#27  The New Testament Word for Success is Faithfulness

FAILURE IS A WORD we hate to hear. From their elementary school days, for most people little seemed to be worse than getting an “F” on a test or on their report card. And in real life, failure is a fear for those who go into business for themselves as well as for those who go into non-profit service activities. Failure for either usually means loss of income as well as loss of self-esteem.

Since in the world of religion, this seems to be more of an issue for Christians than those of other faiths, this chapter is mostly about success and failure as related to U.S. Christianity.

Because of the fear of failure, through the years there has been a spate of books, many from a Christian or semi-Christian perspective, written about how to succeed. Some of the most widely read are Acres of Diamonds (1915), Think and Grow Rich (1937), The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), and The Success Principles (2005).[1]

Success, as we all know, is often measured either in terms of dollars, for those who live in the United States, or in terms of numbers of people. In the business world no one who has not become fairly wealthy would be considered a success. And in the Christian world, successful churches are generally considered those that have had considerable numerical growth and boast large attendance at their regular meetings—and the pastors of such churches are generally considered successful.

Most people in the U.S., for example, would consider Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston, a huge success. The church of which he is pastor is said to be the largest congregation in the U.S., and his ministry is said to reach over seven million broadcast media viewers weekly in over 100 nations around the world. Not only is he successful, but he seeks to help others achieve success also.[2]

Although not so widely known, the World Changers Church International in the suburbs of Atlanta was once the second largest church in the U.S., and its founding pastor is also widely linked to the so-called prosperity gospel theology.[3]

Nevertheless, the New Testament word for success is faithfulness, not prosperity defined by quantities that can be measured by the number of dollars one has or the number of members affiliated with or attending a given church.

Success Should be Sought

Without question, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, is one of the best-known and most highly respected Christian leaders in the U.S.—and, thus, generally considered successful. In the previous paragraphs we looked briefly at the two large churches in this country. When I wrote the first draft of this in 2010, Warren’s church was third on the list of largest churches in the U.S., but in 2017 it had fallen to eleventh with a weekly attendance of “only” 22,000. Warren’s Purpose Driven Life (2002) has been the bestselling non-fiction book published since 2000.[4] His The Purpose Driven Church has also been highly influential—or should we say, successful.[5]

In this latter book, Warren writes about the need to be both faithful and successful. In his chapter called “Myths About Growing Churches,” Warren identifies the seventh “myth” as “All God Expects of Us Is Faithfulness.”[6] He asserts that “God expects both faithfulness and fruitfulness.”

And he has a point. Emphasis on the importance of faithfulness should never be used as an excuse for not working as hard as possible to be successful. As Warren says, God wants churches “to be both faithful and fruitful. One without the other is only half the equation. Numerical results are no justification for being unfaithful to the message, but neither can we use faithfulness as an excuse for being ineffective!”

Warren also declares that the Bible “clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit.” And while that is true, it is a lot easier for the church to be fruitful in Orange County, California, where Saddleback Church is located, than in countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, or Thailand. In those and a number of other countries around the world, less, sometimes far less, than 1% of the population are professing Christians.

Using the model of fruitfulness as being a measure of success, the church in those countries certainly seems to have been a failure at this point. But it would be highly judgmental to say that the lack of fruit is due to the lack of faithfulness or the lack of effort on the part of the small percentage of Christians in those countries. Many of the Christians in such countries may not be completely faithful to Jesus, and their efforts may not be completely exemplary either. But their “failure” is due far more to the external circumstances than to the internal deficiencies of the Christian believers in those nations.

It is particularly those who labor as Christian witnesses in difficult circumstances for which the emphasis on the New Testament word for success being faithfulness is most appropriate and most helpful.

But Not Success by Any Means

Another “myth” that Warren deals with in his book The Purpose Driven Church is “You must compromise the message and the mission of the church in order to grow.”[7] Warren rightly argues that it is false to assume that if a church is attracting people, it must be shallow and lacking in commitment. But he admits that “a few large churches have compromised their message and mission.”

In seeking to rebut the myth about all churches that draw large churches having compromised, Warren emphasizes that Jesus’ ministry “attracted enormous crowds” and that even though Jesus drew large crowds, “he never compromised the truth.” Certainly both of those statements are true. But they are a bit one-sided. True, Jesus attracted large crowds, but he seems to have also engaged in “ensmallment” campaigns. (Why do we often hear the word enlargement but never ensmallment?)

