My entire time at church today seemed to bring together thoughts and discussions related to this theme of belief and practice and the relationship between them for Christians.
In my Sunday school class, having had a guest talk about the views of the Latter Day Saints last week, we planned to talk this week about the mainstream historic Christian tradition as reflected in such creeds as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. But before diving into those, I asked whether the making of creeds, and the use of them to define Christian identity and emphases, was appropriate or a mistake.
One person in the class pointed out that the difference between a river and a swamp is that the former has banks, and thus constraints or boundaries are necessary. While I don’t disagree with that point, it struck me later that it is the river that creates the banks, and not vice versa. And so, if there is a lesson to be gleaned, it is perhaps that it is the course that Christians follow which will lead to us “carving our niche” and defining our identity. We can’t, through a process of defining our identity, turn our swamp (if that is what we’ve become) into a river through the act of doing so.
I don’t think that beliefs and practices are unrelated – a question that came up in a comment on another post, as well as in my Sunday school class today. It would be interesting to do a word study that determines the frequency with which people are called upon to believe and to act in the New Testament. A simple comparison of the frequency in the New Testament of verbs such as “to believe” and “to do” in Greek will not suffice, since there are lots of records of people believing and doing, and so such numbers will not indicate which is emphasized more. My impression is that, except perhaps in the Gospel of John, there is more emphasis on doing than believing. But I might be wrong – our impressions are shaped not only by the evidence but also by the perspectives we bring to that evidence. I’d be interested to know if there is a convenient resource addressing this point.
Another person in the class compared the creeds to the information we place on church web sites. I found myself wondering still why we tend to list “We believe in one God, who created (in this or that duration of time), etc., etc.” and less often “We believe in following Jesus by loving all people equally, feeding the hungry, fighting injustice, etc. etc.” And so we were back once again at the question of what should most strongly define our Christian identity.
I had such thoughts in my mind during the service, at which we had a guest speaker, Rev. Dwight Lundgren, who works with American Baptist Personnel Services, prior to that having been with Home Missions. He spoke about the story in Acts 16 about Paul and Silas being in prison in Philippi. He highlighted neglected details, such as that Paul and Silas had become part of that community of prisoners and felt solidarity with them, and thus when they did not immediately run forth from the prison, it was as a group, and when Paul spoke, he said, “we are all still here.” He also emphasized the reason they ended up in prison, namely because they had interfered in a slave’s affliction and her owners’ profiting from her.
It is easy for those in the Protestant tradition to think of Paul as going around talking about faith all the time. And for many others, the beliefs that he did or did not hold about women, or the end of the world, are what shape their impression of him, for better or worse.
But Paul was a practical individual, whose life ambition as a Christian was to break down the barriers that characterized the societies of his time. He did not even let the text of Scripture stand in the way of that goal.
I’ll stop here and encourage readers – not only those who happen to be Christians – to discuss the relationship between beliefs and actions. I view the subject as a liberal or progressive Christian, but it is one that I think comes up for any worldview. I know that there are as many atheists who feel strongly about the relative importance of debating the existence of God vs. making a positive impact in the world, as there are Christians who feel strongly about the relative importance of believing certain things about God or Jesus vs. making a difference in the world. And of course, that is one of the things that is at the heart of our tendency to focus on beliefs. They can set us apart from others, and provide an opportunity to judge and ridicule others for their failure to see things as we do. But does our choice to engage in such sectarianism, as opposed to uniting with others to act out of concern for other human beings, itself judge the worldview or “faith” of a great many Christians and atheists alike as seriously problematic?
I’ll end with a final connection of this topic to the New Testament. Both Jesus and Paul are reported to have praised people who were not even Jews, never mind Christians, for their attitude, outlook, and actions. Yes, on some occasions their “faith” is praised. But that doesn’t seem to indicate that the Gentile in question had embraced Jewish monotheism, or to the extent that they believed that there was one God alone, they called him Yahweh. And so such stories and details in the Christian tradition are a good starting point for discussion among Christians. What really matters most to us, and why?