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The dead end of religion without belief
A response to Luc Koch
What if the problem with Christianity was the doctrine? Not that the doctrine was wrong, but that there was doctrine in the first place. What if instead of trying to put God in a theological box, we were free to explore the great beyond, unbound by pat Sunday-school answers? Isn’t it outrageous hubris to think that we have all the answers anyway? Perhaps the answer we’re looking for is religion without doctrine, religion without belief.
So, what does that look like?
We are called to grow towards the light […] The truth that will be revealed by making a commitment and following the path, aligning yourself with the higher while paying strict attention all along the journey, is more like a sort of deep sigh: “There is so much more to all this than meets the eye…” And you will know, feel, the unshakable truth of it.
Religion without Belief: Is it possible?
I’m not entirely sure what that means or how I would follow such a program, but let’s examine one clause: “aligning yourself with the higher.” This at least I agree with; human beings ought to align themselves with the higher (or at least with the Most High). Now in order to accomplish that, we’re going to need to have a way to determine which way the higher is oriented so that we can turn ourselves to be oriented in the same direction. If, for example, I want to align myself with the earth’s magnetic field, I need a compass to tell me which way the field lines are oriented, so I can point myself in the right direction. But how do we figure out which way the “higher” is aligned?
I suppose the answer would have something to do with going on a journey of discovery and seeing what we can see. The problem with that is that religious experiences do not interpret themselves. Two people can have the exact same experience and draw exactly opposite conclusions as to what it means for them. People throughout time have experienced the spiritual potency of sex. Some of them respond by having fertility rituals in their temples, others by devoting themselves to chastity. Which group is aligned with the higher, if either?
If we’re going to claim that not everyone is aligned with the higher, then we need to be able to point to some kind of standard that lets us know which way the higher is aligned. On the other hand, if we’re inclined to say that everyone is aligned with the higher (each in his own way), or that we can’t know if we’re aligned with the higher (because such “propositional knowledge” is impossible in the spiritual realm), then the concept is utterly useless. What’s the point of exhorting people to do something which we don’t know how to do and we have no way of telling when we’ve succeeded?
What we effectively mean by religion without doctrine, by aligning ourselves with the higher and other such vague exhortations, is a sense of spirituality without the bother of having the spiritual impose itself on us in any way. By airily dismissing my compass as “propositional” and “earthy”, I’m now able to “discover” which way north points according to what suits me personally, and nobody has the right to tell me otherwise. The problem is that what seems to be freedom turns out to be the narrowest kind of trap. By cutting myself off from every objective measure of truth, I cut myself off from any possibility of learning something that would surprise me. Trapped in my own spiritual navel-gazing, the spiritual has no way to break in and reveal itself as entirely other than I feel like it ought to be.
What if God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, as much as the heavens are higher than the earth? What if his wisdom so completely exceeds our own that what seems wise to us is foolish to him, and what seems foolish to us is wise to him? This seems to be where Luc’s squirrel analogy is headed. But if we understand that man-made doctrines can never bring us in contact with a God like that, then we have to admit that man-made non-doctrine is equally useless. We cannot find him out with any means we possess; he must come to us.
This possibility is not considered in Luc’s article, but the only hope we mortals have of coming to any understanding of the Most High is if he chooses to speak to us. This is exactly what Christians claim has happened, that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The God who created man and man’s tongue knows how to use human language to teach us what we need to know about him, and that is exactly what he has done. If it were otherwise our ignorance would have no cure.
Of course revealed religion comes with some constraints. If God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God,” we are no longer free to believethat polytheism might be true. And it’s inevitable that some of the things revealed will be surprising, that is, unless God happens to be exactly like we were expecting him to be. And so we might be surprised to read that God made a donkey talk. That’s weird, I never would have done that if I were God. We might be surprised to read that he wiped out nearly the entire human race with a worldwide flood or that he spared the vicious Ninevites the fate they deserved because they asked for forgiveness. We might be surprised that God’s justice requires the death penalty for sin, or we might be surprised to find out that God would take on human flesh in order to take that punishment on himself. The one thing we must not expect if God should speak, is to meet a God who only says and does things that we like and approve.
