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An essay donated by Philip Sudworth

Faith -- putting its different
dimensions into better perspective

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It seems that there are (at least) three dimensions to faith. People place different emphases on these elements and this can lead to some talking at cross-purposes within faith communities.

1. Encounter with the Ultimate:

Firstly, we have our personal encounter with our God (or the Higher Power or the Creative Spirit or the Greater Good). This leads to our personal experience of adventuring with this God and results in an inner transformation -- turning our back on the past and starting a new kind of life -- and the commitment to a continuing relationship of love, trust and faithfulness. In broad terms this dimension is the sense of spirituality, the appreciation that there is more to life than materialism and survival. It is what causes a Muslim to talk of sensing Allah closer than breath itself, that makes a Christian talk of having Jesus in his heart, and that brings a Buddhist to feel at one with the universe. It is what impels a humanist to recognize that benefiting humanity is of greater value and more personally rewarding than satisfying one's own needs and desires. The very fact that this is a personal experience means that it is as unique as we are as individuals. For a few it may have the intensity of a call from a burning bush, for others it might be a sudden heart-warming experience, but it is more likely to be a still, small voice than a dramatic event. The recognition that there is something greater than ourselves may be a gradual awakening that leads us to exclaim with Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn't even aware of it!" It may even be that the greater good is expressed in non-theistic terms. That doesn't necessarily make the life-changing recognition of it any less valid.

This encounter is not a one-off event; it is a journeying together with God in a developing relationship. As is the case with journeys and with relationships, we go through highs and lows and we gain different perspectives as we find ourselves in new situations. We change and our relationships change as well. If our relationship is firmly based, it will deepen and broaden as it is tested by the challenges we go through in his presence.

2. Living one's faith:

Secondly, there is the way we live out our faith, our appreciation of that greater good, in terms of love of God or commitment to a cause beyond ourselves and love of our fellow human beings. It is all the ways in which we make our faith / our commitment into a practical reality. It is evident in the kind of people we are in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our neighbourhoods and how we respond to community and world needs.  It is our response to the call to discipleship and to participate actively in God's work in the world. It is interesting that, for all the differences between religions over which people have been willing to slaughter each other over the centuries, there is a golden rule at the heart of each that is essentially the same across religions about how to treat other people. The true people of faith in each religion are the ones who commit themselves to living by this principle, however orthodox or unorthodox their views might be. Although their religious traditions may be very different from each other, these people are very close to each other in their understanding of faith. As Albert Schweitzer put it:

"The essential element in Christianity as it was preached by Jesus and as it is comprehended by thought, is this, that it is only through love that we can attain to communion with God. All living knowledge of God rests upon this foundation: that we experience Him in our lives as Will-to-Love."

Again it is possible to live by the golden rule and to be motivated by the spirit of that without expressing this in religious terms.

3. Words to understand and share our experience:

Thirdly, we have the words with which we try to describe our experience of God in order to make sense of it and to share it with others - descriptions that are often given to us by others, such as preachers or church elders, or that are enshrined in creeds. Verbalization is necessary for the sake of communication and rationalization and for passing on the faith, but we need to know the limits of such words and descriptions. Humans are too complex for us to know even ourselves fully, so how much less can we comprehend the creative force that formed the billions of people and innumerable other life forms on this small planet which orbits one of trillions of stars in a 13 1/2-billion-year-old universe that is still expanding and that would take us 43 million years to cross at the speed of light! So all our attempts to describe God or the way God interacts with humanity and the wider creation are inadequate; they are our best efforts with the concepts and the language we have available. Inevitably we resort to metaphors and picture language and talk as if God thought and acted like a human being. But too often people forget that this is what we are doing. Despite St Augustine's warning, "If you understand, then it isn't God," we find church leaders speaking of God as ineffable but at the same time telling us exactly what we must believe about him. Metaphors become confused with historical truth and are then proclaimed as essential beliefs. So what started as a wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness, and of giving of oneself becomes a matter of doctrine and of the eternal rewards we are promised for holding the right beliefs.

Growth and change; obsession with right beliefs:

So much emphasis has been placed on this third aspect, that most people seem to think that faith is all about believing the "right" things. Yet, when asked "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded with the two great love commandments --  which are active ways of relating and of giving of oneself. He didn't say, "Above all, you must believe every point of the Nicene Creed and never express any ideas that are at variance with John Wesley's sermons." He tried very hard to bring freedom from the legalistic and ritualistic religion of his day by encouraging people to have a direct relationship with God rather than one mediated by the priestly cast. What have we made of this freedom? We won't allow anyone to join the church unless they publicly declare they accept the creed or catechism in full. The main Christian organization for students, the Christian Union, insists that any would-be member signs up to every one of a list of beliefs, and the main evangelical group, the Evangelical Alliance, takes the same stance. No room for the questioning or challenging voice of a prophet here! But then why would they ever need a prophet? If they are convinced that they have the only truth, that has been revealed and written down for all time, there is no room at all for new ideas or freedom of thought.

