by Andrew Pratt.
It has been said that the earliest Christian creed was ‘Jesus is Lord’. It carried with it the understanding that for the Christian Jesus was the definitive model for human life and living. To say the words is easy but, for the most part we don’t take this seriously. If we did, finding out how Jesus lived in relation to people and mirroring that in our own lives would be our priority.
Beginning with that creed, we have built a religion predicated on the affirmation of beliefs rather than on ways of being. The consequence is that faithful living has become equated with this affirmation rather than on a recognition of the enormity that follows from embodying those beliefs. When they are attacked we spend time defending them and trying to diminish our detractors rather than demonstrating through our lives and actions that we accept Jesus as Lord. Our loss is that we dismiss this opposition often without hearing what its proponents are saying. Richard Dawkins, especially, I think largely because of his aggressive tone, has been side-lined. Some of what he has to say ought really to be understood if we are to recognise how difficult the call to faith actually is. This calling is unnatural.
A starting point for Jesus was not adherence to a creed, but with a call to love, demonstrated to the uttermost in how he lived and died. Deuteronomy 30:19 states: ‘I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed may live.’ If Jesus did have a creed, this was it. This choice of life is not referring to life after death, though you might want to define it as ‘eternal’ as being so utterly different from ordinary human life as to be ‘other’. The choice is existential, determinant for the very existence of humanity and love is at its centre. This is what I believe Jesus was pointing towards.
Dawkins in The Selfish Gene writes of his understanding that life continues from generation to generation by preferring aspects of living things which preserve them. Self-survival is hard-wired into out very being. That is why being selfless is so difficult. It is, by definition, unnatural. Human nature is counter to what Christians are supposed to espouse. Dawkins is, however, subtle. He addresses altruism. ‘Altruism’ may have advantages. It can make us feel good, but it can have other benefits which are not individual. He points out that care of another, in the long term, can help the whole population. This is simply utilitarian. It relates to the long-term survival of a species, in our case, humanity.
This, if we could see it, brings us back to Jesus Lordship. When we frame our statements as to what defines being Christian we need to be conscious that what is being asked of us is, firstly, apparently running counter to a strand of our being which is fine-tuned to self-interest. This demonstrates itself, for instance, in the uncritical development of hierarchy in the church. We have an inherent drive to survive and the higher up we rise, the greater the likelihood of survival.
It seems that Jesus is conscious of this, but his understanding reaches beyond the individual, beyond the tribe to encompass all of humanity. Jesus demonstrates not what to say, or believe, but how to live in a way which chooses life.
Two, illustrations undergird this. In Mark 1 Jesus is moved to reach out and touch a leper. This opens him to condemnation. It is physically and socially isolating, the opposite of being self-protective. In terms of the Greek words describing what is happening, he is viscerally moved so that he feels the person’s alienation as his own. This motivates him far more strongly than simply seeing it. He has to do something about it even if it is personally deleterious. Secondly, the Good Samaritan is moved to help in the very same way. The same language is used. Following this example puts us at a disadvantage but ultimately makes the body of humanity stronger, more inclusive, more likely to survive.
If we take Jesus as Lord, this is our model. It is not natural, in the sense of our biology, it works against our own existential longing, yet it offers salvation for humanity as a whole. The outcome enables the continued life of those despised or damaged. Finally, on the cross, those who have taken Jesus’ life are offered forgiveness. Had they been condemned, and such condemnation been our creed, humanity would have been diminished.
Moving to immediately current events, the events of war. I am conflicted. For whom do I feel compassion? The answer must be obvious. But Jesus interposes himself between those who espouse hatred and those who are hated to save both. He becomes victim to save both.
And can I follow? This is never as easy as giving assertion to any creed or belief.
This is no cheap grace.
33 thoughts on “The illogicality of faith”
You lost me in the second sentence of the second paragraph. The word ‘enormity’ carries entirely evil meanings, and I can’t quite follow your argument. Credal statements can never be more than a best guess at the truth, anyway – I always have reservations – and Dawkins says some things I can agree with. Love is what matters, and FAITH is much more than ‘belief‘.
