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“It’s a matter of faith.” “According to my faith,….” “My faith is wavering.” “I’ve lost my faith.”

The word of the day is “faith.” It’s not a word that is used consistently. We might talk about losing faith in the government, having faith in humanity, or to identify one’s religious faith. It’s a good word. But it is also grossly misunderstood, especially when in reference to religion and spirituality.

So far, it seems that the evangelical community has dictated how this word is to be used. Most common usage equates “faith” with “belief.” The degree to which one has faith is revealed in the extent to which one buys into the party line. Was Mary really a virgin? Well, it’s a matter of faith. Is the Bible truthful? Well, it’s a matter of faith. Did Jesus really raise from the dead? Well, it’s a matter of faith. If one wants to have a “Christian” faith, then one’s Christian-ness is wed to the extent to which that person believes the supposed “tenets of the faith.”

A significant amount of the reaction against Christianity flows from a rejection of these tenets as unthinking and meaningless in today’s society. What I find interesting in this rejection is the complete assent to the evangelical community to define the terms of the debate. When I talk with people who reject Christianity and I ask what faith is, the dominant answer still equates faith with belief. They cannot be Christian because they don’t buy the intellectual crap that the church is selling.

As a religion that equates faith with belief, Christianity becomes charged as being an arrogant form of ignorance. Not only that, we now see a movement emerging that indicts such religion by atheists such as Sam Harris (The End of Faith), who argues that certain unreasoned beliefs are not just silly, but “intrinsically dangerous.” (44) “Throughout this book, I am criticizing faith in its ordinary, scriptural sense—as belief in, and life-orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions. (64-65) Ideologies drive people. And some ideologies clearly drive people to destroy others and the world we live in. When dangerous ideologies are wed to the absolute justification of a divine mission and embraced by power, the potential for evil becomes more imminent.

Equating faith and belief is not the only way that faith can be understood. Paul Tillich (The Dynamics of Faith) takes an existentialist approach. Personally, I don’t see myself as an existentialist, but I think this approach articulates best what “faith” really is. According to Tillich, faith is the bond of trust that ties us to our Ultimate Concern. This Ultimate Concern doesn’t have to be “God.” It can be regional (nationalism/patriotism), ideological (democracy), material (money), relational (family), or something else. One’s Ultimate Concern is really the orienting power over one’s life. Inasmuch as we promote and pursue our Ultimate Concern, we are acting faithfully, or to put it another way we are living out our faith. Significantly, Harris doesn’t seem to have a beef with those who take this existentialist approach, as “My argument, after all, is aimed at the majority of the faithful in every religious tradition, not at Tillich’s blameless parish of one.” (65)

Since I’m focusing on religious faith, the Ultimate Concern I now refer to is commonly known as “God.” In religious faith, God (or the Divine, or whatever other religious language one might use) is the orienting power over the lives of the faithful. For the spiritual, there is depth to this world beyond the limits of our mundane experience that bears Ultimate Significance for existence. The spiritual quest is to connect more fully with that divine Depth (which Tillich likes to refer to as our Ground of Being). As we become more in touch with the Power of Being, we become more than we already are. We are transformed. As we grow, the false barriers that we have erected to separate and protect ourselves from others and the world we live in begin to fall, and we find that we have become more concerned with not only our own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of others. In short, as we are more and more apprehended by the Power of Being, we find we naturally participate more positively in the being of all existence. This positive, life-giving transformation is the fruit of our connection to the Divine, or the mark of faith.

Note that the way that I just described faith does not equate faith with belief. This is not to say that there is no connection. Our beliefs reflect our understanding of our faith experience. It is the way that we talk about the relationship between the Ultimate and ourselves. But we must be careful not to confuse the language we use to express our faith with faith itself. Indeed, sometimes there is a disconnect between the language that is passed on to people and the faith that they manifest in day to day life.

