By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Our journey of faith is a search for God’s truth. It is a search motivated by doubts—doubts as to the truth of religious doctrines and dogmas that should not be discouraged by the boundaries of orthodox religion. Beyond those boundaries there are few guideposts for seekers other than experience and reason, but Jesus encouraged questions raised by doubt when he said: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened unto you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7,8).
This saying of Jesus is in the context of prayer, but it goes beyond prayer and contemplates a detachment from worldly concerns and limitations that can open our hearts and minds to a transforming spiritual power that Jews, Christians and Muslims refer to as God and that Buddhists refer to as nirvana. For Christians, God has been equated with love. (1 John 4:16-21). It is a mystical spiritual power of altruistic love taught and exemplified by Jesus that shapes our relationship with God and our spiritual being; and it has a moral dimension that shapes those standards of legitimacy that determine how we relate to each other—that is, our worldly doing.
Just as our spiritual being motivates our doing, it can be said that, As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:26) The relationship between faith and deeds (or works) has long been the source of debate between Protestants like Martin Luther who have argued that God’s grace is the sole source of salvation, and that good works don’t count for much, and Catholic doctrines based on the passage from James that emphasize the importance of good works to salvation. For Muslims the Qur’an provides that both good works and belief in the Qur’an as the perfect and immutable word of God are required for salvation.
In a world of many religions, the exclusivist belief that God favors one religion and condemns all others is inconsistent with the concept of God’s reconciling love. Evangelism that has its focus on converting those of other religions is not based on God’s reconciling love but on a sense of religious supremacy that promotes religious conflict. Jesus taught that all who did the will of God were his brothers and sisters in the universal family of God. He never taught that God favored one religion over others—not even his own.
Jesus was a Jew who rejected the deontological concept that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus taught the primacy of love over law, a teleological principle summed up in the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself. It combined the mystical being (loving God) with the moral doing (loving one’s neighbor); and when asked, Who is my neighbor, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan in which an apostate Samaritan stopped to help a wounded Jew. It illustrated that loving our unbelieving neighbors is the test of true faith, negating exclusivist religious doctrines that condemn unbelievers.
Those bound by exclusivist religious doctrines and dogmas cannot see the truth of God’s universal and reconciling love and how it can set them free from the bondage of sin and death. Religion can be both good and evil. Satan does a convincing imitation of God with some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque. How can we tell the difference? God seeks to reconcile and redeem believers with forgiveness and love, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer them with fear and hate. History has confirmed that religions have confused the forces of good and evil in the past, and current events illustrate that they continue to do so.
To be or not to be, that is the question. That was the question of a despondent Prince Hamlet as he contemplated death as a means to escape his complex dilemma. It is also a question for us related to our spiritual being that not only motivates what we do in this life but anticipates what follows—of which Hamlet was uncertain. Our being (how we relate to God) and doing (how we relate to each other) is shaped by an understanding of scripture and tradition that must be made relevant to our time and place by experience and reason, including advances in knowledge and politics such as democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.
Our journey of faith seeks God’s truth, and that requires using our experience and reason to interpret scripture. One of the passages used to support the exclusivity of Christianity is John 14:6, which has Jesus say, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me. In the preamble to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-14) Jesus is presented as the Logos or word of God made flesh, not as God per se; and John’s Gospel goes on to emphasize the new command of God to Love one another. (John 13:24,35) A reasonable interpretation of John 14:6 in context is that God’s word to love one another is the way, and the truth and the life. That word requires following Jesus as the word of God but not worshiping Jesus as God.
That is just one example of how seekers whose beliefs are not constrained by exclusivist religious doctrines and dogmas can experience new revelations of God’s word on their journey of faith, and it applies to Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. God is bigger than any religion, and God’s word is a living word that is not limited to those words in ancient holy books and its meaning is not restricted to the doctrines and dogmas of exclusivist religions. Believers should be seekers who embrace experience, reason and advances in knowledge—including critical biblical scholarship—that challenge the exclusivist doctrines and dogmas of orthodox religion so that they can help transform the world with the reconciling power of God’s love.
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Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? February 8, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Jesus: A Prophet, God’s only Son, or the Logos? April 19, 2015; An Introduction to God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero, April 26, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; What Is Truth?, August 30, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; and Faith and Religion, the Same but Different, October 4, 2015.
You might be surprised to know that the argument you've made here would find an ally in Jonathan Edwards, who agrees with your underlying message, at least insofar as he says the surest sign that a person has God's grace is that the person practices acting out God's love. Real faith shows itself in our habits. Edwards was in my head because the students in my "Big Reveal" class (in which we read various versions of "epiphany" across American literature) and I were reading him a couple of weeks ago. He has a long long essay called "A Treatise on Religious Affections" that he wrote as the Great Awakening was winding down. He wants to defend the revival experience, saying that you need to have real emotional responses as part of your faith, but he also argues that the best way to tell if the holy spirit is really dwelling in you by the way you act, what kind of treasure you are seeking. You know the tree by its fruits, is one of the Biblical lines he cites, and that's how we believers on earth can best determine if we ourselves (or our neighbors) have the spirit. It's not what you'd expect from a staunch Calvinist! But Edwards, too, was busy trying to incorporate new scientific knowledge--John Locke especially--into his Christian faith.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments, Ashley. I am surprised that Jonathan Edwards saw experience and reason as legitimate factors in shaping one’s faith, and that he, unlike Martin Luther, could see the essential correlation of God's grace with good deeds, as did the Evangelist James (James 2:26)—who Luther could not abide. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised about Edwards’ embrace of experience and reason since John Wesley, his contemporary, advocated those concepts along with scripture and tradition in what later became known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Like Edwards, Wesley was also impressed by the Enlightenment thinking of John Locke, but neither Edwards or Wesley appreciated the extent to which Locke’s ideas would be used by Thomas Jefferson to fashion the concepts of freedom and democracy that are at the foundation of our Constitution.ReplyDelete
For an overview of the evolution of the American Religion that emphasizes the role of George Whitefield in the Great Awakening, I recommend a delightful book by Matthew Paul Turner, Our Great Big American God (Jericho Books, 2014), especially the chapter on The Evangelicals are Coming.