I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between belief and action in a life of faith. One of our hosts at our Maine retreat was raised an observant Jew, and obviously since it was a Christian Education youth retreat, most of the rest of us came from Christian backgrounds. At one point in an excellent discussion, he pointed out that being Jewish had very little to do with belief, and a lot to do with inheritance and observance. You could think the whole Yahweh thing was so much hogwash, but if you were born Jewish and lived according to the law, you were still Jewish. (Forgive me, friends, if that’s an oversimplification.)
Christianity, meanwhile, has evolved to be almost exclusively belief-based. If you (yes you!) wanted to join my church, all you’d have to say is, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”. You don’t have to promise to quit having multiple wives, murdering people, cheating the poor, robbing from the blind, etc. The criteria for being Christian has become almost entirely based upon orthodoxy of belief. And lest you blame that on the dissolute modern era, the very first big ol’ schism of the church was the so called Arian heresy (c. 350?) that claimed that Jesus was not coeternal with God the father. Tons of Christians died fighting this difference of belief out.
I’d like to point out that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus claim to be coequal and coeternal with God the Father. At least, I haven’t seen it anywhere. I’d also like to point out that Jesus spends almost no time talking about where he fits into a trinitarian theology. Instead, he talks a lot about helping the poor, being kind to others, etc.
Now, Jesus does talk about belief. There’s the father who prays my favorite prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help my disbelief.” And Jesus says, at one point, “No man comes to the father but by me.” But I would argue that Jesus himself give priority to right-acting over right-believing.
For example, with the youth group all of last year, I taught about a passage in Matthew. It’s a scene of final judgement. The righteous people (the Pharisees and keepers of the law, as I see them) stand self-certain in front of the judge, and he gives them hell because while they may have kept ritual purity laws, and believed the right things, they were not kind to him. And since they worry a lot about important people, and the judge is obviously important, they protest that they never neglected him. He tells them that he is the poor people, and in not helping the poor, they were not helping him. Then he welcomes the dirty people (the people who worked with their hands, upon whom that first group heaped scorn for their failure to abide by the laws, or their superstitious stupid beliefs), and thanks them for being kind to him. And they’re confused — they’re not even usually supposed to TALK to big important people like that. When did they help him? And of course, he gives the same answer. Whatever you did for the poor and needy among us, you did for me.
I love that scripture. Anyway, my point is that Jesus clearly gives priority to right-acting over right-believing — at least in that passage. But I don’t think that means law-abiding-ness. I think that means kindness. And I think that he would find cruel-acting in order to punish wrong-believing anathema. Which is, of course, exactly what we Christians have done for the last 1967 years.
I am an evangelical Christian (please note the little “e” not the big “E”). To me, that means that I have a story of hopeful and meaningful living to offer. I believe Christianity can help guide people towards lives which are better, and offers the hope of a life after this living. I believe there are many people who live lives devoid of hope, meaning, and joy, and that Christianity may help them. So if I encounter someone who needs a path towards joyous, hopeful living, I offer them what I have: Christianity.
However, I think it would be the height of arrogance to decide and announce that I happened to be born into and introduced to the ONLY right way to believe.
Instead, I will try to choose to see the right-acting. You could be a born-again Christian who attacks others for believing “wrongly”, says that the poor and destitute deserved their fates for not working hard, and earns money by cheating the poor. Or you could be an agnostic or atheist or Pagan or Muslim or Jew who is kind towards people in your daily life, tries to do no harm towards others, and would not want to profit at other’s expenses. I will take the right-acter over the right-believer any day of the week.