What is the Christian FAITH you speak about?

I recently found myself facing this question from someone who had lost all her former beliefs.  Asking Dave for his thoughts was a real eye-opener for both of us.

Dave wrote:
I realized that as one reads through your blog, much is written that addresses the questions you have concerning all those subjects, and some of the conclusions you have come to. But there is nothing that explains exactly how that has shaped your understanding of Christ and the definition of your faith. That defined what was nagging me in the back of my mind – its like a missing step illuminated. We have thoughts on original sin, penal subst., etc., and then you have thoughts on mission – but the missing step is how the first thoughts shaped your faith to define your thoughts on mission. Question the faith, define the faith, promote the faith – do you see the logical progression, or is it just me?

Part of my response:
Once again it becomes obvious to me that we have been travelling from almost opposite directions and finding much common ground in the middle.
As you have rightly said, there is nothing that explains exactly how the questions have shaped my understanding, nor how they have helped to define my faith or why I would have this vision of reaching out to some of those who have been negatively affected by religion. My thoughts on mission really are summed up in ‘Mission’ – the last part of my notes on ‘The Undefended Life’.

You then ask if I can see the logical progression of question the faith, define the faith, promote the faith. Isn’t that what theologians and scholars have been trying to do for maybe 1700 years? Isn’t that why we have more than 30,000 registered different Christian churches all defining faith slightly, and sometimes very differently?

I guess this is where I need to ask you what you really mean?
What do you mean by question the faith? Do you mean question some of the misguided teachings on the meaning of faith?
What do you mean by define the faith? I would suggest that real faith is beyond the comprehension of men, and any attempt to define it will result at best in only partial and incomplete understanding.
We then come to ‘promote the faith’. Can we really begin to answer the question, “What is the Christian FAITH you speak about?” for those who have been damaged by religion without first hearing their story, and having the chance to explain why we feel that much Christian religious teaching is misguided?

Dave responded:
You make a very good point. Once people “leave the faith” it is very hard to engage them in the conversation again. The toughest part to walk them through is the anger and disappointment they feel – very real and very legitimate feelings. I hope that this is where I can help the most. People encounter so much condemnation when they reach that point that they react with anger and defensiveness, which makes conversation impossible. They have to come to understand that you don’t condemn them, that their feelings of anger and disappointment are legitimate, that you have no desire to “convince them of their error”, and they must come to the belief that you are not one of the crowd throwing stones at them. Its a process, not an instant, but I think you and I are at the right place in our own journeys to walk them through that process. It certainly seems to fit with everything you have expressed as a desire for your blog, and it fits with one of the things I think I do best, so I guess we’ll wait and see if we are right. If we are, the process, the conversation, may take a long and twisted journey, but the destination is right and we can rest assured that we will arrive.

The question I asked about the missing step was the right one. The things you wrote about your journey were absolutely what I saw as the missing link, explaining how your journey had brought you to the place you are now. Personally I say thank you, it was a real joy and privilege to see that part of your journey expressed so well, and I thoroughly enjoyed being allowed to walk that journey with you through your words. Now let’s address the questions:

Question the faith: This always seems to carry such a negative connotation when it should not. Questioning the faith is nothing more than exploring what you believe so you can truly understand what and why you believe what you believe. Its what Paul recommended to Timothy – Study to show thyself approved, be ready to give an answer in season and out – if more people did this on their own instead of accepting without question what’s preached from the pulpit and taught in seminary we wouldn’t be in the shape we are in today. Is that the reason we have so many denominations and divisions in the Protestant church? Probably, even though I personally don’t see anything wrong with the many unique expressions of the faith. Faith is unique and individual to every person, every idea is understood and expressed differently by each one, and if we could learn to accept that instead of letting it divide us we wouldn’t have division at all. Its funny, and its sad, that as individuals we demand the right to our own uniqueness, yet we can’t seem to be comfortable with the fact that every person is a unique individual, thinking and experiencing everything uniquely in a way that is bound to produce differences – its just not supposed to cause division. If people understood that 99% of what Christianity believes is exactly the same they might look a little differently on the differences. But I always go back to identity. Because faith, religion, is such a defining characteristic of our identity, any idea outside of that predisposed identity is attacked vigorously. What if Adam and Eve are a myth? How does that change who I am? How does that change the Gospel?
Dangerous questions that the majority of sheep – I mean people – are unwilling to address (unwilling or unable?). As the people said to Moses, God is too great, we don’t want to talk to Him, you talk to him for us. All well and good, except that anytime a person gives up their ability to address the Father directly they lose their ability to fully discern truth, since they are locked into the truth of the one they choose to speak for them. It seems one great purpose in what you and I are doing together and individually is not attacking people’s ideas, but just trying to get them to believe its OK to think for themselves – if we accomplish that, there won’t be any negative connotation to “question the faith”.

