#24  Who We Believe In is More Important than What We Believe

FOR MOST OF MY life I have been interested in Christian theology. I have a doctor’s degree in Christian theology and taught theology for decades. Consequently, theology is not something I can cavalierly criticize or dismiss lightly.

It is understood and described in many different ways, but theology generally concentrates on the study of Christian beliefs, which are sometimes called doctrines. In some circles, the heart of theological study is called dogmatics, which is defined as the “branch of theology that seeks to interpret the dogmas of a religious faith,” and the same dictionary defines dogma as “a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.”[1]

Doctrines, or dogmas, are expressed in words, and those words, or propositions, are considered to be either true or false. And, in keeping with what we saw in the previous chapter, those who believe “correct” doctrines are considered orthodox and those who believe erroneous doctrines are, to varying degrees, considered heretics. As we saw, being orthodox, that is, believing the right things has had a prominent role in the history of Christianity, at least since the fourth century.

The theological disputes through the ages, beginning before the fourth century but characterized by the disagreements that led to the so-called First Ecumenical Council in 325, have been almost exclusively about what people believed. The Council of Nicaea, as the meeting of bishops in 325 came to be called, was partly about politics, particularly in the eyes of Emperor Constantine who convened it. At least on the surface, the dispute centered on the opposing beliefs of Athanasius and Arius, two prominent Christian leaders in Alexandria, Egypt.

From then until modern times, church (and political) authorities have considered what Christians believe to be of great importance, and many Christians have been martyred by other Christians simply because of what were considered erroneous beliefs. In spite of all this, however, we need to recognize that who we Christians believe in is more important than what we believe.

I Know Whom I Have Believed

In 1 Timothy 2:12 we find this noteworthy declaration: “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (NKJV) Whether written by the Apostle Paul or by a later author who put these words in the Apostle’s mouth, that is a statement of faith in Christ by one who was suffering in prison because of being a preacher and an apostle.

Based on those words from the New Testament, Daniel W. Whittle wrote the words to a hymn that we often sang in my home church in northwest Missouri. The first verse and refrain goes like this:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace / To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love / Redeemed me for His own.

But I know Whom I have believèd, / And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed / Unto Him against that day. [2]

Both Paul and Major Whittle seem to have known that who one believes in is more important than what one believes. That certainly does not mean that beliefs are unimportant. Much of the doctrinal teaching of the New Testament comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul and his followers who wrote in his name. Paul could even be adamant about the content of what was believed. In writing to the Christians in Galatia, Paul acknowledges that “there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7). But then he goes on to exclaim, “. . . even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (1:8).

There was, to be sure, important content in the gospel message that Paul had proclaimed. Yet even in this letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes the central importance of faith in Christ. In the second chapter he declares that “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ” (v. 16).

Belief that Jesus is the Savior and that one can be justified through belief in Christ are important beliefs. But still, belief that is not nearly as important as belief in.

Confession of Faith

This book’s ninth chapter was about the meaning of confessing Jesus as Lord. Indeed, as mentioned in that previous chapter, it seems quite clear that the words “Jesus is Lord” was the earliest confession of faith, the essential profession new believers would make before being baptized. In the tenth chapter of Romans we find these important words: “. . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (vv. 9-10).

In those pivotal verses, there is significant reference made to what is believed, particularly about Jesus’ resurrection. But what is most important is that one believes in Jesus, confessing him as Lord. That simple confession by itself was sufficient in the beginning, seeing that it was a “radical” decision to call Jesus Lord. On the one hand, it was radical for those who had been a part of the Jewish community as Lord was used as a form of address for only the Creator God. It was also radical for those who lived in Roman society, as Caesar expected his subjects to address him as Lord.

In short, belief about Jesus was included in a confession of faith in Jesus—but it was the latter which was decisive. Gradually, though, church leaders came increasingly to emphasize the content of the Christian faith. There developed what is now known as the Apostles’ Creed, which originally was likely an expanded statement of beliefs that persons were expected to confess at the time of baptism—and its use for that purpose is still seen in some churches today.

With the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, there began to develop diverse confessions of faith in the various Protestant traditions. It became necessary for the various groups to state publicly, and clearly, what they believed. One of the first such statements was the Schleitheim Confession (1527) by the Anabaptists who were being persecuted in Switzerland.

Three years later, the first Lutheran document was penned, and it came to be known as the Augsburg Confession. That confession of faith was drafted by the followers of Luther in response to the call of Catholic Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who asked the “Lutherans” to explain their religious convictions in an attempt to restore religious and political unity in the Holy Roman Empire. What the “Protestants” believed seemed, and was, at odds with what was believed by the Roman Catholics at that time. Not surprisingly, their Confession failed to bring about unity.

The Confession of Basel (1534) was one of a series of confessions of faith that was issued by the Reformed branch of the church which began in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1520s. In that same tradition, the Scots Confession (1560) was normative in the Reformed/Presbyterian branch of the Reformation until the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1648.

Reference could be made to many other confessions of faith drawn up in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the point is this: in the development of the Christian church through the centuries, there was a proliferation of confessions expressing the content of Christian beliefs. The Protestant understanding of Christianity was quite different from the Catholic understanding in numerous ways. And within Protestantism, the doctrinal understanding of the Lutherans and the Presbyterians, of the Anabaptists and the Anglicans, and then, later, of the Baptists and the Methodists was not at all the same.

The various confessions of faith acknowledged many similarities, to be sure, but they also made it apparent that there were many differences among the various groups. And what people believed often had serious social ramifications. Some Protestants were executed by Catholics because of their beliefs. At other times there were Catholics who were executed by Protestants. And even within Protestantism some were martyred by other Protestants because of what they believed, beginning with Felix Manz in 1527.[3] Manz’s main “crime” was his rejection of infant baptism, which he and the other Swiss Brethren did not consider Christian baptism at all, and his insistence on believer’s baptism.

So, especially in previous centuries, what Christians believed or didn’t believe was certainly of grave importance. Still, I insist that who one believes in is more important than what one believes.

Belief in Jesus Christ

In recent years it seems that there has been an increasing shift away from the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thinking of some Christians. It would seem that for Christianity to be considered as primarily about faith in Jesus would be a foregone conclusion, but there are now some Christians who seek to downplay the significance of Jesus for the sake of fostering better relations with people of other faith traditions. (I deal with this issue to some extent in a chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism.[4])

Those who seek to demote Jesus, denying his divinity, place emphasis on faith in God (known by many different names)—although some even deny that God is a personal Being. Christ and Christianity are largely relativized.

It is a shameful historical fact that Christians have often mistreated those of other religious faiths, and the move toward a position of respect for those who embrace different views is highly commendable. But to what extent can one downplay the divinity or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense?

As I was working on this chapter, I just happened to read (again) the story of Augustine’s conversion. Upon hearing a child’s voice saying, “Take and read, take and read,” Augustine picked up the Bible and opened it at random to Romans 13:13-14. Those verses renounce the type of profligate life Augustine had lived for years. But they also, significantly, contain the words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Augustine went on to become a committed Christian and then a great theologian. Some call him “the father of Western theology.” But his conversion experience was not nearly as so much in what he believed as in whom he believed. His faith was “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not his belief about Jesus but rather his belief (trust) in Jesus that formed the foundation for all he later wrote about belief about Christ, defending doctrinal orthodoxy against those he considered heretics.

When I was a teenager, I remember hearing Baptist preachers emphasize, fairly often it seems, the difference between believing in and believing that. The latter, of course, is about what we believe, but the former is about whom we believe. Believing that has to do with intellectual assent to statements or propositions. Believing in has to do with trust in a person. That was, and is, an important thing to emphasize, and people today still need to recognize that difference.

Belief as Trust in Christ

In many of those church services where believing in was emphasized, “Trust and Obey” was often sung as a congregational hymn. The words of that old hymn were based on a testimony given by a young man in an evangelistic meeting led by the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody.[5] It was quite apparent from the young man’s words that he knew little about Christian doctrine, but he finished his testimony by saying, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey.”

I used to hear it said that a person could be as straight as a gun barrel doctrinally and just as empty spiritually. There are people who give all the “right answers” when asked about the great Christian doctrines. They would acknowledge that they believe all of the creedal statements about Jesus Christ. But close examination of their daily lives would lead one to conclude that there was distinct discrepancy between their way of living and their faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus.

Belief that is merely intellectual assent and often has little relationship to how one actually lives. Belief equated with trust, however, is much different: it means commitment to the one in whom that trust is placed—and when belief is trust, it includes obeying. So this chapter is, obviously, closely related to the previous one emphasizing that what we do is more important than what we believe.

What I am emphasizing here is that Christian belief is trust in Jesus Christ and in the God revealed by Jesus. Thus, Christian faith is not belief in a generic God, one who is worshipped by adherents of all religions. There are similarities and overlaps, of course, but there are also important differences. Those differences have been admirably explained by Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One.[6]

As Prothero points out, the goals of the different religions are not the same. Thus, indeed, it makes a great difference in how we live and, potentially, in what we experience after death, according to whether we believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ or whether we believe in the God, or Absolute, depicted by one or other of the great leaders and teachers in other religious traditions.

For Christians, what they believe about Jesus—and the many other doctrines of the faith—is important. But as human beings, whether people believe in Jesus or in some other savior, teacher, guru, or whomever is of the greatest importance.

