Belief and Practice

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?

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  • Rick

    I appreciate your thoughts, and think that orthopraxy has been undervalued in certain segments of Christianity. However, I still think there is a healthy balance presented, especially in the idea of orthodoxy as a helpful foundation.
    So if it is the consistent theme idea of “love God, love others”, or the Shema, or Micah 6:8, or Mark’s “who do you say I am”, or the Great Commission, or John’s “abide in Me (and “my words”), or Paul’s message of “first importance” (1 Cor 15), or the developing regula fidei, etc… a core sense orthodoxy is present at the beginning.

  • Claude

    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?

    Yes! As an agnostic ex-Catholic not hostile to religion I find the tribalism at times challenging to negotiate. But I am weary of the culture wars and one must start somewhere.

    For what it’s worth, I think the creeds are beautiful and their ancient pedigree quite resonant but understand that for believers to avow the creeds is fraught.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    My younger son said something to me a while ago which I’ve been kind of thinking on ever since. The kid has an obsession with the lead singer of The Nine Inch Nails. Nothing unhealthy per se, but annoying. I said to him something along the lines of, “if you have to have an obsession with someone couldn’t you have an obsession with Moses or David or someone?” And his response was, “that’s your thing, Mom. What you’ve taught me about God and the bible makes sense to me. So I’m going to live my life the way you taught me, but I can give my attention to other things.” And something in me told me that I was looking at the future of Christianity.

    I think that the issue of the creeds is similar. The basic framework of the faith has been established. There’s not much more to be gained by obsessing over it. So we are free to accept it and move on to other things. Which I think in our day and age means praxis. We’ve been fighting so long over what to believe that we’ve forgotten how to live. Or maybe we never really knew. But while it does seem like something of a loss, I do think that for this time we are in, praxis is where our focus needs to be.

  • arcseconds

    I really don’t care all that much about people’s metaphysical beliefs, except insofar as they influence their action (although that doesn’t necessarily mean i won’t have a heated discussion about their metaphysical beliefs!).

    What’s important to me is whether or not I can live with them. I can’t really live with people who are after complete and total capitulation and dominance (or destruction, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who literally seems out to kill me) of either me or my friends, and as my friends have a variety of religious and philosophical positions, and I’m a bit idiosyncratic myself, tolerance is a great virtue as far as i’m concerned.

    And it’s pretty clear that people who are after dominance and capitulation of all can hold virtually any metaphysical or religious position.

    Being overly concerned with what other people believe in strikes me as somewhat odd, somewhat busibodyish, and it can be the first step down the road to seeking dominance and capitulation.

    • Claude

      Being overly concerned with what other people believe in strikes me as somewhat odd, somewhat busibodyish, and it can be the first step down the road to seeking dominance and capitulation.

      I will quibble with this although of course it’s often true. After years of anger toward the religious right it occurred to me to find out the first thing about the “fundies.” I got sidetracked from that project, but it did lead to an interest in better understanding Christianity and Christian belief, and that in turn led away from enmity, not the road to “dominance and capitulation.” It helps to have been born into Christianity and so have a basis for communication. It would be much more of a slog to negotiate a less familiar religion.

      Of course in real life it’s poor form to concern oneself with people’s metaphysical beliefs, but in virtual reality I am very interested in what the believers are thinking and how to find common ground, or at least reconciliation. Unfortunately on a lot of culture war issues the common ground is about one inch wide, depending, of course, on who you’re talking to.

      • arcseconds

        Sorry, I could have written that better.

        I meant ‘concerned’ as in “I’m concerned about your metaphysical beliefs Claude, you believe in far too many occult properties” (which of course means pretty much “I don’t like your metaphysical beliefs and now I’m going to try to fix them”) not “I’m concerning myself with your metaphysical beliefs, Claude, they’re really interesting. Why do you believe in so many occult properties?”

        I’m all for people being interested in each others beliefs and seek to understand them.

        • Claude

          Oh! Sorry. I should have known.

  • BrotherRog

    IMO, orthopraxy trumps orthdoxy. Granted, both are important, but the pendulum has swung too far in the “right beliefs” direction and it’s time to emphasize practice. Besides, Jesus said they’d “know us by our love” — not by our beliefs.
    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: chrisitanity for people who don’t like christianity”