Believing: What or How?
A friend posted some questions on Facebook a few weeks ago, wanting to know what modern Christians believe. As I told him in my reply, the questions point to some of the most basic and profound theological issues. It would take a library to address them in any comprehensive way that would make sense to my very intelligent friend. At one time he would have described himself as a Christian, but now… I’m not sure what label he would accept, if anything other than “sceptic.”
Facebook is certainly not the venue to address his questions, and neither is this blog. Matters of God’s being, of how we know that being, of the nature of the Bible, of prayer, of heaven and hell — all these require more words than most people would have the patience to digest. Of course, I would end up answering the questions more in a sense of my own beliefs rather than others’. No-one can escape their own point of view, and even a sociological analysis of “what people believe” will inevitably be coloured by the analyst’s perspective.
I won’t try to answer “what?” for myself or for anyone else. You can read the various books of theology and religious studies for those answers. Suffice it to say that Christian belief today has a huge multidimensional spectrum. Even in my last parish, I could introduce you to people who held an almost fundamentalist view of scripture and theology, sitting in the same pew as others who regarded it all as one big metaphor.
What I want to address is a different question: “How do modern Christians believe?” I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity After Religion has helped me to understand some of the most important tensions in modern Christianity, and what the future might look like. The book is an extended look at the question of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious,” a phrase often heard in contemporary In its central section, Butler Bass re-frames the traditional central religious questions in spiritual terms. (Broadly speaking, “religion” pertains to matters of structure and institution, while “spiritual” pertains to more fluid aspects of living in relationship to the divine.
The traditional religious approach to forming new members follows this sequence: first we’ll teach you what to believe, then we’ll teach you how to behave, then we’ll let you belong. Butler Bass first re-frames the questions at each step:
The religious question “What do I believe?” becomes the spiritual question “How do I believe?”
The religious question “How do I do that?” becomes the spiritual question “What do I do?”
The religious question “Who am I?” becomes the spiritual question “Where am I?”
But it doesn’t’ stop there. Butler Bass turns the whole process on its head, by suggesting that people do not enter at the question of belief, but at the other end, with a community that attracts people, who then learn what it is that the community does by being among the community. Intentionally doing what others doing leads us to share an understanding of what they are doing, and what lies at its roots.
Belief in this sense grows out of doing rather than the reverse. As Butler Bass, points out, the word has a German root “beliebt,” related more to loving than to knowing and understanding.
To understand what Christians believe, you should look at how they believe.
- What drives them?
- What passions energize their lives?
- What does that look like?
- How they behave?
- What’s their mission?
A retired bishop told a clergy conference some years ago that everyone has a mission and a mission statement. “Just look at a person’s chequebook. That will tell you what their mission in life is.”
Or as Jesus put it:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.