This is my first attempt to reflect on my experience of belief. I want to try, as far as I can, to avoid discussing theological concepts or models of belief. Reflecting simply on what I have experienced as a believer. In this first post I recall growing up believing in God.
For introducing me to belief in God I must thank my parents. And also the Methodist church I attended for much of my childhood. Even though my parents were not very religious, Christianity was cultural and an expected part of growing up. When I say they were not religious I don’t mean to imply that they were atheists either, but simply secular through lack of engagement with their own beliefs.
We attended a Methodist church for no other reason than that my parents viewed it as an English equivalent to my Father’s N.G. (Dutch Reformed) denomination in which we were baptized as babies. As far as Sunday school is concerned, the thing that stands out most vividly in my imagination is worship, especially a song called “Jehovah Jirah” and another called “Love the Lord your God”. I can remember enjoying these and other songs, and sang many of them outside of the Sunday school setting – which is strange given my complete inaptitude for all other forms of music.
At home, my mom sometimes read bible stories to us and at night, I will forever remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. How, as a young boy, I pictured my soul leave my body as I lay down to sleep – hopeful that it had made its’ way to God. And that should anything happen to me while I lay there in my bed, at least my soul was safe in God’s hands.
I also remember the need, sometimes, to pray that prayer, and later the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. These repetitions arose from concerns that I had become distracted, and had allowed the prayer to be completed on autopilot. This of course seemed problematic since perhaps auto-pilot prayer didn’t have the same power as self-navigated prayer. If this was true then perhaps God hadn’t heard that He needed to “keep my soul”, or “forgive my trespasses”, or “deliver me from evil”. Thankfully I never let the autopilot continue once I had noticed it, and usually I was satisfied that the prayer following the discovery was done with sufficient devotion and care to reach the ears of God.
To this day this habit continues and will often manifest as repeated grace during the first bite of the meal, as I move the focalized prayer at the table to my heart, and there reiterate my gratitude for God’s provision. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer is still at times susceptible to autopilot transmissions, and still I feel the need to bring my focus back to the prayer and repeat whatever was spoken without intention. These early struggles are also discernible in my need to sometimes overemphasize my intention, or meaning, in prayer – in case God misunderstood me and thinks I’ve communicated something unacceptable.
I remember the first time I was hurt by “the church” or rather by members of it. It was the usual bullying that many of us experience at various times when we are young. My experiences unfortunately connected to those who were part of the body of Christ – but also just little boys like myself. And though I no longer connect the hurt to the church, the bullying itself has left deep scars.
I also remember my first unanswered prayer. Oh, there may have been others before this. But this one was different. This was something very personal and something very painful and I wanted deeply for God to change it. I prayed and prayed and prayed, waking each day to find the prayer unanswered. I have no idea how long it went on for or when I finally realized God wasn’t going to answer the prayer. It was an unspoken prayer and nobody knew that I was praying besides me and God. I also have no idea what I thought of God because of this but I do remember the pain of living daily with a reality that I deeply desired to escape and finding no God to take the pain away.
Until I was 16 my outlook on life was narrow and finite. I believed everything I had been taught and had no reason, nor any desire, to believe differently. That was until I read a newspaper report linking God to a part of the brain. Innocently my eyes had fallen onto one of the headlines of the open newspaper lying on the dining-room table. It read something like, ‘Scientists discover God linked to part of the Brain’. In an instant my world changed. Suddenly my clear and solid vision became blurry and unstable. For the first time that I can remember, I had encountered something I had no tools to engage. My childlike faith was never taught about the supposed conflict between science and religion. I had grown up believing that both were true, along with history, geography and everything else. This brief moment would launch me into adolescence in a way that left the rest of puberty looking quiet tame in comparison. In many ways it was the death of my childlike faith.
A quick lament for distance felt
A quiet prayer for Presence
The Wind is blowing where it wills
none can know its’ way.
Sparking faith to meet the Spirit.
Heart ablaze with Love’s sweet kiss.
