A visitor's essay
A simpler Christianity, based more
on practice & experience than beliefs
Both conservative Christians and
Atheists stress belief rather
than experience or practice, as the defining characteristic of a person's
religious identity. This emphasis on belief remains a part of mainline
Christianity as well. Consider the use of creeds in most denominations, and even
the occasional church trial for heresy. Religious liberals generally downplay
the importance of conforming to a specific belief system. They generally accept other religions
as alternative routes to God and to salvation. They believe that
followers of all of the world's major religions are held
within God's good graces, regardless of their beliefs.
For the first several centuries after Christ death, Christianity was defined not
so much by belief systems as by religious practices. According to the historical
record -- but not necessarily according to church belief -- there were many
small independent Christian sects, each with its own set of religious convictions. Many cities had
several Christian leaders teaching contrasting belief systems. Some believed
that Jesus was very much a human -- a teacher and native healer. Others taught
that he was a prophet who had been specially selected and anointed by God.
Others taught that he was a spirit being who merely resembled a human. Others
had still different concepts. Many of these groups were anything but hierarchical.
practices threatened the Christian powers -- both the priests and government
leaders like Constantine who saw Christianity as a state religion -- a way of
exerting greater control over the masses. Along with the official canon, the
church codified the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. They successfully reigned-in differences, increased conformity,
reduced the status of women, installed a top-down power structure, created a
religious hierarchy, and concentrated power in religious and
This emphasis on belief remains today, most evident among fundamentalists, who
tend to accept salvation as dependent on "right belief."
A person spends eternity in
Heaven or Hell, depending upon whether she or he has
trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. A 1909 publication "The
Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth" was the source of the term
Fundamentalist." It proposed five required beliefs for conservative Christians:
||The original writings of the Bible, were inerrant
||Jesus Christ was born of a virgin.
||Atonement: that through Jesus' death, the
relationship between God and Man (which had been damaged by Adam and Eve's
sin) has been restored.
||Resurrection: that after Jesus' death and
burial, he arose again.
||Second coming: that Jesus return to earth is
It is interesting that Atheists seem by and large to make the same assumption
-- that one's belief system is the defining characteristic of a person's
religious identity. Most of their writings seem to be efforts to discredit the
belief systems of orthodoxy and to purport the belief systems of those who
believe no higher deity exists. Rarely do I see writings by atheists who say
they are atheists not because of their logical deductions, but because their
experiences have established in them a sense that no God exists.
I used to think "leap of faith" meant suspending one's rational mind long
enough to be able to embrace such difficult notions as the
virgin birth, or the
resurrection of the body. It disturbed me that I was thus barred from the
society of believers because my thought processes were too rational to take this
But I grew less interested in "thinking about" religion and more
interested in simply living as though my life had divine purpose and as though
God existed. I came to see "leap of faith" as not having much of anything
to do with beliefs. Instead, I see it as a grand
experiment. Being experiential, it has more to do with a leap of
practice than a leap of belief.
My own son struggles with the difficulty of
believing the things Christians supposedly are supposed to accept. My response
to him --- though I don't think he quite gets what I'm saying yet -- is for him to let
go of his worries, and to allow himself to doubt and wonder. I suggest he
experiment. I have told him, spend several days as though no God exists, as
though all there is in this life is what you can perceive with your senses or
can figure out with your logical mind. There is no mystery, no purpose other
than those purposes you devise for yourself. Later, spend several days living as though
God does exist, as though there is an essential purpose for your life, as if
there is mystery beyond what our senses and minds can claim for us. See
what you discover for yourself.
My own experiment was not a trial of a few days, but more one of years. My faith has become much more
personal. My sense of Providence is now much more palpable, as I have relaxed about "beliefs"
and simply lived as though God is in my life. Choosing to be a person of
faith, I have discovered joy, resilience,
comfort, and passions that I never would have known without simply choosing to
live as though God exists.
If fundamentalists cry out that this is heresy, ask them how
Christ supposedly selected his disciples. He did not use a litmus test to sort
out the ones with "wrong beliefs." He simply said, "Come follow me."
He emphasized practice and experience rather than belief.
Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally posted: 2004-NOV-25
Latest update: 2004-NOV-25