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.