“Faith vs. Belief and Choosing Solidarity Over Supremacy”
Based on Mark 2:1-12, Mark 5: 24b-34
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on 3/21/21
Most of us have grown up using the words “belief” and “faith” interchangeably. When we hear someone talking about their “Christian faith,” we assume that person has particular “beliefs.” Many Christians refer to themselves and other Christians as “believers,” indicating that they all share certain “beliefs.” But Brian McLaren cautions us against equating these terms as he moves us through the 4 stages of faith in his book Faith After Doubt. In the 10th chapter, he quotes 20th century philosopher Alan Watts:
“Here we must make a clear distinction between belief and faith…Belief has
come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief is
the insistence that the truth is what one would wish it to be. Thus the believer
will only open his mind to the truth if it fits in with his preconceived ideas and
wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the
truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a
plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense,” Watts
concludes, “faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion
that is not self-deception.”
McLaren follows up this juicy quote with a helpful analogy. He says that faith is like “looking at the sky through a clear or open window, with an openness to accepting the sky just as it is – blue or gray, light or dark, rainy or fair. But belief,” McLaren says, “is like blue paint that people decide to apply to the window glass to make sure the sky will always be the color they wish it to be.” Like the old expression, “She sees the world through rose-colored glasses.”
Now we need to be clear: Christian faith, faith in Jesus, is NOT about putting on rose-colored glasses or painting our windows blue so that the sky appears the way we want it to. Faith in Jesus begins with seeing everything – EVERYTHING – as it actually is, and then taking action to improve it. That is why I chose the two passages from Mark this morning. In both these stories, the sky is not at all blue. For the paralyzed man, he is utterly confined to his palette and completely dependent on others to get him from place to place. His four friends are looking at his reality exactly as it is. They’ve heard about a healer named Jesus of Nazareth, and they act out of love to get their friend into Jesus’s presence. Mark tells us that the house where Jesus happens to be is so packed, that there is no way to get in or even get close to the door! So these four loving and faithful friends somehow managed to climb up onto the roof with their friend in tow and then proceed to cut a hole in the roof and lower their paralyzed friend down to where Jesus is. Now we know that Jesus ends up healing this paralytic, but that’s not the interesting part of the story to me. I’m struck by verse five, where Mark writes, “When Jesus saw their faith – that’s their faith PLURAL, referring to the four friends – he said, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Notice that it is not the paralyzed man’s beliefs that lead to his healing but the faith of his friends – the faith! Jesus sees their action – that faith expressing itself in love that we talked about last week from Galatians – and that leads to the healing.
We see this very same dynamic a few chapters later in Mark 5 with the woman who had the 12-year hemorrhaging problem. Her skies were not blue either. She has not been wearing rose-colored glasses. She was flat out desperate. Mark tells us that she has spent all that she had seeing every doctor in town, and only wound up getting worse. She heard about Jesus and headed out into the thick of the crowd, despite the fact that in those days, anyone who was bleeding – including menstruating women – was “believed” to be unclean and was supposed to stay home in quarantine, even though there was no risk of contagion. It was just a belief about being “unclean” that a lot of people clung to a lot longer than they should have. But this woman was not trapped by belief; she was empowered by faith. So she burst out of her home, pushed through the crowd to Jesus, and touched him. Mark tells us that “Jesus felt power go out of him and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ Hearing Jesus, the woman came back to him, “fell at his feet, and told the whole truth.” Listen again to what Jesus said to her: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” ‘Your FAITH has healed you…’ Jesus saw her faith in action. Her faith made her well.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the folks who stormed the capital and who are buying into all of these conspiracy theories – pedophile pizza parlors, Jewish laser beams, and rigged elections. These are people with eyes, right? But there are blinders on them, keeping them from seeing important stuff. What’s important to understand here is that their blinders are built on their beliefs. The capital stormers believed that if Joe Biden and the Democrats were elected, our country would become Socialist or even Communist, and it was those beliefs that then determined what they saw and eventually did on January 6. What I worry about as a pastor is that we may have belief-based blinders on too – different blinders than theirs, perhaps – but blinders nonetheless. I worry that some of our traditional Christian beliefs have actually become blinders, keeping us from seeing God instead of helping us to see God. When we get so stuck, so rooted in the religious beliefs we’ve always clung to, then we Christians can confuse what we believe about God with who God really is. Our beliefs can make us unable to see the God of pure love and what God is doing in that river of love right here and now. Remember: our beliefs about God are not the same thing as God. And our beliefs are not the same thing as faith.