By Jacques Rothmann
You are Who you Are
and nothing need be said.
But for doubt,
though it assail me at times in season
I hold on.
without you there is nothing,
nothing was or will be.
Life is Light.
Something, Anything, Everything.
LORD you are!
By Jacques Rothmann
I’ve just come to the end of a 4 week holiday. I thought I’d have some time to write during the time off, but I was wrong. Between mountain-biking, long walks, swimming, movies and plenty of fun and games, the time simply flew by. I haven’t had such a good break in years and my whole family and I enjoyed every minute.
Now, while I didn’t have any time to write, I did have a lot of time to think and reflect on some of the content that has been floating around inside of me.
And so I kick of this week, not with any specific topic, but rather with a reflection on belief and how it affects everything I/we write, think and speak about.
I found an old Frederick Buechner book at a second-hand book store a while ago. At the time I was already reading a number of other books and so lent it to a friend. Well, I got it back last week and had time this week to start reading it. I absolutely loved what he wrote on the opening pages. It went (something) like this, “a person’s theology, rather than being a study of objective truth, is more often an autobiographical account of the person to whom that theology belongs”.
In other words – our theologies are not so much shaped by the prophetic revelations of God as they are by our own experiences. Now, I know that many people will consider this an attack or insult. If our theology isn’t objective truth then all of a sudden our entire faith system begins to feel quite unstable. But for me this thought of Buechner’s was actually quite freeing.
What if Luther’s reformation had less to do with Luther having a direct line to the Holy Spirit and far more to do with the person that Luther himself was and the experiences that he had during the course of his life? What if my Catholic friend’s experience of God through Catholicism has less to do with the truth of Catholicism than it has to do with my friend’s life and experiences? Is my Charismatic friend a Charismatic because God told him to be or is he one because his life and experiences led him to believe/feel that it was the best place to find God.
Do I speak in tongues because I have the gift from the Holy Spirit or because I believe I have the gift? Is Jesus God because he is God, or has my life and experience led me to believe He is? Is the contemporary church getting it all wrong because they really are, or is it simply my experience of church that leads me to believe the whole church is heading for the scrap-yard? Is the world heading for apocalyptic oblivion or do I only think it is because of my own beliefs and experiences? I just don’t know! I could go on and on.
What I do know is that we all place a heck of a lot of faith in all our various beliefs and it is steadily occurring to me that whether we want to admit it or not faith is all we really have to defend most of those beliefs.
And let me make it clear that I’m not even talking about having faith in God. We have faith every single day in a hundred different things, some of them related to God and some of them not. Quite often we defend those beliefs with Bible verses, or claims of Spirit guidance or some other Intuition of the heart. Sometimes we go to great lengths to set out logical explanations for our view – writing papers, theses or books.
But I think I agree with Buechner – what we believe says more about us than it does about the truth.
Now this doesn’t necessarily resolve anything for me and I still have plenty of questions. Like what IS the Holy Spirit saying to me if he’s not helping me with my Theology? But I’ll leave those other questions for another day and another post.
I’ll end with a strange reflection on my star-sign. Since becoming a Christian I’ve tried hard to keep my distance from occult practices that I was involved with before committing my life to Jesus. And while I never gave much thought to astrology, even in my pre-Christian days, I always refused to acknowledge my star-sign after becoming a Christian. But yesterday as I was reflecting on some things, struggling with them and weighing both sides of the arguments I suddenly realized, I’m a Libra.
Now anyone even vaguely familiar with astrology will know that the sign of Libra is the balance or scales. And even though I’ve disavowed any ties to astrology and the like, I found it rather interesting that throughout my teenage and adult life I have spent a great deal of time weighing things. Where others have often chosen their path and followed it without looking back I have often stood at the cross-roads, holding various options in hand, considering, reflecting, weighing! Of course I’m not suggesting that this means astrology is true, but I found it rather coincidental none the less.