Apologies. Credal statements are as you say but crusades old and new have been fought to the death over them and people have used them to defend abuse.
Also the enormity of which I write is the personal cost of following Jesus, that of interposing ourselves between those who hate others and the ones they hate, thus absorbing the hatred. Follow guidelines Jesus ultimately ends in personal death in terms of earthly life. This runs counter to our biological drive for self-preservation which is the thread of Dawkins’ thinking which is significant.
Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? John 14:1-2
The Church, as I understand it, is the whole body of Christian believers. A church is a division of this body, professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority. Without beliefs, a church is not a church, though it may be a community of goodwill, or a charity. Nothing wrong with that, but why would it want to call itself a church?
For many years some churches have been willing to compromise their beliefs to make the faith more attractive to outsiders, but an ordained minister endorsing Dawkins? Could we set the bar any lower?
RNP, I am struggling a little to follow you (my fault I’m sure).
Would you agree that the ‘belief in’ referred to in John 14.1, is not an ascent to any doctrine about the nature of God (and Jesus) but about trust and reliance? So do you mean to quote this in support of the article? I think probably not from what you go on to say.
I wonder why you chose to include the word ‘believers’ in your definition of “The Church” and what you mean by it? Do you mean that an intellectual ascent to certain doctrines is required to be a member of the body of Christ? I think perhaps not because you seem to be making a contrast between The Church and a Church, by which I take it you mean a denomination. The latter requires some membership criteria -is that right? There is a wide range of attitudes to doctrinal belief in denominations. Some require formal ascent (in writing) to very specific doctrines, others require those representing them for example ‘to preach nothing at odds with …’, still others may in theory have strict orthodoxies but in practice are very ‘broad churches’ and still others as a matter of principal want to allow the widest possible understanding.
You question why those who do not ascent to particular beliefs (you just say ‘beliefs’, may be I am over interpreting you) would want to be called a Church, but if they seek to be ‘followers of the way’ and believe more in the sense of the article, and John 14.1 (rather than ascent to doctrines) then surely not only would they want to be part of the Church but doesn’t the whole body want them to be part too?
When you say, “For many years some churches have been willing to compromise their beliefs to make the faith more attractive to outsiders” I hear the idea that those who wish to emphasise faith as relational rather than as ascent to doctrines are somehow ‘failed literal believers’. St. Paul, a circumcised Jew, did not see it as a compromise to allow (male) gentiles to be followers of Jesus without first being circumcised. I am sure there are those for whom it is ‘compromise’ (and quite possibly even in the more negative sense of that word) but for many it is the very positive idea of inclusion in the love of God whatever the intellectual beliefs that matter.
I don’t really understand the reference to Dawkins, either. The article does not seem to me to endorse Dawkins. It perhaps seeks to take seriously some of Dawkins’s arguments. Isn’t it possible to agree with a lot of what Dawkins says (or at least take it seriously) and still reject the atheist conclusion (if indeed it is a conclusion rather than the hypothesis he starts with)? The article seems quite clear in resisting not only Dawkins’s conclusions but much of his method too.
Please forgive me for going on at such length and where I have misrepresented you.
The personal cost of following Jesus, loving as Jesus loved, accepting his Lordship is that of interposing ourselves between those who hate others and the ones they hate, thus absorbing the hatred. It involves acting out what we believe. Following Jesus in this was ultimately ends in personal death in terms of earthly life. This runs counter to our biological drive for self-preservation which is the thread of Dawkins’ thinking which is significant. It is not acceptance of everything that Dawkins has ever written or said but it is a reason why following Jesus is not easy.