Let me give you an example of how a traditional Christian belief can actually blind us and get in the way of our faith expressing itself in love. A lot of Christians have traditionally believed that Jesus is “the only way” to the Father, the only legitimate avenue to a life with God. Holding that belief and clinging to it tightly has resulted in all manner of historical evils that Christians failed to see until it was too late – things like the Crusades, the Holocaust, and the Spanish Inquisition. More recently, this belief in “Christian supremacy” – or Jesus as the “only way” – has also resulted in the complete disappearance of younger generations from our churches. Let me explain, using my own family as an example. My father was a very traditional, mainline denomination Christian. He was raised to believe that Jesus was the only way, and he raised us to believe the same thing. Dad went through his entire life without ever knowing a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Buddhist. He had zero personal exposure to any of the other great religions. When I and my siblings went away to college, we had professors from those other religions. We had fellow students and even fraternity brothers from non-Christian traditions. My Eloise, who is barely 13, already has significant personal exposure to people from many countries and other religious traditions, as have all her cousins – my nephews and nieces.
Now here is the kicker…when I look at the next generation of my huge extended family – though they all came from Christian families and all went to church as kids – none of them attends worship anymore. None of them wants to be identified as a follower of Jesus. Care to guess why? They have no interest in worshipping or serving a God who would condemn 75% of the world’s population to hell, especially when they have so many personal friends in that 75%. Is it possible that our belief in Jesus as “the only way” may have blinded us? What if clinging so tightly to that belief has kept us from fulfilling the Gospel’s most important command, Paul’s most excellent way – faith expressing itself in love?
Toward the very end of Faith After Doubt, McLaren tackles this very tough topic. He does so using the word “supremacy.” He says that in Stage 4 faith, we must “surrender the supremacy of our ego,” along with “our self-centered demands for power, prestige, and prominence. In Stage 4 we also surrender the supremacy of our group, whether that group is defined by race, politics, social class, nationality, or even religion. McLaren continues, “We even surrender the supremacy of our own species, realizing that humans cannot survive unless the plankton and trees, the soils and bees, and climate and seas thrive too. We gladly shed supremacy to make room for solidarity, and that gain, we discover, is worth every cost.” This is why McLaren calls this final stage of faith “harmony.” It requires us see and live out of our interdependence with all other creatures.
I want to share one of my favorite images that has helped me move more deeply into Stage 4 faith and finally let go of the religious supremacy I clung to for so long in my life. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said that if we want to reach water, we don’t drill 1000 wells one foot deep. We drill one well 1000 feet deep. We can think of our religious tradition as our particular well; so there’s a Christian well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, etc. Hanh says that our job, whatever our faith may be, is to drill down in our particular well the full thousand feet, until we reach the beautiful deep spring that we swim in. What we find, once we’re swimming, Hanh says, is that the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists who have gone deeply enough into their own traditions are there too, are swimming in the same beautiful spring or river of love. This is why Mahatma Gandhi, when asked if he was trying to make the whole world Hindu, responded, “No. I just want to make Hindus better Hindus and Jews better Jews and Christians better Christians.
McLaren put it this way: “We’re used to thinking of the real differences in the world as among religions; you are Buddhist, I am Christian, she is Jewish. But,” McLaren continues, “I wonder if that way of thinking is becoming irrelevant and perhaps even counter-productive. What if the deeper question is not whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, etc. but rather what kind of Christian, Buddhist or Muslim are you? Are you a ‘believer’ who puts your distinct beliefs first, or are you a person of faith who puts love first? Are you a believer whose beliefs put you in competition and conflict with people of differing beliefs, or are you a person of faith whose faith moves you toward the other with love?” May we be a people of faith expressing that faith in love to all people and all creatures…period. Amen.