In the sixth chapter of John, the chapter that tells of Jesus feeding the five thousand (a clear example of the big crowds he attracted), Jesus ends by giving what his followers see as a difficult teaching, and at the end of that chapter we are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

And how many were left when Jesus was crucified? According to Matthew’s Gospel, “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (26:56). And even after the resurrection the number of believers who met together in Jerusalem was only about 120. So the ministry of Jesus cannot be said to have been terribly successful numerically. Of course, during the time of his crucifixion, his followers were not especially faithful either.

The point is this: it is probably stretching the truth to use the ministry of Jesus as an example of how churches do not have to compromise in order to grow and to attract large crowds. There is, however, significant church growth after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church in power, as we read in the second and fourth chapters of Acts.

There are, thankfully, very large churches which are faithful, and Saddleback Church is probably one of the best examples. I have high respect for Rick Warren and his ministry, even though there are aspects of it I do not agree with. His P.E.A.C.E. plan is highly commendable: The acronym stands for Promote reconciliation, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation.

But, unfortunately, there are other megachurches that have grown largely, or at least in part, through their emphasis on the so-called prosperity gospel such as mentioned in the introductory part of this chapter.

Faithfulness in Spite of Failure

Francis Xavier was, to most knowledgeable people, a highly successful missionary. As one who spent many years as a missionary in Japan, I highly admired, and was somewhat envious of, Xavier’s extremely successful missionary work in Japan.

Xavier was one of the very first Jesuits, and he was the first to become a missionary to non-European countries. He set sail for Asia in 1541, and until his death in 1552 he had varying degrees of success in India, the East Indies (now Indonesia), and then Japan.

From my experience as a missionary in Japan, serving for many years with not a lot of outward success, it seems to me that Xavier was highly successful. So it was a bit disconcerting when I read the chapter about the famous Jesuit missionary in Saints and Sanctity, a stimulating book by Jesuit scholar Walter J. Burghardt.

The subtitle of the chapter on Xavier is “Sanctity and Frustration, and in that chapter Burghardt says that in spite of the fact that we usually see him as quite successful, that “is not the way Xavier saw himself. If ever a man felt himself a failure, if ever a human being felt the exquisite agony of frustration, that man was Francis Xavier.” [8]

Burghardt goes on to say that even if we, like Xavier, try to do God’s will with every ounce of our being, that is no guarantee that our plans will prosper. But since to the very end Xavier was aware that he was doing God’s work, Burghardt declares, “In his every failure, to the very last failure off the coast of China, he was a resounding success.”[9]

Most of us will not have the opportunities, the challenges, or the frustrations of a man like Francis Xavier. But whether great or small, most of us suffer a sense of failure in many arenas of life. Regardless of how others might see us and regardless of how we ourselves or others might evaluate the present at some future point, from time to time we feel like a failure.

Many other missionaries faced the same problem as Xavier—and perhaps even more so. I am writing this section on November 11, which is the very day British Baptist missionary William Carey arrived in India in 1793. It was seven years before Carey had the joy of baptizing the first Indian convert.

In 1812 Adoniram and Ann (Hasseltine) Judson arrived in India and the following year they began missionary work in Burma (Myanmar). They labored for six years in that country before they had the joy of baptizing the first Burmese convert.

Carey and the Judsons must have often felt as if they were failures, working and witnessing for so many years before there was even one convert. There is certainly no way they could have been called fruitful during those lean years. But they were faithful, and their faithfulness was success that led to fruitfulness later. More than two hundred years later the influence of Carey and the Judsons is still seen in those southern Asian countries in which they served.

Enduring to the End

So what should we do when we have feelings of failure? The answer is simple: keep being faithful to the task God has called us. If the New Testament word for success is faithfulness, when we are doing what we are convinced God wants us to do, then we should “keep on keeping on,” as the old saying goes, regardless of whether or not we are aware of any success as it is generally understood.

It is possible to say that the New Testament word for success is faithfulness because the word success or succeed rarely appear in the New Testament—or not at all, depending on the translation. In the New International Version there is this verse about success in Matthew: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (23:15).

In the New Revised Standard Version, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you” (Romans 1:9-10). Paul is praying for success in visiting them, and that seems fair enough.

And then there is this verse in Romans 9:31 in the New Living Translation: “But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded.”

In the New International Version and other translations, the word succeed(ed) is not used in any of these three passages—and it would be no help in advocating success as popularly promoted today even if that word had been used.