The “freedom” offered by religion without doctrine is a freedom from having to be confronted by any truth claims that make us uncomfortable. The religion of revelation is based on a completely different freedom: God’s freedom to reveal himself as he is, unlimited by the constraints of what humans consider to be acceptable. The first option leads only to a dead-end. But the second opens the door to a never-ending voyage of discovery as the Infinite unfolds the riches of his glory to us throughout the ages of the ages.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
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A major section of Luc’s article, based on a paper by Daniel Howard-Snyder, tries to find support for his thesis in the way the Mark uses πιστις (pistis - faith) and related words in his gospel. It doesn’t fit in the body of my response, but the theology student in me has a few things to say about that:
He notes that πιστις, faith, has the same root as πιστευω, believe. It’s true that this linguistic link is obscured in English, but people tend to link faith with belief anyway so it’s not really a problem. Suggestions that the word “believe” loses something of the sense of πιστευω are not warranted; the two share a similar range (probably thanks to the Bible’s strong influence on the English language). In some cases the sense has to do with accepting an affirmation as true as in Mark 13:21, “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it.” In other cases the word refers to placing faith and confidence in someone or something, such as in John 14:1: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” As you can see, the word “believe” carries the sense nicely in both cases. (As a general rule anyone casting doubt on mainstream Bible translations should be subjected to the highest level of skepticism.)
So far this is not deeply problematic, and the definition for Markan faith that he gets from Howard-Snyder is tolerable enough if we’re feeling generous. The real problem starts when he goes on to claim: “In Mark’s story, the object of this unshakable and courageous faith is not a ‘belief in Jesus,’ or even Jesus the man, but what Jesus represents: a fully realized life not according to the earthy laws, but the higher spiritual order.” This assertion is totally unwarranted by the text and completely misses the point of Mark’s gospel. Faith in Jesus is the goal. Not faith in a “fully realized life” (where does he find that?), but faith in Jesus.
A good place to see this is the confession of the centurion at the cross. Watching Jesus die, he exclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39), and the reader who has followed the story from the beginning, is supposed to agree. All the story up to this point, the miracle accounts, the paraboles, and above all the character of Jesus himself, the first fifteen chapters of Mark have prepared us to echo this confession and to place our faith in Jesus.
If we look at the details of the words, the object of faith is directly stated three times in Mark: once “in God” (11:22), once “in Jesus” (9:42) and once “in the gospel” (1:15), which is the gospel “of God” according to 1:14 and the gospel “of Jesus Christ the Son of God” according to 1:1. The majority of the uses of faith and related words are in the context of Jesus’ miracles in such statements as “Your faith has made you well” (5:34, 10:52) and “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). The faith that people exercise in this context is not in some generic “higher spiritual order,” but in Jesus himself. He’s the one who has the power to heal, and he’s the one they put their hope in.
What’s more, the words of Jesus himself show that he saw himself not as a representative of some higher reality, but as the center of reality himself, the one whom his disciples would believe in and sacrifice everything for. In 9:42 he speaks of children who “believe in me.” In 8:29 he makes a major point of his identity, asking the disciples who they perceive him to be. Peter’s confession of him as the Christ is a key moment in the gospel. In 10:29 he speaks of people leaving “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel.” And in chapter 13 he talks about how his disciples will be persecuted and “hated by all for my name’s sake.” Not for the sake of what he represented, but for the sake of his name.
πιστις in Mark’s gospel, as in the rest of the New Testament, is faith and trust in the person of Jesus. This faith is not arbitrary or baseless, but it is based on facts, on propositional statements about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. He is the Son of God. He died on the cross and rose from the grave. The truth of these statements is the basis for the faith that we place in him. Religion without belief is an alien concept that finds no home in Mark’s gospel or in any other writing of the New Testament.