Define the faith: That’s just a logical progression of questioning. As you define the answers you are looking for you define what it is you believe. That is a worthy goal for anyone, and one would hope that if we helped someone along on that path of discovery we had done a good deed. In the context of our conversation, we aren’t looking to define the faith for anyone, we are encouraging others to think deeply for themselves and define their own faith. It is what I think the vast majority of clergy are tasked to do and fail miserably at, for whatever reason (and there are many: fear of the lack of their own knowledge, fear for their livelihood, Pharisaical control issues…). You and I can rest on the assurance that we aren’t trying to teach our own brand of Gospel – just trying to lead people into a relationship with the Father that goes beyond the confines of organized religion as we have it today – there is so much more out there to be discovered, to be enjoyed, so much life to be happy with, so much faith to be happy with – personally I feel if I can encourage others to take the journey, it doesn’t concern me too much where they end up, the Father is more than capable of leading each one to the place He desires for them. I just want to get them started on the journey most are afraid to take.

Promote the faith: Well, that’s the idea of discipleship as Jesus Himself defined it. Where I think most leadership fails, especially in this day of mega churches and internet ministries and superstar preachers, is that they make disciples of themselves rather than disciples of Jesus. Its a far easier thing to say “Follow me” than it is to say “Follow Jesus” and deal with the myriad directions that necessarily leads. If I, as a leader, can pigeonhole people into the beliefs I have and that I can defend, I only have to deal with the mass as a whole. If I teach people to follow Jesus, I have to deal with each person individually as they progress on their own journey, and that is impossible with a large group of people, just ask Moses. Ministry was always intended to be small enough to be personal for each person – every shepherd knows each sheep in his flock – but how can that be accomplished beyond the kinds of numbers Jesus and Moses exampled? When leadership concerns itself with mere numbers to define success it fails miserably the responsibility of leadership, and you end up eventually with the state of affairs we have today. Of course, the encouraging thing is the state of things as they are today, with so many seeking to address exactly this problem. No matter what shape it takes, there is a definitive movement back to the smaller picture, the personal picture, and that is a very encouraging sign – something I think we are certainly a part of. Discipleship simply, to me, is teaching people to trust the Source, and if I am in any way in leadership in this, then I am happy with that – the Source can lead them whichever way He desires. Do I think that that process would necessarily lead to common places? Sure, but doesn’t everyone? The real question would be, what are the common places? How simply, how concisely could those common places be defined, and how much territory would that leave for unique individual interpretation? I’m pretty sure I come to a far different conclusion on that than most in the contemporary Christian community.

I think for me the greater emphasis in what I write hopes to address the abuse that many have encountered in the church rather than necessarily the questions themselves. That is to say I’m much more concerned with healing first, a restoration of relationship with the Father, rather than the actual answers the conversation produces. I think its almost impossible to have an honest conversation about questions concerning faith until the damage that has been caused by errant teaching (some of the problem) and conduct (most of the problem) has been healed. There is so much anger and bitterness in those who have been abused – much of which I have experienced myself, as have you Pete. I know that pain, that frustration, that disappointment, the disillusionment. The opportunity to provide someone with a forum with which to deal with those feelings non-judgmentally, to heal from those experiences and to help them find a place to be safe is more important than any answer that arises from exploration of faith or doctrine. If the process is that someone finds a place to feel safe with their questions, or that someone finds an open heart willing to walk through the healing, or that an honest and unemotional conversation about difficult questions can take place, that’s the process I want to be a part of, and the result is hopefully an honest faith, as you say, that doesn’t have to be defended.

That posits the final question, “What is the Christian faith”? I can only respond with how I define it. There is an enormous difference between faith and belief. I believe 2 plus 2 is 4. Belief is reason, belief is logic, belief is philosophy and theology. Faith is relationship. I can believe my wife when she says dinner is ready, or that she spent $45 dollars at the grocery store. But do I believe her when she says she loves me? Entirely different animal altogether. I have faith that my wife loves me because I have a relationship with her that is independent and non-dependent on anything belief has to offer. Faith is the mystery of love and relationship. There is a quote that sums it up best for me: “A mystery is a problem that encroaches upon itself because the questioner becomes the object of the question. Getting to Mars is a problem. Falling in love is a mystery.” –Gabriel Marcel. Faith is the mystery of falling in love with the One who defines all love. That is something that can never be defined universally, for love is individually experienced uniquely beyond the mere bounds of anything that can be defined as belief.

I hope this leads us into wonderful new directions that we can yet begin to imagine.

I responded:
There is as you say a need to understand what and why we believe what we believe. But that is exactly what people are doing who are walking away from ‘church’ and/or ‘faith’. But it is only those who are disillusioned (with few exceptions) who are questioning what they believe. These are the people who are not getting realistic answers to their questions from those who are not thinking for themselves. I am surprised that you suggest that 99% of what Protestants believe is common ground. My suggestion would be that it is somewhere between 80 and 85%.

You said that anytime a person gives up their ability to address the Father directly they lose their ability to fully discern truth. Maybe you could explain what you mean by that statement because I would go as far as to say that I don’t believe that there is any truth in it.

