Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Belief and Being: The problem of communicating our faith

This is the SynchroBlog post for Tuesday, September 25th. The subject is Paganism and Christianity

These are some preliminary thoughts on a subject which I want to study further. I theorize that it may have ramifications for our society at large, whether as a response to postmodern thought, or perhaps even as a response to more general humanistic, or materialistic trends in popular culture. Yet, my consideration of this topic relates directly to the difficulties of cross culture communication between Evangelical Christianity, and Neo-Paganism. At this point I am merely theorizing, and do not have either trend studies and statistics to document, or scholarship resources to act as a guide.

Belief and Being: The problem of communicating our faith

Belief as defined by evangelical Christianity is based primarily in a combination of confidence in an unseen Other, and an eschatalogical hope. This source of faith (faith and belief being used interchangeably here) is otherly, as is the object, and the goal.

"He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him."

The dual parts of this definition for faith define it as: 1) confidence in the Unseen Other, and 2) a future eschatalogical hope. This model of defining faith is a repetition from the first verse of Hebrews 11.

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

The writer of Hebrews, who gives us the clearest definition of faith clearly outlines the dual nature of this critical trait of the Christian character. Faith looks ahead to the future, and faith looks behind the curtain of human experience into the realm of the unseen. Even the most modern definitions of faith (such as those described by Francis Schaeffer or Josh McDowell), which rely upon perceivable facts to determine unseen realities are left with the difficult balance that faith which can be perfectly proven is not faith at all, but simply intellectual deduction.

"For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?"

"For we walk by faith, not by sight"

The fact that Evangelical Christian belief is rooted in a description of an Unseen Other (God), and in a future hope helps to disconnect human emotion from discussions about belief. Evangelical belief is not aimed at self, but at Another. It is not hinged upon a current condition, but is looking forward to a distant and glorious hope. Evangelical belief systems do not define the Christian, but the God in Whom the Christian believes. It does not define the current condition of Christian character, but the eschatalogical hope. Even when the Evangelical speaks of understanding themselves, it may be described as understanding how God (the Unseen Other) sees us in a future perfected state. In this operation of Evangelical faith, belief is potentially disconnected from the present reality of one's character, condition, and sensibility. Even at best Evangelical belief defines who a person will be, and less who they currently are. It is personally descriptive of becoming, more than of being.

Furthermore belief is attached to an immediately accessible, but continuously ongoing process of change.

"Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."

"But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, [even] as by the Spirit of the Lord."

Evangelical belief is connected to the triad of spiritual tranformations: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Belief accompanies change, and is expected to travel together to the end with personal transformation as its companion.

These characteristics of evangelical belief are a cause for celebration by its adherants, and are discussed with ease. Past failures are overlooked, current desperate conditions are seen as temporary and even hold seeds of beneficial transformation. Pain is eased by hope, and the only solid enemy of faith becomes personal doubt.

Yet for those whose belief is not based in the unseen, and the eschatalogical model of Evangelical Christianity, belief may take on a far more personally invested role.

Within popular culture we are commonly told that we must believe in ourselves. Eschatalogical hope is useless in the world of acheivement. The Unseen Other potentially offers us a source of help, but even that help is defined as serving to bring fulfillment to a more immediate present. Belief is sourced in self, and working to fulfill the moment. Even unseen and futuristic beliefs are discovered by a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith." Personal investment into one's belief is all that exists for some people. Even faith in God is come to by the activity of stepping out beyond oneself.

This self based belief is personal and naturally - self defined. It comes by means of that which is seen, or has been experientially defined. It is an existential reality, and therefore gives definition to one's being. As a culmination of life experiences it defines a person. It is who they are. This belief is less about becoming, and is almost completely about being.

Within the Neo-Pagan movement there are people whose belief systems are accessed by ethnic origin - most popularly, Celtic, Native American and Nordic mythologies in the U.S. Belief systems are defined by ethnicity, and are therefore clearly associated to being. Other Neo-Pagans attach themselves to myths or totemic guides which relate to character traits they find in themselves, and further define their beliefs by their sense of being. Though traces of the evangelical definition of belief in the unseen, or in a future hope may be found in Pagan belief systems, it does not hold the same power to disconnect one's beliefs from one's current condition. A challenge to beliefs is the same as a challenge to self, and an attack on one's legitimacy of being.

