So, recently I picked up off my shelf a book I bought years ago – David G. Benner’s Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos Press, 2011) – and realized again why I wanted to read it. Benner, psychologist and author, writes with great wisdom and grace. Very early in the book already it made me pause to meditate and reflect. Here is a long excerpt:
In Christianity, the shift from faith as trust to faith as belief was primarily a product of the Enlightenment. The result was a profound shift from the personal/interpersonal to the impersonal. Faith as trust is personal and interpersonal. Trust is always placed in someone or something, and our act of trust is an act of leaning into the object of trust with openness and expectant hopefulness. For Christians, trust in God was slowly degraded, however, into trust in certain thoughts about God. If these thoughts were judged to be true, one was judged to have faith. But the object of faith in this debased expression of faith is, in actuality, thoughts, not God.
I know something about this. For a long time I clutched my ideas about God to my chest, polishing and defending them as if they were the Divine, not simply my pitifully limited construals [sic] of Ultimate Mystery. I thought they were truth. Or, more precisely, I thought I had the truth. I did not yet know how to either hold my opinions (including my theology) with humility or be content with living in truth as opposed to living in the illusion of possessing truth.
Equating faith with beliefs truncates and trivializes spirituality by reducing it to a mental process. Thoughts are, quite simply, a poor substitute for relationship. Some Christians speak much of a personal relationship with God but assume that this is based on holding right beliefs. Is it any wonder that this attempt to reduce Ultimate Mystery to theological propositions so often results in the principal personal relationship being between a person and his or her own thoughts? Cherishing thoughts about God replaces cherishing God; knowing about the Divine replaces knowing the Divine. Whenever the Wholly Other is thought to be contained in one’s beliefs and opinions, divine transcendence is seriously compromised and personal relationship with the Spirit minimized.
(David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, p. 6)
These words are a good reminder and challenge to me. I love theology. But I cannot forget my first love – God. True, I cannot do away with theology (God forbid!). In fact, I wrote elsewhere why theology matters. And I am also mindful of reducing spirituality to mere experiences and feelings (see “Spirituality is not an adrenalin rush”). But I must not confuse my love for God with my love for theology.
I find Benner’s distinction between holding truth with humility and possessing truth is important. I find some Christians tend to measure their faith by how many truths they can master or possess, as if faith is purely an intellectual matter. I probably was guilty of that myself in my youth. But having faith in dogma – doctrines, theology – is a counterfeit faith. It is not trusting in the living God but trusting in our human thoughts/ideas about God. Our ideas about God, our theology, doctrines, and dogma, are good aids to help us trust God but they are not the object of our trust.
I find churches and denominations can fall into this trap as well. As a member of a denomination that holds to creeds and confessions, I have to examine myself if I am cherishing my denomination’s historical confessions – which are essentially collective consensus thoughts about God and God’s ways – instead of cherishing God. I know that I am personally responsible for my own faith, and not my institution. But institutional culture and ethos, and specifically, institutional leadership, definitely plays a part in fostering its members’ default spiritual assumptions and default spiritual postures. How does a denomination hold its confessions with humility? Is it a lost cause? Do denominations have to insist on members “towing the party line” in terms of its theological beliefs to ensure unity?
How can (should?) institutions regulate interpersonal trust/faith in God? There’s probably the rub. It’s very, very difficult to regulate the interpersonal, so, institutions like churches and denominations default to the next best thing – regulate the impersonal beliefs/doctrines/dogma. And does this regulating and emphasis on right dogma inadvertently foster dogmatism within the ranks? But are there ways to do this without succumbing to turning dogma into an idol? Is institutional idolatry inevitable? Should institutions let go of regulating altogether? Or is that a death wish?
I believe it is not inevitable and that there are healthy ways for institutions to function but, at this point, I admit that I am not sure what they are. Easier for a local church community, I am sure, than it is for a denomination with communities that span across the continent, from east to west, from urban to rural, from one ethnicity to another, from one political leaning to another, to find those ways. How do churches/denominations keep unity while allowing for diversity within its ranks? How would this look like? I wonder what institutional humility might look like. Because I suspect that’s where it starts. And, for the individual, it starts with humility as well, humility in holding our beliefs, recognizing they are our aids, not our God.