You suggest that defining the faith is just another logical progression . . . Whenever anyone uses the words logical or rational when discussing the Christian faith, alarm bells ring! Who are we to define the answers we are looking for? I really don’t understand what you mean by this. But I did find the last sentence of that paragraph interesting. You want to get people started on the journey most are afraid to take. I would agree that some are afraid, but many really do believe that they shouldn’t go down that path because they have been encouraged not to.

When it comes to promoting the faith I agree entirely – if we teach people to follow Jesus, we have to deal with each person individually as they progress on the journey.

Dave’s response:
For those in the faith, any idea of “questioning” can often carry the idea of heresy, which can’t tolerated. There are so many ways this plays out we could spend some time exploring them all without once addressing the questions themselves. However, I would disagree that only those who are disillusioned are questioning what they believe. I think that we both find our focus on those who are disillusioned, but honest questioning in many forms takes place across the Christian theatre. For example, would you define the questioning that we each have done and continue to do in our personal journeys as disillusion or honest inquiry. If disillusion, would that be disillusion with the faith, or with the institution of church, or with individuals who have led astray? For myself, I would say that I have often been disappointed and disillusioned by the church, but never by the faith, which I think is a distinct difference.

My statement, “anytime a person gives up their ability to address the Father directly they lose their ability to fully discern truth”, is based on the understanding that we each are unique individuals. The full weight of uniqueness requires each individual to understand God and to relate to God uniquely. This is not rejection of universal doctrine or necessity of community and tradition within the church, but a full acceptance of personal responsibility toward one’s relationship with God. If you want to have a relationship with me, do you rely on personal communication or do you rely on someone else’s interpretation of me? The same is true of the Father. So, when a person abdicates their responsibility to enter into relationship, whether it be with the Father or with another human being, they lose their ability to rightly discern the full truth of who that person is because the entire relationship is based on second hand knowledge.

When I suggest the “logical” progression – question the faith to define the faith – it seems to me you object more to the idea of faulty logic that leads astray than logic itself. We are created as logical and rational beings – I think we could agree that God is a logical and rational being who created us in His image – without denying the limit of human logic and rationality and the place of mystery in the man’s relationship to God and without limiting God to simple logic and rationality. We certainly are subject to faulty logic and irrational ideas given those limitations, but these do not negate logic and reason. The question “Who are we to define the answers we are looking for?” is curious, because every individual certainly devotes a considerable portion of their existence doing just that, rightly so and taught in Scripture in numerous places (indeed doesn’t that partly what we define in our conversations?). Isn’t every individual responsible to define exactly the answers to the questions he asks? What “truth” is relied on, what “logic” is employed, what “answers” are resolved certainly depends on the journey of discovery each person takes. I don’t think that takes away from the legitimacy of logic and rationality. There is a place for logical and rational understanding of God, and there is a place of mystery. For example, concerning the question of suffering, there is a certain understanding that can be attained from the logical reasoning of the purpose of suffering, yet there is the mystery of the Father’s mind and will which can never be explained – when one meditates on the wonder of suffering one arrives at a certain conclusion that embraces both aspects as it relates to his or her own journey and own understanding. That, by default, is “defining the answer we are looking for”. This brings us full circle back to the idea that anyone who gives up their responsibility to address the Father directly can only arrive at someone else’s conclusion, which by default cannot fully define truth as the Father intended them to understand uniquely and individually.

My response:
If I had said, “It is only those who have doubts about what they have been taught who are questioning what they believe”, I don’t think you would be disagreeing with me.

Your comments about addressing Father directly do indicate that we have some significantly diverse views here – which to use one of my favourite expressions, needs to be put on the shelf for the time being.

You may be surprised but I don’t agree that God is a logical and rational being. This brings us back to ‘Why Suffering?’ and some of my earlier writing – especially starting with the fourth paragraph – Consider Romans 9.

If you had said “It is only those who have doubts about what they have been taught who are questioning what they believe” I still would have slightly disagreed with you. I think it could safely be said that those who are disillusioned question their faith, as it could be said that those who have doubts about what they have been taught are questioning their faith, but I just don’t think that categorizes everyone who has questions, mainly because I don’t think either of those two descriptions describe the reasons why I have questions. It has been said that philosophy is the study of the questions surrounding mankind’s existence, and theology is the study of the religious answers to those questions, and any serious study of faith requires a person to be both a philosopher and a theologian – not necessarily in the high sense of those dedicated to the practice from a scholarly standpoint, but in practice and thought. Thus I think it’s not uncommon for someone like myself to enjoy the serious study of philosophy and theology without any attendant disillusionment or disappointment concerning faith. Knowledge is always an elusive mistress – it’s common to hear people say, especially as they (we) get older, the more I know the less I know that I know. Still, there is an honest pursuit of knowledge that can triumph in truth and still admit its ignorance, embrace mystery without abandoning reason or pursuit of understanding, and enjoy the rewards of finding deeper, fuller meanings of subjects which in the end may not be fully comprehendable by the mind of man.



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