For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
In this week’s daily emails, I have been sharing about how there is more than one way to understand basic ideas of the Christian faith. The dominant American Protestant narrative is in large part a conservative Evangelical one, and many who end up rejecting that narrative feel they have no choice but to reject Christianity as a whole. Yet, Christian tradition and scripture offer many different ways for a person to remain Christian without holding on to a narrow and exclusive perspective.
This week I’m sharing my reflections on Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can be Restored. I’m not a fan of all of Borg’s writings, but I do feel this book is a great resource for people who are looking to expand their understandings of some of the central terms of Christianity. On Tuesday, I shared about Borg’s views on “salvation,” and on Wednesday I shared about his views on “the Death of Jesus.” If you missed those emails, you con find them on the church web site at the new “Church Blog” set up by Kathy Hendrix and Sara Riggs. Today I’ll be sharing about Borg’s views on “faith.”
Borg provides a word study of what we mean by the modern English words “faith” and “believe/belief” and shows that what we mean is different from what the writers of the New Testament meant. In modern English usage, the verb “believe” means “believing that” a statement is true with varying degrees of certainty. In religious contexts, the verb “believe” means “having faith” and “faith” becomes a collection of statements a person believes. This understanding of the English verb “believe” as “believing that” a statement is true has existed only since about 1600. Prior to 1600 it meant “believing in” someone. That preposition makes a huge difference!
Believing that a statement someone said is true is different from believing in or having confidence in or trusting that person. A person I don’t trust can still say something true. “In a Christian context,” Borg says of this pre-1600 understanding of the verb, “it meant having confidence in God and Jesus, trusting God and Jesus.” The English word “believe” comes from the Old English “be loof” which means “to hold dear” or “belove.” So, prior to 1600, the English word “believe” actually meant to “belove” and in a Christian context it meant holding God as one’s “beloved.” The roots of this Old English word comes from the Latin word “credo” which means “I give my heart to.” (Interestingly, most ministers who attend seminary are required to write a “Credo” or statement of beliefs, but nowhere in that assignment was I ever asked to state what “I give my heart to.”)
Borg notes that when New Testament writers are talking about “belief” and “faith” what they had in mind was closer to the modern English words “loyalty” and “trust.” When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you worry, you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:25-34) his is not talking about a lack of belief in particular statements but a lack of “trust” in God. Similarly, when James is talking about “faith” without “works” he is talking about a “faithfulness” or “trust” in God resulting in a transformed way of life. Borg references the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who described “faith” in terms of buoyancy. A person in deep water sinks when they thrash around to keep themselves up, but they float when they trust the water will do so. This image brings to mind Jesus walking on the water and Peter joining him but then sinking. Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith” (Matthew 14:31). Jesus wasn’t referring to Peter’s lack of belief in a group of statements, but a lack of trust.
Borg sums up the problem with the modern understanding of “faith” as a collection of statements one believes this way. “To put the contrast very concisely, it is the difference between:
Believing that a set of statements about God, Jesus, and the Bible are true.
Beloving God—and for Christians, this means beloving God as known especially in Jesus.
For some, perhaps a majority of American Protestants and some Catholics, the former is what “saves us.” But does believing that a set of statements are true save us, transform us?”
From the beginning of Christianity, there has been a problem: people who say they are Christian but do not act like it. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” One can say all the right things, but act in all the wrong ways. One need only look at recent polling data that shows so many people who consider themselves to be “Christian” in America today simultaneously approve of policies that harm the powerless such as separating children from their parents and detaining them on the southern border, a criminal justice system that imposes harsher sentences upon non-white people, and a denial of basic scientific facts at the cost of elderly, sick and impoverished people’s lives. Clearly believing a set of statements to be true is not enough to transform us in ways that result in the kind of compassion and love Jesus demonstrated. One can believe all kinds of statements about God to be true without ever trusting God with one’s life and death.
Grace and Peace,
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