In the mid-nineties, I was invited to participate in a new organization that was intended to give a more public voice to the “liberal” form of Christianity. Frankly, the energy from this fledgling organization stemmed from a common desire to respond to the growing influence of the religious right on the politics and culture of the time.
We also had a second agenda that was directed at reviving the obviously declining mainline churches. The underlying assumption by the founders was that if we enlivened our congregations with a new message about the Christian call for a more just world and provided opportunities to live out our call “to do unto the least of these,” more people would be interested in finding ways to help create a more just world and our congregations would flourish again. At that time in my life, finding ways to grow churches was a primary concern.
The original members of this forming committee were quite impressive. They included two seminary theologians and a couple of university professors, a denominational executive, and four or five ministers who were leading churches with active social justice ministries. It was a stimulating group of people, and I was excited to be part of something that held such promise.
As the group discussed different ways that we might organize and get our message out to churches and the general public, I had the growing feeling that we were avoiding a serious issue. I wondered what was the theology and Christology that was driving our mission. At one point I suggested we go around the room and share our personal perspectives on Jesus and on the term God. I also suggested that we include how these perspectives would impact our understanding of the mission of our group.
When asked for clarification, I responded: “What is driving this mission? Is it because the Bible says we should do these things? Do we believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Is God telling us to do these things? Are we suggesting that people should do good works to get into heaven?”
For a full minute there was dead silence in the room. Then there was a lot of mumbling, twisting and turning. No one was looking at me as they grumbled among themselves. Finally the leader of the discussion, a wonderful, kind and gentle scholar, suggested I write a paper and present it at the next gathering. He suggested that we could each take turns doing this. I heard groans.
It will probably come as no surprise that my presentation did not go well. I do remember one thing in particular that seemed to anger more than one participant. I suggested that it was time to let the Trinity go. Yes, I know there are lots of nice and even clever ways to re-interpret the Trinity. Many of today’s Biblical scholars and theologians have gone to great lengths to formulate ways that the church can still be Trinitarian as we allow Jesus to become more human. There have been some lovely, even poetic ways of doing just that. But most of the time, these theologians are no longer referring to the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today we know that the whole Trinitarian concept was simply a solution to a dilemma that occurred when the Roman church decided that Jesus was God, not just “of” God or a “likeness” of God. Constantine wanted to get rid of Arius who had nearly lost his life in his brilliant attempt to show Jesus as an angelic like human, God’s first creation. But the more politically situated Athanasius won the battle with the phrase; “The Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.”
With Jesus becoming God, the Roman church could now officially condemn non-believers and arrest such trouble makers like Arias and his followers. With this, Constantine and the Roman Church were officially wedded. But there had to be a way to explain this new victory. How would a monotheistic church explain two Gods? It was the term Trinity, borrowed from Tertullian a century before that came to the rescue. And in my opinion, this was the sad start to the official church. It is still a bone in the throat to people of other faith perspectives. It is still a stumbling block for those today who search for a more relevant faith tradition.
I will never be certain why this concept was so important to so many members of this group. But it had become clear that I was going to be a thorn in the side of their valiant efforts, so I moved on.
My point in sharing this story is that I must admit for some reasons, “beliefs” seemed important in this situation. It made sense to me that if we were going to attempt to counteract a growing group of Christians who had very clear beliefs we needed to speak from our own common beliefs. If we were going to try and publically distinguish ourselves from the religious right in the political arena, we needed to be able to demonstrate that we had an identifiable, legitimate foundation for our actions.
On the other hand, I would argue that all creeds or beliefs deemed Orthodox have been done so by people far more concerned with power and influence than about spirituality, equality or even truth. Too often, the proponents of true belief have been more interested in being right than about being true.
I head up a Christian organization that states right from the onset what we mean when we say we are Progressive Christians. We give a list of what we refer to as the 8 Points. Are these beliefs? Are these creeds? I suppose they could be considered one of those things, but they are simply intended, at least in part, to help people know that we are different than Orthodox Christians. As most of you may know, we intentionally change or refine them approximately every five years or so.
I do think that one of the complications is that we so called religious folks often confuse the terms, belief and faith. I have heard these words interchanged by people without hesitation in the same sentence or thought. Of course they have very different meanings.
Belief is something you hold because you presume you have some facts. You believe in them. When I was in college studying chemistry, there was a chart up on the wall that had all of the components that make up matter. You could count them and some people actually memorized them. Those components were treated as facts and if you wanted to get a good grade you better believe that they were facts.
Today we know that those particles can be divided and re-divided possibly infinitely. We also know today that we were only examining approximately 10% of matter. The other 90% is still a mystery. Scientists refer to it as “dark matter.” (To any chemist reading this please note that with good reason, I graduated with a degree in political philosophy, not chemistry.) All beliefs should be tested and when you find out that the facts have changed it would seem to me that one should then change one’s beliefs. Otherwise you are imprisoned.
One of the challenges of living in this marvelous age is that questions seem to be infinite and answers more distant. I once heard a physicist say to his audience that today there really is no such thing as a fact unless we agree upon the operative paradigm. For a lot of people that kind of thinking can be frightening. However it really means living a life of faith. But what is faith?
Faith is not based on facts but rather assumes a mystery. The very word implies an unknown, at least when we are referring to religious or spiritual concepts. I have faith that there is a force, a tuning fork if you like, that is part of all creation. I have faith that as I live my life in tune with that force, when I try and stay in harmony with that Infinite Mystery, my life is more fulfilling. It is more alive, exciting and joyful, and yet at the same time it is filled with more contentment and peace. I have faith that there have been teachers throughout history who have learned how to tune into that rhythm and have offered steps or a path so that others might have the same or similar experience they had during their own lifetimes. I use them. I follow one in particular.
My beliefs change with a certain amount of ease as my information changes, and these days new information is coming at us in an increasing rate of speed. So my beliefs change regularly as my information changes. My faith will only change if I find that it is no longer producing the “fruit of the tree.” My faith will only change if I can no longer see an improvement in my life. My faith will only change if I no longer experience joy or feel connected and content.
Beliefs tend to get in the way and hinder our growth when we refuse to test them. They can keep us from experiencing a more fulfilling life when we are unwilling to change our perspectives even when our information changes. Beliefs become a problem when they are misused as a tool of power over others. And beliefs can hold our growth back when we use them to support our ego, our sense of self-importance or superiority.
Biblical scholar, Greg Jenks has recently published a wonderful book we are looking forward to sharing with you: Jesus Then and Jesus Now. In this book he writes:
For me, neither life nor religion is about gripping the answers. I know very little about Jesus, even less about God, and not much more about myself. Despite those serious gaps in knowledge and understanding life goes on, and I choose to live with the questions rather than fret over a lack of answers. That choice is itself an act of faith. It is my faith. Credo. (xii)
I think that sums it up rather nicely for me and I hope for most of you.