Not too long ago some friends at my church, Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, asked me if I would talk to them about five questions. I’ll respond to the first two questions in today’s post and with the others in tomorrow’s.
Wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if the religions set aside their beliefs and simply engaged in practices such as loving people?
I agree with the Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng who has argued that there can be no peace on earth without peace among the religions, and that there can be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.
I also acknowledge that many fine Christians are experiencing what might be called “doctrinal exhaustion.” They have been so attentive for so many years to theological beliefs and to inconclusive and sometimes bitter controversies about theological beliefs that they long for some relief. They want to quit talking about beliefs and simply live the faith more or less in the way that Dolly Parton sang about in a different context, “Let’s quit talking about it. Let’s just do it.”
I also acknowledge that, in general, human beings tend to divide over beliefs and to unite over practices, so, in a limited sense, setting aside beliefs in favor of practices might contribute to world peace.
However, there are two important qualifications to this statement.
The first is that it is unrealistic to ask religious people to give up their beliefs. It isn’t going to happen, and efforts to make it happen are an exercise in futility.
Even more important, it is not possible to set aside beliefs in favor of practices because when you engage in practices you affirm beliefs tacitly if not explicitly. For example, if you help people who are poor, you tacitly affirm a belief that helping poor people is a good thing. Again, if you teach children, you tacitly affirm the belief that children are important and that it is valuable for them to learn things.
The bottom line is that this first question is unrealistic and can distract us from paying attention to things that are more productive.
Can you have Christianity without beliefs?
The first part of the answer is clearly that you can’t have traditional Christianity without beliefs because traditionally Christianity includes not only a community (the church), a code (guidelines for moral conduct), and a cultus (a set of worship practices), but a creed (set of beliefs). This means that if you attempt to design a set of practices free from all beliefs it will always be possible for someone to argue plausibly that you are not entitled to describe the result as Christianity.
On the other hand, there are people who stand in some sense in the Christian tradition and who attempt to do this. Perhaps they think of Jesus as a moral teacher and they attempt to follow Jesus’ way of life by, for example, forgiving their enemies, but without holding any particular theological beliefs about Jesus. That is understandable, and we should all be glad that they are trying to follow the way of Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged this in his wonderful book Jesus of Nazareth:
Someone who holds this opinion can certainly love Jesus; he can even choose him as a guide for his own life. Ultimately, though, this notion of Jesus’ “experience of God” remains purely relative and needs to be supplemented by the fragments of reality perceived by other great men. (293)
Moreover, as I said above, to claim that one is following Jesus without holding any beliefs about Jesus or God, is to display a lack of self-awareness. To follow Jesus is to affirm at least tacitly, for examples, the belief that Jesus is worth following, and the belief that Jesus was morally right when he said that forgiving our enemies is better than retaliating against them.
The bottom line is that you cannot have traditional Christianity without beliefs, nor can you engage in distinctively Christian practices without affirming Christian beliefs tacitly if not explicitly.
Editor’s note: Look for “More questions about Christian beliefs” on Monday, Oct. 15.