Truly, who we believe in is more important than what we believe.

[1] Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Further, as related to the above definition, doctrine is defined as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.”

[2] Whittle (1840-1901) was injured in the Civil War and became a Christian during the time he was recovering from his wounds. Several years later he wrote this hymn, which was first published in 1883.

[3] Manz (b. c.1498) was executed by drowning in the Limmat River in Zurich by the city officials under the influence of Huldrich Zwingli, the pastor of historic Grossmünster Church and the main instigator of the Reformation in Switzerland.

[4] (4-L Publications, 2010). Chapter Six is “The Limits of Liberalism’s Understanding of Jesus Christ.”

[5] The lyrics of “Trust and Obey” were written in 1887 by John H. Sammis (1846-1919), who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880.

[6] (HarperOne, 2010). Prothero is Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. The subtitle of his book is The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.


#23  What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe

ORTHODOXY IS A WORD that has had a long and checkered history in the two-millennia-long story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times,[1] the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century. The Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, the religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church. Continue reading “#23  What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe”

#22  Jesus Expects His Followers to be Peacemakers

ORIGINALLY, THIS WAS NOT one of the chapters planned for this book. But in the process of writing the previous chapter, I became aware of how closely related are the ideas of simple living and peacemaking. In looking back at exemplary Christians through the centuries, most of those most interested in simple living were also interested in peacemaking, and many of those most interested in peacemaking were also interested in simple living.

In that connection, through the years I have also become increasingly cognizant of how there seems to be a significant economic factor behind most major historical events, including, and especially, wars. In spite of all the high-sounding rhetoric, wars are almost always fought for economic reasons, at least in part.

In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as “the axis of evil.” Those three countries were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. The next year war was launched against Iraq, and there have been repeated rumblings about a future war against Iran. While the government of North Korea has often been renounced, however, until briefly in 2017 there has been little talk of going to war against that country. What is the difference? It is hard to deny that the abundance of oil in the Middle East and the scarcity of oil in North Korea was likely the major reason Iran and Iraq were targeted and North Korea was not.

If population pressures, the need for natural resources, the desire for markets are all factors lying behind most wars (a generalization that, admittedly, some historians would disagree with), it is not hard to understand that an emphasis on simple living is closely related to peacemaking.

St. Francis Again

Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest and the author of several books about Francis of Assisi.  His best-selling book is Francis, the Journey and the Dream, which has sold over 200,000 copies.[1] When I read that book a few years ago, I was most impressed with the chapter called “Francis before the Sultan.” It is a historical fact that Francis participated in the fifth crusade, first called for by Pope Innocent III, the pope that blessed Francis in their historic encounter before the papal throne in 1209. Ten years later, in the midst of the crusade, Francis went to Egypt, the main site of the fighting, and ended up having another historic encounter, this time with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt and the leader of the Muslim forces fighting against the Christians.

Bodo conjectures that it was there before the powerful Islamic leader that Francis voiced his widely-known and oft-quoted prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether Francis actually was able to articulate that prayer before the sultan is not known, but it is quite certain that his purpose for risking his life to see the Muslim leader was with the intention of making peace. Following Jesus, for Francis, meant not only living a simple life but also seeking in every way possible to be a peacemaker.

Paul Moses, a journalist who became a university professor, has written The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, a book about that dramatic meeting of Francis and Malik al-Kamil.[2] In his fascinating book, Moses mentions that Francis’ “devotion to Lady Poverty has always received more attention than his peacemaking efforts. The two, however,” he goes on to assert, “are closely linked since, as Francis knew, wars are so often fought for economic gain.”[3]

Francis did not succeed in ending the Fifth Crusade. But he did engage in a time of dialogue with the Muslim leader, talks that seem to have gone on for several days. And, as Moses significantly points out, Francis clearly showed Sultan al-Kamil “what it meant to be a true Christian, a holy person who truly believed Jesus’ call to love the enemy” (p. 145).

Peacemakers are not always successful, but as I discuss in a later chapter, the New Testament word for success is faithfulness. Francis was faithful to the teaching of Jesus. Today, many Christians seem to be more prone to follow the government’s call to war than Jesus’ call to peace. For Francis, though, following Jesus meant to go against the popes who had called for the crusade and against Cardinal Pelagius who was the hands-on leader of the Crusaders who fought in Egypt during the time Francis was there. [4] For Francis, following Jesus meant actively seeking to be an instrument of peace.

Other Examples from the Past

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were others who believed, and lived, very much like Francis and his band of friars. One group centered around a man whose name is sometimes given as Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant in Lyon, France, who gave up his wealth and embraced a life of voluntary poverty.[5] His followers, who are known as Waldensians, came to be known not only for their simple lifestyle but also for their pacifism and their refusal to take oaths.

Centuries later, some Christians in and around Zurich, Switzerland, began to hold several views similar to those of the Waldensians (and similar also to those of Francis except for his loyalty to the Catholic Church). Simple living, refusal of oaths, and pacifism were key emphases of the “Swiss Brethren,” who in January 1525 performed the first baptism of adults who had already received infant baptism. This was the beginning of the movement of Christians who came to be called Anabaptists (meaning re-baptizers) by their opponents called.

In the present day, the Anabaptist tradition is most clearly seen in the Mennonite churches in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Named after the Dutch reformer Menno Simons,[6] this group rejected the extremes of some Anabaptists who used violence. Rather, they emphasized the pacifist position, and that has been a hallmark of their churches through the centuries. The Mennonites are one of the three so-called peace churches in the U.S.[7]

Peace Advocates in the Present

Although most Christians seemingly agree with the “just war” theory that goes back to the time of Augustine, there are now some Christians in many denominations who are outspoken opponents of war and ardent advocates of peace. This is true even for some who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the most heavily involved in “holy wars” in the past, particularly the Crusades from the end of the eleventh century until the thirteenth century. (Of course, until the sixteenth century there weren’t many other Christian groups.)

Before he converted to the Orthodox Church in 1988, Jim Forest was a Catholic for some twenty-five years, and during that time he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship.[8] There were many notable Catholic pacifists before Forest, of course: one thinks particularly of Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker,[9] Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk,[10] and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the pacifist Catholic priests who were often in the news during the Vietnam War.[11]

And the work for peace continues with the activities of younger Catholic peacemakers. One of the most active at this time is John Dear, a Jesuit priest, who was awarded the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2010.[12]

There are also a number of Christian peace groups, such as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, to which I have belonged for many years. Members of these fellowships are not all pacifists, but all are committed to seeking non-violent ways to end regional, national, and international conflicts.

While first working on this chapter I made a blog posting on the “Top Ten Christians,” the people after New Testament and early church times, but now deceased, whom I at that time considered the “best” Christians in history. In looking back at that list, I realized that they all, to varying degrees, espoused Christian pacifism.

Then, I began thinking about composing a list of the “top ten” living Christians. In some ways, that was more difficult, but, again, for the most part those who made the list are strong opponents of war and are active in peace and justice activities.

To give just one example, two people I considered when I first started working on the latter list were Nelson Mandela (who was still alive) and Desmond Tutu. Those two South Africans were agents of peace and reconciliation in the midst of a harsh social system of oppression. Tutu, who became an Anglican archbishop, fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1984, as did Mandela, who was given the same award in 1993.

Mandela and Tutu are good examples of Christians who are living faithfully according to the teachings of Jesus Christ by seeking peace and reconciliation. They were active peacemakers in South Africa in much the same way the late Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the United States—and it is no surprise that King, too, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[13]

Peacemaking as Love in Action

One of King’s notable books contains fifteen sermons published under the title Strength to Love.[14] Two sermons appearing early in the book are “Love in Action” and “Love Your Enemies,” and then the final sermon is “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Those sermons sum up well what everyone needs to realize about love, which is at the core of the Christian faith.

Christian pacifists, such as Francis of Assisi as well as the descendants of the Swiss Brethren and the other pacifistic Anabaptists, do not base their peacemaking activities upon the optimistic belief that people are basically good and that peace can result from that goodness if people just tap into it and talk to each other in a rational manner. No, Christian pacifism is primarily based on Jesus’ teachings about love.

Christian pacifism does not necessarily “work” in every case. You might say it didn’t “work” for Jesus. It didn’t work for numerous Christian martyrs through the centuries, people who out of obedience to Christ were willing to shed their own blood rather than to be engaged in killing other people. They took literally Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

And so to the present time, many of those who take Jesus’ teaching seriously refuse to support war, for they do not see how it would be possible to love their enemies if they were also seeking to kill them through warfare.

Christians often find themselves in a bind when they seek to follow Jesus’ teaching in a country that has declared war. Fortunately, this country has made allowance for “conscientious objectors,” but that is not an option for Christians in some countries—and it is not always easy to “get off the hook” that way in this country. And by “getting off the hook” I don’t mean to imply that no service is required of those who are pacifists. In lieu of military service, other types of activity are required, and generally positively embraced by COs.

There is one more important point that needs to be recognized here: pacifism does not mean “passivism,” and many peace activists talk about the necessity of waging peace.[15] Real peacemakers are not passive. They are not cowards who sit on the sidelines while others are out in the “real world” doing all the “dirty work.” People like Dorothy Day, M.L. King, Jr., John Dear, and many others have made it quite clear that peacemaking is hard, dangerous work. And most of the people who want to be “good” Christians fall far short of the example that people like them have set.