In contrast, the New Testament does often talk about being faithful and about enduring to the end, in spite of difficulties and what would generally be thought of as failures. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “anyone who endures to the end will be saved” (24:13).

And in the book of Revelation, that significant part of the New Testament written during the time of persecution in which Christian believers experienced nothing that would generally be considered success, John is commanded to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (1:10).

So, to many Christians through the ages, especially to those who live and witness in hostile lands and those who are faced with persecution, it is not only true to say but also important to realize that the New Testament word for success is, after all, faithfulness.

[1] These books were written by Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925), Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012), and Jack Canfield (b. 1944). Especially the last four were also the authors of other highly “successful” books about success.

[2] Lakewood Church in 2017 was said to have a weekly attendance of 43,500 people. In addition to preaching regularly, Osteen (b. 1963) also writes often on the Lakewood Church blog, and some of his articles, especially in past years, were expressions of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” according to which financial success can be expected to result from proper or adequate faith.

[3] Creflo Dollar (b. 1962) and his wife (and co-pastor) Taffi started their church in 1986. According to a January 15, 2006, article in the New York Times, Dollar’s “Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment, furnish proof to his followers of the validity of his teachings” about prosperity.

[4] (Zondervan, 2002). Warren (b. 1954) was the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. The first services of the new church were held on Easter Sunday in 1980.

[5] (Zondervan, 1995). This book is the last (newest) book introduced in William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, 100 Christian Books That Changed the Century (Revell, 2000).

[6] Pp. 62-66.

[7] Pp. 53-56.

[8] (Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 142. Burghardt (1914-2008), the author of several books and many scholarly articles, was the 1962 recipient of the Cardinal Spellman Award for outstanding contributions to the field of sacred theology.

[9] P. 151. Xavier’s last goal was to spread the message of Christ in China, and he reached an island six miles from the Chinese coast. But for months he was stuck on that island, unable to move on to the Chinese mainland, and it was there on that island within sight of his goal he became ill and subsequently died.


#26  Prayer is More an Attitude and Action than Words

PRAYER IS A MATTER that I have LONG been interested in and concerned about, as, I suppose, most Christians have been. Part of my concern has been practical and some has been theological. Those in other faith traditions perhaps have been more concerned about meditation or other similar religious practices.

Most who grew up in Christian homes and went to Sunday School and church (as the worship services were usually called) every week often heard about the importance of having a daily “quiet time,” a time to read the Bible and pray. And most probably grew up feeling a sense of guilt that they didn’t do that more regularly, or for longer periods.

Somehow, many got the impression that prayer was an obligation as well as an indication of their spiritual condition. Those who prayed most were considered the best Christians, and those who prayed little were thought to be poor Christians.

And then there are the intellectual problems: how does prayer “work”? The problems are particularly with regards to petitionary and intercessory prayer. Do our prayers change God? Can we really get what we want from God if we ask him enough and/or in the right way? Do the desired results of prayer come because of how much we pray or of how well we pray—or a combination of both?

More pointedly: why would God do things to help others if we prayed for them but would refuse to help them if we didn’t? Would God purposely not help others just because we did not pray for them or pray for them “adequately”?

There are many difficult questions concerning prayer, especially prayer that is considered primarily the voicing of petitions to God. Those who are Christians find help in seeking answers to such questions by looking at what Jesus said about prayer and how he prayed.

Jesus and Prayer

The Gospels record an important request made to Jesus by his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). In response Jesus gave them a prayer, now popularly called the Lord’s Prayer, which can be uttered in less than a minute. And while Jesus spoke in the following verses in Luke about perseverance in prayer, it is noteworthy that in Matthew’s Gospel, just before giving the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus said to his disciples, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (6:7-8).

It is also interesting to note that while several times Jesus addressed his disciples as “you of little faith,” there is no reference to him calling them “you of little prayer.” There is one case in which the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to cast out an evil spirit from a boy, and Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29). But here also Jesus was surely talking far more about the quality, or even the presence, rather than the quantity of prayer.

While Jesus instructed his disciples on how to pray (or how not to pray), it is also worth noting that he doesn’t ever seem to command them to pray—other than asking them to “stay awake and pray” in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.

Certainly we know that Jesus prayed, and sometimes prayed for a long time. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). And there are several other places indicating that Jesus prayed, alone and long. Before choosing his twelve disciples, Luke tells us that Jesus “spent the night in prayer to God” (6:12). But had the lengthy times of prayer been something that Jesus did every day, or even every week, they likely would have not been mentioned by the Gospel writers.

In thinking more about this subject, perhaps we will recognize that Jesus’ attitude toward prayer was something different that many of us grew up hearing. Maybe prayer is something more than uttering words in the attempt to get certain things for ourselves or for others.

Prayer and Breathing

During a trip back to Japan in 2010, a Japanese friend gave me a little book that she had been reading. It was a book on prayer written by Ichiro Okumura, a Catholic priest. I read more than half of that delightful book before discovering that there is an English translation.[1]

I was struck by the words at the beginning of Okumura’s third chapter: “prayer is the soul’s breathing.” He attributed those words to Augustine, and they may be, although I have been unable to locate the source. I had not remembered reading those words before, but I have said, or thought, something quite similar from time to time. That is part of the reason I aver that prayer is more an attitude and action than words.

While we generally do not think about breathing, our physical life depends on it. And while we may not always be conscious of praying, a healthy spiritual life is dependent upon being in an attitude of prayer continuously.

In recent years in this country, and from ancient times in Asia, considerable attention has been given by some people as to how they breathe. Entering “conscious breathing” into an Internet search engine yields a multitude of results. (Those two words, with the quotation marks, yielded more than 221,000 results on Google just now.) So many people, it seems, place great importance on how they breathe. But most of the time, most of us breathe, of necessity, without giving much thought to it at all.

Perhaps that is the way it is, or can be, or maybe even should be, with prayer. There are times, and probably there should be more times, that we pray consciously, deliberately, intentionally. But even more important is praying “without ceasing.”

Christians have often puzzled over the meaning of the words “pray without ceasing” in the New Testament (1 Thess. 5:17). Okumura deals with that phrase, and suggests many ways those words can be understood and also many ways people have tried to put that injunction into practice literally. But if prayer is like breathing, perhaps it is not so hard to understand—or to do.

We humans don’t find it hard to breathe without ceasing. Of course, we can hold our breath for a short time, but apart from those brief moments, to cease breathing is to cease living. In a similar way, failure to pray without ceasing is detrimental to our spiritual life.

It is quite apparent that we cannot articulate prayers ceaselessly. But what if prayer is more an attitude than spoken words? What if prayer is primarily a recognition that we are continually in the presence of God, always dependent on God, and that God’s Spirit is always around us and in us?

Mark E. Thibodeaux is a Jesuit priest who wrote Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer.[2] In that book, he explains the four stages of prayer: talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God. True prayer is primarily what is experienced in Thibodeaux’s fourth stage. And that is what I mean by attitude: prayer is the attitude or sense of being with God and of God being with us. Thus, whether working or playing, whether conversing or reading, whether eating or relaxing, all we do is with an attitude of awareness of God’s presence with us.

This understanding is related to a brief statement I heard about prayer decades ago when I was still in seminary. On one occasion a minister I admired greatly declared, “Prayer reminds us that we are God’s, not gods.”[3]

Prayer on the Run

Back in the 1960s I was encouraged by a book of prayers written by Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest. In the introduction of his book published under the title Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Boyd explained how for him prayer “used to stand as something separate from other parts of life.” “But,” he goes on to say, “I have come to learn that real prayer is not so much talking to God as just sharing his presence.”[4]

Following his introductory remarks, Boyd’s first prayer is the one from which the title of the book is taken. It is a prayer at the beginning of the day, and it ends, “I’ll follow along, okay? But lead, Lord. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?”

Praying on the run is related to the idea that what we do is prayer, not just what we say—and that is the conviction that lies behind the naming of this chapter. Going back to Boyd’s introduction, he writes about a “freedom ride” in the Deep South in 1961. As most will quickly recollect, freedom rides were activities designed to call into question the prejudicial treatment of African-Americans at that time, and Boyd was one of many Christian clergy who were directly involved in that type of challenge to institutional racism.

Boyd tells how another Episcopalian priest said, “It seems to me this is really a kind of prayer—a kind of corporate confession of sin.” Then Boyd remarks, “. . . my fellow priest well expressed my feelings about being on that bus. It was a prayer.”[5]

A little over a year after retiring after teaching for thirty-six years in Japan, I began teaching one course a semester at Rockhurst University, which is a Jesuit school that celebrated its centennial in 2010. I was quite surprised to find myself teaching at a Catholic university, and when I began I knew very little about the Jesuits.

Gradually, I gained not only greater knowledge of but also greater appreciation for the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534. One of the books about the Jesuits I read to learn more about them is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, a Jesuit priest.[6] In his first chapter, Martin explains that “Ignatian spirituality is about being a contemplative in action.” In spite of the serious doubts others had about his new order, Ignatius was adamant in his vision: “his men were to be contemplatives in action, leading others to find God in all things.”