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All our attempts to describe God or the way God interacts with humanity are inadequate; they are our best efforts with the concepts and the language we have available. Inevitably we resort to metaphors and picture language and talk as if God thought and acted like a human being. But too often people forget that this is what we are doing. Despite St Augustine’s warning, “If you understand, then it isn’t God,” we find church leaders speaking of God as ineffable but at the same time telling us exactly what we must believe about him. Metaphors become confused with historical truth and are then proclaimed as essential beliefs. There are even attempts to scientise religion and claim it is about hard facts, leading to unnecessary clashes with science. So what started as a wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness, and of giving of oneself becomes a matter of doctrine and of the eternal rewards we are promised for holding the right beliefs.
The stress on beliefs can make religion equally as divisive and exclusive as the purity laws of Jesus’ time. People are seen as either believers or non-believers (and our beliefs are the only standard); they are saved or lost eternally; they are with us or against us. It leads to seeing other religions, or different branches within our own religion, as peddling a false message, as directing people away from the one truth which we hold. This assumption that two different ways of expressing a relationship with God must be in conflict with one another is a failure of the imagination and an inability to see beneath the literal surface level of images to the impact that their faith is having on how people respond to God and to other people. Its consequence is a fractured approach to issues on which all faiths would agree, and evil flourishes in many areas for lack of a concerted effort against it by people of faith who are too busy maintaining the walls of their own religious fortresses. In the concern about which doctrines lead to salvation and a place in Heaven, many have lost sight of the emphasis in the first three gospels on bringing in the kingdom of God on earth and on eternal life – life in all its fullness – commencing in the here and now.
“The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” (John Wesley.) Whatever changed? Perhaps we’ve allowed ourselves to be seduced into playing by Richard Dawkins’ rules, even within the church. It’s become all about intellectual assent to a set of beliefs and arguments about whose beliefs are right, which beliefs are essential and the relative weights given to scripture, tradition, reason and experience in providing evidence for those beliefs. The evidence that really matters is seen in changed lives. So much attention is given to arguments about beliefs, that the realities, blessings, consolation and mystery of everyday faith are often lost amidst all the words. We have to stop judging people by whether their spiritual experiences reflect ours and by the religious language they use, and start valuing them for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. To paraphrase St Paul: “I may have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I do not have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing; I am like an empty vessel that makes a hollow sound.”
The biggest stumbling blocks in my faith journey have been leaders within the church who have wanted to tell me what to think, which books I was allowed to read, and have asserted that I’m not acceptable to God unless I believe exactly what they believe. The greatest help for me has come from ministers who have a very different theology from my own but have encouraged me in my own faith journey. It just shows that, where there is love and respect flowing from collaboration in pursuing kingdom priorities and from mutual support and trust, differences in theology can be a matter for friendly discussion and a whetstone for faith development for all concerned.
Instead of continually dividing ourselves along doctrinal lines, perhaps we should consider what the outcome would be if we were to divide ourselves into those who are loved by God and those who aren’t; those who Jesus thought are worth dying for and those who aren’t. That might give us all a better sense of perspective.
Maybe those ordained ministers who do not believe in the doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church, and who are trying to destroy the faith from within, should take off their collars, move out of their manses and give up their stipends? Or is that sort of grace just a bit too costly?
A mere 4.7% of people in England attend church regularly. A high proportion of attendees are of retirement age and will be promoted to glory over the next 20 years or at least move into care homes. We have lost almost all of two generations from the church. If things continue unchanged, the Methodist church will just fade away. And you don’t think that Methodist ministers ought to be able to ask challenging questions!
And do you think if we all deny our beliefs and make Richard Dawkins Chair of Conference, they’ll all come flocking back? What would be the point? There are millions of atheists who do very good work in the world; if they don’t need a faith, why do they need a church?
I think it’s those who fund the stipends of the unbelieving ministers who should be asking the challenging questions!
Forgive me Elizabeth if I have misunderstood you, but do you really find the above article “trying to destroy the faith from within”? It seems to be to be a call to get away from seeing faith in terms of giving ascent to a set of belfies, and particularly attacking the beliefs of others or defending our own, but rather it actually being about a way of life.
It seems to me to be a call to set our own agenda in order to save the Methodist Church from extinction.
