16. The unembodied faith of the mind is a prison, ensnaring the souls of all people, even God!
Faith is not the contents of your mind.
Despite what many of the faithful demand of each other. Or what the faithless think we believe. Belief isn’t a set of words or rational arguments. Faith isn’t a statement for a website or a collection of thoughts articulated for an elevator pitch.
All of those are statements of faith. They aren’t faith itself.
Faith isn’t rational. But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s about how we respond to our world.
When faith is a statement
When faith is a statement it defines the contours of belief. It declares the ground on which faith is built. This is why one of the most powerful faith statements in the Bible is “God is love.”
If we take this definition, “God is love” seriously, we recognize how it tells us much about God and about what God is not.
So, for God to be love, then God is greatly concerned with love. And if God is love, then God is not hate.
These describe God and describe the contours of the debate.
Another one, which was just as transformative was Paul’s declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” This says a lot to us, but it also says some very specific things given its context.
Because Caesar demanded all the subjects call him Lord, then to declare Jesus is Lord is to make a counter statement. It is being very intentionally political with your faith.
Many people take a similar conviction with them into the public square, making a faith claim and political statement in one. They update it for our context, saying “Jesus is President”. To say that, is to claim Jesus is my leader, not the present occupant of the White House.
These small statements of faith wonderfully get us to engage our brains and our hearts because they challenge us to look beyond what we know and into what we do.
When faith is an action
When we take “God is Love” as a serious description of faith, it cannot remain intellectual. Any attempt to leave it there stops to make any sense.
If we believe that God is Love, then what do we do with our feelings of hate? Would a Christian condone a hate group or support the abuse of another human being as a personal right or would they not recognize it as incompatible with Christ?
It provokes our own commitments to loving our neighbors when we recognize our faith is reflected in that love. And we come to realize there’s no difference between a belief and an action, or that one can believe without acting. You can’t have one without the other because they are intertwined!
Belief about vs. belief in vs. belief of
Sometimes we mistake a kind of belief for all belief. The above faith statements are scriptural and general. But there are a different kind of belief statement we could make.
Some faith statements are like the Nicene Creed, which describe the metaphysical relationship between the three personas of the trinity. As a statement of faith, it is extremely intellectual. It reads a bit like a checklist of what (small c) catholic Christians believe about the nature of the Trinity. But it doesn’t inspire anyone to love or counter the empire.
These are statements which are “belief about” because they are about God, rather than wrestling with our relationship with God.
Faith statements written to describe the nature of God, like those “fundamentals” which determine what a Christian must believe about God’s character before they can become members, keep our relationship with God entirely intellectual. Distant. Other. Not like a relationship at all.
Belief about is like writing a few words to describe the physical makeup of your mother’s face or collecting some important facts about her (vocation, height, eye color) when the question is “tell us about your relationship with your mother.”
This is a great way of articulating the difference of belief because it actually describes the relationship. When we say I believe in you, I’m showing my support. I’m sharing my conviction and putting some real emphasis on my support for our relationship.
Unfortunately, when used in religious contexts, it is hardly different from belief about. When we say we believe in God, we are usually only making the claim that God exists: it is an assent to a theological statement of faith.
Just as easily, a non-believer can say “I don’t believe in God” and they are merely claiming an intellectual fact. They do not possess a belief connected to a deity–there is no relationship there.
It is no less intellectual, or rational, to speak of belief this way. It is still a brain behavior with little connection with the relationship we claim to value.
There is a third option, often ignored. And it results from a conflict among scholars over what Paul meant when talking about belief.
Often called the New Perspective on Paul, there was significant shift in New Testament scholarship around the translation of a particular phrase. As many have suggested, Paul doesn’t place righteousness on the back of an individual’s faith in Christ, but on the faith of Christ.
Of course, many couldn’t handle hearing this. If you think about it, this takes the cornerstone of Protestant theology out of the building and saying “you know, all that you believe is supported by Martin Luther’s mistranslation of one line of text in the Bible.” So no wonder it was earth-shattering for many.
If you’d like to read more about it, start with what I wrote earlier. Or if you think I’m a heretic, go read this anyway before you decide. Because the point isn’t the word itself or the translation or calling people wrong. I’m making the case that the faith of Christ not only makes more sense, but it fits.
Because we are liberated through Jesus’s faith. Not just mine or yours. But because Jesus’s faith continues to model the relationship of humanity to God; and vice versa.
The matter of faith then isn’t built into whether or not I believe something intellectually, agree to some statement of faith, or claim an element of history as a guidepost for my life. It is built on my relationship to Jesus. A Jesus who didn’t just walk the earth, but left us with work as a manifestation of the love we receive from God.
To love each other.
The Prison of the Mind
Much of the way we have constructed Christianity is locked in the prison of the mind. It’s the intellectual description about God or the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. Or it’s an obsession with historical facts or articulations about the reality of events.
In short, our faith shows almost no evidence of faith.
It traps us into the constructed logic of history rather than speaking to the relationship.
And the roots of this obsession go back to the origin of the (small c) catholics who became the dominant Christian group of the Roman Empire, which became the dominant group in Rome, which split with the East in the Schism and dominated the thinking of the Western church for the next thousand years.
This obsession is found in both the Catholic and Reforming churches during the Reformation and remains the dominant obsession in the West today. The church is full of belief about and belief in.
But there are strains of belief of here. And they’re growing.
I hope that the Spirit liberates us from this prison: a prison whose jailers are as likely to come from the working class as it is the elites. From Catholics as Protestants.
Because we aren’t the only prisoners of a narrow and dysfunctional faith. We trap God in it as well.
[This is Thesis #16 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]