22 September 2010

The Tragic Fall from Faith to Religion

Ephesians 1: 15-23

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 19th September 2010

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus (Ephesians 1:15),” Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus.  He commends them for their devotion to Christ and their “love toward the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers (Ephesians 1:16).”  Note how he didn’t applaud these Christians for their religion or religiosity.  He didn’t celebrate their spirituality or spiritual growth.  He didn’t praise them for their piety.  It was their faith in Jesus that mattered most to Paul. 

            The New Testament’s understanding of faith is very rarely about believing in, well, beliefs, that is, a set of doctrines.  This was especially true for Paul.  His own faith in the Lord certainly contained certain claims about the identity and mission of Jesus, particular claims about him.  But the claims, the content of the faith were rooted in his encounter with, experience with the risen Christ, through his own ongoing relationship with Jesus of Nazareth through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through the relationship with Christ, Paul came to know something of who God is and God’s purpose for his life.  He didn’t just come up with these ideas or beliefs about Jesus on his own.  He wasn’t trying to form a new philosophy or even a new religion.  What he claimed to be truth flowed from his encounter with the living God.  Doctrine is rooted in experience.

            In her latest book, Almost Christian, Kenda Dean reminds that until very recent (the last two hundred years) we held a different understanding of faith.  “Christianity has always been more of a trust-walk than a belief system,” she argues.  “In Christian tradition, faith depends on who we follow, and that depends on who we love.  Believing in a person —having utter confidence in someone—creates a very different set of expectations than believing in ‘beliefs.’ For Christians, faith means cleaving to the person, the God-man, of Jesus Christ, joining a pilgrim journey with other lovers and following him into the world.” [1]  

            Somewhere along the way faith became confused with religion.  “Religion functions as an organized expression of belief, but faith —to quote theologian Douglas John Hall—is a ‘dialogue with doubt,’” a personal reckoning with God’s involvement in the world, and investment in our own lives.  Hall has even argued quite convincingly that “one of the great themes in twentieth-century theology [and by extension, of the church] was [spent] chronicling Christianity’s fall from faith to religion.”[2]  And that is tragic.  Why tragic?  Religion refers to an organized set of beliefs, ideas, and doctrines (that we then propose, argue, and feel we have to defend, sometimes by the sword).  Think of religion as a container of religious beliefs.  It’s static.  And, did you know that the word religion is never used in the Bible? 

            Instead, the Bible gives witness to faith as a relationship, as “trust-walk,” humanity walking with God out of the garden into the world fulfilling God’s mission to love and redeem.  Faith is dynamic, it’s fluid, it’s alive, it’s hot, it’s passionate.  Faith is about love, agape, yes, but it’s also eros, desire.  “Faith is a matter of desire, a desire for God and desire to love others in Christ’s name—which results in a church oriented toward bearing God’s self-giving love to others, embodied in a gospel-shaped way of life.”[3]

            Somewhere along the way faith became confused with religion.  There are many reasons for this.  One might be that it’s just so much easier for us to talk about religion than faith.  It’s so much easier for the church to teach people about religion (that is, all the beliefs of the Christian religion, all the things that one believes or ought to believe as a Christian).  It’s so easy to over intellectualize it all and just talk about the beliefs, beliefs that usually require little commitment.

            But as any parent, church school teacher, Christian educator, or pastor will tell you conveying faith, cultivating faith, nurturing faith is something completely different.  How do you teach someone to have a desire for God?  How do you teach someone to become passionate for Christ?  How do you teach someone to give sacrificially of themselves, to venture out, to risk for the sake of their neighbor, for the world?  How do you teach commitment?  These are all something completely different.

            Kenda Dean’s recent book, Almost Christians:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, is sending shockwaves through the church (that’s why I’m quoting her so much).  Kenda is professor of youth, culture, and church at Princeton Seminary.  Her book comes from working on the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a massive study from 2002 to 2005 of 3,300 American teenagers, which included 267 face-to-face interviews.  It’s the largest study on the religious life of adolescents ever done in the United States (or probably anywhere else).  It provides an invaluable window into the religious views and faith perspectives of today’s teenagers.  What is perhaps most stunning is the discovery that what is being “held” as Christian faith is not anywhere near orthodox Christianity.  [Our youth, of course (!), are exceptions to this trend. ]  It’s not that our teenagers are atheist or agnostic or antagonistic toward the faith, because they’re not.  It’s just that the faith they hold is not exactly Christian, it’s, well, “almost Christian,” a do-good, feel-good, whatever-ism spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God and even less to do with loving and following Jesus Christ.  This study is slowly becoming a major wake-up call for parents, but even more so for the church. (My pastor-theologian study group will be studying this text on Tuesday.)

            The study is showing what many professional Christian educators and professors of Christian education in our seminaries have known for decades:  it’s exceedingly difficult to convey or teach faith.[4]  Instead, we have offered “a well-intentioned but ultimately banal version of Christianity.”   Kenda writes, “Most youth seem to accept this bland view of faith as all there is – nice to have, like a bank account, something you want before you go to college in case you need to draw from it sometimes.  What we have not told them,” Kenda argues, “is that this account of Christianity is bankrupt.  We have not invested in their accounts:  we ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith.  We provide coaching and opportunities for youth to develop and improve their pitches and SAT scores, but we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to say, algebra).”[5]  There’s work to do and we need to be intentional about it.

            We expose others to faith – children, youth, adults, neighbors, and friends.  And yet, what do we ask of parents and the church as a whole at baptisms?  “Do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?”  Granted, there are many ways to educate.  The point is this:  teaching about God is not enough, it’s not the same as being exposed to an experience of God.  We cannot give to our children and youth, we cannot to pass on to others who might be searching after God, what we do not have ourselves.  To expose them to faith in a living, loving, dynamic God, who put a new power at work through Christ, as Paul says here in Ephesians, a power in us to live into the hope God has for each of our lives, they need to see it in who we are and what we do, how we live and move in this world with God at the center of our lives.  They need to see the fire.

            It’s this kind of faith that fires us up, not dead religion.  So let us stoke the flames, deepen our passion and commitment to Christ, step out on the journey, and follow Christ into the world.  We don’t do all of us on our own. Heck, we can’t even take the first step on own.  It comes from the power of God at work in us to enlighten the eyes of our hearts (Ephesians 1:18).  What we can do is help open up the way.  To repeat the mantra I offered up last week (also the words of Kenda), this is what we can do:  till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake so we notice where God is on the move—and God is on the move—and then follow, follow, follow.[6]  May it be so.

Image:  Deeis mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (1261), Hagio Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), Istanbul, Turkey.
[1] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010), 6-7.
[2] Unpublished lecture given at the 2009 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, April 28, 2009, cited in Dean, 7.
[3] Dean, 6.
[4] See John H. Westerhoff, III, Will Our Children Have Faith?  (Harrisburg:  Morehouse Publishing, 2000); Parker J. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1986); and, most significantly, James E. Loder, Religious Pathology and Christian Education (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1966), among others.
[5] Dean, 15.
[6] Dean, 15.

No comments: