Saturday, November 17, 2012

faith is a journey

Arches in St. Andrews, Scotland

The last week or so I have been reading a book that I picked up at a conference in May.  It is called Journeys of Faith (edited by Robert L. Plummer, Zondervan, 2012).  When I saw it in a pile at a publisher's booth it caught my eye because the subject matter intrigued me and the book was on sale.  How could I resist?  It has been an interesting read thus far.  The book contains essays from four different people who have migrated from one part of Christianity to another.  After more than 20 years of being a Baptist pastor, one man became an Eastern Orthodox priest.  Someone who was part of the Protestant charismatic movement switched to Catholicism.  A Catholic had an experience with God at a mid-week service and converted to evangelicalism.  A Lutheran moved to the Anglican church. 

The format of the book is inclusive and balanced.  Each of the chapters in which these men relate the story of their faith journey and explain the major differences between where they came from and where they landed is followed by a critique of their adopted tradition.  These responses are written by scholars who are knowledgeable and invested in the particular tradition that the faith journeyer left behind.  Finally, the journeyer offers a brief rejoinder to the critical response.

As someone who studies theology with people who are Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Evangelical, Lutheran, conservative, liberal, atheist, agnostic, and undecided, movement from one form of Christianity to the other does not shock or offend me.  It is heart-warming to see those recounting their various faith journeys do so with generosity and gratitude toward the tradition they came out of.  They tell their stories with grace and honesty, indicating that they spent many years searching, pondering, and struggling with the issues before they made their decision to migrate. 

The same cannot be said for all the responders, however.  These learned men who are heavily invested in their own tradition seem to be a bit annoyed at the obvious blindness of the faith journeyer.  Their words suggest that the pilgrim has betrayed them in some way, that the wanderer has failed to see the horrible flaws in their newly-found faith community.  It saddens me, to be honest.  While I am no stranger to theological debate and controversy, I am deeply grieved when brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us followers of Jesus, spend much of our time pointing out each others' faults instead of turning our attention to the object of our worship.  In effect, we become our own worst enemies.  We think it is important to defend positions like sola scriptura and the primacy of faith and grace; we belittle authority structures and liturgical practices that differ from those we adhere to.  I understand being concerned about misrepresenting God and misconstruing the nature of Jesus, but if any one of us thinks we have it all figured out beyond a shadow of a doubt and no longer need to learn from others, we are delusional.  All of us have wrong perceptions of God; it is only through God's kindness that we are invited to draw closer to him in order to see more clearly.  Focusing on my brothers' or sisters' perceived errors does not help me see God more clearly; from my experience it actually hinders my spiritual perception.

What was perhaps most surprising to me in reading this book was that I didn't really identify with the evangelical point of view.  I don't mean to be controversial, but positioning the scriptures as the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice is troublesome for me because it places the emphasis on ancient, written words instead of on the eternal, living Word, Jesus.  The Bible is important to followers of Jesus because it reveals God, not because it is perfect or infallible or the final word.  To my understanding, the Bible as a whole does not support positions such as scripture alone or grace alone or faith alone; overall, it clearly points to God as first and last.  Nevertheless, I understand the emphasis on scripture, faith, and grace in response to certain practices and beliefs present in medieval Christianity.

Reading Journeys of Faith is challenging me to think about why I value certain precepts in Christianity and why I devalue others.  But more importantly, it is drawing me toward a more ecumenical stance.  Each chapter which recounted a faith journey caused me to rejoice that a pilgrim had found a spiritual home in which they were called to deeper and more reverential worship, to more lively communion with God, and to learn humbly from the fathers and mothers of our faith.  May I continue to be drawn to a more worshipful, vibrant, rich, and authentic spirituality as well.

God have mercy on us all as we stumble toward him in our faith journeys.   

5 comments:

Shelley said...

sounds like an interesting book. I'm thinking it's good that they didn't abandon their faith, they just tweaked their faith surroundings.

The problem I puzzle over with the evangelical position on the infallibility of scripture is that they tend to apply that belief to their interpretation of the scriptures as well...and of course since our interpretation cannot be infallible, this is very problematic....

Matte Downey said...

Thanks for the comment, Shelley. I agree that there are several problems with the notions of biblical inerrancy and ultimate biblical authority. A big one is that it is difficult to pinpoint precisely on what both of those claims are based. In order to defend these positions, one always ends up pointing to a particular interpretation, another authority, a copy of an ancient text, a translation of an ancient text, or a non-verifiable original text. I am not trying to undermine the scriptures in any way, just pointing out that some of the claims we make in defense of said texts are problematic indeed.

Joshua Hopping said...

While I've read books by folks who have switched traditions, I never heard of a book that combined the story of one's journey with scholarly critique. Sound intriguing. =)

As to your thoughts on the evangelical point of view, I totally agree! Yes the scriptures are important, but they are secondary to Jesus. After all, Jesus told us that he would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us and not a book! =P

Anonymous said...

"Out of the single verb "to believe" come noun forms for two radically antithetical actions: belief and faith. However, when I wish to use a verb form to give expression to my faith, I still have to use "to believe," unless I happen to use an even worse formula, "to have faith."

Belief provides answers to people's questions while faith never does. People believe so as to find assurance, a solution, an answer to their questions to fashion for themselves a system of beliefs. Faith (biblical faith) is completely different. The purpose of revelation is not to supply us with explanations, but to get us to listen to questions.

Faith is, as Barth so often reminds us, in the first instance, hearing. Belief talks and talks, it wallows in words, it interpolates the gods, it takes the initiative. Faith takes an entirely opposite stance: it waits, remains on guard, picks up signs, knows what to make of the most delicate parables; it listens patiently to the silence until that silence is filled up with what it takes to be the indisputable word of God." J. Ellul

Evangelicals have a particular set of beliefs. But I have often found faith to be elusive in their communities. On the other hand I can think of many encounters where agnostics have displayed both more faith & more forgiveness. 


 

Anonymous said...

"To my understanding, the Bible as a whole does not support positions such as scripture alone or grace alone or faith alone; overall, it clearly points to God as first and last."

This is also my understanding. But it is also my understanding that the Bible describes a God that is "not always there", a God that, exceptional circumstances aside, is essentially unknowable to the average supplicant. Even the ecstatic faith of Paul admits God's unkowability. So, my understanding of the Christian position is that it is not one of revelation, but rather one of the hope of revelation.