Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ambiguity of Faith and the Language of Religion

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be; and whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. – Found on Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore.
When I was a young child, my faith consisted of the teachings of my parents, church, and Sunday school classes. It was a simple, straightforward faith, founded in a firm and unquestioning belief in the holy trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and eternal salvation. It was a positive and uplifting message, emphasizing the benefits of devout faith. I recall little mention of Hell and Satan; there were no fire-and-brimstone preachers, at least none that I confronted, and the people and pastors I met in the Lutheran congregations of New Jersey appropriately combined their faith with humor, compassion, and a healthy dose of secularism.

As the son of a Lutheran minister, religion has always been a major influence in my life. My father’s professional standing in the Lutheran church, including eight years as Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, coupled with my mother’s deep and abiding Christian faith, has profoundly affected my outlook on life. From my ethical and moral values, my politics, to my interest in other faith traditions, the centrality of religion in my family’s life has undoubtedly influenced my own. Growing up, I took for granted my Lutheran heritage and Christian education. Although I lived in culturally and religiously diverse communities – particularly in New Jersey and Massachusetts, with large Catholic and Jewish populations – I rarely explored or considered in any depth the religious differences of my non-Lutheran friends.

As I grew older, in high school and early college, my faith was less centered on issues of personal salvation and more focused on social concerns and issues of justice. I contemplated how Christian principles and the teachings of Jesus should guide our thinking and actions on the Vietnam War, racism and discrimination, capital punishment, poverty and inequality. But I continued to accept without much question the core beliefs of doctrinal Christianity.

The first intellectual crisis of my faith journey happened around my junior year in college, when a classmate – a Philosophy major, naturally – questioned my certainty in the existence of God and the major tenets of traditional Christianity. He asked some hard questions and provided reasonable alternatives to a belief in God and the divinity of Jesus. Although my faith remained intact, I did not have answers and I appreciated the intellectual challenge of my friend’s questions.

In law school and after, I became more aware of the world’s other enduring faith traditions. I studied Judaism, explored Unitarianism, and educated myself on the many and varied denominations and traditions within Christianity itself. I became fascinated with Jewish theology and history and began to see the importance of the historical Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity. When I read of the origins and evolution of early Christianity, my questions only grew. I continued to feel a strong pull toward my Lutheran roots, but intellectually and spiritually, I was increasingly conflicted in matters of faith and harbored doubts concerning the continued validity of orthodox Christian beliefs. The religion of my youth was no longer persuasive and compelling. The Sunday morning recitations of the creeds – the Apostles, Nicene and (less frequently) Athanasian Creeds – gave me heartburn. I no longer accepted (if I ever did) that Christianity was the only true path to salvation.

I continue to believe deeply in God and remain spiritually connected to Jesus of Nazareth. But my faith consists of ambiguity and doubt. I am not alone. Although roughly 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, less than half are actively involved in the life of a church. Many Christians, myself included, hover on the edge of faith, or find themselves in “exile,” because what they encounter in a typical church is unrealistically absolutist, exclusivist, or impossible to reconcile with 21st century intellectual thought. Many find it increasingly difficult to find a non-judgmental place of worship that welcomes doubt, tough questions, and an unfettered search for truth.

Perhaps the need to doubt and question is a natural part of the human condition, itself a gift from God.  Verna Dozier, the late teacher, theologian and lay preacher of the Episcopal Church, called ambiguity “the essence of faith.” “Faith involves trusting God,” she explained. “I cast my life on a belief that there is a God, that God is for me and that I can trust that. But I can’t prove it.”

For many thinking Christians, however, the creeds are problematic, at least if understood literally. How can one reconcile skepticism in a faith that seems to require theological exactitude? For Dozier, such reconciliation is possible if one views the creeds in their historical context, as part of the church’s legacy. They are worth remembering and reciting because they arose out of a very tense time in the life of the early Christian community, when a "major effort was to do away with ambiguity." We say the Nicene Creed on Sundays because we are “part of a community that says the Nicene Creed.” Although perhaps less relevant today, for Christians the creeds remain a part of the history, language, and poetry of their faith tradition.