Heroic Leadership is another book I have recently read with great interest. It was written by Chris Lowney, a man who left the Jesuits in order to become a businessman and ended up working for J. P. Morgan for seventeen years.[7] Lowney tells how the Jesuits departed from classic religious traditions in several ways. One of those he describes as “praying on the run rather than in a controlled environment.” Unlike the Benedictines, Jesuit prayer “was individual, on-the-go, and self-regulating.”

Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century founded the Catholic order that bears his name, and through the centuries one of their basis mottos has been “pray and work.” Both prayer and work were considered important, but they were considered two different activities. Through the years, some monks, and others, have emphasized that prayer is work. But there are others, perhaps mostly in the Jesuit tradition or with an Ignatian spirituality, who insist that work is prayer. It is that sort of idea that Boyd must have had when he referred to his freedom ride being a prayer.

Thomas Carlyle may have been one of the first to suggest that work is prayer. In 1841 he wrote in his journal that “to work is to pray,” using the Latin words reversing the Benedictine motto ora et labora (pray and work).[8] Certainly not all work is prayer; nevertheless, being able to work in such a way that it becomes prayer is surely a worthy goal for all of us to seek:

The Soul’s Sincere Desire

James Montgomery was a British editor and poet who wrote the lyrics for some 400 hymns. The first two verses of one of those hymns goes like this:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, / Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire / That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh, / The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye, / When none but God is near.[9]

That hymn expresses part of what I mean by saying that prayer is an attitude more than it is words.

Certainly there is a time for prayer to be expressed; nothing I have written in this chapter should be taken to imply that verbalizing prayers is not good and important. But the point is that prayer is more than words, and even that words are not the most important part of praying. Thus, I like Montgomery’s emphasis on prayer being the “sincere desire” of a person’s inner being (soul).

When a person comes to have the desire for, or attitude of, wishing more than anything else to love and serve God, and to love and serve the people and the world that God has created, then we have prayer at its best. Or to borrow the (translated) words of Okumura, “To reach the point that all life becomes uninterrupted prayer is undoubtedly the apex of Christian prayer.”[10]

Through time constraints, responsibilities, surrounding circumstances and other exigencies, spending a lot of time verbalizing prayers may not be possible for many people. But to live life with a sense of God’s constant presence and with a constant attitude of trust in and love for God is something we should be able to achieve with a greater and greater degree. And to seek to serve God through all we do is also possible.

So, it is important for us to know well that prayer is more an attitude and action than words. Knowing that makes it possible to realize that we can, indeed, pray without ceasing.

[1] Augustine Ichiro Okumura, Awakening to Prayer (ICS Publications, 1994). Okumara was born into a Buddhist family in 1923 and became a Catholic Christian in 1948, the year after graduating from the University of Tokyo, the most prestigious university in Japan. (His “Christian name” is not used in the Japanese edition of his book.)

[2] (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001). The second chapter is about “the four stages of prayer.”

[3] The esteemed minister was Rev. John Claypool, who at the time was pastor of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

[4] (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965). A fortieth anniversary edition of Boyd’s book was published by Cowley Publications in 2006.

[5] Pp. 3-4. A later section of the book is called “Prayers for Racial Freedom” (pp. 39-52), so clearly Boyd’s prayers are words as well as actions.

[6] (HarperOne, 2010). The following quotes are from pp. 7 and 15. Martin’s book was a New York Times bestseller.

[7] (Loyola Press, 2003). The subtitle is Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. The following sentences are from pages


[8] Carlyle (1795-1881) was a Scottish satirical writer who grew up in a strict Calvinist home but lost his Christian faith while in the university. He continued to hold many Christian values, though.

[9] Montgomery (1771-1854) wrote the lyrics for this hymn in 1818.

[10] Awakening to Prayer, p. 55. Okumura follows with the warning, in the next sentence, that “the difference between the ideal and illusion is often very subtle.”

#25  Love is More an Attitude and Action than a Feeling

PERHAPS FEW WORDS IN the English language have been used, and misused, more than the word love. Even on the wholly human level, love can refer to the most sublime of feelings and actions of a man or woman for their “soul mate” or for a father or mother for their children. The same word is also often used for frivolous things as a flavor of ice cream or a popular sitcom TV program.

[To read the rest of this chapter, click here.]

#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.