I wasn’t planning to write again until I heard back from you, but the wheels just kept turning after I pressed “send” on yesterday’s letter. Here, then, is a bit more of my thinking about the dynamics of belief, the characteristics of truth, and the marks of authentic faith.
I need to say at the outset that there is nothing scientific about my observations here. It is mainly just a gut response from a guy who has been around the track (or up and down the field, or choose your own metaphor) for a lot of years and has drawn some conclusions from that experience.
You have perhaps noticed that I have not been quoting scripture in these letters, and I will continue that pattern in this one. It’s not that I suddenly developed an aversion to proof-texting. Oh wait, maybe it is that, to a degree. But it’s also that I decided I want these letters to look and sound more like a conversation between two friends over coffee than a term paper or a sermon.
You’ve no doubt heard the aphorism that goes something like this. “People don’t really care what you know until they know that you care.” Or maybe the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Well, the heart of what I want to say in this letter is something along those lines.
Here’s an attempt to put it in a succinct statement: When it comes to assessing the value of a particular belief, the first question to ask is not “Is it true?” but rather, “Does it make me a better person?”
I know, I know. There is a meme floating around in cyberspace to the effect that “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person; your behavior does.” But really, isn’t that missing the point? I mean, I appreciate the sentiment, but I disagree with the premise. Our behavior flows out of our beliefs. If my belief doesn’t affect, even direct, my behavior, then I don’t really hold that belief very seriously. My behavior reveals what I really believe.
I almost wish I was quoting scripture in these letters. If I were, I would probably refer to an Old Testament text that says something like, “As people believe in their hearts, that is how they really are.” Or I might use Jesus’s imagery when he says that the water that comes out of a well reveals the quality of the well deep within. But I’m not doing that, so I’ll leave it there.
Evangelical Christianity is a product of modernism which arose out of the Enlightenment. Modernists, whose worldview evangelicals like to think they eschew, reduce truth to facts and knowledge to science. When it comes to religion and spirituality, evangelicals tend to reduce truth claims to propositions and knowledge to what they consider theological certainties. The problem with this approach is that it makes it possible to affirm doctrinal “verities”—such as the Trinity, the virgin birth of Jesus, and his bodily resurrection—and thus to consider oneself and others likeminded as possessing the “truth.”
I must tell, you, Kathryn, that even though I once thought in those terms myself, I do not find that approach very persuasive any more. I see too many “orthodox” Christians (by which I mean those who affirm creeds and doctrinal statements which reflect their idea of true Christian theology) whose pattern of behavior does not reflect the loving, accepting, generous, and caring nature of Jesus.
In all of this, I don’t mean to suggest that I no longer believe in objective truth, only that it is neither as knowable nor as important as I once assumed. I once read that nothing reflects the true character of a society better than how it treats the weakest and most needy among its citizens. Something like that can and should be said of Christians. Nothing reflects the genuineness of Christian faith better than how much those who own it reflect the character and nature of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote about something he called “sound doctrine.” That word “sound” suggests a quality of health and well-being. What we believe as Christians is not simply, nor even most importantly, true as factual statements or theological propositions. It must also produce a spiritually healthy environment where the character and attributes of Jesus—love, kindness, gentleness, and a warm, inviting, welcoming spirit—are encouraged and exhibited.
I am finding examples of that kind of “sound doctrine” in places and among people I would never have imagined just a few years ago. That’s what happens, however, when we ask the right kinds of questions about what we—and others—believe. More than just “Is this belief true?” I have begun asking questions like these:
Does this belief make for peace, or does it foment division and strife?
Does this belief encourage joy and promote equality, or does it provoke tension and emphasize differences?
Does this belief instill hope, or does it exploit fear?
Does this belief foster love, or does it build walls?
Those are the criteria for right belief, Kathryn. At least that’s the way I see it these days.
All the best,