Friday, May 18, 2012

Belonging, Behaving, Believing

I recently read Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass, in which she argues that the Church in the United States is losing its hold on the imagination of its people. She offers evidence that mainstream Christianity in America is entering into a period of sharp decline, mirroring the decay of Christendom in Western Europe in the last century. Yet, while she has dire predictions about the future of the established Church, she is optimistic about faith in America.

Bass notes that while increasing numbers of Americans shy away from the word "religion," many identify themselves as being "spiritual." "Spirituality," she argues, has become a code word for experiential religion, based on the direct, practical and transformative experience of God. "Religion," on the other hand, serves as a label for all of the institutional baggage and heavy-handed dogma that the Christian community has developed over the course of recent centuries.

Bass points out that in recent centuries the Church has operated primarily on the basis of accepting propositional statements (e.g. "Jesus is fully human and fully divine"). That is, to belong to the Christian community, you must first believe certain things about Jesus. A transformed life was beneficial, of course, but the act of accepting certain theological statements was the most essential element of Christian identity.

Bass is convinced that this emphasis on right belief no longer works in our present cultural context. Instead, she argues that the health of the Church depends on reversing the established dynamic of "believing, behaving, belonging." While propositional beliefs about God and Jesus are ultimately essential, they are not the first order of business. For this generation, the hierarchy of needs is different.

This was certainly my own experience. When I first committed to nurturing my relationship with God, my top priority was finding a community to belong to. I was beginning to trust in God, but I did not have any specific beliefs about Jesus, and was skeptical of Christianity in general (as many in my generation are). Fortunately, I found a Quaker community that was able to love and accept me as I was. Though I had lots of hang-ups, and my theology was still a jumbled mess, they were patient with me and did not jump in to correct me. Instead, my newfound community encouraged me to study the Quaker tradition, and to dedicate myself to the practices of waiting worship, discernment and personal prayer.

These practices were a gateway for me into discovering the intellectual contours of my faith. As I waited in the silence, studied the tradition, learned to pray and began to read the Scriptures, my life began to change - and so did my ideas about God! I started learning about who Jesus is, allowing him to speak to me through the Scriptures and through his Spirit. No one was forcing me to adopt a party line, yet as I continued to engage in prayer and study, I found myself growing into a deeper appreciation for orthodox Christian faith.

Just as Diana Butler Bass argues, for me the traditional pattern was reversed: Instead of "believing, behaving, belonging," I first found belonging in a supportive spiritual community. There, I learned practices that taught me how to "behave." Finally, this supportive community and the spiritual practices they taught me drew me into an authentic set of beliefs, grounded in both my own personal experience and in Scripture.

Ironically, now that I have gone through this process, I often forget how I got here. It is easy for me to get into a mindset that demands belief first, rather than seeing propositional belief as the product of a journey through belonging and practice. This tendency to insist on belief up front is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Christian community, and it will take real effort on our part to learn to reverse the equation.

Here in our context at Capitol Hill Friends, this might look like an emphasis on naming spiritual gifts and nurturing spiritual practices. By acknowledging the spiritual gifts that God has given to our community, we nurture belonging. A person does not have to believe that Jesus is divine before we can recognize that God has given that person a gift of healing, or administration, or knowledge. And by naming these gifts, we can invite each one, no matter where they are at in their journey, to walk deeper on the path of faith. We can provide resources for adopting spiritual practices that help sustain us in our personal lives, and in the work that we do in the world.

At the end of the day, I hope that this combination of unconditional acceptance and the teaching of spiritual practices will lead to deeply rooted faith. In the context of loving community and time-tested spiritual practices, we can open up space in our lives to discover the Truth that we find expressed in Scripture and our tradition as Quakers. On this path of "belonging, behaving, believing," the acceptance of certain theological concepts will represent the culmination of a long process of engagement and growth, rather than the starting point.

How does this resonate with you? What is your own experience of  belief, behavior (practice) and belonging? How do you think that we can do a better job of inviting seekers into our Christian communities, teaching spiritual practices, and encouraging an ever-deepening engagement with our shared faith?


  1. Yes, that's the order as I've experienced it. My wife and I found conservative Friends and felt accepted. I began to learn to act like them and to accept their ways. Finally this has led me to subtle changes in what I believe.

    I think the churches put belief first, and defined faith as a kind of belief, as a substitute for tribal membership. It served as a loyalty oath that marked membership in the community. Our communities need to consciously reject that false old picture.

  2. I really agree. I suspect this is, and will be, growing more important in our culture.

    If a person is accepted because he believes certain points, then the person was never what was accepted.

    The Bible really is primarily Jesus' story before it is ever a set of points.

    This reminds me of the concept of "narrative theology" that is (re)emerging these days, which I suspect is more biblical than its recent predecessor. You might find this interesting.

    Some Donald Miller stuff on narrative theology: a Christianity Today article, "A Better Story" youtube video, another youtube on "narrative expressions".

    There was also a very interesting interview between Leonard Sweet and Sean Gladding recently mentioned on seedbed (it's no longer available, but some links are).

    One group that seems to be doing a pretty good job at this approach is the Alpha Course. Though I expect that there's a lot more to be explored/experienced in this area.

  3. Thank you, Micah.

    ~Thy Friend Paula

  4. Dear Friend, I have been wanting to leave a response to your lovely posts for quite a while. I feel you are very gifted and therefore in some way called to be a kind of Paul for us, saying simply, regularly and faithfully what God has blessed you with. I know you don't want your ego fed, but it is simply the truth.