Even this blog is an example of my struggles between two, often opposing, forces bearing down on me from both sides. I think next time I’ll be tackling the Jesus issue…I’ve been weighing it for a while now.
So this week I’m tackling my thoughts on the Protestant understanding of Salvation by Faith Alone.
This is quite a big one for me since taking a stand against this doctrine is in essence claiming back for humanity what the Reformers said belonged to God alone. Should I be wrong here I’m trying to wrestle God out of something He’s not willing to give me – and I would hate to be doing that.
But again my struggle with this doctrine stretches back a number of years now and started with my reading of scripture. Again and again I would read things in the scriptures that indicated a responsibility on humanity that stretched further than simply having faith (e.g. Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”).
Now let me be clear that I am not denying that we are saved by having Faith in Christ, nor am I saying that I can be saved apart from the work of God in my life…but I am asking whether Salvation by Faith Alone is a historically valid position to take. Is it what Jesus taught His Apostles and is it what the early church taught?
Now even though Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism started emphasizing some different things (even when they were united as one church), they both understood and taught that what you do matters, that works are an important dimension of the spiritual life and of our salvation. It seems to me that they got this from the Bible and from church tradition i.e. the oral teaching of the church passed down by its’ leadership.
I also think it is important to note that Martin Luther protested a development in Catholicism that taught that merit could be stored up in a spiritual “bank account” and then sold to believers for a price (Merit and Indulgences). It was tied to a juridical (legal) view of atonement that understood Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as primarily a legal issue between human beings and God that needed to be settled in the “heavenly courtroom”. Now this idea of stored merit, sale of indulgences and a juridical atonement appears to be a Roman Catholic deviation from the teachings of the early church. Hence the Orthodox have no such teachings. And while the reformers rejected the teachings on works, merit and indulgences they maintained the juridical understanding of the atonement.
Martin Luther was so determined to distance himself from the teachings on works, merit and indulgences that he wanted to get rid of the book of James because it clearly taught that works are an important part of our salvation and that Faith Without Works is Dead – James 2:24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. This passage in James is the only place in the Bible that links the words Faith and Alone, making a negative affirmation. But Martin Luther was not satisfied to leave it there – he actually went so far as to add the word “alone” after “faith” in Romans 3:28 – For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the Law (i.e. the works of the Jewish Law). When questioned by other scholars about this addition he remarked that “It is my Testament and my translation, and it shall continue to be mine”. I’m really not trying to imply that Martin Luther was all bad and that he had no reason to distance himself from teachings that he felt were being abused and corrupted, but it seems to me that once he had resisted what was wrong in the teachings he was unable to reconcile his new understanding with the scriptures or get passed the juridical view of atonement that was adding to the problem.
I have been blessed recently through my exploration of Orthodoxy to discover some new ways of understanding things in relation to this doctrine of Faith Alone. First of all it seems (and I’m still learning and exploring) clear to me that the doctrine cannot be reconciled with scripture or the history of the early church. I’ve also enjoyed learning about how Orthodoxy reconciles works and faith in their teachings on synergism (a relational and covenantal understanding of our salvation): “In the NT synergism is the idea of being “workers together with” God (2 Corin. 6:1), or of working “out your own salvation . . . for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12, 13). This is not a cooperation between equals, but finite man working together with Almighty God. Man responds to Christ’s salvation through cooperation with God’s grace in living by faith, righteous works and rejection of evil.” (The Orthodox Study Bible). This seems true to me.
The Orthodox also acknowledge the legal metaphor used for salvation but they employ all the other Biblical metaphors as well without over emphasizing the legal one. They have come to see salvation as a process by which God is healing a broken humanity, more than anything else – I like this understanding, I definitely relate to the need for healing.
Coming to the end of today’s post I feel more strongly than ever that things may have been different had Orthodoxy been able to shed light on the struggles of the Reformation. It certainly increases my desire to further explore the history and theology of a Church that has remained more or less obscure in light of the magnitude of the Catholic-Protestant Clash that is still rippling through the church today.