Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, July 18, 2005

What is faith?

I'm reading a most amazing book, which I highly recommend: Dave Shiflett's Exodus : Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. (See sidebar for an Amazon link.) The title pretty much tells you what the book is about. The author, a journalist and loosely practicing Presbyterian, examines churches on the liberal and conservative side of the divide to try to figure out why there is this mass exodus from liberal churches, which would superficially seem to be more inviting to people, to conservative churches, which, with their greater demands, would seem to be less inviting. It becomes apparent reading the book that, if people believe in God, they want that belief to have meaning. A morally relativistic Church such as the modern Episcopalian Church, affiliation has no more meaning than a TV session with Dr. Phil (who is probably more rigorous than some priests might be). A couple of things surprised me reading the book. I had not realized that modern Episcopalianism, especially in the person of Bishop John Shelby Spong, has abandoned all the basic elements of what I've always considered to be Christianity. Thus, according to a post Spong placed on the internet, he (1) does not believe God is supernatural; (2) does not believe Jesus is God's earthly incarnation; (3) does not believe that Jesus performed his miracles; (4) Does not believe Jesus is the product of a virgin birth; (5) Does not believe in the resurrection; (6) Does not believe that Jesus ascended to God after the non-existence resurrection, because he does not believe in Heaven; (7) Does not believe that there is anything wrong with homosexuality; and (8) Does not believe that the Bible is the word of God. You have to ask after reading this list (at pp. 48-49 of Shiflett's book): What distinguishes this man from an atheist? Why is he affiliated with a Church when he doesn't believe a single central tenet of religion (of any religion, it seems)? Isn't he positioning himself more as a philosopher who likes some of the warm, loving ideas Jesus espoused, in which case he's simply in line with your average warm, loving atheist? As I said, this came as a surprise to me. What came as even more of a surprise to me is that, at least according to one poll, huge numbers of self-identified conservative, fundamentalists, or born-again Christians don't believe basic Christian doctrine either. Here are the numbers from that poll, set out at pp. 54-55 of Shiflett's book: (1) 28% believe Jesus committed sins during his life. (2) 35% do not believe in the resurrection. (3) 52% believe the Holy Spirit is merely symbolic, not real. (4) 45% believe Satan is merely symbolic, not real. (5) 26% believe all religions are essentially equal. (6) 50% believe good works are enough to get one into Heaven (at least they still believe in Heaven). Born-again Christians also have a higher divorce rate than the general population, which again surprised me. All this confuses me mightily. As those who read this blog regularly know, I'd like to be a religious person, but I'm not. I was raised in a secular Jewish household, where I was well-educated about the content of the Old Testament (and, believe it or not, the New), but without any adjunct spirituality. Actually, you can get away with this in Judaism -- that is, you can retain your identity -- for two reasons. One, Judaism is a religion of "law." This means that abiding by the legal principles (most notably the Ten Commandments, although I fail on the first), keeps you somewhat within the fold. Second, as Germany's secular, assimilated Jews discovered in the 1930s, while you may have forgotten that you're a Jew, no one else has. But to get back to my point. I was raised secularly, and in a household given to reason coupled with traditional morality (because traditional "morality" is the societally right thing to do). Most of my peers raised this way look down on the faithful -- "poor, foolish things, believing in spirits." I, however, envy those who have faith, who have an ability to accept mysteries. But I also have enough rationalism to be suspicious of the loosy-goosy faith of "angels love me," and "God loves everyone." I've read my Bible. God is not a forgiving God (I seem to recall him being jealous), and Jesus, for all that he preached about love and forgiveness, nevertheless had exceedingly high expectations from his followers (nor do I recall him turning the other cheek to the moneylenders in the Temple). In other words, religion is not only a gift, it makes demands, and these demands are an important and integral part of the faith. If you're going to abandon both the gift (the belief system of the divinity of Christ, of Heaven, of the Resurrection) and the demands (regular observance, dietary restrictions, moral controls), what's left? It seems that you're right back to someone like me, but without the moral certainties that my parents were kind enough to inculcate in me. So, to get back to my original point, I think this book, which is slender and lucidly written, so it's a quick read, is something that people, both the faithful and secularists, should check out.