Rick Perry and the Real War on Faith

Rick Perry and the Real War on Faith December 8, 2011

Of course there’s a war on faith, Rick Perry. There has been a war on faith for about a century now. But it’s not President Obama who is waging this war. Nor is it liberals who are attacking faith in this country.

In a touch of irony, it is a number of the very people at whom your ad is no doubt targeted who are waging an all-out war on faith. The war on faith is being waged by literalists who have, for a 100 years, been attempting to destroy faith with hammers of certainty. Literalists have replaced the unwieldy, animating questions of faith with leaden, formulaic answers, parsed to an almost scientific precision.  Of course, nothing is wrong with that in and of itself. Literalists are still Christians, and as such, are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Still, the literalist project, barely 100 years old, concerns me deeply. In fact, I would argue literalist don’t have faith at all. Faith, as a number of thinkers and theologians have said, implies doubt and uncertainty. The notion that a person of faith can say, “God said, I believe it, that settles it,” is internally inconsistent for faith is never settled. Faith, by its very nature, is unsettling, dynamic, alive. Faith never reduces the spiritual life to simple statements of belief, understood as fact, and never closes the door on God by saying “that settles it.”

So, in a way, Mr. Perry, I agree with you. There is a war on faith in this country. It’s being waged by rationalist offshoot of Christianity that puts its faith in certainty rather than in God.

But I also agree with you that faith can make America strong again. It’s just not the kind of regressive and bigoted certainty — masquerading as “faith” — that sees a person’s sexual orientation as a matter of national debate, or even a concern. It is not the kind of reductionistic belief-as-fact that sees prayer in schools as the kind of thing that will make America strong again.

Rather it is the animated, challenging, questioning, doubting, open and affirming faith that can make America strong. And that kind of faith is not necessarily limited to Christians, or even theists. The kind of faith that will make America strong is the faith that can question the status quo, envision a bold future and then begin the slow process of bringing it to life. The kind of faith that will make America strong again is the kind that lets go of certainty and the succor of the way-things-are and begins to chase after a better, more just world. The kind of faith that will make America strong again belongs to those that toil against the odds for economic, racial, gender and LGBT justice. The kind of faith that will make America strong again is a faith that will question authority and tradition, speak out of turn at inconvenient times and march in the streets to let freedom and justice ring.

It is the kind of faith that abides, that occupies.

David Henson is a writer who lives in Augusta, Georgia, and is currently working on a novel. He received his Master of Arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His meditations on scripture have appeared in Ready the Way: A Walk through Advent (2009), theChristian Century web site, and numerous other blogs. He authors the blogs Unorthodoxology. Find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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15 responses to “Rick Perry and the Real War on Faith”

  1. Interesting take there, David. I probably would have gone a more traditional route and just pummeled the cynical Christian Right audience that would listen and accept such rubbish from Perry’s camp. But I like the fact that you focused on faith as a living, not-quite-certain path. That’s very pastoral of you.

    Speaking of pummeling and Jesus, where DID you get that pic from?

  2. That may be the first time someone has called my writing pastoral. It feels weird, but good! 🙂

    That picture, ah, that’s the magic of googling “War on Faith!” It was love at first thumbnail.

  3. I think you are on target with most of what you say. One of the things that I find interesting about literalists is that their fundamentalist, factual understanding of biblical statements is a notion of truth that is derived not from the Christian tradition (which as a rule considered imagination an important part of faith) but from extreme and often atheistic wings of the Enlightenment — i.e. from the sort of thinking they fancy themselves fighting against. Enlightenment, atheistic excess and fundamentalism are, it seems to me, two peas in the same pod.

  4. That’s the way I see faith, too. Faith has to be beyond what is written, beyond facts, beyond measuring. Trust and hope come close, but faith is beyond these, too. Even though Paul tried, it’s like “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.”

  5. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our fundamentalist brethren/sisters clearly have a hard time with Hebrews 11:1.

  6. Am I to take that verse literally? The word conviction seems a very ‘literalist’ word to me. As an aside, and as a Canadian, I had no idea that ‘faith’ while being an”assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” was also the elixir, exclusive for, of God’s most favoured nation; a simple commodity. Mr. Hanson, who knew.

  7. I think you are on target with your charge that “faith” is under attack by literalists. While I appreciate your attempt to give a fuller, richer meaning to faith than literalists who substitute certainty for faith, I’d go in a different direction than the one you are taking.

    For example, you are right that much of the literalist, fundamentalist project is straight out of the Enlightenment, though that shouldn’t be considered bad, in itself. Modern ideas of liberty and checks and balances and the freedom of reason, speech, and assembly are out of the Enlightenment, too.

    Where I diverge from your path is your locating “faith” pretty much where the Enlightenment leaves it. You give priority to the deepest and perhaps most important commitment of the Enlightenment, and that is the priority given to epistemology above other modes of human thinking.

    You don’t have to be a Lutheran to recognize that Luther liberated western notions of faith from epistemology and the intellectual rules for “knowing” that he had received from Aristotle and Aquinas. Luther, following Paul, considers faith as primarily (though not exclusively) “trust.” It is an action different from thought, with its balances between doubt and belief and certainty and skepticism. It is an action of the mind with the heart. Only after trust is established is the rational exercise of reason involved. At the same time, reason (doubt, certainty, rules of evidence, proofs, etc) is never excluded. I prefer not to locate faith primarily in the realm of knowing, but in the realm of being, and at a prior, lower, level of cognition. That’s why children are the best examples of what faith is about. The child trusts the parent if and when the child has first experienced love and care. When we experience the love and care of our loving God, the response is not “Is it true?” but trust in the one who loves us. Doubt, belief, certainty and skepticism are later and secondary. Interestingly much of the research in cognition and brain activity is locating much of our “rational” judgment in prior, pre-rational modes of brain activity. If this research is “true” (with all our rules of evidence, etc), than it makes Luther’s view of the rational part of faith being rooted first in something deeper in the non-rational structures of cognitive life seem very modern and helpful.