For many Christians, it’s being true to our own beliefs that matters, not the survival of a dying church.
Elizabeth, to quote the conclusion of Philip Sudworth’s “Picture of Faith” article from a few weeks ago:
“Faith for our children and grandchildren will be lived out in a very different cultural context from the one we grew up in. They’ll face an age of ambiguities, uncertainties and an accelerating growth in new discoveries. The rock they’ll need amidst the torrent of challenges and changes won’t be a catechism or a creed but a relationship with God that is strong enough to withstand all that life throws at them. They’ll need to understand that faith isn’t about intellectual agreement with religious ideas about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what we need to share with them. If they do develop that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’”
Is the Methodist Church divided by whether we prioritise faith or belief? If so this needs sorting out! It makes a nonsense of spreading the gospel if we are have two different gospels to proclaim. Personally I am deeply encouraged by the words of Andrew, Pavel, James, Tim and Josie. For me faith is about the amazing love that surrounds us all, unconditional, inclusive and non-judgmental. Belief, however “right” it is, will always be divisive, loveless and judgmental.
You all talk as if we can’t have beliefs AND faith expressing itself through love. Of course we can, if we live in God’s grace. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It is for the Church to decide what its core beliefs are, and for its members to decide whether or not they accept them. You wouldn’t join a golf club and then get upset because people wanted to play golf!
As for me, I live by the Gospels according to SS Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, not the ‘gospel’ according to Andrew, Pavel, Tim and Robert.
It is a bit difficult to have faith expressing itself through love if we are to believe we are all sinners in need of redemption. This is harmful Christianity and I have struggled with the consequences of this loveless doctrine all my life. But that is credal! That is what we are to believe!
In the story of the lost (prodigal) son, the younger son has been working with pigs, and the stains and the smell of the pigs would be on his clothes. Added to that, he has the dirt and the sweat from his journey. I’m sure that, if the older son had been there when his brother arrived, he would have pointed out that his brother stank, was thoroughly unclean, religiously as well as physically, and needed a bath before anybody would want anything to do with him. The father doesn’t seem to notice the smell or the dirt or the breach of religious rules; all he sees is his son. He is so delighted to see his son return that he runs and embraces him, dirt and stink included, and gives him a place of honour.
How many people feel that they need a form of spiritual bath before they dare to approach Christ, because are too unfit and unworthy or because there is something in their lives that makes them ashamed? How many older brothers within churches will be quick to point out that they need to believe the right things and to go through a form of spiritual cleansing before they are acceptable? How many will welcome newcomers just as they are and tell them that God accepts as they are and for what they are capable of becoming? Maybe all they can do is to reach out blindly towards God and acknowledge that they need his help. That’s all they have to do. It’s a huge first step and God will respond. There’s no requirement to accept a package of beliefs or to perform any ritual before you can begin. Jesus declares to Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Note – he says, “Today.” It’s not just a future promise. This salvation cannot be about what Zacchaeus believes – the Easter events haven’t yet happened. It’s his positive response to Jesus’ challenge to be honest with God, transform his values and make a fresh start.
The great Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (Ni To-sheng} pointed out that in the case of the thief on the cross, all that was required was a reaching out towards God. He comments that Jesus didn’t remind the thief of his evil life or explain to him the plan of redemption, he simply said, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Watchman Nee suggests that we spend too much time worrying about doctrine – he uses the analogy that the light comes on when we press the switch, regardless of whether we understand the principles of electricity. Addressing future clergy at a seminary, he said, “The basic condition of a sinner’s salvation is not belief or repentance, but just honesty of heart towards God. God requires nothing of us except that we come in that attitude. For it is the fact of the gospel, making possible the initial touch with Jesus Christ, that saves the sinner, and not the sinner’s understanding of it.”
It is a gospel of love, redemption and grace. The wisdom of the church fathers has endured for two thousand years. It is meant to be struggled with. Jesus didn’t say ‘Follow me, it’s a doddle!’
