Faith

I think it might be accurate to describe me as an intellectual. I enjoy study and reflection. I gain pleasure from the exercise of the mind. I took well to school and the teaching style that was common in colleges and universities in my time, principally lecture and reading, was a good match for my learning style. I considered pursuing an academic career and might have done so had not the work of being a pastor so appealed to me. At one point, I saw the ministry as something that I would do for a while to gain a bit of real-world experience and perspective before returning to academics. That was 40 years ago. I fell win love with the work and life of a pastor and I have not regretted my vocational choices.

Because of the way I learn and think, however, I have always been one to read books and analyze the ideas of others. I’m fairly good at analyzing the ways that others organize their ideas. I like thinking about the structure of thought. I’m sure that there is a part of me that has a sense of right and wrong about thinking. I am annoyed by those whose ideas are disjointed. I can be short with irrational argument. I am quick to point out inconsistencies and errors of logic. I enjoy the give and take of a good debate, but have little time for the hollow arguments that characterize American politics in this generation. In the current climate, however, political debate has little to do with rational thought. Winning an argument has little to do with winning an election. Politics is a game of emotions and stirring up public excitement more than a game of persuading thought. That kind of competitive tit for tat holds no interest for me.

A life of faith and the work that I do with people, however, is not just a matter of giving them the right ideas or influencing the way they think. Faith is not merely a matter of giving intellectual assent to ideas. It is about making a commitment. That doesn’t mean that faith is irrational. I’ve heard a few preachers who cling to notions and ideas that simply don’t make sense. They want others to embrace their particular interpretation of the Bible, without digging deep to come in contact with how the Bible has been interpreted over the generations of faith. The false science vs religion debates bore me not so much because preachers fail to understand the nature of science, which they do, but because it is such bad theology. To say that what the bible means is what one wants it to mean rather than to learn the ways in which the words of the bible have functioned throughout the history of our religious traditions is simply intellectual laziness. Those who preach genesis without the historical knowledge of the context of the book, and often without reading about the exile or the long history of Israel, are condemned to partial knowledge.

But faith isn’t just about possessing the right information.

It is often the case when people aren’t intellectually rigorous that they see the world in terms of false dichotomies. They think that you have to choose either belief or science as if they were opposed. One of those false dichotomies that is a long-standing conversation in the church concerns faith and works. The Christian faith began in the context of a time when there were many legalists who practiced religion as a matter of following a specific set of rules. They studied the laws and they observed the behaviors of others. When there was an infraction of a law, even a tiny infraction of a minor law, they pointed out the error to the person. Their hyper-critical approach seemed to project that only scholars of the law would be able to gain God’s favor. They judged people based on their behavior and conformity to the tiniest details of a complex set of laws. Early Christian leaders, including Jesus himself, confronted those legalists with a fresh approach to the law. They understood that salvation was not a matter of behaving in a particular manner. The Apostle Paul wrote directly about faith being the key to salvation, not the practice of good works.

In this context, many Christinas have interpreted the letter of James as a kind of contrast with the main ideas of the Bible. James argues for faith that includes good works. He believes that faith should inspire a life of doing good things and that faith should show in the behaviors of the faithful. He does not set up an “either/or” dichotomy. He does not say that you have to choose between faith and works. But preachers have often set up that kind of choice, arguing that looking to the works of one is wrong and that salvation is not about works. There are volumes and volumes of such sermons.

James, however, is not saying that salvation is merely a matter of doing the right things or something that can be earned by doing good works. He is saying that faith is a matter that involves a whole person. If one is truly transformed by faith then they will engage in good works that will demonstrate that faith. Faith is more than having the right ideas. It is a transformation of the entire person.

There are, in our world, many who are Christian in name, but whose lifestyles don’t reflect Christianity. I don’t know how many times in recent years that I’ve heard someone say that they are spiritual but not religious as if the practice of religion is somehow disconnected from a spiritual life. They see a dichotomy where none exists. spiritually and religion go hand in hand. Spiritual practices that are solely individual and have no impact on relationships are hollow and meaningless.

There is nothing wrong with inviting those folk into the communion of the church and the sharing of a life of faith with others. How much better our world would be if we had fewer politicians who talked about their “Christian values” and more who actually attended church.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!