March 29, 2010
Do Christians Believe the Things They Say?
The other day I was listening to an audio lecture by Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission, and he mentioned this criticism by John Stuart Mills of how Christians say things they don’t seem to really believe.
Mills makes the point that people are capable of saying they believe something, and really believing they do, but at the same time those beliefs remain “dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding.” We can believe things and at the same time not believe them. At first brush it seems wacky, but then it rings true if you think about it. To illustrate this principle Mills talks about Christian language and belief. Though this might make us uncomfortable, it is well worth reading:
All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. (On Liberty)
That really hurts. It’s too close to home. There are a couple things we might quibble about because they are not meant to be universalized (like selling all and giving to the poor), and that is just a good interpretation, not a cover-up. But we need to acknowledge the ease with which we allow biblical truth and biblical ethics to become markers of our Christian status without actually owning up to their content.
Some people like to criticize intellectualism in Christianity, and what they mean is the tendency that some have of reducing The Faith to nothing more than a set of doctrines that must be believed, and must believed rather precisely. But intellectualism can also apply to everyday ideas and beliefs. We should love each other, for example. All Christians believe that and will affirm it. But does that belief make a difference in the concrete life of those Christians? I fear that often it does not. When that happens we have intellectualized the faith. “Love one another” is a mental cipher and nothing more. A more difficult example: All Christians believe we ought to love our enemies. How many do?
Sometimes we use a simple belief which we do not ourselves encarnate as a weapon against outsiders. As in, “Did you hear about that (insert a scandalizing event)? See, that’s what is wrong with that (religion, movement, or group of people). They don’t love each other like the Bible says.” But we manage to ignore the fact that the same principle only has minimal concrete impact on our own lives. This is what Mills calls doctrines that are “serviceable to pelt adversaries with.”
On a positive note, Mills is not trashing on Christianity, but on the hypocrisy of the Christians he knew in 19th century England. He thought that the first Christians did indeed practice their beliefs for, he asks, how else could the Christian religion have grown as it did? Maybe we can take some cues from that.