It’s quite common in Progressive Christian circles to talk about the importance of justice or doing things for others over belief. There is a reason for this; that being the sad history of people who had solid beliefs in Christianity and yet their lives did not reflect what they were saying. I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography of being a slave where he shares a cases where he was being whipped by his master who was quoting Bible verses all the while.
What we do in our daily lives is a witness of our walk with God. If we say we love God, but we are treating others like crap, well there is a Bible verse that talks about the truth not being in us or something like that.
That said, there is a temptation among progressives to place such emphasis on action that belief gets the short shriff. In a recent post, Timothy Dalrymple talks about the differences between the current pastor at Harvard University, Jonathan Walton and his predecessor, the late, great theologian Peter Gomes. Dalrymple, who studied under Gomes had fond memories of the late pastor, remembering how he welcomed evangelicals at Harvard, as well as others from various faiths.
The difference, Dalrymple says, is that Gomes knew belief, beliefs in the Christian faith matters. He takes issue with Walton because of his sermon to the freshman class. Walton said the following:
“Faith as defined in this epistle is not a mere cognitive assent to a belief in a divine being,” said Walton, who succeeded the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes in the influential pulpit. “Nor should faith be conceived as blind allegiance to a perceived sacred yet illusive reality. No, … such conceptions of faith are as morally vacuous as they are ethically inept. Rather, James is referring to faith in a sacred reality that reveals itself in human activity.”
Belief is revealed by action, Walter said. “It does not matter if Christianity is true, but rather can we, as those informed by the teachings of Jesus, make it true. Hence at the end of the day, our faith is not something to be professed, as talk is cheap, but something primarily to be done.”
The Christian faith, in Walton’s teaching, is “faith in a sacred reality,” so there is an assertion of the reality of some sacred other. This sacred reality “reveals itself in human activity,” and so “faith is not something to be professed, as talk is cheap,” but faith is instead “something primarily to be done.”
This is not necessarily the denial of truth, but is at least its displacement. It’s one thing to say that we experience the truth of God in Christ when we live the life of Christ. It’s another to say that the only “truth” that matters is found in serving others. It’s one thing to say that we come to the truth through participation in the life of Christ. It’s another to say that there is no truth of Christianity apart from what we make true. The truth is the truth, whether or not anyone believes it or acts upon it. Christians historically have understood that they make the truth known through their deeds. But they do not make the truth true through their deeds.
And when Walton denigrates the importance of profession, he’s departing not only from Christian tradition, in which the proclamation of the Word and the confession of the gospel are paramount, but he’s departing from the tradition of Christ, who spent an awful lot of time “professing” as well as “doing.” Christ’s talk was not cheap. The Word is not cheap — and the Word was true eternally, long before there were people to “make it true.”
Walton’s sermon was consistent with the general trend of reducing Christianity to a social justice program, and justifying the presence of churches at secular universities by framing them as community organizers.
I will agree with Timothy on this. The following is going to sound harsh, but I think too often progressive Christians are so eager to not be defined as a fundamentalist and so wanting to be accepted by the larger society, that we are willing to jettison some of the central tenets of faith. We won’t talk about Jesus as Savior, but we can talk about the teachings of Jesus.
I’m not saying social justice is not important. I am saying that our love of neighbor flows from what we believe. Social action can’t be the center of our faith, but it is the evidence of the faith we believe in.
If social action is the only thing that matters, at some point we will wake up realize that we really don’t need the church or this whole God business at all. We can do our good deeds without having to get up on Sunday mornings and go to church. Dalrymple relates this story a friend said about his encounter with Gomes:
Yet what was so refreshing about Peter Gomes was that he was willing to be counter-cultural. Reverend Gomes took his immense learning and his towering standing within the Harvard community and used them to stand against the stream. My friend Jeff Barneson related this story after Gomes’ death:
On one occasion [Gomes] spoke at one of the regular meetings of the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship—the InterVarsity group I advise. He told the graduate students packed together in Phillips Brooks House that their calling was to “Say the intolerable thing to a generation whose only value is tolerance.” During the discussion following his remarks, I asked what he meant by “the intolerable thing.” “Jeffrey,” he said, “the intolerable thing is that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
In a culture that tells people to not express their faith for tolerance’s sake, Gomes was calling those students to ruffle some feathers. We say what we say and do what we do, because we believe that Christ is Lord, lord over every power on earth and in heaven.
Are we willing to say the Intolerable Thing? Are we willing to live it out?
We feed the poor, not because that is the essence of our faith, but because Jesus is Lord.
If Progressive Christianity is to be a vital force in American life, then it needs to rediscover belief and weld that to action. A faith without works is dead and works without faith can be rather mindless.