Believing the right things

"You can believe all the right things and still be miserable, still be in bondage, or still be untransformed."

Yme Woensdregt

One of my favourite quotations from Marcus Borg reads, “You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable, still be in bondage, or still be untransformed.

“So, the emphasis upon belief is, I think, modern and mistaken. It’s also very divisive. Once people start thinking that being a Christian is about believing the right things, then anybody’s list of what the ‘right things’ are becomes a kind of litmus test as to who’s really a good Christian and who’s not.

“Being a Christian is really about one’s relationship with God. And that relationship with God can go along with many different belief systems.”

In this quote, Borg is talking about the modern tendency to equate faith with belief. That is, for many people, being Christian means believing the right things. When I say this is a modern tendency, what I mean is that this understanding has only arisen in the last 200 years or so. Prior to the modern era, being Christian had much more to do with a relationship of trust.

The problem with this modern tendency is that it turns faith into a head trip. With this view, as Borg says, one can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. One can believe all the right things, and still hurt other people. One can give intellectual assent to all the right things, and still not live faithfully or gently or compassionately.

But if Christian faith isn’t about believing all the right things, then what is it?

I’ve written about this before, but let me indicate three things which I believe to be essential elements of what it means to be Christian.

First of all, being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves.

Loving God is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity—“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Jesus names this teaching from Deuteronomy as the first part of the Great Commandment. We are involved in a relationship of love and trust with the God who animates the universe. This is not a head trip; it’s a commitment of the heart.

In addition to loving God, we are to love what God loves. And what does God love? The best known verse in the New Testament helps us here. “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16) God loves the world—not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings. God loves the whole of creation.

But there is a deeper meaning in this verse. John uses the word “kosmos” for world, and the kosmos is that part of the world which is hostile to God. Even in the face of such hostility, God loves. We are to love in the same way with the same passion.

God’s love doesn’t just accept things as they are. To use Robert Frost’s famous phrase, God has “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” God loves the world, and wills it to be a better world. When we love what God loves, we work to make our world a better place.

Secondly, being Christian is about becoming that kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. Christian faith is about being open to the kind of transformation we need.

Transformation is necessary because the process of growing up for us doesn’t teach us to be concerned about others. It inclines us to be concerned about ourselves. It happens to all of us.

Christianity, therefore, is a path of transformation. It makes us open to those habits of the heart which lead us to consider the welfare of other people. It helps us learn to “love our neighbour as ourselves,” which is the second and equally important part of the Great Commandment. To love our neighbour in that way requires practice.

Thirdly, being Christian is about being part of a community of transformation. The kind of practice I talked about a moment ago happens best in community. The church is intended to be that kind of community of formation and re–formation, a community which holds values that are different than the values of our society.

The older I get, the more it strikes me that being Christian really has very little to do with what we believe. It has so much more to do with how we live, how we treat one another, how we treat the environment in which we live.

Believing has very little transformative power. You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be quite mean.

Christian faith, however, is about entering that process of transformation in which our lives are quite literally turned around and focussed on the one who sustains the universe and the neighbours with whom we inhabit this fragile planet.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.