As Evangelical Christians, we will regularly be faced with communicating our faith, and consequently challenging the faith of others whose faith defines who they are. Their beliefs are personal, because they are the culmination of life experiences. These differences in the source, and direction of faith create tension in communication of belief systems between the Evangelical Christian and the Neo-Pagan. Evangelical Christianity has the call to proclaim its faith. It is therefore necessary for the Christian to understand that others may receive challenges to their beliefs as attacks against their being. We may well find ourselves in debate contests between those whose faith defines their being, when we think that beliefs are less personal and rooted in a hopeful becoming. For another faith is a personal journey defined by who they have become, and now are. My Evangelical definition of faith tells me it is less personal.

For the Calvinist or Reformed Christian even their faith may not be their own. We did not come to it ourselves, but its source is Him Who gave it. Does this depersonalize belief even further? Personally, I am not a Calvinist, but then perhaps my sense of missiology is partly to blame.

I do wonder if perhaps I have something to learn from the person whose beliefs radically and personally define their being. Could it be that I need to find a balance between a faith describing my becoming, and a faith describing my sense of being? Perhaps, but the practical question is, "How does this inform the discussion of my beliefs with others?"


Steve Hayes said...

Very interesting view of things.

I wonder what you make of this, though:

"We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul's use of "reconcile" calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which "does" by being, "acts" by living - that is, being and living as God made us in Christ" (from Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway, Up to our steeples in politics).

That's an Evangelical take on it, but the Orthodox Christian view seems to be about both being and becoming.

Brian said...

Thanks for wrestling with question Phil, appreciate this post a lot.

Anonymous said...

Never really thought of it that way. Very good point.

I think most people, perhaps everyone, christian or not has a sense of discontment in life and self. Sometimes it's large sometimes small. This discontment must imply a need to become instead of remaining in our current state of being. Perhaps in sharing our faith we could mention this universal sense of divine discontent? Just throwing that out there. I think Steve has a good point about the orthodox view which includes both "being" and "becoming".

Pastor Phil said...

Steve bro,

I think that being and becoming should be equal parts of the faith we follow. Unfortunately, the communication of Evangelical faith has often been based in discussions of eschatalogical hope, or doom (Heaven and Hell) solely. This post is a challenge to that point I suppose.

Yet, the fact still remains, if we hold beliefs which are by nature rooted in the Unseen, and in a future hope it will challenge people, and we will necessarily be forced to understand that this is true.

Perhaps more deeply challnging is the fact that we do not hold a faith in ourselves, but in an Unseen Other with some theologically fixed definitions. Faith in a postmodern context is often a moving target based upon life experiences of the faith holders.

Pastor Phil said...

Thanks Brian

Pastor Phil said...


I like your divine discontent thought here, and I do reach for a faith which speaks to being as well as becoming.

Sally said...

excellent Phil, thanks :-)

Pastor Phil said...


Anytime you say "excellent" it is meaningful. Thank you.

cern said...

The really good thing about this is that it informs both the Chrostian and the Pagan. :)



Pastor Phil said...


Ain't that the great thing about graceful truth. It informs a greater audience everytime. I appreciate you muchly bro.

Redge said...

A very informative devision, and yet a new insight into the differences of Christian and Pagan psyches. I particularly liked the third to last paragraph, about Christian proclamation of faith being received as challenges against a person's being. This could go a longway toward explaining (and one might hope even eleviating) tensions in religious debates between Christians and other believers.

In this context, it might be interesting to take a look at some Eastern philosophies, taoism in particular, that pertain to both being and becoming. To a taoist, the current state is fleeting, as the tao is always in motion: therefor, we are always changing. Unlike eschatological hope however, these changes are not made in a particular heading or goal: the changes are circular, meaning the same state will be reached again and again ad infinitum. This is then translated into a state of being where contentment and action in accordance with the changes of the tao are important.

This emphasises some aspects of Christian belief accompanying change: that the change need neccesarily be toward a single goal (personal transformation, favorable judgement) and none-circular, in other words finite. Because change is constant, but only in a single direction, the present is less important as it will not return again.

Of course, one might argue that history strongly indicates a certain circularity ("history repeats itself") and that therefor, a state of belief where the present is considered less important than the future is victim of short-term thought. I wonder: how would you respond to this?

A bit long winded perhaps, but I feel I must do justice to this fine post with a worthy reply.


P.S.: Having trouble with this form, so excuse me if this post should appear double.

Pastor Phil said...


Worthy reply indeed!

The single and finite orientation I think need not be the one focus of Christian faith. Although that emphasis is typically found in Evangelical Christianity, it is not that way in all Christian traditions.