In a world where Christianity has often been entwined with war and warlike activities, in the past more than in the present, people like Day, King, and Dear challenge us to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be peacemakers. This is another “true thing” that everyone needs to recognize.

[1] (Second ed., Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1988; first published in 1972). Bodo (b. 1937) became a Franciscan in 1955 and has been leading pilgrimages to Assisi since 1976.

[2] (Doubleday, 2009). Moses (b. 1948) joined the Journalism faculty at Brooklyn College in 2001.

[3] Pp. 37-38. Perhaps that was especially true of most wars during the Middle Ages, including the war between Assisi and Perguia, in which Francis had fought, and became a prisoner of, in 1202.

[4] Cardinal Pelagius (c.1165-1230) was the papal legate dispatched by Pope Honorius III to lead the Fifth Crusade at Damietta in Egypt; it is widely recognized that he made a poor strategic decision in turning down peace offers made by al-Kamil.

[5] Waldo’s dates are uncertain, but he was born around 1140 and probably died around 1218, although he may have died much earlier. He had gathered a large number of followers, sometimes called the Poor of Lyon, by 1170, more than a decade before Francis’ birth.

[6] Simons (1496-1561) was a Catholic priest who converted to the Anabaptist expression of Christianity in 1536.

[7] The other two are the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose beginning is traced back to George Fox in mid-seventeenth century England, and the Church of the Brethren, which originated in Germany in 1708 and is sometimes called the Dunkers or German Baptist Brethren. In the U.S., their Annual Conference of 1935 made the church’s position on pacifism clear by declaring that “all war is sin.” Currently, the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS) is in the process of becoming a peace church.

[8] Forest (b. 1941) was also a key member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years, including his service for more than a decade (1977-88) as Secretary General of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

[9] Day (1897-1980) started The Catholic Worker in the early 1930s, and she is another good example of one who greatly emphasized both justice for the poor and under-privileged people of society and world peace through non-violence.

[10] Merton (1915-68) grew increasingly insistent on nonviolence and peacemaking. David W. Givey’s revised book The Social Thought of Thomas Merton: The Way of Nonviolence and Peace for the Future (Anselm Academic, 2009) explores Merton’s evolution in that direction.

[11] Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) were both Catholic priests who engaged in extensive nonviolent protests in opposition to the Vietnam War.

[12] Dear (b. 1959) has written some twenty-five books on peace and has been arrested at least seventy-five times for civil disobedience as he protested war and violence. He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008.

[13] When King (1929-1968) was awarded the Peace Prize in 1964, he was the youngest person to ever receive that prestigious award.

[14] First published in 1963, this book was re-issued by Fortress Press in 1981 with a foreword by Coretta Scott King, the widow of M.L. King, Jr.

[15] I first became aware of this idea probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s as it was an emphasis of Sojourners. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of that magazine, is also the editor of Waging Peace: A Handbook for the Struggle Against Nuclear Arms (Harper & Row, 1982).

#21 Too Little Is Almost Always Better than Too Much

MY CHILDREN PROBABLY DIDN’T appreciate me mentioning it so much, but from time to time I would say to them, “Too little is almost always better than too much.” That saying was not in harmony with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which we were living then—or are living now. In the United States, as in most of the “developed world,” the winds of capitalism have blown over the land so strongly that, fanned by the ubiquitous commercials on television, radio, and newspapers, the desire of most people is for more and more material things.

Generally, people don’t like to think about or use the word greed, especially in referring to themselves, but upon careful analysis it is hard not to think that that word is applicable to much of the consumerism rampant in capitalist societies. Of course, greed means the excessive desire to acquire more, especially more and more material possessions, than what one needs. But the question is always about what is enough and what is, truly, excessive.

Compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, most of us middle-class people in North America, Europe, and Japan possess much more than we really need. And considering the sizeable portion of the world’s population who live in poverty, the middle class, to say nothing of the upper class, definitely have excessive possessions. (Of course, many of those middle-class people, especially in this country, have excessive debts as well.)

So it is in thinking about the problem of economic imbalance in the world, about matters of justice and equality, that led me to say to my children that too little is almost always better than too much. What seems like too little is usually enough; what is too much is usually wasteful and/or extravagant. Consuming too much is a problem for those who take seriously the words of the Bible admonishing people to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

The Extreme Example of St. Francis

One of my favorite people of all time is Francis of Assisi. As I write this, I am reflecting on my recent reading of some books about him. I am impressed all over again at the way Francis lived out of what he thought was obedience to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And for Francis that meant, among other things, a commitment to what he called Lady Poverty.

The Last Christian is a book I had heard of for years but just read for the first time shortly before initially writing this chapter.[1] The author’s point is that perhaps no one else before or after Francis ever lived so much like Jesus, so if following Jesus is what it means to be a Christian, perhaps he was, indeed, the last Christian.

Jesus said, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well.”[2] Francis lived as though he really believed those words to be true.

Francesco Bernardone (1181/2-1226), whom we know as Francis of Assisi, grew up in an affluent home in central Italy. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and in his youth Francis enjoyed the “good life” that his father’s money made possible. But when he was in his early twenties, he decided that a life such as he had been living was not satisfactory. He felt that he must seek to live much differently.

Although it probably was not as dramatic as depicted in the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,”[3] Francis’ break with his affluent lifestyle, which meant a break with his father and his abundance, was a “big deal.” And his “downsizing” was permanent. So his was, and is, a clarion call to a simple lifestyle.

Of course few, if any now, can live completely in the way Francis did. Even those of his own group during his lifetime, and especially those who lived later and came to be known as Franciscans, were not able to live as simply as Francis did. But Francis’ example has been influential among many people who have sought to live a simpler lifestyle than they previously lived and/or than most of the people around them live. They live more simply than would likely have been the case without Francis’ example.

So even though extreme, through the centuries and still today Francis of Assisi has helped many people to see that when it comes to material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

The Simple Living Movement

In the 1960s and 1970s there was considerable talk among some Christians about “simple living.” A prominent British missionary and theologian wrote a book published in 1975 called Enough Is Enough,[4] and another book I remember reading back then had the unlikely title No More Plastic Jesus.[5] One of the significant parts of the latter book is about the Shakertown Pledge, written in 1973, which includes the promise, “I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.”

In addition to Francis, whom we have just considered, during that time some Christians, and Christian groups, who were rooted in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century also made considerable emphasis on simple living. In the early 1970s, I first read, and was significantly influenced by, The New Left and Christian Radicalism, a small book by Arthur G. Gish.[6] Simple living, as well as pacifism, was a part of the focus of that powerful work. So in addition to opposition to the Vietnam War, which was a part of the emphasis of Gish’s work, along with some other Christians during that time I became quite interested in the simple living movement. That is when I first started saying to my children, “Too little is almost always better than too much.”

Also in the 1970s, “Live simply so that others may simply live” was a quite popular slogan in some circles.[7] The idea behind that statement, of course, is that those who voluntarily choose to live simply will have more resources to share with those who don’t have enough to live on.

There has been some emphasis on simple living in more recent years. For example, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living was published in 2000.[8] And even more recently, and more specifically related to Christianity, Francis Chan, the founding pastor of a megachurch in California, has written about the implications of loving others as self in his bestselling book Crazy Love.[9] But more than writing about that concept, which is so often talked about but rarely implemented to any significant degree by Christian preachers and others, Chan and his church have exemplified what that means in actual practice.

According to reports, Chan gives away about ninety percent of his income and has not received a salary from his church. In addition, by 2009 he had donated all of his book royalties, which totaled about $500,000, to various charities. Much of his charitable giving went to help rescue sex slaves in foreign countries. As for the church he founded, in 2008 it was reported that it would give away 55% of its income to charitable causes. The church also decided to build an amphitheater rather than go to the expense of erecting a large and expensive building.

David Platt, an even younger pastor, has written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, which was a bestselling book in 2010[10] and even attracted the attention of the New York Times op-ed writer David Books.[11] One chapter of Platt’s challenging book is “How Much is Enough?” In that chapter he calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. He suggests that people live as if they made $50,000 a year and give everything else away.[12] There are, of course, many people in this country, and most people in most countries around the world, who would very much like to live on $50,000 a year but can’t—because their income is less (and often far, far less) than that. Still, for many people in this country to give away all above $50,000 a year would be a move in the right direction toward a simpler lifestyle.

Loving Neighbor as Self

The two examples given in the previous section make reference to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But what does that really mean, and is that something that can actually be put into practice?

There are some secular people who try to implement simple living primarily for their own benefit. And it has to be recognized that from Francis of Assisi to Francis Chan part of the motivation of Christians to live simply has been for the sake of being freed of the burden of possessions, liberated to enjoy life more by focusing on non-material values. So, simple living is not completely for the purpose of helping others, although it invariably leads to that in most cases. In its most sublime form, simple living is primarily for the purpose of seeking to love neighbor as self.

And, still, there is the age-old question, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus answered that question pretty well, saying in effect that one’s neighbor is anyone in need whom one has the opportunity of helping.[13] In response to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Then the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by what is usually called “the parable of the good Samaritan.” Someone has suggested that if he were telling that story in the U.S. today, Jesus might have told about the good Muslim. The point is that “neighbor” doesn’t refer to someone like us or someone who lives in our neighborhood. Our neighbor, according to Jesus, is someone in need that we have the means and opportunity to help. So in Jesus’ parable it was a Samaritan, a person who was generally looked down upon in Jewish society of that day, who was the one who acted neighborly.

