Faith and/or Belief

It has been made clear to me that I don’t understand faith.

I don’t understand how to defend and protect identity terms that others consider valued and sacred.    I am willing to challenge and move beyond identities that others hold as sacred, no matter how much they cover a multitude of sins.

T.M. Luhrmann has an essay in the New York Times that says Belief Is the Least Part of Faith.  In it, Luhrmann makes the point that people who hold faith as an intellectual exercise miss the point of how faith operates in many churches.

In researching her book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God she came to the understanding that the only way to understand those church goers is to “sidestep the problem of belief.”   In other words, parishioners often attend a church not because of the doctrinal beliefs the church holds, but because of the experience of being in that church.  To understand the behaviour, you have to sidestep the belief, this anthropologist tells us.

I can’t disagree with her assessment of why people go to churches.  It is the experience of what faith delivers to them that makes it sacred and powerful.

But neither can I “sidestep the problem of belief  — and the related politics” as she suggests.

If I can’t challenge the beliefs held by a church because those beliefs are not really the essence of the experience of faith for many of the parishioners — notice that in this model I am not allowed to call them believers — then those beliefs become unchallenged.

I am a theologian, dammit, not an anthropologist.  And that means I explore belief.

Even if those beliefs are not at the core of faith for many people who attend the church, they are at the core of the church.

I have no problem acknowledging the experience of faith, the quest for some kind of experience of solace and empowerment.   And I understand that for many, belief structures are not only not the core of their faith, but are often irrelevant to it.

I just have a huge problem with saying that experience means that belief cannot be questioned or challenged.

No sidestep for me.

I know that I make some upset by questioning belief structures that have the same name as the faith they hold so close and so dear.  They want me to know that their faith isn’t about belief, it is about something much more powerful and more present to them.  It is about key experiences and terms in their life that have saved and empowered them, made them closer to the experience of joy, as Luhrmann says.  Those need to be held sacred, they say, for themselves and for the others who can be saved by them.

But dammit, I’m a theologian.

I acknowledge and respect the experience of faith beyond belief.

But that faith can’t put belief structures beyond discussion, no matter how sacred they are to any individual.

Because my faith is in the question of belief, and how it informs and transforms our own stories.

I’m a theologian, dammit.

One thought on “Faith and/or Belief”

  1. One key challenge I see in Luhrmann’s argument that we need to “sidestep” belief to understand affiliation seems to be that she never actually asked the churchgoers if they felt that they were sidestepping belief.

    She offers anecdotes as to how they explain their relationship to church teachings/beliefs, but she never seems to ask “Do you believe in your church and its teachings?”

    My guess is that no matter how much they have their own reservations, their answer would usually be a resounding “Yes!” They do identify as members, and therefore they support the church and believe in the church, whatever that involves. Their own differences are internal to the church, not external, so externally, they identify with the church, whatever.

    I do believe that the true “folk understanding” of church is that we belong because of affiliation and experience and not because of belief. That has always been the tradition, especially of ethnically coherent communities for whom church was a given, not a choice.

    She has it backwards, in other words.

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