Let’s look for a moment at the importance of distinguishing belief and faith with an example: the story of the virgin birth. According to the basic storyline, God impregnated the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus. Simple enough. And the “faith=belief” (or what I will now call the “dogmatic”) approach takes us in a completely different direction than the “faith=trust” (or what I will now call the “spiritual”) approach.

The dogmatic approach looks at the story and turns it into an important belief, without which one is seen as less faithful. The approach to faith here is one of “comprehension.” The authoritative text of Christianity is the Bible. The faithful comprehend the teachings of the text. When the authoritative texts are at odds with other sources of information, it is a test of faith. In this case, basic biology points out the physical impossibility of a “virgin birth,” and the response is to say that one should just accept the dogma as a matter of faith. As long as one continues to give assent to the dogma of the “miracle,” one can still remain a Christian. And as long as one wants to remain a Christian, one must be willing to give authoritative assent to the “tenets of the faith,” despite evidence to the contrary.

The spiritual approach is vastly different. Because faith is understood as our relational bond of trust with our Ground of Being, spirituality takes a holistic angle. As a result, it moves beyond asking what the story says to what the story means. Intellectually, it asks about the makeup of the original story. This story is a narrative written by a first-century community to articulate the significance of Jesus for their context. The spiritual approach listens to the biblical scholars who point out that the narrative of Jesus virgin birth rivaled the imperialistic narrative that lauded the virgin birth of Augustus as a sign of divine favor upon Rome. In short, the story of the virgin birth is a myth, not an historical event. Jesus was not born of a virgin (a biological impossibility), but through human conception like every other human who ever lived. Yet, the rejection of the historicity of the event does not vitiate the story. Its significance (social, political, and religious protest against injustice) remains. This significance speaks, and draws the attentive into the divine reality known as the Kingdom of God. Those who hearken are transformed into heralds, agents of a new way of being in the world that bears an indictment against oppression and dehumanization by the powerful. Because it is a way of being rather than simple acceptance of a belief system, it carries a very real risk. Inasmuch as we embark upon the path of other-centered, justice-oriented, and self-giving love, we find we are compelled to sacrifice our own wellbeing for the wellbeing of others. But in doing so, we find more fully the joy of being human.

When we talk about “religion,” we’re talking about the structure (beliefs and practices) a particular religious community gives to its orientation around primary symbols (for Christians, it’s Jesus). When we’re talking about “spirituality,” we’re talking about the personal, transformative participation of a seeker who is orienting his or her life toward God. Just like belief and faith, religion and spirituality are not the same. It is possible to be religious but not spiritual (one who buys in to a belief system but does not manifest transformation into a more healthy human being). And it is possible to be spiritual but not religious (one who manifests transformation into a more healthy human being, but does not buy into a belief system). The former illustrates the active danger of equating belief with faith.

Let’s look once again at the dogmatic approach to the virgin birth. “Faith” says it must be accepted as a miracle. A rational approach says that it is impossible. In order to accept the virgin birth as “a matter of faith,” one must first be willing to turn off one’s own brain. One must be willing to stop thinking critically. One must accept without serious questioning “just because.” Humans have brains. Humans are meant to use their brains. To require or even expect people to turn off their brains does active damage to them and their human development. It takes minimal brainpower to recognize that human biology (like evolution) is a fact. First-century people did not make babies without doing the humpty. Indeed, once a person even begins to turn on his or her brain, the assertion that the virgin birth could even be possible becomes a ridiculous belief, perhaps even worthy of laughter when the belief is spouted off by a supposedly healthy adult.

It is important to note that healthy spirituality leads to healthy human development. Whenever religion does damage to human development, it cannot be considered authentically spiritual. Moreover, inasmuch as it claims divine approval for itself, it deserves the label “demonic.” This is why i stand with those like atheist Sam Harris who decry certain types of religion as a dangerous force in this world. and I stand with him not in spite of my Christian faith, but because of it.