Caring for the poor has a long history in the Christian church. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the church’s position clear, saying that the church’s love for the poor “is a part of her constant tradition.” That love “is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor.” The same Catechism clearly declares, “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use,” and then it cites the stinging words of Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.349~407): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”[14]

The language is not quite as strong, but centuries later Thomas Aquinas, the eminent thirteenth-century Catholic theologian, wrote, “One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” Those words were cited by Pope Leo XII, who went on to declare, “But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”[15] By implication, not doing our duty to help the needy is the same as stealing from them.

There are many ways in the modern world that the rich steal from the poor, and over-consumption is one of those ways. That is the reason one of the things important for everyone to know now is that, when it comes to middle-class peoples’ use of material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

[1] (Doubleday & Co., 1980). Written by Austrian Catholic theologian Adolf Holl (b. 1930), this book was first published in German in 1979 and then translated into English by Peter Heinegg.

[2] Matthew 6:31-33, New Century Version. I have used this translation because the words usually translated God’s righteousness is here rendered what God wants, which is the meaning of God’s righteousness in this case.

[3] This 1972 film was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker. Zeffirelli’s movie attempted to draw parallels between the work and philosophy of Francis and the ideology that underpinned the worldwide hippie movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It has a bit different “feel” when viewed in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

[4] John V. Taylor was the author of this book published by SCM Press after he had been consecrated the Bishop of Winchester. This is the same man who wrote Go-Between God, a book I referred to earlier in the chapter on the Holy Spirit.

[5] The subtitle of this book by Adam Daniel Finnerty is Global Justice and Christian Lifestyle (Orbis Books, 1977).

[6] (Eerdmans, 1970). Gish (1939-2010) grew up in the Amish community and later became an active member in the Church of the Brethren.

[7] Those words are often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and it is easy to think that perhaps he did speak those words from time to time, but it seems that the first person on record to make that statement was Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), who, in 1925, was the first person born in the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

[8] Written by Georgene Lockwood and published by Alpha Books. She is the author of nine books, including two more in the Complete Idiot’s Guides series.

[9] (David C. Cook, 2008). Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1967. In 1994 he and his wife started what is now the Cornerstone Church in Ventura County, California; they left that ministry in 2910.

[10] Platt (b. 1979) became the new senior pastor of the 4,300-member Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2006. It was reported that perhaps he was thereby the youngest megachurch pastor ever. From 2014 to 2018 Pratt was the President of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

[11] Brooks’ article “The Gospel of Wealth” was published in the September 6, 2010, edition of the Times.

[12] It was somewhat disconcerting to read an article in the Wall Street Journal the very next today after Brook’s article appeared that said that happiness increases for those have increased income up to about $75,000 a year (Robert Frank, “The Perfect Salary for Happiness: $75,000”).

[13] What is generally called “the parable of the good Samaritan,” was Jesus’ response to the “lawyer” who asked him, “And who is my neighbor,” according to Luke 10:29.

[14] Chrysostom (c.347-407), one of the Church Fathers, is recognized both by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Reference to Chrysostom was made in the first chapter of this book.

[15] Leo’s statement was made in Rerum Novarum, the highly significant encyclical he issued in 1891. The statements of both Pope Leo and Thomas Aquinas are cited in “Stealing from the Poor,” an article by Tito Edwards in the July 30, 2010, issue of “The American Catholic.”

#20 Some Things Have to be Believed in Order to be Seen

ONE OF MY FAVORITE books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and one of my favorite quotes is this one from that delightful little book: the fox says to the Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” [1]

It is in this vein that I suggest that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.[2] That affirmation has sometimes been hard for this Missouri boy to affirm. Missouri is the “Show-Me State,” and we Missourians like to have visual proof of something before we believe it. “I’ll have to see it to believe it” is a firm position for many Missourians (as well as for most other people, perhaps). When I googled “I’ll have to see it to believe it” (with the quotation marks), there were 1.69 million results (produced in 0.12 seconds; how does Google do it?!).

The desire for proof is not a bad one. Such a desire keeps us from being gullible, and that is good. Even though it is fairly common, gullibility is not a good thing. Michael Moore, the social critic who is well-liked by some and maligned by others, once said, “There’s a gullible side to the American people. They can be easily misled. Religion is the best device used to mislead them.”[3]

It is never good to be misled by religion—or by anything else. Seeking proof or sufficient evidence before believing something, thus, is usually a very good thing. But that is not always possible. In fact, it is not possible for the most foundational aspects of our existence. As the fox wisely said, “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

How Do We Know What We Know?

We don’t often think about our basic (or absolute) presuppositions, but such presuppositions are the foundation upon which our worldview rests. Norwood R. Hanson, a noted American philosopher of science, spoke of presuppositions as “spectacles behind our eyes.”[4] We do not see most things as they are, we see them as filtered through our presuppositions. Long before, the Jewish Talmud averred, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” That is why there cannot be complete objectivity, even in the world of science.

There is a widespread idea that religion and/or philosophy might be filled with unprovable presuppositions but that science is a purely objective investigation of the world as it actually is. It turns out, however, that science also rests on presuppositions. At least that is the considered opinion of Arthur F. Smethurst. In his highly regarded Modern Science and Christian Beliefs, the British scholar writes first about “the presuppositions of modern science.”[5] That first chapter is based partly on the oft-quoted statement of Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld: “Without the belief that it is possible to grasp the reality with our theoretical constructions, without the belief in the inner harmony of our world, there could be no science. This belief is and always will remain the fundamental motive for all scientific creation.”[6]

Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge is one of the most important books I have read in my lifetime.[7] The heart of that book is related to the Latin words nisi credideritis, non intelligitis, which are usually translated into English as “unless you believe, you will [shall] not understand.” Augustine quoted those words from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:9.[8]

Our presuppositions shape what we hear, as well as what we see. According to John 12:28, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” “Then,” John reports, “a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” In response, according to verse 29, “The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’” To those who had a worldview that allowed for there to be voices from heaven that would speak to Jesus, it was easy to believe that Jesus had heard a heavenly voice.” But to those whose presuppositions did not allow for the “supernatural,” or for the supernatural to speak to Jesus, what they heard sounded only like thunder.

This is the way it is with miracles: if one’s worldview is that everything is determined by the “laws of nature,” then miracles are ruled out a priori. Some other explanation must be found for what may look like a miracle or for everything Christian believers, for example, claim as miracles. Truly, some things have to be believed in order to be seen.

Is Everything True if We Just Believe It?

But is anything or everything true for those who believe it? What about Santa Claus, or fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example. Can young children really see Santa Claus because they believe in him whereas adults can’t because they don’t have such a belief? No, except for the metaphorical Santa Claus such as Francis Pharcellus Church so famously described in his 1897 editorial in which he declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” there is no Santa Claus and believing won’t make it so.[9]

Nor can believing in fairies (and clapping your hands) bring about their existence. Tinker Bell (Tink) is a fictional character from J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy.[10] One chapter of Barrie’s book is titled “Do You Believe in Fairies?” Tink was a fairy who mended pots and kettles, like an actual tinker (and thus her name). When she drinks a poisoned potion meant for Peter, she begins to die. Peter faintly hears her saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies. And he shouts to the sleeping (and dreaming) children, “If you believe, clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” But clapping one’s hands and believing in fairies don’t make them exist in real life.

In recent times there has been talk about the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), which was created as a satirical protest against the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools.[11] Admittedly, the FSM was created as a spoof, but it attracted a worldwide following. So, for those who believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, does it really exist? No way.

These are probably enough examples to make my point: to say some things have to be believed in order to be seen does not mean that everything believed really exists and, consequently, can be seen. While some things cannot be seen unless they are believed—that is, while some things cannot be seen unless one’s presuppositions make possible the understanding of such reality—that certainly does not mean that one’s presuppositions create reality.

This takes us back to an earlier chapter (#16), where I emphasized that an unexamined faith is not worth having. Perhaps we could also say that unexamined presuppositions are not worth having. But it is every bit as hard to examine one’s presuppositions as it is to examine one’s faith. Yet it can be done to some extent, and some people do, in fact, change their presuppositions, although that usually involves a lengthy and difficult process. Still, that is part of what is meant by conversion, and especially evangelical Christians have long claimed conversion to be not only possible but also necessary in order to become a Christian.

The Meaning of Faith

Hebrews 11:1 is an important Bible passage for Christians, and one that is relevant to what we are thinking about in this chapter. According to the New International Version of the Bible, faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Accordingly, faith is just the opposite of the attitude that demands to see something before believing it. That is the desire to be certain because of seeing. But faith is being certain without seeing. That is also why the Bible says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, NRSV).

To live by sight means to be limited to just those things that one sees, feels, or touches. But by faith one realizes that there is a larger world, one which is not limited to just the physical, to just the things that can be known by physical seeing, or to just the things that can be investigated by science.

We humans can’t see God or Spirit, or such things as Love or Heaven. That’s why the Bible also says that “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18a). Those things which can be seen are important, and many are good. But most are not essential. And as I have already affirmed, maybe a bit hyperbolically, essential things are invisible to the eyes.

The Bible verse cited above, Hebrews 11:1, also relates faith to hope. Hope is thus also related to my insistence that some things have to be believed to be seen. I like a statement often made by Jim Wallis: “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” And can’t we also say, Faith is hoping in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change?

