Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Unimportance of Belief

So I've been going through The Future of Faith slowly, as it's pretty dense, and Cox has so many excellent things to say. I don't mean "dense" in a negative way--one could easily skim over some of his words and still understand the whole context. However, I really like what he has to say. He writes it well, in a very clear fashion, and his conclusions make a big difference in understanding our faith.

For example, a central thesis for Cox's tome is that we are moving out of the Age of Belief into an emerging Age of the Spirit. To understand this, we have to know what the Age of Belief is and what preceded it (yes, something else came first).

Cox argues that beliefs were not central to Christianity until around the time of Christianity becoming an official state religion with Constantine. Cox states:
Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds. p. 4
This time was what Cox called the "Age of Faith," when Christianity had more to do with living a life rather than believing certain things. The "Age of Belief," when particular beliefs became central to Christianity arose when Christianity essentially became owned by the State:
Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creed and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. p. 6
This makes a lot of sense to me, as I have discovered that a strict set of beliefs and proving them seems rather futile and unhelpful in my faith. It has become something that I have become rather frustrated by in hearing other people discuss.

I agree with a quote from the Science & the Sacred blog:
God does not leave an empirical bread crumb trail in order to demonstrate His existence. Rather, the only way we can really know God is through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates to us what God has revealed about Himself. It is only by the Spirit that we are able truly to hear the “speech” and “knowledge” poured out by the heavens God created (Ps. 19). Only by God’s gracious self-revelation can we understand that all of “nature” is in fact creation.

In this light, our apologetic task is not primarily to identify statistical anomalies and gaps in the created order that could be filled by some amorphous “designer.” Our task is boldly and joyously to point people to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the only possible source of all of creation. Here, we can suggest that the deep structures of creation, including many of the remarkable coincidences and convergences of life’s development, cohere with our admittedly limited understanding of the God whom we proclaim is creator of everything.

While this quote deals with science explicitly, it is related to the idea of specific beliefs. If the system of unquestionable beliefs never arose, the whole debate over science versus religion, creationism versus evolution, may never have arisen in the first place. If we do not feel like we have to have absolute evidence for every belief, then we may be able to better deal with ambiguity and therefore also modify our beliefs when appropriate.

But is this understanding of the development of these so-called "Ages" important. It is. As Cox states, "It frees people who shape their faith in a wide spectrum of ways to understand themselves as authentically Christian, and it exposes fundamentalism for the distortion it is" (p. 14).

This is just a fabulous quote that so much could be said about. But ultimately, Cox asserts (and I completely agree) that understanding the history of Christianity really helps those of us who do not ascribe to fundamentalist traditions validate our experiences and our belief. And ironically, it helps provide evidence for our beliefs...

1 comment:

  1. From my non-Christian perspective, I have come to a similar conclusion - the essence of religion is connection with the divine (the difference is what I consider divine or holy), not insistence, regardless of any evidence, that certain positions must be true.

    I am not a professional cultural anthropologist, but in all my readings about world religions, and talking to at least some people in other cultures about religion, the mentality of rejecting a discovery on the grounds that it conflicts with a previous belief seems to be a rare phenomenon outside of Western and Islamic cultures. The difference, I think, is in the idea of a "canonical" version of the dogma, which you certainly don't see in "primitive" religions (e.g., some people believed Loki to be a helpful god while others believed him to be a great villain).

    I think Kasulis' book on Shinto draws a good distinction between existentialist (not to be confused with existentialism) and essentialist religion and maybe what you are calling for is existentialist Christianity whereas most fundamentalists are essentialists.



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