By Barbara Falconer Newhall
So many of the Christians and lapsed Christians I know are convinced that belief is at the heart of Christianity. They labor under the assumption that, in order to be a Christian, a person must believe – assent intellectually to – the factuality of traditional Christian teaching and the creeds. It’s the one thing from their childhood Sunday schooling that has stuck with them over the years.
I wonder, do we really have to believe in Christian doctrine in the same way that we believe in gravity, or microbes, or that dinosaurs once roamed the earth? I don’t think so.
Here’s why: The idea of a fixed creed to which a true Christian must subscribe dates back, not to the life of Jesus, but to the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and took control of the church. Constantine saw marvelous possibilities in the popular new religion that was spreading like wildfire across his empire.
But beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ were diverse and often contradictory in that early church. A common religion with a common creed, Constantine reasoned, would help him to unify — and control — the many and varied peoples of the Roman Empire.
With that in mind, he insisted that church leaders come together and settle on a single set of beliefs The bishops complied and created the Nicene Creed. And in the centuries that followed – right up into the twentieth century – Christians were taught that, to be a true Christian, one had to believe. So powerful was the Christian belief in belief, that in some eras, heresy – incorrect belief – could get you burned at the stake.
Belief in Belief — A Thing of the Past?
That’s why I’d like to recommend that my non-believer friends take a look at a book by theologian and former Harvard professor Harvey Cox. It’s The Future of Faith, and in it Cox argues that the age-old Christian belief in belief is becoming a thing of the past. The Age of Belief is over.
Cox’s ground-breaking The Secular City was a best-seller in 1965. It sold more than 1 million copies. His more recent book presents fresh food for thought. Christianity is entering a new era, he says. He calls it the Age of the Spirit. Cox identifies three ages in Christian history:
The Age of Faith
For the first three centuries of Christian history, Cox argues, the early church was not concerned about creed, doctrine, belief or hierarchy. Theological ideas about the nature of God were not as important as following the teachings of Jesus.
The Age of Belief
In the fourth century, Constantine asserted control over the Christian church and insisted that everyone in the empire subscribe to a common creed. As a result, until well into the twentieth century, the church focused on correct belief, on doctrine and orthodoxy. For centuries, Westerners assumed that belief – accepting traditional Christian doctrine – was essential to faith.
The Age of the Spirit
Since the mid-twentieth century, more and more Christians have been ignoring dogma and creed and turning toward a more spiritual Christianity – while finding commonalities with other wisdom traditions. Faith and belief are two different things, Cox argues. Beliefs are opinions, while faith – fidelity – is a way of life, a placing of one’s confidence and trust in Spirit. As for my non-believing friends — maybe they’d like to open Cox’s book and free themselves from the burden of belief.
The Future of Faith, by Harvey Cox, HarperOne, $15.99, paper.
A version of this story first appeared on BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com, where Barbara riffs on life, family, books, writing, and her rocky spiritual journey. Barbara is a veteran newspaper journalist whose stint as the religion beat reporter at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area inspired her newly released interfaith book, Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.