Because we are so hung up on how people articulate their faith, we tend to judge people by whether they express their spiritual experiences in the language we expect and in terms of the beliefs we hold rather than valuing people for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. This pre-occupation with right beliefs, of course, enables the church hierarchy to keep control in a way that would not be possible if loving and experiencing and what one is as a person were to be given their proper emphasis. But trying to force everyone into the same mould means that there is no place for creative thinkers. Yet, if our relationship with God is a developing and deepening one, both at a personal level and as a human race, we would surely expect this to be reflected in the way that it is described and in terms of the beliefs through which it is expressed. We can certainly see a progression from Abraham's relationship with the God of the mountains, through the jealous tribal God of Moses, and the one universal God of Isaiah to the Father God Jesus taught to his disciples and the way God is talked about in Acts and the epistles. Yet Paul could still write about Abraham being a great example of faith. We can also see Christianity developing from the pre-Nicaea years, through the Mediaeval church and the Reformation to the Evangelical Revival. We might expect that the descriptions of God and his actions would for many people in 21st century Britain reflect our current understanding of the cosmos, of biblical scholarship and theology and of human psychology - without detracting from our respect for the way faith was expressed in earlier times. At the individual level, a dynamic, developing faith is bound to change over the years and we may well choose to use different images and language to describe it, as our understanding develops.

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Divisiveness and exclusiveness:

The first two dimensions of faith have a unifying and inclusive nature. Their fundamental characteristics are valuing others and self-giving. A religious experience is respected for the change it brings in the person's life. Once we emphasize the third dimension of beliefs, however, religion becomes divisive. People are either believers or non-believers (we even call committed members of another religion non-believers, because our beliefs are the only standard), they are saved or lost eternally, they are either with us or against us. Within this framework a religious experience is only recognized as being valid or real, if it is described in the approved terminology. Even within Christianity we have had all the acrimony of splits into different denominations over different interpretations of beliefs. Even within a single church the emphasis on beliefs can lead to disunion and people leave because they are told (either personally or via a sermon) that if their experience of God is not expressed as a belief in x or y, they don't belong. Meanwhile we can find people within the church who believe all the "right" things but have not yet grasped that loving and forgiving have to be lived out and not just sung about in Wesley hymns.

This obsession with right beliefs leads to seeing other religions as peddling a false message. ["If it's different from our truth, it must be lies."] This is a failure of the imagination and an inability to see beneath the surface level to the impact that the faith is having on how people respond to God and to other people. In consequence, there is a fractured approach to issues on which all the faiths would agree, and evil flourishes in many areas for lack of a concerted effort against it by people of faith who are too busy maintaining the walls of their own religious fortresses. Whatever happened to the emphasis through the first three gospels on bringing in the kingdom of God?

A further problem with the emphasis on beliefs is that some of the beliefs traditionally held, e.g. that the Bible is dictated by God and so all literally true, (although much of it was intended to be allegorical and metaphorical) become very badly exposed as scientific and other knowledge expands. So much knowledge about the world and the cosmos and about the context in which the bible was written has come to light in the past 250 years. Yet although we are called to love God with all our mind as well as with all our heart and soul and strength, we continue to shackle ourselves to what leading Christians believed in the 18th century, based on first century texts. Questions are discouraged, as revealing doubt, which is castigated as the enemy of faith. Yet questioning is an integral part of a developing and progressive faith. Scientists talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. Can we not stand on the shoulders of our forefathers in the faith and so look beyond the reach of their view? That would enable us to build an understanding of faith that emphasizes the first two dimensions but also makes sense to people in 21st century Western Europe and which also extends beyond the exclusive concept that only Christians have the truth and only they are going to Heaven.

Many of the images we use to describe our faith, such as "atoning sacrifice", "lamb of God", "slave to sin" or "penal substitution" are so alien to the millions of unchurched people in our communities that we might as well be shouting at them in Greek or Latin. Even within the church it is only a small proportion of people who talk about "prevenient grace" with any confidence. People understand us when we live out our faith in the community but once we start to talk traditional theology, even translated in everyday language, they quickly find an excuse to execute a hasty exit.

Last summer I was in Liverpool, UK on the day of the Lord Mayor's Parade. I was rather taken aback by the number of floats filled with young people from a variety of organizations. These organizations could only flourish because of the hours given up in the evenings and at weekends by the volunteer leaders. Some groups were Christian-based but most weren't. Yet, because of doctrines about being saved by faith rather than works, we are told that, while good deeds by Christians will earn them better accommodation in Heaven, good deeds by non-Christians count for nothing. When people state this, they usually mean that it is through commitment to a set of beliefs that we are saved, because they have not embraced the wider understanding of faith.

How much longer can we continue to judge people by the third dimension of faith and dismiss the first and second dimensions of faith as having no meaning when they occur outside the church or are not described in Christian language? All those whose lives are contributing to the furtherance of the realm of God and to the defeat of evil, even if they don't understand it in those terms, are our allies.

A faith worth having:

Many very clever people over the years have tried to prove that God exists and that the claims of the Christian religion are true. None has succeeded, because you can't prove the existence of the ineffable, and even less can you demonstrate a doctrine like the Trinity. It can also mislead people into thinking that faith is about religious propositions that must be held at all costs, no matter what solid evidence is discovered to the contrary. Yes, we need to show that faith is a reasonable position to hold but we shouldn't get lured into thinking that we can do more than that. If God is Spirit and has to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, we are never going to encapsulate him in a catechism. Let's get back to a proper emphasis on the first two dimensions of faith. After all those first Christians who had a strong enough faith to die in the Coliseum had never heard of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed and many were illiterate and never read any of the books that would later be included in the Bible. But their trusting relationship with God and their loving compassion, not only within their own fellowship but to all those in need, showed that they had a faith worth having.

Copyright © 2009 by Philip Sudworth
Originally posted: 2009-AUG-04
Latest update: 2009-AUG-18
Author: Philip Sudworth

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