Of course, the proud and the arrogant will never accept it because they think their way is better than God’s way.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.’ John 3:16
I don’t think anyone is saying you can’t have belief and faith, not even Robert who explicitly questions prioritising one over the other. As it happens belief is of great importance to me (and I believe I am main stream in my Christian belief, albeit being very warry of turning metaphor in to historical truth or essential belief, as James puts it above).
I think the point in the original article was not to oppose faith and belief, but to question the place of demanding agreement about belief (particularly to determine who is in and who is out), as opposed to living out the faith.
The article also is a warning about falling into defending ones own beliefs and attacking those of others (or perhaps just what we assume their beliefs to be). Sadly (and somewhat ironically) I think we may have rather got it to that mode in this discussion.
Personally I think that any minister who warns people against defending the faith is undeserving of the title ‘Reverend’. Exactly who is he being reverent to?
‘For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.’ 2 Timothy 4:3
Although traditionalists maintain that the church has always taught certain truths and these must not be challenged, ideas within Christianity have in fact been developing since the earliest times. Much of the success of the early church was due to the fact that it did not remain a Jewish sect but its doctrines were re-interpreted to fit in with Greek and Roman cultures. In addition, many of what are presented as long-established truths and traditions are comparatively recent innovations. If the 2,000 years of Christianity were compressed into a day, the Reformation did not happen until quarter past six in the evening. As late as half past seven the Inquisition was threatening to torture Galileo to death for saying that the earth was not the centre of the universe. The Methodist revival began at nine p.m. and shortly afterwards the church withdrew its support for the slave trade. By eleven p.m. modern biblical scholars and theologians were active, but not until the last half-hour of the day did the ecumenical movement start to have an impact.
New thinking has often met stiff opposition (even sometimes including violence). The church hierarchy has been certain that it already had the final revelation of truth from God. In addition to the usual conflict between creativity and conservatism there have been issues of authority and power and vested interests within the church. The different denominations within Christianity reflect the splits caused by the difficulties encountered in trying to accommodate new ideas within the established churches in the past. Each of them declaring that they have the only truth and that their way is God’s way. (There are now over 45,000 Christian denominations worldwide.) It is interesting that some of the denominations that have broken away from the main churches are in their turn particularly defensive of certain beliefs. In the earliest days, we had circumcised Christians eating apart from uncircumcised members whom they considered unclean. Nowadays, we have groups within the church which only regard as acceptable those who sign up to their lists of beliefs, and, as we have seen this week, even calls for those who express new ideas on a theology website to be kicked out of the church. (Perhaps the reason theology, from once being considered the “Queen of the Sciences”, is so downgraded in reputation as an area of study is because, unlike other subjects, there seem to be strict parameters on what can be explored in spite of the huge expansion of knowledge about the universe.)
If God’s final revelation was made 2,000 years ago, man’s understanding of it has clearly been developing since then and may need to grow further. Alternatively, in the light of church history and the fact that the universe is still developing, it may be that God’s self-revelation to man is a continuing rather than a completed venture. You can only teach people at the level they can understand. You don’t talk to a four-year-old about nuclear physics and quantum uncertainty. If people think the earth is flat and the centre of a 3-tier cosmos, with the sky a dome as solid as brass on which God walks about and keeps his snow and hail stores, you don’t talk to them about a universe that’s 43 million light years across with 200 billion galaxies and still expanding. So in God’s self-revelation to us, he could only use concepts and stories to which people of those times could relate. If this is the case, we need to remain open to the way he reveals himself anew in every generation.
The way of the atheist has always been to insult the intelligence of the faithful, blind them with science, bombard them with facts, ridicule them with logic. It makes no difference, because true faith defies logic. Faith is believing without proof. Faith is believing despite the best efforts of the unfaithful to lead them to Satan’s door. Given the state of the world and biblical predictions, if we are already past 11pm it sounds like time is running out! I do hope all you self-appointed prophets are certain about your teachings, but in case you have got it horribly wrong, I’ll pray to Jesus the Saviour and all the saints to intercede for you.
