Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Search is for Rescue

I was referred, via The Port Stands at your Elbow, to David Mills' column The Advent Search over at First Things (I love that name). Mills writes, in part:


“Derek? Who’s Derek?” begins a flyer I have in my files. “He isn’t a
prophet or a god, just a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Community at Pitt. You see, we draw upon many sources in our search for truth. Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism. And most importantly You[sic]. After all, you determine your own faith.”

The flyer then explains that you don’t have to believe anything
to be a member of this community, and concludes: “It’s a religious community for people who question. People who look for life’s meaning. People who think. People just like you and Derek.”

But maybe not a good community for people like you and Derek. The trouble with this kind of religion is that no one in the Unitarian-Universalist community expects you to join in order to move on
to a committed Christianity or Judaism or Islam. The community isn’t really about searching at all, because real searching leads to finding. I don’t think I’m being unfair to the Unitarian-Universalists by saying that they are not really big on finding.

The column itself is quite well-written, and I quite agree with Mr. Mills, but what really got me thinking were the reactions to it: both on other blogs, such as the initial post at TPSAYE, and in the comments section of the column itself; and by both defenders and critics of the column.

My good friend Robert at TPSAYE, as is his wont these days, sees the similarities between Unitarian-Universalist thought and the more theologically liberal arm of Protestantism when he comments: "I’d say that a great deal of what Mr. Mills says also applies to the liberal wings of the mainline Christian denominations." While the point is valid, I'd gently remind him that that is in no way an indictment of all of non-RC denominations. Rejection of U-U thought is not enough to thrust me into the arms of Rome, I'm sorry to tell him.

But the response that really got me thinking, and with which I agree in a great part, if not in all the details, is by Professor Mondo. He writes, in part:


What I find interesting is what I see as two yoked ideas from the tract
— the capitalization of You (which Mills has the good sense to [sic]) and the idea that we determine our own faiths. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t see my faith as my own doing — in fact, I spent a portion of my life trying to run away from it. What I have is something that God has given me, perhaps as a tool for whatever purpose He has for me. I didn’t choose God — He chose me. To believe that we determine our own faith is to put the wrong entity in charge of the transaction.

I'm not sure I agree that faith is not my own doing -- I do agree that God should be the "entity in charge of the transaction", but I see that as the role of grace, whereas faith is my response to the initiator of the transaction.

Where I agree STRONGLY with Professor Mondo is in our objection to the subjectification of faith. As one UU defender comments at First Things, "There are a great many of us who believe strongly. The thing is, it doesn't matter what in, as long as we can agree to certain principles." It's not WHAT you believe, the UU argues, but THAT you believe. You've reached the point of faith in... faith. Or perhaps I should say, Faith.

This is also one of the biggest shortcomings in the prosperity doctrine heresy known as the Word-Faith Movement. In their thought, Faith is a "force", a spiritual equivalent of a law of science that has to be heeded by all actors, including God Himself. Speak something in Faith, enough Faith, and it is destined to come about. Once again, faith in Faith. But this reverses the actual order of things. Faith is not a force, it is not a higher end, it is a response to a force, a means to an end. It is objective, not subjective -- it really does matter what you believe, and in what you have faith.

Why? Because there really are consequences to believing something that is untrue. Because at its core, faith is not just belief -- faith is entrusting yourself TO your belief. That's what James meant when he wrote that faith without works is dead. Faith goes beyond merely the intellectual assent of belief -- faith places reliance on belief. Faith is the process of belief informing action. Whether that is external action, in how we interact with the material world, or spiritual action in how we open ourselves up to being changed by our beliefs, if it isn't put in action, it isn't faith.

And since actions have reactions, consequences, WHAT we believe really is as important as THAT we believe. faith that puts into action incorrect beliefs is going to cause undesireable consequences and reactions -- perhaps not always immediately, though that is often the case, but eventually. Searching implies that something is missing. Searching without finding is failure, but so is finding the wrong thing. If you're not careful, that failure can be fatal.

6 comments:

  1. FWIW, what I mean about not having chosen my faith is that I can't necessarily explain why I have it when others don't, and although I had a lover's quarrel with God after the death of a friend of mine when I was younger, I never sat down and said, "Right -- that's done. From here on out, I'm certain of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God." But I am in fact quite certain that He's there.

    I tend to view faith itself as a gift of Grace. It's not something I've earned, but I'm awfully glad I have it. Thanks for the link.

    Prof. M

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  2. Prof. M,

    It's a minor quibble, I suppose a sort of Chicken-or-the-Egg thing. Faith is not possible WITHOUT grace, but it is not synonymous WITH grace. God has chosen to let us choose, and unless we respond to his grace in faith, that grace does us little good. But I am certain that our minor disagreement, and our ability to agree on first things (as well as on First Things) still falls within the bounds of agreeing on the objectivity of truth and faith.

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  3. I promise that the indictment was not aimed at all non-RC's, but only those whose theology has come to resemble that of the U-U's.

    - Robbo

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  4. And on that point we're in total agreement, If anything, as a staunch Protestant, I'm even more critical of false doctrine within our ranks.

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  5. (I'm here for the first time by way of a post by OregonGuy. I'll be reading more.)

    I was caught by the line "The flyer then explains that you don’t have to believe anything
    to be a member of this community,". A friend and I were talking about creeds a while back. He said that he was looking into a church that had no creed. I replied that I thought that a church without a creed is little more than a social club.

    (I've been reading First Things for a couple of years now. I wouldn't do without it. That, and Commentary.)

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  6. Welcome. I'll try not to disappoint.
    Yeah, a social club with spiritual overtones. People want the feeling of validation that membership in a religion confers without the responsibility to a creed that comes along with it. C.S. Lewis did a good job of addressing it in several of his essays, the first of which that comes to mind being "Man or Rabbit".

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