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Faith, Life, and Theology

Yesterday, my friend Mark Payne wrote a thought provoking blog post entitled: “I’m Not a Believer!”. Mark says:

When I say I’m not a believer, what I’m really saying is that my beliefs (religious or otherwise) don’t define me. What I attempt to have define me is not my beliefs but who I follow; who I claim as my mentor, my teacher, my spiritual guide, my life coach, my Lord, my Savior, and any other title you might want to put on Jesus Christ. Even Satan believes in Jesus, believes that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of humanity, but he doesn’t follow Jesus.

He is saying that it is the One he follows, rather than his beliefs
per se that define him. And, I think it’s a good point. In fact, this is also the point that John Wesley made: that speculative faith (the kind of faith that even the devils have) is obviously not saving faith. Christianity is a life to be lived more than a theory to be accepted.

And, it got me to thinking about the role of theology in the Christian life. Are we defined by our theology or by the character of our lives — lived in service to God and to others? It seems to me theology can often be a distraction. It can be a way of gaining status, position or the illusion of control. I can gain the illusion of spirituality because of my theological or Biblical knowledge. I can allow myself the illusion of control because I suppose that I have come to some sort of full comprehension of God and God’s will.

In such cases (and I don’t believe they are uncommon), theology becomes an impediment to the life of faith.

And, just this morning I was in a men’s Bible study group where we read this passage:

“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work — which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (1 Timothy 1:3-7 NIV)

The phrase that struck me was:
The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” The goal of Christian teaching should always be: love, purity of heart, and sincerity. Christian teaching, when properly pursued, influences and shapes life in a way that promotes Christian love and service. It is not an end unto itself. It issues in a certain way of life.

Mark goes on to say:

What this boils down to for me is that I take seriously not only the teaching, but also the actions of Jesus. I am a follower when I treat people the way Jesus treated people. I am a follower when I try to live the way that Jesus taught. I am a follower when I help to “set the captives free” and challenge those who would live in ways that oppress others. I am a follower when I try to make my life line up with the live of Jesus Christ, not just on Sunday morning but 24/7.

And, this resonated in an interesting way with something else I read yesterday. This was an interview with Peter Rollins about his book The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. Rollins says:

If I had to give a three-minute introduction to the core of my work, I would say basically: My argument is that we’re all seeking certainty and satisfaction in our lives. We want something that makes us feel whole and that makes us feel right—and that assures us that the people on the other side of the river are wrong. We’re looking for certainty and satisfaction in a lot of questions we face in daily life: What car should we drive? Who should we marry? What beliefs are going to make us happiest? My argument is that the world has become like a huge vending machine and everybody’s trying to sell their products to satisfy these questions. The church has come along and has placed yet another product in a slot in the vending machine next to all the others. That big vending machine is really an idol. I’m arguing that religion isn’t in the business of holding up the sacred to be grasped like a product that pops out of a machine. Religion helps us see the depth and beauty of creation, even in our brokenness.I often speak about faith in ways that sound like a psychoanalyst. I’m less interested in getting people to think a certain way. I’m much more interested in getting them to ask questions about why they believe things—and to explore how these beliefs function in their lives. Are their beliefs helping them to function as better human beings? Or are these beliefs actually crutches that prop them up in negative ways?

This also resonates with me: the issue is how Christian belief functions in a person’s life. It is not a matter of achieving a knowledge that will remove anxiety or uncertainty. It is a matter of finding a connection with God that produces a certain type of life.

Here’s what I think: theology can be / should be spiritually formative. But, it is not necessarily. Our beliefs should shape our lives. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. It is easy for us who rate high for
Intuitive and Thinking on the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (as I do) to suppose that our way of thinking naturally translates into life. But, this is simply not so. There is plenty of evidence of people whose lives to not reflect their expressed personal values — our churches are full of them. Learning theology — even good theology — will not necessarily form us in faith.

One key to this is: what function or role does theology (our beliefs) play in our lives? Is it there to give us a false sense of security — like a Jack VanImpe proclaiming with confidence (and numerous Bible verses) events that haven’t happened yet? Is it there to impress others with our knowledge? Is it there to give us entrance into a particular group?

And, yet, none of these things is the way our beliefs
need to function.

Somewhere in his writings C. S. Lewis (as I recall) described the relationship of theology and lived-out faith as being like the relation of a map to a trip. I like that. Knowing the map doesn’t mean you have taken the trip. Knowing the map is not a substitute for taking the trip — it’s not the same at all. But, if you are on the trip the map will prove helpful. In fact, it may prove indispensable. And, the better the map (the more detailed, the more accurate) the greater it’s usefulness.

Theology — I mean good theology (the subject for another post, maybe) — is spiritually formative. It gives us direction. It teaches us to be humble. It is not afraid of doubts, but it neither is it paralyzed by them. It listens with openness to what God is saying through Scripture and through life and through the community of faith.

Theology connects me with the message the apostles gave about Jesus (here is the Bible’s unique role), and with the historic community of faith that has tried to relate that message to its own day and time. In thinking about the faith I become part of that great quest to understand and faithfully witness and teach.

It is a wonderful thing — as a map is a wonderful thing for a person making a journey.

But, it is a poor and pitiful substitute for the life of faith.

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