Belief Is the Least Part of Faith

By T. M. LUHRMANN, New York Times, May 29, 2013

Some Sundays ago, I was part of a sermon in my university’s church. It was the kind of ecumenical church in which I’d grown up. The minister and I sat on the proscenium above the congregation and below the stained-glass windows, and spoke about the ways that evangelical Christians understood God — a subject on which I had written a book. Afterward, there was a lunch open to the community. The questions people asked as we ate our avocado-and-cheese sandwiches circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

You could imagine that if you were going to spend an hour or two each week fretting over one or the other, you might opt for the practical. This choice is more real for many evangelicals than most secular liberals imagine. Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.” Smith, who died in 2000, once wrote: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/opinion/luhrmann-belief-is-the-least-part-of-faith.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130530

In Obama’s inauguration speech, a new American religion

By Diana Butler Bass, Washington Post, 1/25/2013

Excerpt

In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address, commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda. It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality… In 2011…the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.

What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism.

What binds together the variety of American faiths? President Obama insisted that our unity is found in a powerful theme, borrowed from the twin theological sources of his own African-American Christianity and Protestant liberalism: Life is a journey. In both of these theological traditions, one is never fully satisfied with the way things are. We are on perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving to a settled place. We seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves in and through God, elusive wisdom, and wise action as we sojourn in and through the world. At the outset of the speech, President Obama stated, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.

Not only is this idea at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be…President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights…creedal statements…

President Obama ended the speech with a call to action…Answer the call of history by renewing our ancient covenant of justice and equality in this new and uncertain world. We must make a new American future…his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.

Full text

In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address, commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda.

It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality.

President Obama is a Christian but made few, if any, direct appeals to religion during his recent campaign. As president, he has a new historical problem when it comes to speaking of faith. Through the twentieth century, presidents were able to craft a generally religious language that addressed America’s three most influential groups-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, it was considered the best public sermon in this tradition of American civil religion.

But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.

What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism.

What binds together the variety of American faiths? President Obama insisted that our unity is found in a powerful theme, borrowed from the twin theological sources of his own African-American Christianity and Protestant liberalism: Life is a journey. In both of these theological traditions, one is never fully satisfied with the way things are. We are on perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving to a settled place. We seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves in and through God, elusive wisdom, and wise action as we sojourn in and through the world. At the outset of the speech, President Obama stated, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.

Not only is this idea at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be. To President Obama, the appeal is a Christian one, but also one shared and understood by others. It is both specific and open at the same time.

In the second section of the speech, President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights. Each one of these creedal statements was backed by subtle references to Hebrew or Christian scriptures, an occasional historical reference to a noted sermon or hymn, as well as more general appeals to God or divine favor.

Finally, President Obama ended the speech with a call to action. Almost all good sermons end with the preacher telling his or her congregation to do something. Serve the poor, proclaim the faith, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Indeed, the inauguration address did just that: Answer the call of history by renewing our ancient covenant of justice and equality in this new and uncertain world. We must make a new American future.

The inaugural address was assertively progressive. It was also a powerful and deeply nuanced piece of public theology in the liberal Protestant tradition. As such, it embraced the new American pluralism as a welcome expansion of our national journey. In the process, President Obama gave us an innovative new form of public address-his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (HarperOne, 2012). She is a fellow of the SeaburyNEXT project of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an independent scholar, educator, and blogger.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/in-obamas-inauguration-speech-a-new-american-religion/2013/01/25/7cb93216-6740-11e2-85f5-a8a9228e55e7_blog.html