I like to think that my beliefs are pure, held only because they are demonstrably true, and maintained in a form untouched by the vagaries and cross currents of disbelief swirling around me in a pluralistic world. A pleasant fantasy, one that owes its plausibility to the Enlightenment, that mistaken upheaval of thought that imagined truth to be reducible to logical, impersonal, abstract ideas. But it is a fantasy nevertheless, as Jesus insisted (John 14:6), and one that leads to legalism and a deadly blindness to the folly of my deceitful heart.
Each week our pastor leads us in confessing our faith by reciting together the Nicene Creed. To any that says this is an empty ritual, I reply: I need the repetition, and weekly may not be sufficient. I want to be only shaped by the Scriptures and Creed, but know I am also shaped by my world.
In his magisterial study of the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the early modern world, Yale professor Carlos Eire notes an important dynamic. In a cultural setting where there are opposing camps in terms of beliefs, practices and values, people adopt positions that are true to their side and in opposition to their rivals. “Polarization always sets in motion a certain dialectic between opposing sides,” Carlos Eire says, “as they sharpen their identities in contradistinction to one another. In other words, each side seeks to be unlike the other.”
As Western Christians in the early decades of the 21st century we live in a social setting where the majority culture is post-Christian and pluralistic, and where much of the church has lost its way. Thus, even though we may not be fully conscious of it, our notions of faithfulness will be at least partially shaped by a reaction against two opposing camps. As we seek to live and think biblically we react against Christians whose positions we dislike and against a world hostile towards our faith.
The solution is not to think we must achieve some level of objective perfection so we will be blithely unaffected by wayward believers and a hostile culture, because we can’t. The issue rather is to be aware of this reality and to find creative ways to thoughtfully offset it.
One idea is that we can list what we dislike. After all, what I dislike, and disapprove of, or find distasteful is what I will tend to react against. I don’t mind non-Christians knowing I am a Christian, as long as they don’t think I’m that kind of Christian. They are politicized, narrow, judgmental, and shallow while my type is not. And so I live and talk in a way that distinguishes me from these others, whoever they may be.
We need to believe the truth about ourselves. We yearn to be purely biblical and orthodox but in truth know only in part, are still learning, and have hearts that deceive us even about the things that we hold most dear. The wonder of it all is that God still uses us, and does not abandon us. The work we do in the pursuit of our vocation is kingdom work, and even our unconscious reactions can be tempered over time by the gently sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit.
And so it is called a walk of faith, a path of slow growth and yearning for God. Someday we’ll see clearly, but that is yet to come. We’ll still be learning and yearning, since we will remain finite, but the trouble with reacting will be past. We won’t dislike the Christians we are with and the world will be the kingdom of grace. Can’t even imagine what that will be like, but there it is.
Until then, we can be aware.