Thursday, February 26, 2015

Believing, Beloving: Diana Butler Bass, "Christianity after Religion"

Look to the roots of words to see how far the popular understanding of religious "faith" and "belief" have strayed from their points of origin.  Our English word "to believe" comes from belieben, "beloving."  Our word "doctrine" comes from the same root as doctor, and should have something to do with healing, not with separating goats from the Good Shepherd's flock.  Credo was chosen for the start of our creeds over the alternative opinor, the difference between "I set my heart on" and "I have an opinion."  The ubiquitous verse John 3:16 would be better translated as a promise of eternal life to all who entrust their lives to Jesus, not those who agree with certain statements about Jesus.

[Image: Thanks to Robert Talbert and for the Creed, most-repeated words largest]
This etymology for our language of "faith" (itself related to fidelity, personal loyalty) comes from an excerpt of Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (2012).  She subscribes to Harvey Cox's idea that Christianity has passed from an  age of "faith in Jesus," when faith was the way a community lived, through an age of "belief about Christ" when adherence to dogma determined who was in or out, to the present age characterized by "experience of Jesus."  (excerpt 126).  "Fundamentalisms," she quotes Cox as saying, "turn out to be rearguard attempts" to stem a tide that has already overrun the battlefield, the way the last Roman Emperor tried to reclaim authority (127).

Bass bolsters the claim that Christians are moving beyond belief with a brief reference to polls and a little history.  Americans self-identify as "spiritual" more than "religious."  She looks at Jonathan Edwards' call for return to "affections" in worship as a start for this latest age, back in 1740.  She skips ahead to Pentecostalism's origins around 1900, at the same time that William James was concluding that "religious experience" is helpful to an individual's life, regardless of dogmas.  She tells about how reason "hardened" into rationalism, and how fundamentalism arose in reaction.  That's when beloving became believing in the sense of agreeing to a set of statements.

Bass tells us that the Creeds are an obstacle to those who think of themselves as "spiritual," today, but she offers a compromise to those like me who want to hold on to the Creeds.  Bass tells us that we encounter God through words, by which she means prayer.  She suggests that the Creeds, far from being Cliff Notes for a quiz in the afterlife, are actually prayer, when read, "I trust in God the Father...." (140-1).  She presents a creed remade to speak to the Maasai people, which describes Jesus as "a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe" who invites us "on safari" to look for good to do. "All who believe in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love...." (143).

Bass anticipates my uneasiness replacing the creeds and rites of religion with "spirituality" and "experience" when she relays worries expressed by her audiences.  Didn't Hitler's followers claim "experience?"  Can we be just "cafeteria Christians" who pick only what we want to believe? [For more on faith v. belief, and how to "believe in" hell and heaven, see my post on Meditations by Fr. Frank Wade]

Bass's answer emerges from an observation that no young clergy-in-training cited authoritative figures when asked how they go about dealing with important issues of faith. Rather than authority, these young clergy sought authenticity, by which they meant the sense of a broader community -- community found via internet, perhaps, but widely dispersed, nonetheless.

Reflecting on all this, I find that theater helps me to find my own balance between adherence to a set of credal statements and more fuzzy "experiential" faith.  For example, when a young actor of evangelical background was my choice to play Hamlet, we studied both Shakespeare's text and our own experiences to arrive at a living interpretation of Hamlet as truth-teller who attempts to bring healing to rotten Elsinore, neither madman, nor avenger.  Our interpretation emerged from engagement with the text and life, both; it required no distortions or elisions; it was consistent within itself; yet it was different from what others have done with Shakespeare's text.

This reading by Bass comports with "theological reflection" promoted in the rest of the book containing it, the Reading and Reflection Guide published by the Education for Ministry (EfM) program out of the School of Theology at the University of the South at Sewanee.   We are exhorted to use reason to consider experience, shared thoughts and feelings, connections to our religious traditions and texts, and what may be part of our culture.

Bass writes that "what" we believe is less important than "how" we believe.  Whether one "agrees" with the Creeds that "He rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures" or one claims personal "experience" of resurrection, the essence of "faith" is in Bass's paraphrase of Jonathan Edwards' question: how does the resurrection make a difference in our lives?  

Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  Excerpted in Education for Ministry. Reading and Reflection Guide, Volume B: Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.  Sewanee, TN:  The University of the South, 2014.
Find links to many more of my reflections on the Episcopal church, scripture, and on others' perspectives of the same topics at my page Those Crazy Episcopalians

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