Where I have previously written about first principles and convictions, I set aside the word belief. Similarly, in my entry on the problem of certainty I set aside faith.
Amid these same writings, and even more pronounced in my last essay on forgiveness, has emerged an insistently Christian timbre to my tone. As I explained, the context of that discussion is intimately and inextricably bound to Christianity and therefore I resort to language that may seem idiomatic. While it is true that my meanings can’t avoid such words and phrases, I personally find their use alienating and so I will try to dispense with them, maybe by writing it out here as a snapshot summary of my Christianity.
It is not necessary to devote a separate passage on my idea of belief, except here to prevent it from being confused with faith or conviction. Belief is not practice, not behavior. It is not abstract. In my ordering of these concepts, belief is a mind state invoked with conviction, certainty, and faith. This mind state commits to concepts that develop both directly, from experience, and indirectly, by acceptance of authority.
It is fitting that I introduced Christianity’s significance and led with the topic of forgiveness, which I identify as the transcendent principle, a term I ought to define before advancing the discussion.
The word “principle” is not at issue here. Transcendent and related forms of the word (transcend, transcendence, transcendental, etc) are not typically used in Christianity. More often we would see the word applied in discussions of a religion like Buddhism — perhaps meant as “escape from the cycle of rebirth.”
But my use of the word is specific to my Christian view, that by God’s forgiveness am I able to transcend damnation. Also, the grace of God transcends comprehension. And also, by practicing radical, Christlike forgiveness, I transcend my own fallen nature.
In this way, the transcendent principle refers to salvation.
Salvation is the final achievement of a Christian life, and in this context it refers to the doctrine of “eternal life.” This doctrine initially cites Biblical text, with interpretations and explanations by apostles, theologians, scholars, translators, and “prophets.” In my opinion, there is little or no practicality to the question of the precise nature or quality of eternal life, and I will not be offering my own speculations here.
The aspect of salvation critical to this discussion is that belief in the Christian concept of eternal life relies primarily on the practice of faith.
In terms of standards of evidence, it is a simple thing to challenge any idea of a life continuing on after death using generally, if not universally, accepted observations that seem impossible to refute. First of all, every living thing dies. Secondly, no being returns to biological life after it is biologically dead. And lastly, there is no proof of continuing existence past the point of biological death.
In the face of these compelling arguments, Christians proclaim belief in eternal life. This is why I insist that faith is a practice, a discipline, manifested as belief. I believe in eternal life, opposing these very same material points, because I practice faith. This is the basic mystery of faith as a practice.
Returning to the question of arguments previously cited, does the absence of evidence make incontrovertible proof? No. My complaint is that, like atheism, these arguments are apparent at the most idiotic, brute-level of observation. They offer no more remarkable insight into the questions we ask about our existence than do spirit mediums who converse with “the dead.” But once we move beyond the moronic into advanced human thinking, there are more urgent questions about salvation.
Why do I need salvation? How is it done? Who saves me from what? My answers to these questions might differ from those of average Christians more by what I choose to omit than by my affirming testimonies. So if a reader is a Christian searching for my heresies, they will be found in my omissions.
According to my faith, the reason I must be saved is because I am fallen, which is the universal, default state of all humanity described by the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Corrupted by the heritage of Original Sin and embedded in the sinful human world, I am unable myself not to sin. This is the fault that cuts me off from an eternal life in the presence of God.
For much of my adult life I disputed the doctrine of Original Sin, and therefore the doctrine of salvation. It offended my so-called reason and my supposed moral dignity. Now I’m just offended that I was so wrong. The reversion of my convictions involves a lifelong process of discovery — my own pilgrim’s progress — culminating in my realization and admission that I am fallen and I must be saved by God.
The mechanism of God’s grace is forgiveness of sin by way of Jesus’s sacrificial death. This is the traditional Gospel message. I believe my faith in the Gospel was restored by the person of Jesus himself, through prayer and contemplation, directly due to his divinity.
The difference between my former Christian beliefs and my current Christian beliefs is that my beliefs now are built from experience and profound contemplation in earnest prayer, rather than accepted from scriptural or canonical authority. On the most difficult, intransigent points of belief, when I concede or defer to doctrinal notions in defiance of common secular arguments, this is when I practice faith.
Eden. Miracles. Resurrection. Prophecy. The Bible and Christianity present a range of incredible ideas — and by “incredible” I mean not credible. One essential aspect of the scriptural doctrines — Original Sin and salvation — is that God requires blood sacrifice to atone for sin. I accept that God rejects and condemns all sin, without exception, for eternity — it can be reasoned out, even for a God of infinite love and power. But it is not obvious to me why blood sacrifice must be the catalyst of God’s forgiveness. This case puts my practice of faith to a real test. And in this case I concede, despite my inability to understand it, absolute necessity of blood sacrifice as the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice, as a matter of faith.