Faith is not only the basic commitment to God that determines the way one sees the world, faith is also decisive trust in God. That trust makes it possible for people to see things differently from those who have only trust in themselves or other less-than-ultimate humans or human systems.

William Sloan Coffin, once the popular, though controversial, pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City, has written, “There is nothing anti-intellectual in the leap of faith, for faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.” And in the same book he also exclaims, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”[12]

Enough Light, Enough Darkness

This chapter started with a quote from a book by a French writer, and now in this final section I quote from another, more famous, Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, already introduced in an earlier chapter. Pascal believed that true religion must be the free choice of the human heart and will. Thus, he suggests that God wishes “to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart.” Consequently, God “has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not.” On the basis of that understanding, Pascal makes this frequently quoted aphorism:

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.[13]

If God and the things of God were so plainly visible that there was no question about their existence, humans would have no freedom except to believe. But if God were completely hidden and unknowable, then no one could believe. So I think Pascal’s understanding is brilliant.

Naturally, most atheists object to his statement—and to faith in general. They use the words blind faith to criticize the believer’s position. But it has been suggested that blind is a rude word that people who do not have faith stick on to the faith of those who have it. So blind faith is a description often used by those who regard faith as a bad thing to put down those who regard faith as a good thing. But while there is a problem of credulity, in a sense all faith is blind, since it means belief in that for which we have no physical evidence.

Of course, as I have written in an earlier chapter (#16), theology is an important discipline as it is “faith seeking understanding.” Faith may begin as a leap, as Kierkegaard recognized and wrote about, and it is, obviously, not based on sight from the outset. In that sense faith is blind. But that does not mean that there is no place after the leap to seek for a deep understanding of that faith—or the presuppositions, the “glasses behind our eyes” placed there by faith. Rigorous thinking, critical analysis, and careful investigation are certainly among the many activities that a person of faith needs to engage in from time to time.

But all of that does not change the fact that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.

[1] (Mariner Books, 2000), p. 63. Saint Exupéry (1900-44) was a French writer, poet, and aviator. Le Petit Prince was first published in 1943; the first English translation was published the same year.

[2] This statement is attributed to the English poet Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962). His reputation was established by the publication of Poems in 1917.

[3] A quote in Gary Younge’s “The Capped Crusader” in The Guardian (October 4, 2003). Moore (b. 1954) is an American filmmaker, best known for documentaries, such as “Bowling for Columbine,” which won the 2002 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Sicko” (2007).

[4] Hanson’s best-known book is Patterns of Discovery (1958). Hanson (1924-67) argues there that what we perceive is not what our senses receive, but is instead filtered by our preconceptions (presuppositions). Thus, human perception is “a patterning, dependent upon a prior conceptual system. Observation is not simply about seeing; it is about seeing as” (Alistair E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology. Volume I: Nature; Eerdmans, 2001; p. 112).

[5] This is the title of the first chapter of his book, first published in 1955 by Abingdon Press. Smethurst, who earned a Ph.D. degree in science, was a canon of Salisbury Cathedral when his book was published.

[6] The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts of Relativity and Quanta (Simon and Schuster, 1961; first published in 1938), p. 296.

[7] Polanyi (1891-1976) was born in Hungary but spent the last half of his life in England. He was first a professor of physical chemistry but then became a social scientist and philosopher of science. His book introduced above is subtitled Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy; it is based on his 1951-52 Gifford Lectures in Scotland.

[8] See Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will (The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1964), p. 5. English translations of Isaiah 7:9 are somewhat different than that of the Septuagint, the oldest translation of the Old Testament into Greek.

[9] Church’s editorial in the September 21, 1897, edition of The Sun of New York was titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” and was written in response to the widely-known inquiry by Virginia O’Hanlon, who was eight years old at the time.

[10] J. M Barrie (1860-1937) was a Scottish author and dramatist, and his most famous play was Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904); Peter and Wendy (1911) is the title of Barrie’s novelization of the play.

[11] The Flying Spaghetti Monster was created in 2005 by Bobby Henderson, then a 25-year-old Oregon State University physics graduate.

[12] Coffin (1924-2006) was pastor of Riverside Church from 1977 to 1987). The quotes are from his Credo (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 8 and 7.

[13] A. J. Krailsheimer, trans., Pensées (Penguin Books, 1966), p. 80. This is in fragment no. 149 in the 1966 edition and no. 430 in the 1897 Brunschvicg edition, which is widely used for reference.

#19  One Doesn’t Have to be a Liberal to Reject Fundamentalism

EITHER/OR THINKING IS quite common, although it is usually not the best kind of thinking, as we saw in an earlier chapter. Nevertheless, people’s ideas about theological stances, as about many other matters, tend to be either/or. Many people, thus, seem to think that Christians are either fundamentalists (or at least conservatives) or liberals.

In the previous chapter, I asserted that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian. I am convinced that that is the case. My distaste for Christian fundamentalism is so strong that, as I have stated previously, I wrote an entire book that was published under the title Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Consequently, many people have assumed that I am a liberal; one of my Facebook friends once even referred to me as a “proud liberal.”

But does opposing fundamentalism make one a liberal? Not necessarily, and that is the main point I am making in this chapter: you don’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism. In spite of the fact that many want to label Christians as being one or the other, seeing Christians as either fundamentalists (conservatives) or liberals is not the only option. It is true, though, that many of the leading liberal Christian thinkers of recent times are people who have reacted strongly against fundamentalism.

Coincidentally, the very week I was working on the first draft of this chapter I received the first shipment of my second book, The Limits of Liberalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Liberalism.[1] In that book I give examples of several leading liberal theologians whose liberalism, in my opinion, is an over-reaction to various problems within fundamentalism. So it seems to be quite true that liberalism is the opposite of fundamentalism in many cases. But it doesn’t have to be that way, for there can be a suitable stance in between.

It Is Not Necessary To Go from One Extreme to the Other

Although the tendency of so many Christian thinkers has been to move from one extreme to the other, in most matters we should seek to find the optimal position between the extremes. Such an endeavor sometimes involves both/and thinking as advocated in an earlier chapter, seeking simultaneously to incorporate the truths that seem to stand in opposition to one another. In other cases it may mean rejecting emphases of both sides in order to affirm a better position in between. But whether we talk about balancing the extremes or holding the extremes in tension, for the most part we want to seek and hope to find a position between the extremes. Let me give an example.

In my book on fundamentalism, I wrote that I am fed up with fundamentalism’s attitude toward the Bible. That was the subject of the whole fifth chapter. But the fifth chapter of my book on liberalism is all on “the limits of liberalism’s understanding of the Bible.” In the former book, I write about the problem of belief in biblical inerrancy, and in the latter book I indicate that rejection of biblical inerrancy is one of the positive aspects of liberalism. But there are still problems with liberalism’s view of the Bible.

For example, there is a tendency for liberals to see the Bible as a sacred religious book, but as only one among many sacred religious books. Thus, rather than refer to the uniqueness of the Holy Bible, many liberals see the Bible as simply one of the many “sacred scriptures” of humankind. The Bible is completely relativized; that is, it has no universal relevance, for it is only the sacred scripture for people in the Christian tradition.

There is much to be said, of course, for not demonizing the beliefs and the scriptures of other religious traditions. Far too often Christians in the past have shown disrespect for the faith of people in non-Christian traditions and have dismissed the significance of the normative writings of those religions. But arrogance, contempt for those who are different, and belittling the sacred books of others are not Christian virtues. To put it bluntly, such attitudes are downright sinful.

But is it necessary to go to the opposite extreme? I think not. It is not necessary to react to one extreme so strongly that one embraces just the opposite. The way some Christians have mistreated people of other religious faiths and profaned their holy books is certainly most regrettable, but does that necessitate treating all religious books as of equal validity? Again, I think not.

More Examples of the Extremes

In addition to the fundamentalist and liberal understandings of the Bible just considered, let’s look at some other central Christian beliefs that are interpreted in widely different ways by extreme Christians on the right and on the left.

Think about the way God is understood. Although there are not so many Christians on the right who still picture God as looking like an old bearded grandfather and who think of God as existing physically somewhere in the universe, there are many who still seem to think of God very anthropomorphically (that is, they think of God as having humanlike features). Thus, there is a rather strong belief by Christians on the extreme right that God should be thought of as male and addressed only in masculine terms. They are, accordingly, offended by those who refer to God as “Mother” as well as “Father.”

But on the other side there are now liberal Christian theologians who deny that God has any “objective” existence at all. Such persons reject theism, the philosophical/theological position that affirms the independent existence of God (or of gods); that is, they reject the idea that God “exists” except in the ideas humans have about God. Such people may affirm God as a symbol or as a metaphor, but they do not believe that God exists as a Being independent of human beings.

Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong and former Dominican priest Matthew Fox are just two of many who could be introduced at this point. Spong’s rejection of a theistic conception of God is the cornerstone of what he envisions as a “new reformation” in Christianity. And Fox, who has written a book titled A New Reformation, boldly declares, “Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false.”[2]

So with reference to God, the understanding of some fundamentalists is far too physical or anthropomorphic, but the opposite extreme advocated by some liberals denies any “objective” existence to God at all. Neither extreme is satisfactory.

