Monthly Archives: March 2017

Across our nation on every week day morning children begin their school day by standing and pledging allegiance to the American flag.  It’s one of those things that I never gave much thought to as I said it on all those mornings throughout my childhood.  But after many of years of not saying the pledge I found myself in a school setting again as a pastor and saying the pledge struck me as rather awkward.  I mean, pledging allegiance to a flag?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to pledge allegiance to a nation or a person rather than an inanimate object such as a flag? Nonetheless, it was a reminder of the sort of quasi-divine value we give to various objects, whether flags or crosses.

I begin with this reference to the Pledge of Allegiance because earlier in the week I was reading an article on faith development for the graduate class I am currently in on religion and human development.  In this article author James Fowler explains that there is large difference between the modern understanding of belief and the pre-modern understanding of belief. For example, pre-moderns simply took the existence of god or gods for granted and therefore belief was originally understood as that to which one pledged allegiance to.  In the modern era (16th century and onwards) belief has come to mean something different because the existence of god or gods is no longer a given due to scientific advances and secularism.  Thus, the understanding of ‘belief’ went from being that which one pledged allegiance to and aligned themselves with to a proposition that one assented to being true among many other things.  As one religionist put it regarding a modern approach to a person’s religious belief, “the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

It’s a fascinating distinction, isn’t it?  Belief in the pre-modern era was a sort of holistic thing as it meant what you had given allegiance to, what you had set your heart upon.  In the modern world it’s compartmentalized and propositional.  Therefore, it leaves room for us to pledge our allegiances elsewhere, doesn’t it?  Faith and belief are seen and understood as a sort of category next to many other such categories such as politics or sports.  I wonder if this is why Americans are so incredibly passionate about the latter two while only being nominally or superficially religious or spiritual.  They can claim belief in the Christian God or a god while giving themselves over to a political party or team and not see any contradiction of sorts.  Is this also why we can pledge allegiance to a flag without sensing an inherent contradiction between doing so and our faith?

In my last post I noted how we’ve lost sight of orthopraxy and I am inclined to believe (no pun intended) that how we have come to understand belief in the modern world is a large factor.  We can neatly categorize things, organize them, and arrange them in a certain way like furniture.  What we so often fail to realize is that belief is not as easily categorized and will spill over into those other areas of our lives.  In fact, how we live ends up revealing our allegiances in more ways than I think we might realize.  It seems that the ancients had a way better grasp of this than we moderns have had.



Author’s Note: Please do not read this as being anti-schooling as there is plenty of good that comes from schooling. 

We tend to think of education purely in terms of schooling.  Within this framework education takes place between teacher and student within a controlled environment known as the school.  Generally, the school is a building with classrooms which consists of desks that the students sit in, books and various curricular that aid them in their learning experience and, of course, there is the teacher.  For the most part, this model of education took on a life its own in the twentieth century due in large part to factors like the Industrial Revolution and increased urbanization.

In some ways, schooling is a rather abstract affair that promotes a socialization that works against how we were designed to operate.  For example, children are designed to be active, though, once they enter into school they have to learn how to sit still and be quiet for most of the day.  There’s a reason why it’s rather challenging to get a room full of children from the ages 5 to 14 to be still for a picture.  At their core, it’s not that they can’t be still because they have a learning disability or because they are poorly parented (though, those things may be a real factor).  Rather they were designed and made to be active.  Schooling tends to work against this and I find myself wondering if that lends itself towards a disconnect between thinking and praxis and how it relates to faith formation.

To use a church body like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as an example, we tend to be obsessed with pure doctrine, with right teaching, and thereby right belief.  Given the nature of having justification by faith at the center of our theology we tend to come out on the side of the abstract.  What’s more, because we believe that faith comes through hearing we are more than likely going to place a premium on words rather than actions.  For example, the 7th and 8th grade “One in Christ” curriculum from CPH is quite linear and one dimensional with a heavy focus on getting the information right over and over again.  Thus, we are poor miserable sinners, we deserve God’s wrath, Jesus takes on the wrath for us on the cross, and we are saved.  It’s actually amazing to witness the hoops they jump through to make each lesson about this in some way.  One is left wondering if this is the result of a very limited understanding of religious education which does not account for the fact that education in the faith is quite a fluid thing.  In fact, education happens all the time and in ways that we fail to note because we are an abstract heavy and information based church culture.  Because we tend to associate education with the simple learning of information via a text book or a book or a lecture or even a catechism we fail to note and understand how important praxis actually is in the process of learning.

Ultimately, education in the faith isn’t just about orthodoxy it’s also about orthopraxy. Yes, it’s about right belief but it’s also about right practice.  Jesus wasn’t referring to himself when he said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it” rather he was saying that blessedness has every bit as much to do with belief as it does with practice.  It’s also why his brother James said, “Faith without works is dead.”  Faith is fed by works and vice versa.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his seminal work the Cost of Discipleship, “He who believes, obeys; and he who obeys, believes.”

Moreover, and most convincingly regarding orthopraxy, are the gospels themselves.  In large part, they are simply manuals or catechisms for following Jesus.  Within the early Christian framework of discipleship belief and action went together.  A simple reading of the gospels reveals this.  Mark, the most succinct of the four, is nothing but Jesus ‘doing’ with the disciples (remember disciple means learner) right behind him being educated in the Way. The disciples are Jesus’ apprentices learning the trade of what it is to fish for men and turn the world upside down (it can also be understood as learning to become human).  Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that apprenticeship has been one of the main forms of education throughout the ages.  We learn best by getting our hands dirty and putting something into continual practice.

On a  personal note, the fundamental reality for me as a disciple of Jesus is that my faith has greatly increased during times when I actually put Jesus’ words into action. The willingness to be vulnerable and empty my self of my ego led to the diffusing of an incredibly dangerous situation that led to healing.  Spending the better part of two years ministering and being apart of the lives of homeless people taught me about the injustices of being poor and the beauty of simplicity.  Blindly moving across the country at multiple times and living in places where I didn’t know a soul increased my faith in God.  The blessing that Jesus speaks of is a deeply spiritual and earthy one that is quite mysterious and almost unexplainable.  It goes in the opposite direction of what we are continually told brings blessing, namely, security, status, wealth, and approval (Thanks! Thomas Keating!).

I write all this simply to say that how we live matters, that it’s just as educational as learning from a book or starting a cutting edge program or having a special speaker.  The abstract has its place but so does the concrete.  Simply living, the day to day of our lives according to the Way of Jesus, is a curriculum all its own not only for ourselves but also for those around us.  How we treat others, how we love, how we share, how we welcome, how we speak all have a part to play in making the abstract convincing.