    Nevertheless, keep up the good work! Many people find your approach helpful (even pastoral, as has been noted).

    Gordon Schultz

  8. You expressed my understanding and experience of faith well. I appreciate the comments of the others also. Thank you.

  9. Two comments:

    (1) The literalist movement also seems to forget that we don’t have the one true bible. We have copies of copies of copies of fragments that we’ve stitched together hundreds of years after they were written to form a semi-cohesive whole. For example, the story of the women caught in adultery that’s in John was in many of the earlier manuscripts, but omitted from later ones. There’s many other examples. The word that they base their faith on also has been corrupted by bigotry of the times in which the works were translated into English. The word Paul uses to condemn gay men, or at least that was translated by KJV, really is ambiguous. It could mean gay men, homosexual acts, homosexual prostitution, or sex with men (by either gender). There’s even a separate word in greek for homosexuality that Paul didn’t use. Why? Yet all this nuance is papered over today in their certainty.

    (2) Who would Jesus Kill?

  10. his should not be a political football. We are a nation pulling away from God. It’s apparent in every aspect of society. Nobody can be sure how to translate every word in the Bible, however we are given enough instructions to know right from wrong, and how to gain salvation and eternity in Heaven. There is a big difference in what we believe and how we act. God says that we are all sinners and fall far short of the Glory of God. That’s why Jesus had to die for us, so that he could pay the price for all the stupid and wrong things that “WE” have done and continue to do. There is no other way to salvation, but through God. You can and should believe every word in the Bible, (understood or not). We can believe 100% of the Bible and we will still never lead a perfect life. That does necessarily make us hypocrites, it makes us human. In spite of our faith in the Bible, none of us can live up to its standards. Sure, we make wrong choices in life, however that does not make the Bible wrong, it makes “US” wrong. But God still loves us. For example, If you are assembling a piece of equipment, and in the end, it doesn’t work, it sure would be easy to blame the written instructions. The instructions are written confusing or are just wrong, and maybe you know a better way. The fact is the instructions were correct and you purposely, or in ignorance, did not follow the instructions. Therefore, you created your own problem. Luckily there is a a technician that you can call to fix the mistake and make it right. In religious terms, that technician would be Jesus. We all have 2 choices, 1). put your faith in God and in the Bible or 2). put your faith in this messed up world. Each choice has its own definite parameters of acceptance and consequences. The Bible is consistent and never changing. It applies from the beginning to the end. Political views of conservative or liberal do not matter. We are all held to the same standard. You cannot modernize it, to make your actions acceptable.You cannot choose which parts that you want to believe, and which parts to discard. I believe in 100% of God’s written word. I believe that we should strive to live as directed in the Bible, displaying the qualities Jesus had. (What a better world we would have!) I believe that I am a sinner, and it’s impossible to live up to the Bible’s standards. I must constantly repent for my wrongs, and bring my life back in line. I’m not perfect, but God loves me anyway. When my actions contradict the Bible, the Bible is not wrong, I am. We are all sinners, therefore whether you are Rick Perry or Al Sharpton, we will all bow to to God someday and answer to him. Yes, we should insist on a society with Godly principles and laws. After all, our country was founded on Godly principles, which we have been blessed for. We shouldn’t be worried about judging others individual actions, because we are no better than the next person. Instead, we should all be thinking of how we will account for own lives on the Earth. There is a judgment day coming, and we will all bow down in front of God himself. God is a just and loving God, but he does have rules, and gives us freedom of choice to follow them or not. There will be no finger pointing on that day. We will each answer for ourselves.

  11. “You can and should believe every word in the Bible, (understood or not).”

    If I’m misrepresenting what you’ve said by the following, please forgive me. Where you are at is just fine with me. It just sparked some thoughts for me. If I’m going in a different direction….

    I understand the bible to be a human work — inspired by God, yes — but with bias, the “science of the day,” a disagreements. I think if you locked James and Paul in a room, you’d find that they disagreed about “works and faith.” That’s okay in my book. God is the midst of our mess, and the bible is a wonderful mess as well. The bible points to God. For me, it is not an idol, and it is not God. I love the assertion that the bible is a “cultural library”…and I would add, “of our struggle to define God,” among other things.

    I do “believe in the bible,” but perhaps in a different way.

  12. While I appreciate a good sermon as much as the next guy, I have no idea how this is pertinent to this post or our discussion of it. Could you help clarify its connection to the post? Thanks.

  13. The only thing I would contend is your use of the word “rationalist”. Nothing that Perry supports can be considered in any way to be in line with reason. In fact, the literalist method is wholly irrational, ignoring the nature of reality in favor of their preferred dogma. I would suggest you’re developing a Straw Vulcan argument in this case (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLgNZ9aTEwc).

    Otherwise, I tend to agree, however I think that tortured and much maligned term really needed a little defending. %)

  14. Thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t say that Perry is a rationalist, but there is a good argument for literalism’s extreme rationality. While I don’t buy into that line of thinking, the entire literalist view is based on carefully constructed rational, reasoned thinking. It is a rational, systematized structure of “belief.”

    A literalist will begin with a set of fundamentals (essentially), which to my mind may be irrational, but to them is not. For instance, if one believes that the Bible is inerrant and authored by God, then it is rational to believe that science is an illusion or that say, one’s sexual identity is a choice. What is irrational is the starting point. The system that develops from it and maintains it is entirely and very deliberately rational

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