When I wrote about faith before, I stated that “to practice faith means to believe from a position of uncertainty, even against reasoned arguments.”
The earliest Biblical scriptures place the highest value on faith. In my opinion, faith is the salvific transcendental principle passed down through Abraham, completed in Christianity with God’s forgiveness by way of Jesus’ sacrifice.
For my understanding of salvation, the most critical aspect is realization and acceptance of my fallen, sinful nature, followed by my contrite confession. And, in my opinion, this process is entirely internal. Public confessions and testimonies are well and good for a community’s cohesion around such sublime concepts, but the only meaningful transaction for personal salvation is between myself and God, who sees my motives before I voice them.
There are two camps equally opposed to my view on faith. One camp, very secular-oriented, calls faith blind and slave-like — an ignorant, undesirable state of mind. A mainstream Christian camp, opposite the secular camp, is wholly committed to a “childlike” faith, accepting traditional interpretations of scriptures that do not, in fact, mandate childish faith.
As I see it, faith is the practice that shores up gaps in my own understanding. God’s salvation does not require my faith to be perfect. The only perfection necessary is God’s forgiveness. Therefore I posit that the end state of Christianity is not a believer’s perfect faith, but a perfect salvation.
Another way I usually describe faith is to say that, like forgiveness, faith is difficult. It should be. It must be. Is it a simple thing to have faith that anyone, any living being, once dead, has returned to life? Did God bestow me with a discerning intellect just to turn around and say believe all the claims in this single, oddly assembled collection of stories over several ancient millennia (and, of course, some currently, popularly agreed-upon interpretations) to the exclusion of all other stories and scriptures and against all evidence-based scientific and historic accounts? It is not a simple thing to have faith — there is nothing childlike about such a mental maneuver.
The next question asked is why faith? What is it for, why is the teaching of faith so strong in Christianity and other Abrahamic traditions? I do not have a strong answer, but in my study, contemplation, and prayer, I find the practice of faith integral and unavoidable.
Some would put heroic — if not perfect — faith (in scripture? in doctrine? in leaders?) as a requirement for salvation. My own understanding is that the primary requirement for salvation is God’s forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness, but I admit that faith is the critical ingredient. Simply put, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness is a Christian’s first act of faith, but I do not care to estimate what quality or quantity of faith is adequate. Jesus himself presented a conundrum about faith when he excoriated his disciples for their feeble faith, but then went on to say we don’t need much at all.
If I now describe my current position on scripture, that should lead quite neatly to a complete list of my heresies.
I have read the Bible, some parts of it many times. The Bible I refer to is the Protestant compilation — I have not read additional texts included by other Christian sects. For the better part of seventeen years, every Sunday, often twice, sometimes Wednesdays too, I listened to sermons and dutifully opened my own copy to read along verses cited from the pulpit.
In those days I believed the whole thing — literally the entire basic Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant statement of faith by the bullets. These days, not so much. As I have written, faith is difficult.
In my practice, I place my faith in the authority of the Bible as the record of God’s salvation. But to regard the Bible as inerrant? Maybe my faith is not yet strong enough.
The way I see it, the only truly important scriptures are the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even these I scrutinize for the truth of Jesus amid the words meant by the men who wrote them. But my approach to scripture is not as a skeptic, searching for what is not true. Rather, I search for what is true, placing my faith in Jesus to guide my understanding. Of course this means I hold most of the rest of the Bible in dim regard.
Without strict reverence for every Bible verse as the infallible, imperative, instructive and holy Word of God, it is much easier to understand how my views diverge from mainstream Christianity.
Even the Gospels are not without their problems, beginning as they do with virgin birth, carrying on about various miracles, and closing with resurrection. But my ultimate question, the one I ask myself and Jesus in prayer, is whether my belief in a fantastic story is essential to my salvation.
I have faith that Jesus will not condemn me because I doubt.
I believe Jesus is the Son of God, who is also God in the flesh, and my Lord and Savior. This is how and why salvation is possible. But I find little usefulness in the concept of the Holy Trinity, and I am suspicious of the origin and use of this idea. Furthermore, I find very little relevance in most of the post-Resurrection Gospel accounts, epistles and apocrypha. However, I do appreciate the story of Thomas — the only anecdote I look to for evidence.