    I think I have responded once before that I share your story in some ways. I also wandered among Friends very skeptical of religion (if also nostalgic for it), and the writings of early Friends and the testimony of my now husband Herb brought me to SEE how it all was true inwardly - spiritually. From the very beginning of this revival of faith in me, I saw it as an experience I had seen in a movie - Miracle Worker. I think everyone has seen the film, but if you haven't, it's about Helen Keller and the impact learning sign language had on her. THe teacher teaches her all the letters and signs she needs to have to communicate, but Helen has troubling linking the signs to the reality all around her. When in a dramatic moment she DOES SEE that the words she has learned and played with and thought so superficial are VITAL to her ever being able to communicate, when she sees that the WORDS are in some mysterious way the very reality of the human mind, her life is transformed.

    That is what I felt when the words about Christ, about salvation, about eternity and ALL that I had heard about the Christian faith were words and signs similar to those Helen had received. How many Friends have come from churches where they've heard the words, heard the words, heard the words, but never felt them connected to their lives - nearly all of them if you ask me. Yet so many of them continue to NOT SEE the place of the simple learning that has to happen before the revelation comes. I think early Friends also missed the need for this part. I pray that we may continue to help those who find themselves at a dead end in their religious lives, but the journey is a process - it can't be done without the tools and it can't be done without persistent seeking of the essential reality.

  5. This is such a great distillation of the process that I have gone through over the past year or so -- I went from being a superorthodox Christian of a particular denomination (I was Catholic, although I guess I hesitate to mention it specifically because of all the baggage it can imply) to being led -- dragged almost -- from a rule-based relationship with God to an immediate one. For the first time I had the personal experiences of God first -- hearing his voice, learning his word -- and the specifics of my belief were more nebulous. Allowing for that space of non-definition -- allowing myself to not immediately "profess" a creed in words, but rather to begin to see what it means to lead a Christian life, and then let the creeds flow from that -- has made a big difference in my journey. I enjoy dancing on the edges of Quakerism and stealing sips of the kind of knowledge I find here and in other blogs. The thing I have been delighted to discover about Quakerism is that in respecting the work of the Holy Spirit in your own hearts, you then are all but required to then respect the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of others. It becomes less about telling others what they ought to do, and more about listening to what you are being told, and working together in a practical way. Thanks for the post!

  6. Thanks Micah, inspiring words! I think a lot of what you are talking about can be summed up in a simple paradox:
    A faith community should accept anyone, just where they are. But it should not leave them there.
    I see huge value in non-judgemental, welcoming faith communities. The Quaker unprogrammed tradition has a lot of strengths in this regard. The challenge is balancing this with the need to provide a transformative experience at some point. If no transformation occurs then our faith journey goes nowhere. But we need to be able to start from where we are.

  7. In scripture records (letters and narratives) of the earliest records of our shared faith in Jesus spreading, even "turning the world upside down" as it were, the community added "such as believed" daily and grew tremendously. Odd that your concept of how we grow differs from Acts 2 :"44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common....And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."

    Notice what they all had in common FIRST, before community was formed at all....BELIEF and SALVATION! - So there is our pattern...

    Without belief, I can't trust the "gifts" you might think you are seeing...because I also hold as Absolute Truth His Lordship (divinity) above other is a starting point...not an end to be achieved as later in the "journey" of a community.

    We don't shun those whose paths are different so far and who are seeking truth, but when they find and accept Him Who is Truth, then they at that moment truly become a part of our faith community...not before.

    I'll stick with the early church's revelation and openings and experiences/wisdom, and with the scriptures I quoted...they all are in unison.

    "Acts 3:32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul..." (can't get to that point if no belief in common...sorry!

    "To as many as believed, to THEM gave He power..."

  8. @Scott King

    Good scriptures! I'm convinced that, especially in this area, we have permission to operate with the grace that Micah is talking about.

    We have permission to be this gracious because "while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

    And since Jesus is "the exact representation of [God]'s being" (Hebrews 1:3), what Jesus did on the cross is a statement of God's character that has been true since the beginnings of creation.

    For instance, in Genesis we see God take Jacob and rename him "Israel", which means "one who wrestles with God". From that time on, throughout the Old Testament, Israel's descendants wrestle: they question, search, and seek.

    Also the prophet Hosea, as a prophetic act, married an adulterous wife, unfaithful despite how Hosea received her back. God told Hosea to "love her as the Lord loves the Israelites" (Hosea 3:1).

    Maintaining Christ's character seems (to me) incredibly important when welcoming people to his Lordship.

    "The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (Jesus, John 3:8).

    I do not always know whether a person has entered Jesus' Kingdom when they choose to spend time with other Christians, but I do know that they likely have hope in that direction or they would not be there; and hope, I know from my own experience, if hope is not belief itself, then it is certainly a fertile soil for belief's seed.


  9. Thank you, Micah. This reverse triad also speaks to my experience among Friends. I had "laid down" the Protestant faith I was born and bred into in college, and it was not until my mid-thirties that I felt the thirst to feed my spirit. My very strong experiences with friends who were Friends and a rudimentary acquaintance with its lack of liturgical ritual drew me to meeting. It was largely the very patient nurturing of my spiritual life in a loving Friends community that encouraged me to grow in the faith -- through prayer, meeting for worship, reading scripture and the journals of our Quaker ancestors. Blessings, John