The Other I

March 19, 2011

Faith is not necessarily belief

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

After several strong recommendations from sources I respect, I have finally started to read The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox.  I’ve read about 50 pages so far and have scribbled myself enough notes for 5 posts on the topic.   The most significant ideas so far are not new to me but they are explored and expanded in ways I find quite exhilarating.

Cox begins with a distinction between religious faith and religious belief.  Cox was raised as a Methodist and says this idea is not new to him.  But I was raised, indoctrinated, and excelled as a Roman Catholic, and I find the idea absolutely mind-boggling.  It is more than a breath of fresh air.  It’s like a completely new world vision.   I wonder what kind of person I would have become had I understood this half a century ago.

According to Cox, early Christians tolerated a wide variety of different doctrines in their midst.  Dogma, for them, was not the essence of faith and did not define the Christian identity.  The community and something closer to what we mean by trust or perhaps even commitment and love were the essence of faith.   Because love was the essence of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have not read the relevant chapters in detail, but Cox argues that doctrine replaced love as the essence of faith when it was adopted by the Roman Empire as its official religion.  (About which I will no doubt write more in later posts. )  But the idea of the centrality of love was never completely lost to Christianity, and often existed side by side with doctrinal correctness.

That is the world in which I was socialized.  I believed it was possible to be a good person without being a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian.  But I did not understand that it was possible to be a legitimate Christian if one did not accept Christian doctrine.  In fact, I think I often felt just a little smugly superior to those simple naive loving ignorant people who thought they were good Catholics but whose theology would – in centuries gone by – have gotten them burned at the stake.

How did we ever come to this monstrous arrogance?  How did we ever seriously think that the essence of what we believe is so much more important than what we do?   Today we have people making ghastly accusations based on belief.  Christians condemn other Christians to hell because they do not accept that the world was created in six days about 4,000 years ago.  No matter that you love your children, sacrifice for the good of your community, act with integrity and love.  You are going to hell because you do not believe that Jesus is literally present in the consecrated bread.  Because you do not believe that there are 3 persons in god.  Because you do not accept the infallibility of the pope or the virgin birth or the resurrection, because you believe in sex before marriage, or think birth control and abortion can be responsible choices.

What shocks me is not that so many people today reject this controlling, frightened, finger-wagging.

No, what shocks me is how long it took me to understand how profoundly wrong it is.

But it also helps me understand how it is that some people I know have been able to stay within the Church.  They never took all that doctrine as seriously as I did.  So they were able to grasp something about faith that I missed.  I had no choice but to leave the Church absolutely and totally, because I thought only a hypocrite or fool could stay.

I’m not suggesting I could possibly return to any church.  But I now understand the priest who answered the woman who told him she would like to return to the Catholic Church but that she didn’t believe in the resurrection or that Jesus was divine and much else.  She didn’t actually say she didn’t always believe in God, but I suspect she came close.

“That isn’t what faith is about,” the priest told her.  “If you feel you belong, you belong.”

Or as a student said in commenting on reports that Mother Teresa sometimes felt pangs of doubt “Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”



  1. I do truly believe it is how a person lives and treats his fellow man. It is the ups and downs of life and how we deal with them that to me have so much more value then spending one hour in church on Sunday. But I do need that church and faith to get me through those ups and down.
    The following is something that I read sometime ago. Not sure where or who wrote it but I think it sums up for me on how I feel about my Catholic Religion.

    Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.
    This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.
    This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.
    So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.


    Comment by djc1 — March 20, 2011 @ 12:50 am | Reply

    • Thank you for this, Donna. Yes – you sum up exactly what it has take me most of my life to understand.


      Comment by theotheri — March 20, 2011 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  2. I couldn’t resist adding my 10c worth, as it’s so close to my ‘chosen subject’.

    But as on a previous occasion, I decided to expand in the form of a post on my own blog: Belief and faith.

    Thanks again for the inspiration!



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 26, 2011 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Chris. Now I am going over to to add *my* comments to *your*comments. But let me say here that the first and only time I visited the Vatican, I was so appalled that I swore I would never return. For a condom factory, however, I might consider breaking my promise. I think I needn’t rush to book a flight, though, do you?


      Comment by theotheri — March 26, 2011 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

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