waters of the sea and the grains of earth will mix and squish together between my toes. (I am so ready for our family vacation.)
But enough of my extravagant wallow in pseudo-poetic imagery. I am not yet ready to spell out the journey that my beliefs have taken. I need first to describe what really happened in the epistemological crisis that separated young-adult-me from Sunday-school-me. Epistemology– that is, questions of knowledge, truth, and belief–is a complex enterprise that extends far beyond the following simplified scheme. But here goes.
A belief is an assertion of truth, that something is a certain way. The Judeo-Christian tradition believes it true that God created the world. Buddhists believe the four noble truths about desire and suffering. The Azande in South Sudan and the Trobrianders in Papua New Guinea believe that death or injury are all due to witchcraft or sorcery, the manipulation of supernatural powers wielded by other members of the community. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But science and the empirical method tell us that none of these assertions, and many others like them, can be supported by observation and replicable testing.
Reason and science establish what is true on the basis of observable facts and measurable data. So as my education–one of the greatest gifts I have ever received–sharpened my reason, it became too hard for college-junior-me to believe in the factual truth of heaven, in the miracle stories told in the Gospels, or in God answering prayers. God died for me, and in that death, I lost my beliefs.
However, I did not lose my faith. At the time, and through the many years since (it was 1971, in case you’re keeping track), I could never satisfactorily articulate what exactly was going on in my mind and in my life in regards to religion. Now, in my full maturity (ready for Medicare), I know that faith has been a fairly constant companion. But not my only companion. Sometimes my faith was in a heated dialog with doubt. At times the two of them sat glaring at each other across the table. At other times they cracked open a six-pack and got a bit tipsy as they talked over all they’d been through together. But there I go again with the lame tropery (if that’s not a real word, it should be).
For the most part, I was humbled by God’s dying, by my loss of belief. I did not go around proclaiming that the things I once believed in could not be factually true, and that everyone should listen me, because my views of the truth were important. Instead, I did things that belied my lack of belief. My faith was what I did. And I did it because it seemed right, not because I hoped to get salvation or eternal life out of it. I like to think that my faith, an act of doing, was an exercise in humility more than of hypocrisy. I make no claims to sainthood. I will let others judge me. Even God.
Surprisingly, perhaps weirdly, after my epistemological crisis, I kept calling myself Lutheran and kept going to church, for the most part. There were periods through the years when I didn’t go very often, but that had more to do with laziness, with being busy and distracted and tired. I never felt hostile about the church. Disappointed and frustrated by its failures to live up to its mission? Yes. Very much so. But I never unchurched myself.
I did find intentional community that replaced what church had once been for me. My community of belonging and regular participation became largely centered around musicians and friends in the world of folk music and dance. Most of my social community, the people I have known and shared the basic stuff of life with for the last four decades, are the kind of people that the Pew report on American religion would classify as nones: no church or religious affiliation anymore (in most cases) or ever (a substantial number). These are the people I have feasted with, played tunes with, shot the bull with, mourned and celebrated with. Many of them have an awareness that I identify as Lutheran and that I sometimes go to church on Sunday morning. It’s no big deal to any of my friends, and plays no foundational role in our mutual relationships.
What was it that kept me faithful, connected to the church? A better way to ask the question is why did my faith cling to me? For most of my adult life I would have told you there are three things about the church that are quite close to my heart: tradition, community, and hymn singing. I plan to explore these three things in future posts. Yet, as nourishing and as uplifting as tradition, community, and hymn singing are, they are not the measure of my faith. (That measure is pretty small, especially when compared against the faith of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mohandas Ghandhi, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer–my pantheon of heroes. I haven’t given up anything for my faith.)
My faith is nothing more than an attempt to stay connected to God, who may not even exist. Sometimes I just don’t know. But the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us that Yahweh is a gracious and merciful God, who called us to be compassionate and to seek justice, especially for the least of his people: the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts. Even if she does not exist in fact, this is a God worthy of hymns of praise.
If I had to put my faith into words–a creed, if you will–these words from Micah do it pretty well: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God requires that of me whether I believe in him or not, whether there is such a thing as salvation or not. It’s not too much to ask. Praise be to God.
Nota Bene: Through all the years since that cataclysmic day that God died for me, I’ve always been affiliated with a church. Here’s a shout out to all those congregations who would have me, the vast majority of them were Lutheran (beginning with the Missouri Synod and gradually morphing into the ELCA or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America):
St. John Flatrock – Monroeville, Indiana (where I was baptized)
Ebenezer and Cross of Christ (where I did an internship)- Greensboro, North Carolina
Faith-Livonia, Michigan (where I served two years as Youth Minister)
Grace (Lutheran) and Cathedral of St. Paul (Episcopal)-Detroit
St. Thomas-Bloomington, Indiana
Pilgrim (where my kids went to school)-Chicago
Resurrection and Christ-Chicago
also St. John’s and Church of the Advent (Episcopal)
and St. Lukes of Logan Square (Lutheran)-Chicago.