A focus upon the present realities of faith, and the practical dynamics of transformation may point to distant perfection, but the fact is that the present is part of the trail toward a goal, and each and every action carries with it eternal ramifications. Some actions may be vain and empty, but that too is eternal in its ramifications. Other actions carry along as dynamic and beneficial parts to the story of redemption, but all actions follow us as descriptive of who we are, and who we will become.

Perhaps a straight line goal orientation is not our best description (the "straight and narrow" is actually better translated as the difficult and narrow), but perhaps we walk a spiral: circular (repeating themes both good and bad), but still still in movement upward.

Dang - now that sounds really Pagan to call the path a spiral! but I think it is a good directional identifier which creates a sense of both horizontal (a present reality living in active belief in this world), and vertical (connecting to the unseen and future goals) movement.

I'm not sure that made sense, but I hope so. And I hope I responded acceptably to your rather deep post.

Redge said...

Very acceptable. This resonates with a mantra that I hold very dear: "Every day, bit by bit, things are getting better."

This can be a very interesting discussion in itself: I think most people, if asked, would say they belief things get better with time, if maybe slowly. Although we are faced with seemingly repeated behavior, repeating history, we believe in the end we'll learn from this and things will be better the next "time around", to keep within the metaphore of a spiral.

No this believe is very interesting in itself. It could be inspired by inductive, empirical evidence: we see it happening. But it could also be motivated by some emotional imperative, conscious or otherwise: "I have to believe that things will get better, otherwise, what is the point?" Most interesting and, I think, what occurs in most cases, is a combination of the two: with this imperative motivating us, we pick out the evidence of things getting better, and giving them greater importance than evidence to the contrary, namely that things repeat themselves without improvement, merely in a new form.

Without hoping to seem pretentious, I would like to quote here one of my favortie poems:

"Behold, we know not anything.
I can but hope some good will fall,
at least -far of- at last, to all,
and every winter turn to spring.

So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant, crying in the night.
An infant, crying for the light.
And with no language but a cry."
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Pastor Phil said...

Wow Redge,

Nice post.

Of course the assumption of the Christian faith is that things are going in both directions, and as you state perhaps sometimes in no direction (staying the same) at all. I think for me this comes down to personal responsibility. In devotion to the right things things are getting better. In devotion to the wrong things they are actually getting worse in many respects, although occasionally intercepted by divinity to keep me graciously from ruining myself.

So with God I do find myself saying things are getting better - even though the seasons may seem to rise and fall like the ancient kingdoms in my history books.

Redge said...

Now you sound pretty poetic yourself ;)


Pastor Phil said...


You're right, I can't help myself. Sometimes even rhyme flows out of me like a rapper.

Yewtree said...

Interesting post, interesting discussion.

I just wanted to say that my Paganism is not rooted in my ethnic identity, because I am attracted to a variety of ancient cultures and couldn't simply settle on one of them. I wonder if a lot of US Pagans are keen on recovering their ethnic roots because they feel rootless? My Paganism is rooted in my love of nature.

Actually the reason Pagans feel threatened by evangelical behaviour is that many of us come from, and have been hurt by, evangelical and/or fundamentalist backgrounds, and really don't need more of the same. We are happy to accept constructive criticism, but we don't want to be converted.

Pagans do believe in the Unseen - we just believe that the material world is the visible manifestation of the Unseen. I think you mean transcendent (as opposed to immanent). Evangelical Christians tend to believe that the Divine is entirely outside the world; whereas Orthodox Christians believe that God's energies are in the world.

Also, the Pagan hope is that the world will get back into balance (our definition of perfection); whereas the Christian hope is that the world will pass away and be replaced by a new one. I think this comes from Pauline Christianity rather than from Jesus.

Pagans want the Divine to be ever more immanent in the world; Christians want to return to the Divine source.

The problem with Pagans is many of us tend to be naive about evil behaviour (e.g. genocide) - where did it come from, how will it be fixed.

The problem with Christians is that they put too many things in the "evil" category that are actually natural (magic, tsunamis, lions eating lambs, etc.)

I think there needs to be some dialogue around these issues. I was interested that you used the image of the spiral - most Pagans would indeed agree that a combination of cyclicity and linearity would produce a spiral.

One way of facilitating dialogue would be for everyone to read some Jewish theology, and indeed some Orthodox Christian theology (I recommend Bishop Kallistos Ware) :)

Warm wishes