I have long searched for a progressive Christianity that is less centered on doctrine and more, as described by Marcus Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, “non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical metaphorical way of understanding tradition.” In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper Collins 1995) and The Heart of Christianity (Harper Collins 2003), as well as in subsequent writings, Borg has spoken of the divide between what he calls “absolutist” Christians – “those who believe that Christianity is the one absolute revelation of God and the only way of salvation” – and those who occupy an “emerging paradigm” – people of faith who feel most comfortable in the Christian tradition, but who need a Christianity not rooted in creeds or dogma, but in a life of spiritual challenge, compassion, and community.

While absolutist Christians insist on biblical inerrancy and a literal, unquestioning interpretation of the Bible, on the other side of the divide are those who, like me, attempt to reconcile Christianity with the modern world, and who embrace advances in science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity. We view the world’s enduring religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – as “culturally-shaped responses to the experience of the sacred” for which there is not one road to understanding and enlightenment. The Bible, moreover, is a human response to God, to be interpreted historically and metaphorically, not literally. A life of faith is one centered on a transformative relationship to God, not on the afterlife and the desire to be saved.

I believe there are many equally valid paths to achieving internal peace with God and many sound ways to express one’s faith, to worship, and to pray. Whether done within the framework of the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Muslim tradition, is not important. For me, the language of the Bible is symbolic and figurative, an ancient people’s attempt to express their faith, to make sense of the universe, and to understand their connection to God. It is understood only within the historical and theological context within which it was written.

Absolutist Christians appear certain and confident about their faith and rarely question their most basic assumptions and beliefs. Doctrinal certitude brings order to a chaotic world and provides clear guidance on issues of morality and salvation. But if certainty is accompanied, as it so often is, with feelings of superiority over other faith traditions, does it not blind us to the wondrous reality in which we live?

My faith is less certain and more ambiguous. But as Dozier said, with ambiguity comes “the awareness that wherever you stand, someone just as reasonable, rational, and good as you stands in an opposite place.” Are my Jewish daughters condemned to perish because they were raised, with my blessing, to worship God, the same God to which I pray, within the rich traditions of Judaism, rather than Christianity? I cannot accept that God makes these sorts of distinctions, nor do I believe that the Jesus to whom Christians pray ever rejected the people of his own faith tradition.

There will always be a debate over absolutes and certainty in the context of faith. For me, the essence of faith is compassion and the commandment to love God “with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). A life filled with compassion and love, a life selflessly devoted to pursuing justice on earth is, for me, best exemplified in the life of Jesus, a devout Jew who radically challenged the power structures of his day, who lived compassionately and selflessly for the sake of others. But Jesus is not for everyone, and that is okay, too. Christians do not have a monopoly on the truth, and many Christians get things wrong a lot of the time.

However one defines faith, whatever tradition one abides, whatever religion one practices (or does not practice), neither guarantees nor precludes the path to salvation, to spiritual fulfillment and peace with God. Differing faith traditions merely reflect the various ways in which God speaks to his people, his children, and in how his people choose to relate to the sacred in life. Religions are like languages. To be a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim in a pluralistic society is, according to Borg, “knowing and understanding the stories and vocabularies of your tradition . . . while being able to recognize the riches and saints of other traditions.”

I do not mean to suggest that there should not be core principles that define one’s religious beliefs. But whatever faith journey you choose, whatever faith tradition you follow, what is most essential is that your faith provides opportunity for a deep and spiritual growth, a sense of compassion, the support of a community, a commitment to justice, and an interconnectedness with God that brings meaning and a sense of purpose to your life. If it provides a rock upon which to stand when life’s waters sometimes overflow, if it helps you achieve an internal peace with God, then all are enriched by your experiences.


  1. Mark - I've never actually tried to dissect how I got where I am on the faith journey. We share similar current situations but different paths of getting there. I found this remarkable, deep and impossible to stop reading.

  2. Kathleen,

    Thank you for the comments. I wrote this for the very reason that I wanted to attempt to "dissect" and put into words where I am at present and how I got there. I hope that you found this piece helpful in discerning your own life/faith journey, however similar or different it may in fact be.