‘I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it is here now, when the dead will hear my voice, the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live.’ John 5:24-25
How can your creed be ‘Jesus is Lord’ if you pay no heed to his teachings?
O my Jesus, forgive us of our sins. Save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.
Thank you for praying for me Elizabeth, even if I do not recognise myself in the description of those for whom you are praying.
I am so sorry this discussion has turned out the way it has. When I turned to the site on Monday, I was surprised by how many comments there were already there. I must say when I read the article (and rereading it several times) I struggle to see where the objections to it come from.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guide our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Going back to theology I read something on Pesky Methodists by Joy Welford that made me think! She asks the question; Is service to others more important than worship? I then read about a Methodist Circuit that moved out of all their virtually empty church buildings and into a purpose built centre with a car park, ample space and rooms to fulfil community roles such as Food Bank, Youth Work, Creche, support groups, places to meet and, critically, a cafe. The centre was called Carers Cafe, I think. Theologically this information backs up what Joy is saying: That service to others is more important that worship.
Biblically the first Commandment emphasises the love we should have for God – worship. The second Commandment emphasises the love we should have for our each other – service. Yes, we do both, but that does not help answer the question. I know that in serving others we are worshipping God but in worshipping God are we serving others? We could devote all our time to worship, the state of our souls and personal salvation. We then might do an occasional whip-round for charities, but in fostering our cosy piety we are actually ignoring service. I am not saying that we do this, but what I am trying to express is that the situation is not reciprocal.
For me service is acting out our faith, whereas worship is about belief. Furthermore I have come to realise that for me God ONLY arises in my mind in the context of my ethical concern for others and therefore, as with the Good Samaritan, service is far more important than worship.
I can see why worship is meaningless to you if you think God is nothing more than your own good thoughts, Robert. You would be singing to yourself! I don’t think A. Pratt would agree with you though as he has written thousands of hymns. The Carers Cafe sounds like a wonderful community centre, looking after the needs of the people. It sounds like what happens every week in most church halls.
‘Let us with a gladsome mind, praise the Lord for he is kind,
For His mercies aye endure, ever faithful, ever sure.’
Oh! I get it now, If we are saved then our ethical behaviour towards others is called Christian love, but if we are not saved, or of another Faith, then whatever good we may do for others is called our own good thoughts.
Well done, Robert! You’re close, but not quite there yet. Let me help you.
If we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, then we know that only God is good. We all fall short, but we are reconciled to His goodness through Jesus the Son, and we are inspired to do good works by the Holy Spirit. So we give all the glory to God for the good works we do, we do not give credit to ourselves for our own good works. We know where our goodness comes from, which is why we love to give thanks and praise and worship His Holy name. The goodness in every human being comes from God, it’s just that some people don’t know it, and some won’t believe it because they have no humility.
Hope this helps 🙂
Sincere apologies for my sarcasm last night, but when people patronise me I have a habit of reciprocating in kind. I am not proud of myself, this is the devil working in me which is why I need God to set me back on the right path. I believe there is an inner devil (or badness) in all of us, and it is a constant daily battle to make sure the goodness of God, which is also in all of us, wins through.
I know you don’t share my beliefs and I am not trying to force my beliefs on you, but there is a world of difference between not having beliefs, and having beliefs which you must suppress in order to appease those who don’t have beliefs.
People who come into a church should accept that, though they are welcome and hopefully will find love there, many Christians do hold strong beliefs about their faith which they are not willing to deny.
However, in Christ each new day is a new beginning! I have apologised to you and to Jesus and I have thanked him for his patience and forgiveness, so I am taking my leave of this debate now and I’m off to enjoy my day and my weekend.
God bless you and keep you safe in His loving care,
So I have been judged! I have no humility, I am patronising and I am seeking to destroy people’s beliefs! Presumably this applies to Andrew, Josie, James, Tim and Pavel; in fact anyone who raises questions about belief or engages in theological discussion.
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