The Unbelieving Future of Christian Faith

I begin by placing two quotations from H. Richard Niebuhr side by side. Lots of people are familiar with the first quote: it is Niebuhr’s famous mockery of the flaccid liberal Protestant “creed” of the 1950s. Too bad almost no one has heard about the second.

1. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”

2. “Institutions can never conserve without betraying the movements from which they proceed. The institution is static, whereas its parent movement has been dynamic; it confines men (sic) within its limits, while the movement liberated them from the bondage of institutions.”

This reflection is not about Richard Niebuhr; it is about heterodoxy and about the saving journey of unbelief. And it is about the age-old charge that religious liberalism represents a kind of contradiction in terms—that people who are on the fringe theologically have by definition placed themselves outside of the church.

I won’t rehearse the usual counter to this charge: that what are now called orthodox positions bear the marks of ancient struggles and compromises, with the history (and in this case the orthodoxy) being written by the victors. The record is quite clear on this point, but defenders of the One True Faith will always retort that the Holy Spirit somehow enabled the theological victors to sweep all before them.

What interests me more than the history is the huge anxiety still attaching to deviations from creed and convention. Not all faiths seem to share this intense anxiety, but for many Christians it has always seemed that without fixed doctrinal tenets, we will slip immediately into an anything-goes abyss.

I was raised in the verkrampte (rigid) Dutch Reformed tradition. I still have the “Reformed Standards of Unity” book that I was given as a teenager. I was told (and I believed) that the little blue book contained everything I needed to know about divinity, notably the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dordt (both peculiar products of unholy 17th-century religious warfare). How odd it seems to me now that these documents were so hugely valorized. But how much odder still that millions of young folks still get some variation of the same thing as their introduction to Christian faith.

What usually happens among the orthodox is that some will be content to cling to the little blue book, whereas others end up wandering. And who is to say that the wanderers are not the ones who are actually keeping up with where God is leading? “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…”

I was reminded of this migration recently when a dear friend and fierce justice advocate mentioned her exhilaration upon discovering the work of the wonderfully heterodox writers Rosemary Radford Ruether and Thomas Berry 20 and more years ago. This was my friend’s jumping-off point into a whole new world of perception and cognition; eventually, she lost interest in the mechanical liturgies of her home parish, but not in its social witness, which she has helped to deepen in highly significant ways.

Who is willing to say that my friend has “lost her faith” just because she now finds it impossible to give her honest assent to most of the articles of the Nicene Creed?

Is it not more accurate to say that she and millions like her have found their faith by paying more attention to what Jesus did—and by seeking to follow in those footsteps—than to what the church fathers and doctors had to say about the nature of the Trinity, or the nature of the Atonement, or about what exactly is happening when the bread and wine are shared around the common table?

I believe that creedal unbelief of this kind (various degrees thereof) will be the future of any Christian faith that aims to be more than a reactionary cult as the 21st century advances. Which is not to say that intensely creedal versions won’t still gain hundreds of millions more adherents or be able to exercise a baleful social power, especially in societies that still struggle with modernity or that happen to be active frontiers in contemporary religious warfare.

I must say that I will never be comfortable around US Christians who claim to be progressive on various social issues, but who remain doctrinally rigid in respect to faith itself. Experiences teaches me that these folks will almost always refuse to honor evolving human experience or human intelligence, and will sometimes not even honor even basic scientific data, when it comes to sexuality and sexual/gender justice. Behind this, almost always, lurks an “orders of creation” theology that still clings to males ruling the domestic roost with women beneath as mere vessels for procreation. South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, himself a survivor of verkrampte theology, expresses the danger of orthodoxy this way:

When any culture, however rich or ancient, is but a confirmation of prejudices or the conservation and parroting of so-called truths, it is doomed to be exclusive, voracious, totalitarian, ultimately fundamentalist.

The defenders of the True Faith need to relax a little bit. There is really no danger of an “anything goes” ethic emerging among those of us who long ago said goodbye to the creeds, but at the same time said hello to the Jesus of Dangerous Memory (Metz). We haven’t lost our way or lost our bearings. Rather, we are gradually finding our Way by resisting oppressive unjust power and rejecting the idolatry of that power.

In 1950 (i.e., at approximately the same time that Richard Niebuhr, under Karl Barth’s looming shadow, began decrying liberalism from his perch at the Yale Divinity School), Martin Buber in Jerusalem wrote a magnificent short treatise on Two Types of Faith. In it Buber contrasted the Hebraic concept of emunah—collective adherence and justice-doing commitment—to the Hellenic concept of pistis, the kind of individual ideation that follows conversion. Sixty years later these remain the two basic types of faith; and for my money there’s no question as to which is more inviting.

As someone who does take seriously the Matthew 25 vision of the Last Judgment, I have a feeling that when my name is called I am not going to be tested on my creedal soundness. I expect I am going to be asked what I did with and for my neighbor in need.

All very Jewish, in other words. And all very much in keeping with the spirit of the Jesus who said he came to fulfill, not to abolish, the “do justice and love mercy” core of his own ancestral faith.

So let us not give up quite yet on all the much-maligned “cafeteria Christians,” all those resolutely heterodox “graduates” of the orthodox churches, and all those who still love Jesus while despairing of those who reserve for themselves the right to decide who is and who is not a legitimate Christian.

God loves the wanderers, too. God loves them much more than we may ever know.

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