Friday, August 19, 2011

Malfunctions of the Christian Faith

Miroslav Volf speaking on A Public Faith in this YouTube video gives a wonderful distinction between a coercive faith and an idle faith. His words reminded me strongly of Paul's words to the Corinthians recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul gave a smidgeon of his own coercive religious history from which he was redeemed in v. 9, but plainly questioned whether the Corinthians behavior revealed their own faith to have been "in vain".  (Cf. the first 14 chapters for that behavior!)

Volf's new book, A Public Faith, is reviewed here, and I appreciate that the reviewer picked up on some the ramifications also addressed, below.

Volf's thoughts in the video inspired my own tangents. (I'm looking forward to reading the book, in its entirety!) Whether humans want to identify themselves as religious, irreligious or atheist really isn't central to the question of "faith" or "trust" which is manifested by how one lives life. If I should believe that my way of living is superior to any other, then I should choose whether to commend it to others or not. If yes, I might then employ all sorts of subjective variables to govern when/ where/ with whom/ if/ how I commend my way. To use coercion or not is one such variable. If coercion is a possibility, what type of coercion is permissible - verbal, intellectual, legal, financial, persuasion of rank or status, psychological, physical - then, which methods with whom?

You may be able to see that the variables are as infinite as the people and circumstances in which they find themselves.

If I choose not to commend my way to others, then I would have one form of idle faith. I trust in no one, except in my self, the singular, limited view from within that self, and the limited experiences of one person. My way works for me, alone, and for no other. Perhaps I simply would have no aspirations to understand why one would live my way or choose their own way. That might sound appealing to many folk, today, because choosing a particular way is perceived to be offensive to all who might choose otherwise, according to their own variables. However, sooner or later, my way will come face to face with other people, and then my idle faith will be challenged by their way of their own version of idle faith or coercive faith or other choices of what/who to trust... Then, what happens?

Religion forms as a concert of people believe that these ways promote life, peace and harmony in community. Explained so, it should be obvious why laws and religious beliefs conjoin so readily in public life. There are as many religious beliefs as there are self-affirming groups. Many definitions of "religion" incorporate the supernatural. Historically, the supernatural has been perceived to be the commendation and the imprimatur of god(s) upon these ways. If God (or gods) exist then these ways are more than the sum of humanity's thoughts. Anthropomorphic gods are those whose ways are obviously as flawed as humans are flawed, devious, unethical, greedy, ambitious, lustful, self-serving, demanding of obsequious approval, unquestioning obedience, & rejection of all other ways, and prone to rage when not satisfied, etc. There are also religions whose god(s) follow ways other than human ways.

When asked why he believed the Biblical message of God-in-Christ, Eugene Peterson's response was simple and forthright; as I recall, he said, essentially, "because I can live what I believe." If a religion's God is other than merely human, the ways commended need to be fulfillable internally and externally, as it were. Christian belief is that by God's grace, when we face the truth, acknowledge our weaknesses, and confess our wrongs and broken ways, we welcome God to transform our lives from the heart outward, so that we may obey God. The God who embodied Love-with-us, who comes in grace and truth to both friends and enemies, is beyond merely human, as we confess we are.

There are also people who commend and try to coerce others toward certain ways which they themselves have not lived. Current news reports recount heightened public anger against politicians, religious figures, attorneys, and others entrusted with authority who have privately failed to honor whatever patriotic, God-honoring or people-honoring "higher" principles they've publicly professed. We viscerally recognize that such people's commendations are inevitably hypocritical, and if we have sufficient courage and self-awareness, we acknowledge that human lack of moral character clouds discernment, because whatever actions we excuse in ourselves skews our perceptions. Sound judgment proceeds from a life embodying wisdom and knowledge.

For Christians, perceiving that Jesus' anger was directed against such hypocrisy and legalistic obfuscation informs our understanding of Jesus' harsh words recorded in Matthew 23. Matthew described an escalating succession of attempts to entrap Jesus beginning at 21:23, and ending with the lawyer's questioning him in 22:34-36. Entrapment, by definition, only serves the ambitions and interests of the trapper. When the selfish goals of the hunters are exposed in the light, as Jesus exposed the Sadducees, Pharisees, lawyers and scribes, the hunters seek to hide from the truth and destroy the messenger(s), rather than face public ridicule and themselves. Hypocrisy - literally, judging others to standards while living below standards oneself - is the most dangerous form of idle faith. Hypocrites seek to destroy those who can see through their smoke and try to dissipate it.

Hypocrites lack, or merely pretend to have, an essential attribute of integrity: humility. We, humans are more persuaded by people of integrity who serve others than by any disembodied information. There are hypocrites who attain great wealth and/or power in this world, people whose arrogance and narcissism preclude ever admitting errors, flaws or wrongdoing, even - or, especially - in the face of truth. However, we can be thankful that there are also humble people who have become great, freely admitting that we all need one another, that no human can know all truth, that no single person can be an expert at all things, that we accept correction and responsibility for our errors - deliberate and unknowing. The humble wield what power they have in service of others. Humility is the antithesis of human presumption to "know" better than others; the humble listen, serve and love, even though they honor virtues which counter others' ways. The ways (i.e., faith) of the humble will withstand the assault of arrogant self-interest. Coercive faith, of any stripe, is inherently presumptuous. Embodied humility cannot be coercive because humble people serve and consider others' best interests. John Dickson's book, Humilitas, was inspired by his participation in an academic project of Macquarie University in Australia which explored the historical origins of the virtue of humility. In ancient Greece and Rome, humility was scorned and derided as servitude, perceived only as appropriate for lower classes toward superiors, while pride (arrogance) was celebrated as a virtue among men. However, once there was humility incarnate, the willing sacrificing of an innocent and holy person for the guilty, who then rose from death - "and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 1:4), followers were inspired, humility was transformed, serving others redeemed, true power was revealed, and humanity could see by the love of God incarnated that love of neighbors was united with love of God.

No comments:

Post a Comment