There is similar polarity with reference to Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists, and most conservative Christians who are not as extreme as fundamentalists, generally understand Jesus as the incarnation of the one true God. Christians have consistently and persistently through the centuries referred to Jesus as the “one way” to eternal salvation, and that is still the bedrock belief of most evangelical Christians. But partly because of the “intolerance” of such an exclusivist position, many liberals have come to talk about Jesus as an exemplary human being but not as a unique savior sent by God for the salvation of the people of the world.

Whereas fundamentalist and conservative Christians profess that Jesus Christ was (and is) divine, most liberals and many progressive Christians see Jesus mainly as a “man for others,” a spiritual leader who taught by word and by deed what it means to live a life of love. Or, if liberals affirm that Jesus is somehow divine, it is in the same way that many other notable religious leaders are divine. They acknowledge the plurality of saviors just as they recognize, and generally applaud, the plurality of religions.

But is it really necessary to see God as either transcendent, existing beyond and “above” the world of us humans, or as immanent, present only within the world and, particularly, within the hearts of those who acknowledge God as a “unifying symbol”? And is it really necessary to see Jesus as either a divine being and a transcendent Savior sent from beyond to be the redeemer of humankind or a human being who lived an extraordinary life as a fully human person in the world of ordinary people? Is there not a position between the extremes in which the truth on both sides can be held at the same time?

Finding a satisfactory position, or following a proper path, between the extremes is not usually easy, however.

The Difficulty of Finding the Middle Position

In The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about how in ancient Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were the names of two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. The fearful monsters, representing a hazardous whirlpool and a dangerous reef, were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to sailors who sought to pass between them: avoiding Charybdis usually meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa.[3]

Many writers have used those mythological monsters to refer metaphorically to the difficulty of avoiding opposing extremes, and it is a helpful metaphor. I certainly agree with those who seek to escape the “monster” called fundamentalism, as evidenced by the content of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Still, I see the danger of fleeing the “monster” on the right only to be gobbled up by liberalism, the “monster” on the left.

Those who seek to navigate the narrow channel between the two may well argue that the monster on one side is not as dreadful or as destructive as the monster on the other. And some may see the monsters as being so unequal that they are willing to risk being captured by the lesser monster so as to not be devoured by the other. But is it not better to steer clear of both monsters?

Should we not try ardently to escape both the Scylla of liberalism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism? That surely is the most prudent course to pursue. But, unfortunately, some have been so intent on escaping Charybdis that they have sailed straight into the jaws of Scylla. However, the point of this chapter is that one does not have to become a thoroughgoing liberal to oppose fundamentalism, in spite of the fact that many have become liberals because of their opposition to the many questionable aspects of the fundamentalist form of the Christian faith.

More rigorous thinking is needed. It is never enough to adopt a theological stance on the basis of what one is against. That has been the trouble with some liberals; they know they are against many of the ideas, attitudes, and excesses of fundamentalism. As well they should be. But they are not equally sure about what they are for, nor are they aware of all the ramifications of taking a position on the opposite side of fundamentalism.

Seeking the Radiant Center

While working on The Limits of Liberalism, I came across a delightful book by Adam Hamilton; he is the dynamic pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a Methodist megachurch in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Hamilton titled his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.[4] While I largely agree with the centrist position Hamilton takes on most issues, I decided I did not like to talk about that position as being gray, for generally gray is not a very appealing color. So I went on to suggest that perhaps we can seek a position “between the extremes” of black and white which is a brilliant blue, a gorgeous green, or a rousing red. Maybe the future of Christianity does not have to be just some shade of gray, but a rainbow of colors with many hues blending together to produce a form of the faith that is more appealing than one that is black or white—or gray.”[5]

So even though I like Hamilton’s position, and even though I found his calling for a “radical center” appealing, I decided to call my vision for the desired middle position the radiant center. That center “glows with the heat (passion and compassion) and light of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the gospel about Jesus.” It radiates out “to warm and enlighten everyone within its scope.” That radiant center will also be radical, in the sense that it goes to the very roots of the Christian faith. Its radiance comes from the Son, Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NIV), “who is the ultimate root, basis, and energy source of the center.”

Proposing such an attractive center or middle position doesn’t mean that all other Christians will necessarily affirm such a stance or flock to it—although I hope more and more will. Perhaps most of those on the right, especially the rigid fundamentalists, will likely see the radiant center as being “liberal” and will criticize it for abandoning some of the fundamentals of the faith. Similarly, many of those on the left may see that center as being too conservative and will continue to advocate a position that is more in harmony with the ethos of secular humanism than with the historic Christian faith. Being in the middle almost always opens one to attacks from both extremes.

Yet, I continue to insist that rejecting fundamentalism doesn’t make one a liberal, just as one can reject liberalism without being a fundamentalist. Actually, I would like for Christians to move on past the “two-party” system that has been so prevalent for the past century, a system which has been injurious to Christianity in many ways.

The radiant center is not a small or limiting position. It is large enough to include Christians with various emphases and understandings of the Christian faith. The radiant center doesn’t seek uniformity or unanimity. It realizes the vitality of having different interpretations and the dynamism of constant dialogue.

The radiant center is the between-the-extremes place for those who reject fundamentalism as well as those who recognize the limits of liberalism. Among the many who identify with that center are both those who realize full well that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian (the emphasis of the previous chapter) as well as those who know that one doesn’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism.

[1] (4-L Publications, 2010); unfortunately both of my books are now out of print.

[2] (Inner Traditions, 2006), p. 63. Fox (b. 1940) was dismissed from the Dominican order in 1992 and two years later was received into the Episcopal Church.

[3] This and the following paragraphs are heavily dependent upon the subsection titled “The Sea Monsters,” pages 87-88 of The Limits of Liberalism.

[4] (Abingdon Press, 2008). Hamilton is the founding pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

[5] The Limits of Liberalism, p. 273. The last subsection of the final chapter is “Recommending the Radiant Center,” and the subsequent quotations above come from p. 274, the last page of the chapter.

#18 One Doesn’t Have to be a Fundamentalist to be a Good Christian

ANNE RICE IS AN interesting person. She achieved fame (at least in some circles) as the writer of vampire novels.[1] Then after many years as an atheist, estranged for some thirty years from the Roman Catholic Church in which she grew up, Rice (b. 1941) returned to the Church in 1998 and in 2004 announced in a Newsweek article that from then on she would “write only for the Lord.” Her next book was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, and that was followed by Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.[2]

As one who has read Rice’s stimulating books about the life of Jesus, finding them to be insightful and reverent, I was somewhat dismayed in July 2010 to learn that she had (on Facebook of all places!) publically renounced Christianity. She makes it clear that she has not renounced her faith in Jesus Christ, just her identification with the Christian religion.

Here is what she posted on Facebook on July 28, 2010:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Five minutes later, she wrote this on her Facebook wall (as it was called then):

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

And then the next day Rice wrote,

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.

The above quotes are given in their entirety to indicate how one public person has embraced Christ and Christianity and then rejected the latter because of her faith in Christ. But it seems mainly to be the fundamentalist form of the Christian faith, and the traditional form of Catholicism, that she has rejected. That is why I wrote on my Facebook page that I wish Rice had read my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, for I firmly believe that it is possible for a Christian to be for most of the things Rice is for, or at least not against all of the things that Rice thinks Christianity is against. It is not necessary for one to be a fundamentalist, or a traditional Roman Catholic, in order to be a Christian, and a good one at that. And, certainly, not all Christians are “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious,” although, unfortunately, some (or many) are.

 Fundamentalists Then and Now

Between 1910 and 1915, sixty-four conservative Christian authors wrote ninety essays that were published in twelve small paperback books under the general title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Financed by two wealthy Christian laymen, all or some of those booklets were sent free of charge to some 300,000 ministers, missionaries, and other Christian workers in the United States and in different parts of the world.

In 1920, Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of The Watchman-Examiner, a Baptist publication, coined the word Fundamentalists. The publication of The Fundamentals, the conference on “The Fundamentals of Our Baptist Faith” about which Laws wrote, and the subsequent use of the term Fundamentalists were all part of what I call “a sincere movement to preserve or to restore the true faith.”[3]

Through the years, though, the fundamentalist movement changed from being primarily an irenic theological movement that dealt with core Christian doctrines to becoming a militant movement led mostly by fiery preachers, such as J. Frank Norris, Bob Jones, and John R. Rice in the early decades of the movement and by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson and the like in recent decades. It is preachers like those—and there are certainly many others—that Anne Rice could be referring to when she writes about “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” Christians.

Another major shift in Christian fundamentalism is seen in the change from the emphasis on doctrines to an emphasis on ethical issues. Thus, in recent years Christian fundamentalists, often called the Religious Right in the U.S., have been primarily known for what they adamantly oppose: abortion, and homosexual practices, women in ministry, among several other issues. It is because of their strong opposition to such practices that Rice could write about refusing to be anti-gay or anti-feminist.

Fundamentalism is primarily a Protestant movement, but there are many similarities with traditional Roman Catholicism, which throughout Anne Rice’s lifetime has also been staunchly against abortion, homosexual practices, and women clergy. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently opposed contraception, so it was because of being a Roman Catholic that Rice could also write about leaving Christianity because of refusing to be anti-artificial birth control.

