As a Christian, does it matter what I believe? Do I have to believe certain things in order to be a Christian? If so, what happens if I don’t believe those things; I guess that means I can’t be a Christian, right?
While these questions have been around as long as there’s been a Christian faith, they seem to come up more often these days. A lot of things have come together to make us less certain about what we believe, and what that belief means within the larger issue of our relationship to God. Whether Christians used to hold to their beliefs more firmly than we do is a question I can’t answer. What is clear is that they were more certain than we are that belief is what makes you a Christian.
Now here’s the place where I’m supposed to suggest that this was a good thing, and that maybe we would do well to follow their example. But I’m not going to suggest that because I don’t believe it. I don’t want to go back to a simpler time when we all knew what we believed and why. For one thing I know too much about history to accept the notion of “a simpler time.” But more importantly, I also know that Christians have long struggled to give believing its proper priority, to balance it with other obligations, notably: following and belonging.
When I read the gospels, I hear Jesus talking all the time about following him, about taking up a cross like he did. To be fair the Jesus of the Gospel of John enjoins the disciples fairly often to believe in him, but the Greek verb involved means to invest our faith and trust in him, more than give intellectual agreement to the truth of what he was saying. The gospels, as well as Paul and the rest of the New Testament, do say a lot about belief, but it is always a belief in or toward the reality of God in Christ, the purpose of which is to reorient our lives. It as though the whole New Testament is asking this one question: “Now that you know about Jesus, what are you going to do about it?” The purpose of telling the story of Jesus and the early church is to confront the reader with a decision. Belief in the truth of the story is not the point; changing your life so that this story now becomes your story is. Absent this decision and change, belief is meaningless. Faith without works is dead.
But early on, Christians mistook belief in for belief about. Placing one’s faith and trust in Jesus became trusting that what Christianity says about him is true. An encounter with the living Christ became an intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions. Simply put, the idea that all one has to do is believe in Jesus—by which we mean say the right things about him—explains why so many Christians are so capable of hate. If all you have to do is believe, then you don’t have to change your life. In other words, believing is easy; following is hard.
So if following is more important, does that mean that believing doesn’t matter? I know a lot of folks who think that (at least implicitly), but I don’t count myself among them. The thing is, even though most of us do a lousy job of living out our convictions, those convictions do matter. They shape what we expect of ourselves. They give direction to our following.
The best illustration of this reality comes from Europe during the Nazi period. In spite of the fact that large numbers of baptized Christians were complicit (at least with their silence) in the Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, some people chose to do what they could to save Jewish lives. Many of these were individuals who acted out of personal courage, or kindness, or old-fashioned cussedness toward people telling them what to do. But sometimes groups of people worked together to save the Jews, like the small community of Le Chambon, France. When the story was told after the war of how this town hid and transported hundreds of Jewish refugees, it became clear that a couple of churches had been central to the effort. When asked why they did what they did, the members of these churches pointed toward their belief in God, in Christ, and in the biblical truth of the chosen people of God.The rest of occupied Europe was cowed by fear or lulled into acquiescence by centuries of believing that state mediated the will of God. But this small French community chose to believe in—and follow—the biblical God instead.
In Christianity, believing is not the only thing, nor is it even the most important thing; that honor has to go to following. But neither is it true that believing is nothing. Believe that, and you’ll believe—and follow—anything.