A while back, National Public Radio sponsored a series of reflections entitled, “This I Believe,” in which people from a variety of walks of life spoke and wrote about what they trust in, “what they know for sure,” as Oprah puts it, what they have concluded is true from their experience of living. These reflections were less a series of statements like, “I believe that…the world is round,…Pluto should be called a ‘planet,’…blondes have more fun….” but rather, “I believe in…the power of kindness to transform … the necessity of expanding our notion of ‘family,’….the importance of immersing children in nature… ” In other words, “belief” less as an assent to a list of facts or declarations or propositions, and more as “trust in” conclusions drawn from experiences, a deeply-held sense or knowledge or intuition that seems to hold true.
Many people seem to think that Christianity is a set of “beliefs”–that it is a matter of saying “yes” to a series of statements of doctrine–”I believe this, this, and this… and if I believe this, this, and this, I am guaranteed to go to heaven.” THIS I DON’T BELIEVE. While creeds and doctrines can be useful to teach about and try to put into words that which is essentially beyond words, I do not believe that they are the end or purpose of faith. If people’s lives are not tranformed by their faith, if their “beliefs” do not make a difference in how they live, then the words may be beautiful but inadequate. The United Church of Christ, of which Second Congregational Church is a member church, proclaims that, while we affirm the historic creeds, it is the task of every generation to articulate its own “statement of faith” that has meaning and power for its day and age. “God is still speaking,” we say. “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
Christianity, from its very beginnings, has been a diverse and multi-voiced religion–that’s why there are four gospels instead of one. That is as true today as it ever was, despite what many people think when they hear the word “Christian.” Frankly, I do not even recognize some of what gets labeled “Christian” as anything I know about what it means to be a follower of Jesus the Christ. When Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist folk from Kansas demonstrate at funerals of soldiers or gunned-down Newtown children with signs saying, “God hates [homosexuals],” “This is punishment for America’s sins,” “Burn in hell,” it’s all I can do not to want to return their evil with evil. But that, of course, would not be following the Way of Jesus. When, as was reported in this paper a couple weeks ago, the Newtown, CT Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor offered the benediction at the interfaith service for the slain children and teachers there, he was reprimanded by his church leaders for appearing to condone the doctrinal differences between the participating faith communities, and he apologized. That is at the opposite end of the spectrum from my United Church of Christ–and many other mainline Christian denominations–who seek whenever possible to work and witness together for justice and compassion with other people of faith. Our local Greater Bennington Interfaith Council and the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services are examples of people of faith working together to make our little part of the world a better place.
I do not believe that Jesus was only interested in the kingdom of heaven as a future, after-death, reality, but rather in the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, that he said “is in your midst,” “it’s coming and now is.” I do not believe that science threatens faith; rather, it is a different language seeking to understand the mystery. As Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.” I believe the Bible is a collection of writings by inspired human beings, that speak of truths better spoken of in story, metaphor, poetry, and whose light and truth shine through the filter of particular contexts of time and place. We as a community of faith need to wrestle with what is light and truth and what is filter. Some people may conclude that because I do not believe these things (or because I do), that I am not a “real” Christian.
Many people assume that a Christian is “someone who believes that faith is primarily a belief system mediated by an infallible Bible. The reward for believing the right things is forgiveness of sins and certain knowledge of eternal life.” Rev. Robin Meyers (a UCC pastor), in his book The Underground Church, explains that that may describe a “religious conservative,” but there are also “religious liberals, [and many folks in between] who believe that faith is primarily about the transformation of self and society through the wisdom of spiritual truth. Liberals emphasize inclusion, social justice, and transformation over individual salvation, and resist all exclusive religious claims.” I would simply beg to let that word “Christian” breathe and be embodied in lives rather only in words. It means–and has always meant–more than one “party line.”
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark
Pastor, Second Congregational Church, UCC, Bennington