Of course, there are some common characteristics seen in the fundamentalists in the 1920s as well as in the 2010s, the main one being the insistence on biblical inerrancy and the literal interpretation of the Bible. It is also because of that emphasis that Anne Rice rejects Christianity; she refuses to be anti-science. It has been a literal reading of what is believed to be an inerrant Bible that has caused many Christians from the eighteenth century to the present day to reject evolution and to profess belief in the creation of the earth some six thousand years ago—in spite of the preponderance of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Even though there are some similarities between fundamentalism “then” and now, it is particularly present-day fundamentalism, as well as some traditional Roman Catholic ideas, that makes Christianity a problem for many contemporary people, both in and out of the church.

 Rejecting the Religious Right

Anne Rice said she also rejected Christianity because she refuses to be “anti-Democratic.” That statement was likely prompted by the fact that during the decade she was back in the Catholic Church the Religious Right, made up primarily of fundamentalist Christians, was almost completely aligned with the Republican Party in the United States.

After retiring as missionaries to Japan for thirty-eight years, June and I lived in south Missouri our first year back in the States, beginning in August 2004. As you remember, there was an important presidential election that fall, and in that connection we visited the Democratic headquarters in the town where we lived that year. The volunteer on duty that day expressed some surprise when she learned that we had been Christian missionaries, for she said that there was a widespread perception in that area that one could not be a Christian and a Democrat. There had been several who had expressed that opinion to her.

There are those, of course, who have been actively engaged in combating that kind of mistaken or misguided thinking. Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine and leader of the Sojourners Christian community in Washington, D.C. is one such person. One of his bestselling books is God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.[4]

In the Introduction of his book, Wallis writes, “Of course, God is not partisan; God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake.” For what they consider legitimate reasons, though, those who are Republicans think that being so is consistent with their deepest understanding of the Christian faith. (And although it may not be so common, the same for at least some Democrats.)

It is the sense of certainty, or maybe I should say arrogance, that I see as one of the most distressing aspects of fundamentalism. So many fundamentalists seem to think that on every major issue there is one and only one Christian position and that they know exactly what that position is. That sense of certainty keeps them from being willing, or even able, to dialogue with those who have an opposing viewpoint. Quite often, those who hold opposing viewpoints are considered not only wrong but even non-Christian.

There are some people who are fundamentalist-like on the opposite side of the theological or social-issues spectrum, of course. Thus in the same Introduction mentioned above, and in several places later in his book, Wallis refers to secular fundamentalists. And Alister E. McGrath, one of the leading contemporary theologians in the English-speaking world, writes about “atheist fundamentalism.”[5]

Still, many of the most strident voices in American society are those of Christian fundamentalists who have been the main force behind the Religious Right. So I am sympathetic to the rejection of Christianity by Anne Rice, and by many others who are not public figures such as she is. Fundamentalism and the Religious Right have caused many to jettison Christianity. But it is not necessary to give up on Christianity or the church as a whole because of the excesses of some, even a sizeable “some,” within the church.

There are all kinds of hate groups who not only are U.S. citizens but who flaunt their “freedoms” in their outrageous tirades on the basis of being Americans. But such hotheads haven’t caused Rice or most other sensitive persons to renounce their U.S. citizenship. If people of goodwill can remain U.S. citizens in spite of the “nuts” that besmirch the best that this country stands for, why can’t Christians remain church members and Christians even though there are those—fundamentalists, members of the Religious Right, and others—whose ideas and attitudes need to be rejected?

Affirming the Faith of and the Faith about Jesus Christ

Some fundamentalists declare that people either believe the Bible in the same way they do (as the inerrant Word of God to be interpreted literally) or else they are not (true) Christians. In recent decades, some devout Christian seminary professors and others have been opposed and their faith impugned because they interpreted some biblical passages as symbolic or metaphorical and suggested that some passages were relative to the times in which they were written but not universally applicable and not authoritative for the present.

But in the beginning, Christianity was not based upon faith in what was recorded in a book. Faith was commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, and the Christian life was lived by allegiance to the teachings of Jesus and to the teachings about Christ. The Bible as we know it today was not universally accepted by Christianity until the fourth century.

There were, to be sure, key writings in the first century that guided and undergirded the young church, writings that later became a part of the Christian Bible. But the Bible was not the basis of the church. Rather, churches as communities of faith were the matrix in which the biblical books were written and in which they were read and found to be helpful. But the basis of the faith was commitment to Jesus Christ and the determination to live not only by his teachings but to follow “in his steps.”

For that reason, it should be clear that one does not have to be a fundamentalist in order to be a good Christian. On the contrary, as I argue in my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, shucking off the excesses of that form of the faith ought to help one to be a better Christian, that is, one more faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ. As Jim Wallis says in God’s Politics, the best response to “bad religion” (such as fundamentalism) is “better religion.” Thus, “The best response to fundamentalism is to take faith more seriously than fundamentalism usually does. . . . It is faith that leads us to assert the vital religious commitments that fundamentalists often leave out, namely compassion, social justice, peacemaking, humility, tolerance, and even democracy as a religious commitment” (p. 67). Those words are well worth heeding.

I am happy that Anne Rice did not reject Christ when she rejected Christianity, for it is faith in Christ, not religion, that is essential. In spite of the positive references to religion in the preceding paragraph, I still contend that faith is more important than religion. So Rice has kept what is important, maintaining faith but rejecting the Christian religion. She was wise, I believe, to recognize the faults and failings of some forms of Christianity, and I can’t fault her for giving up on that type of religion. Still, it is a shame that she had to give up on Christianity as a whole.

So, not only do I insist that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian, neither should anyone have to give up on Christianity as a whole because of the excesses and the faults of fundamentalism, which is only one form of the Christian religion. I wish that Anne Rice, and the many others who have jettisoned Christianity because of fundamentalism, could experience the type of non-fundamentalist Christianity that is taught by many churches and Christian communities and that is practiced by many Christians across the land. Although they may be a minority, there are many churches and Christians whose values are consistent with those held by Rice and others who follow Christ but have, for good reason, rejected fundamentalist Christianity.

[1] Rice (b. 1941), whose birth name was Howard [sic] Allen Frances O’Brien, wrote eighteen books about vampires and witches between 1976 and 2003. Under a penname she also authored three erotic novels (1983~85).

[2] The former was published by Ballantine Books in 2005 and the latter by Anchor Books in 2008.

[3] Pp. 3~17 of Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (4-L Publications, 2007).

[4] (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Wallis (b. 1948) is often referred to as a progressive evangelical; perhaps he is best thought of as an evangelical Christian who is a progressive (or liberal) with regard to social and political issues.

[5] McGrath (b. 1953) is the author of The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP Books, 2007).

#17  Both/And is Generally Better and More Nearly True than Either/Or

IT WAS IN TRUEBLOOD’S chapter “Faith and Reason” that I first learned about philosophers and ideas that would be highly influential upon my thinking for the rest of my life—at least up to this point. It was by reading that chapter in his Philosophy of Religion that I first learned about the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard and his “Christian existentialism” as well as about the French mathematician/ physicist/philosopher Blaise Pascal and the idea of paradox as a serious philosophical concept.[1]

The use of paradox as a literary device is widely recognized as a legitimate, and often helpful, means of enlarging one’s perspective and consideration of complex issues. In 1936, Ralph W. Sockman, a prominent New York City pastor, wrote a book published under the title The Paradoxes of Jesus.[2] Four years later, Gerald Kennedy, who became a Methodist bishop, published The Lion and the Lamb: Paradoxes of the Christian Faith.[3] Still, in the English speaking world, it was not until the 1950s that paradox became the subject of serious theological consideration.

Of course, the idea of paradox as a way to comprehend reality goes back far earlier than to the last century or to the centuries in which Kierkegaard and Pascal lived. The concept of yin and yang, for example, is an ancient Chinese concept. Taken together, yin and yang describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent. So, according to that perspective, reality is not just unitary (one) but neither is it dual. It is, as is sometimes expressed in East Asia, “not-two.” It is the combination or unity of opposites. That is the philosophical or theological idea behind the concept of paradox and the reason I assert that in most cases both/and is better than and more nearly true than either/or.

In the 1960s I became so interested in the concept of paradox that I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on that topic, titling it The Meaning of Paradox.[4] And in all the years since, I have tried to maintain a paradoxical view of reality, for I think that that is the way we are most likely to come the closest to finding truth. This perspective sees paradox as more than a literary device, although it can be used effectively in that way. Paradox is a key that helps us toward grasping the truth about reality. Consequently, both/and thinking is almost always better than either/or thinking.

Where Do We Find Truth?

The quest for truth (or perhaps we should say Truth) is the never-ending search of those creatures (us) known as homo sapiens. That quest has usually resulted in only partial understanding. That is often mainly because only one side of complex issues is seen, whereas both sides need to be seriously considered for a more nearly adequate comprehension of the truth. (Of course, some complex issues may have more than two sides.)

My previous two books are titled Fed Up with Fundamentalism and The Limits of Liberalism.[5] The last chapter of the second book is about seeking the “radiant center” between fundamentalism and liberalism. And I truly believe that in many theological matters, as in many others, truth is somewhere between the extremes rather than on one side or the other. But often truth is more likely found in a combination of the extremes, in affirming opposing positions at the same time. That calls for holding the extremes in tension or in balance. Truth is not always just in the center alone, except as that center is broadened so as to take in the partial truths found on both sides.

