At the Gate: Beyond Beliefs

Sitting at the gate, I see how my concept of belief has been distorted through the lens of the Enlightenment. [1] The distortion is not easy to describe because over time it has manifested itself in the Church in a variety of ways. But as-a-whole, belief has become linked to doctrines. We are taught to believe in beliefs—to affirm creeds, statements of faith (notice the use of the word ‘faith’ here), etc. And while “affirmations of faith” have their place, the problem is (at least the one I am trying to address here) that they become seedbeds where the weeds of egotism/ethnocentrism choke out the wheat of faith. In short, beliefs become debate stages to see who has the “best” (true) ones, tugs-of-war to see which side wins, and at their worst, battlefields where vanquishing foes (conquering heretics) is the end game.

In this unfortunate outcome, and harm-doing environment (which is often excused as “defending the faith”—again, notice that the word ‘faith’ is used), belief gets hijacked, and James’ words to Christians, “My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way” (James 3:10) are a fair assessment of our mess today as it was an accurate one in his day.

If we are to recover our senses and return belief to its biblical meaning, we must move beyond beliefs. I am in the early stages of my own attempt to do this. This post is a field report with “miles to go before I sleep.”

I have begun the restoration noting that in the Common English Bible, there are 325 occurrences of the word ‘believe’ as a stand-alone word or embedded in a word like ‘believers.’ In addition, there are well over a hundred uses of words like ‘belief,’ ‘believing,’ etc. I may never get through all this, but some initial observations are already apparent. In this post I note a few main ones.

Belief is in God, not in secondary beliefs about God. In fact, if we take a look at the creeds of Christendom, they are essentially statements of faith about God as Father, Son, and Spirit. We believe in God. We then construct beliefs about God.

In a more specific Christian sense, we believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. In fact, this is the faith which saves us (Acts 16:31). That is, we believe in Someone, not some things. We believe in a Person, not in principles. The way, truth, and life of our faith is Jesus—not doctrines about him. [2]

Of course this is tricky, and there is a lot to say other than “I believe in God” or “I believe in Jesus.” But what my early journey through the Bible is revealing is that this is the meaning of belief. Everything else is beliefs….and….we are not told to believe in beliefs. Jesus said, “Believe in me” (John 14:1).

What I am discovering is that when belief is freed from beliefs, my “enlightenment mind” immediately rises us and says, “That’s not good enough; that’s minimalism.” But my heart says, “It is good enough; that’s faith.” Liberated belief is radical. It means being “homeless” so far as selling your soul to any company store is concerned. But radical means “at the root,” and that is where I want to live—rooted in Christ as a branch is rooted in a vine.

As I recall, that is where Christ himself told us to live (John 15). He went on in that chapter to describe the “much fruit” that abiding in him produces: the life of love (focused in two great commandments), the life that John said would be the hallmark of the Christian community (1 John 2:7-11; 3:11—4:21).

Believing in beliefs has taken the Church far “into the weeds” and far off course from its nature (the Body of Christ, the Loving One) and mission (“love as I have loved you,” John 15:12).

It is high time to recover belief, and it begins in realizing that it is beyond beliefs.

[1] As a historical theologian, I must caution against caricaturing the Enlightenment so that it becomes the alleged cause of a derailment of Christianity. The Enlightenment is not a scapegoat. A lot of good things happened in “the age of reason,” but that does not eclipse the point I am trying to make in this blog.

[2] The writings of E. Stanley Jones are once again freeing me from the captivity to belief in beliefs. His book, ‘The Way’ is the foundational book that does so.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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