Just a few years ago I came across a significant statement by Charles Simeon, who emphasized that “truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”[6] That idea, which I think is an accurate one, can be traced back in Christian circles at least to Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century.[7] Nicholas wrote about the “coincidence of the opposites,” the idea that truth is usually found by holding opposing ideas together. In many cases, the truth is not on one side or the other—or even in the middle between the opposites. The truth is in both extremes held simultaneously.

This seems to have been the position of Kierkegaard, who referred to Jesus Christ as the Absolute Paradox. What he meant by that is that Jesus is not only wholly God and wholly human but also wholly unexpected and wholly incomprehensible to normal rational thought. Kierkegaard and those who accepted his way of thinking were often called irrationalists, and their emphasis on paradox was dismissed as being illogical. But, as I contend in my doctoral dissertation, it is more accurate to speak of them as superrationalists, that is, those who believe that Truth cannot be grasped by human reason alone.

In the history of Christianity, Jesus has often been understood primarily as divine or primarily as human, or sometimes as some sort of being who was in between, neither fully human nor fully divine. But the paradox that Kierkegaard emphasized is in keeping with the ancient creeds of the church: “Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.”[8]

The nature of Jesus Christ is just one of many Christian doctrines that have a paradoxical nature, at least the way that I and many others understand the matter. But there are also many from olden times until the present day who do not like the idea of paradox, at least the idea of unresolved paradox.

Criticism of Paradox

In the previous chapter, I had good things to say about Professor Roger E. Olson and his book Questions to All Your Answers. In that book he asserts that “paradox is always a task for further thought.” But he goes ahead to warn against jumping too quickly to embrace paradox. Rather, he writes, we should “think long and hard about . . . whether paradox is really necessary (or the result of some misunderstanding), and whether there might be a way to relieve it that is both faithful and reasonable.”[9] Fair enough; I have no problem with those assertions.

Olson concludes the chapter on mystery and paradox with these words: “Reflective Christianity will always sit uncomfortably with paradox and seek ways to relieve the apparent contradiction without doing violence to Scripture.” Well, that may be true, too. But that is in a section of his book titled “Relieving Paradoxes of Faith,” and he seems to think that all paradoxes can be resolved. I am not so sure about that.

During the heyday of neo-orthodox theology, which was perhaps the predominant theological “school” in the so-called mainline Christian denominations from about 1920 to 1970, some people had problems with that school’s proclivity to accept paradoxical thinking. L. Harold DeWolf, a leading liberal theologian wrote a book called The Religious Revolt against Reason (1949), in which he criticized the thinking of Kierkegaard and leading twentieth-century theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr.[10] Those leading theologians were all considered by DeWolf to be irrationalists.

A couple of years earlier, James Bissett Pratt, another liberal religious thinker, accused neo-orthodox theologians of glorying “in the thought that contradictory opposites may both be true in the same sense at the same time.” He also asserted that the paradoxes of the neo-orthodox theologians “are the firecrackers with which they celebrate their Declaration of Independence from the restrictions of reason.”[11]

But Pratt, DeWolf, and many others who have followed in their wake don’t seem to realize adequately the transcendent nature of God, the realm of Mystery, and the limitations of human rationality. Nor do they sufficiently realize that the theologians they criticize don’t accept or advocate superrationality in place of rationality. Not at all. The neo-orthodox thinkers who were influenced by Kierkegaard are proponents of both superrationality and rationality. And this is the very point I am seeking to make in this chapter: both/and is better and more nearly true than either/or.

Recognizing the Importance of Paradox

The same week I was reading Olson’s book, I was also reading Frank Schaeffer’s Patience with God.[12] In that captivating book, Schaeffer writes about “the paradox” of human existence, contending that “paradox is the way things are.”[13] And, in contrast to Olson, he declares, “Paradoxes should not be resolved but celebrated.” And, “Grace, mystery, love, and (above all) embracing paradox are what count.” 14] 

[Scott Peck is a name most readers will recognize, as he is the author of the bestselling book The Road Less Traveled. His second book is People of the Lie was also highly regarded.[15] Peck received his M.D. in 1963 and went on to become a psychiatrist. As one who had earned a degree from a first-rate medical school (Case Western Reserve University), one would find it difficult to suggest that Peck could be an irrationalist. Yet he writes about positively about paradox.

“Toward a Psychology of Evil” is the second chapter in Peck’s People of the Lie, and near the end of that chapter he asserts that in his view, “the issue of free will, like so many great truths, is a paradox.” He writes about paradox again near the end of the book, and then he explains: “The path of love is a dynamic balance of opposites, a painful creative tension of uncertainties, a difficult tightrope between extreme but easier courses of action.”[16]

These two examples, a Christian who has repudiated fundamentalist Christianity (Schaeffer) and a psychiatrist whose reflections led him to the Christian faith (Peck), are only two of many people who might be cited as being advocates of paradox, and in agreement with my point in this chapter: both/and is generally better and more nearly true than either/or. But not always.

The Limits of Both/And Thinking

While generally, or in most instances, both/and thinking is better than either/or, that is not always true. It is especially not true when it comes to ultimate commitments. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24, NRSV). Here is a case of either/or; both/and doesn’t work.

The same is true in other situations where commitment is called for. A man with two close women friends cannot legally marry them both at the same time, at least not in the United States. Here is another case where both/and doesn’t work. It has to be either/or. And after the marriage when the new couple seeks to start a family, the wife is either pregnant or not. She can’t be both “with child” and “not with child” at the same time. Some things are clearly either/or.

So, this section turns out to be an illustration of the point of the chapter. Rather than say we should always use both/and thinking or always use either/or thinking, it is far better to realize that both “both/and” and “either/or” thinking should be used at times and that neither can nor should be used exclusively. Both/and is generally better and nearer to the truth than either/or.

[1] Pascal (1623-62) is best known through the posthumous publication of Pensées (Thoughts). Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a prolific writer; one of his most significant philosophical/theological books was Philosophical Fragments, first published in 1844.

[2] (Abingdon Press, 1936). Sockman (1889-1970) was pastor of Christ Church, New York, from 1916 to 1961. He was also the featured speaker on the weekly NBC radio program, National Radio Pulpit, which aired from 1928 to 1962.

[3] (Abingdon Press, 1940). Kennedy (1907-1980) appeared on the cover of the May 8, 1964, issue of Time magazine.

[4] That dissertation was submitted to the faculty of the graduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in August 1966; the subtitle is A Study of the Use of the Word “Paradox” in Contemporary Theological and Philosophical Writings with Special Reference to Søren Kierkegaard. In the first chapter I have a section called “The Polaric Meaning of ‘Paradox,” and there I briefly introduce the concept of yin and yang (p. 47).

[5] Both books were published by 4-L Publications and are, unfortunately, no longer in print. The sub-titles of the books are the same: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism/Liberalism.

[6] Simeon (1759-1836) was an English evangelical clergyman introduced by Philip Yancey in his July 16 entry in Grace Notes: Daily Readings with a Fellow Pilgrim (Zondervan, 2009).

[7] Nicholas (1401-64), also known as Cusanus, was a Roman Catholic Cardinal. He developed the idea of the coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of opposites) in his philosophical masterpiece De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance, 1440).

[8] From the Chalcedonian Creed of 451.

[9] Pp. 30-31. This is in the first chapter, “It’s a Mystery, Just Accept It”; one section of that chapter (pp. 36-41) is called “Bad Paradox.”

[10] (Harper, 1949). DeWolf (1905-86) was a professor at Boston University School of Theology from 1943 to 1965. He was also the author of The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective (Westminster Press, 1959).

[11] James Bissett Pratt, “The New Supernaturalism: Peril to 20th Century Christianity,” in Religious Liberals Reply (The Beacon Press, 1947), p. 113. Pratt (1875-1944) was a professor at Williams College from 1905 to 1943.

[12] (Da Capo Press, 2009). Schaeffer (b. 1952) is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer, the well-known Religious Right leader who also rather strongly criticized some of Kierkegaard’s core ideas. The subtitle of the younger Schaeffer’s book is Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).

[13] P. 151, italics in the original.

[14] Pp. 163 and 169. Other important statements about paradox are made on pages 180 and 194. It is interesting, especially in light of his father’s dislike for Kierkegaard, Frank Schaeffer has a quote by Kierkegaard at the beginning of each chapter in his book.

[15] People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1983. Peck (1936-2005) became a Christian in 1980 partly as a result of the research he did for writing of The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth, which was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1978.

[16] Pp. 83 and 267. The latter statement is in “A Methodology of Love,” a section in which he contends that only love can overcome evil.

#16 Unexamined Faith is Not Worth Having

THIS CHAPTER IS THE FIRST of the second half of the book. The first fifteen chapters have been about various “true things” mostly related to theological concerns. We turn now to matters of a more personal nature. What we think about theological matters affects our actions, so it was important for us to look at the fifteen “true things” we have considered up to this point. But now let’s look at some more personal, “close-to-home” issues.

[Click here to continue reading this chapter.[

#15  Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important

FOR MANY LEGITIMATE REASONS, religion is often seen in bad light by contemporary people. Partly for that reason, in this chapter I contend that faith and religion are not the same and that faith is far more important than religion. Faith (in God, by whatever name God is known) is always good, but religion has been and continues to be infiltrated by much that is not good and sometimes by that which is just plain bad. This is another “true thing” that everyone needs to know now.  Continue reading “#15  Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important”