Having Faith in Faith

283811_10201338468730102_1710938363_nDid you know that many Evangelicals think Catholics are going to Hell? Some won’t publically admit it but they believe that because Catholics don’t believe the right things about how a person is “saved,” they don’t make it into Heaven. From the Protestant point of view, Catholic theology teaches that there are certain things you have to do in order to earn admittance into paradise while Protestants themselves explicitly reject this notion. For Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular, above all salvation must be “through faith” rather than “through good works.” Believing right has always mattered more to them than acting right because in the end you can be forgiven for failing at the latter, but not the former. Having seen the darker side of Evangelicalism since I left the fold, I must say I know this all too well. But you can imagine how, if they even censure Catholics for insufficiently emphasizing faith, they must save their harshest condemnation for those who reject the notion of faith altogether. What could possibly offend an Evangelical more than an atheist? The difference between those two groups cuts to the heart of what an Evangelical is.

Liberal and mainline Christians today don’t have this hang-up about atheists. Many of them wouldn’t bat an eye if a friend or loved one didn’t accept faith as a valid way of perceiving the world. For these subgroups, how you live matters more than what you believe, and for that reason I call these people my allies in the culture wars. For these people, love triumphs over dogma. That’s why you won’t see them out picketing and lobbying to limit the rights of whole classes of people based on the primitive biases of ancient religious texts. You won’t hear their preachers admonishing those who think differently from them to leave the country because they will not be missed. If you live in a country or a region dominated by liberal or mainline Christianity, you probably won’t get why people like me are always writing about the exclusionary nature of religious belief because you don’t see that where you live. Around where I live, though, it’s an almost daily challenge. I live in the heart of Baptist country.

I remember how, when I “got saved” at fifteen, it took me a little while to come to grips with the way Evangelical theology works. Even though I had grown up in a thriving Southern Baptist megachurch with a nationally known preacher, I had still absorbed the popular Hollywood notion that as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you get to go to Heaven (see Ghost, or more comically This Is the End). After sharing about my recent dramatic “Damascus Road” experience with my youth group, my youth minister pulled me aside to educate me in the distinction between “salvation by grace through faith” and “salvation by works.” In time I came to understand that difference of theology to be so important that I even began to date my conversion from that later conversation more than from the initial emotional experience at the evangelistic youth conference. At the conference I “rededicated my life to Christ,” but after the conversation I came to think correctly about how salvation works. This, I came to see, was the key element to “getting saved” in Evangelical theology.

Once you break it down, this theology teaches that “thinking incorrectly” is the only thing that sends anyone to Hell. Theoretically, Heaven will be full of the worst kinds of sinners who “got saved” (i.e. came to understand the plan of salvation) on their deathbeds while eternal torment awaits billions of good people who just believed in the wrong things. It’s an insult to rationality (as is the very notion of an afterlife, but let’s save that for another time). One murderer goes to Heaven and one goes to Hell, but what made the difference? The difference is that the “saved” one at some point in time came to think correctly about how salvation works. He came to subscribe to the notion that a) he needed saving, b) Jesus provided a means for that, and c) by simply believing in a & b, he gets the forgiveness he needs to wipe his record clean! It turns out that in the end your eternal destiny has nothing to do with how you behave and everything to do with whether or not you believe the right things.

Evangelicals are encouraged to qualify this stance by saying that anyone who is truly saved will be changed for the better. They will submit to the lordship of Christ and begin “living right” as a result of “believing right.” But when pressed, they will still argue that the believing is prior, and is therefore the more important thing. In Evangelical thinking, it’s the only non-negotiable. Even a “backslidden” Christian can be saved as long as he never decides to rely on his own goodness as the means for gaining access to the presence of God. The thief on the cross had nothing to show for his acceptance into the kingdom of God except his belief that Jesus was the way to get there. In the mind of that gospel writer (and therefore of Evangelicals today) that’s all that really matters.

A Divisive Doctrine from the Start

At some point Evangelicals will usually cite the book of James as their balance for this, not realizing that Paul and James bitterly opposed each other over this very issue. Most Bible-loving Christians are blissfully unaware that the early Church was split over whether or not Paul’s notion of “salvation by faith” was legit. The Judean church based in Jerusalem taught that only Jews and converts to Judaism could be saved, but Paul ingeniously re-envisioned the message of Christianity to include anyone who simply believed the right things—no dietary laws required, and nobody has to go “under the knife,” so to speak. Both Paul and James hinged their respective arguments on the same story of Abraham, with James saying Abraham was righteous for following orders and Paul arguing that it was Abraham’s faith that made him righteous, irrespective of what he would later do.

In Acts 15 we learn of an emergency conference called to settle the dispute, but James’s resolution and Paul’s were polar opposites. If you read between the lines of Luke’s efforts to gloss over the conflict, making these two competing Christianities appear more harmoniously compatible than they really were, you’ll see that these two men never came to see eye to eye on this matter.* For years to come, the Pauline churches would be targets for the proselytizing of evangelists from Jerusalem trying to convince the Gentiles they must convert to Judaism, and Paul would have to spend letter after letter countering their theology right up until his death. The “judaizers” might have even won and Pauline theology would have died out if it weren’t for the Great Revolt which began in Jerusalem in the year 66 CE and the subsequent demolition of the focal point of the Jewish faith, the Temple, in 70 CE. Paul’s version of Christianity won out, and that’s why we’re still discussing these things today. If the Jewish-Roman wars hadn’t scattered Judean Christianity the way that it did, privileging Pauline Christianity in the process, I’m convinced the New Testament canon would look dramatically different from how it looks today. In fact, it’s highly likely that this new religion would have gone the way of the Essenes or some other obscure Jewish sect of the period. It would have become yet another curious footnote of history, having little to no impact on world history.

Believing in Belief

Today, however, Paul’s innovative emphasis on “faith” instead of “dead works” characterizes those traditions most committed to being “New Testament.” Occasionally baptism gets thrown in as a requirement (if you’re Church of Christ), plus an argument can be made that when you make “believing” a condition for salvation, that makes it a “work” of a different kind—call it cerebral legalism. But the watershed issue is: Do you believe the right things? If you do, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. In other words, for many Evangelicals, it’s not just about believing in Jesus, it’s about believing in believing in Jesus. Catholics and mainline Protestants may have faith in Jesus, but Evangelicals have faith in faith itself. That was what I learned the night I addressed my youth group and gave my dramatic testimony. The most important thing, I was told, is to believe the right things about salvation and about faith itself and how it “works.”

This is why atheists are so frightening to Evangelicals. Baptists may dislike Muslims and Hindus but at least they believe in some kind of god(s). Atheists reject the very notion of faith itself, and that, it would seem, is the unpardonable sin. Wayward sinners have their place in Evangelical churches. Shoot, even prostitutes and criminals can find a place in church because their kind are featured prominently in the story of Jesus. But someone who doesn’t even see validity in faith at all? That scares the living daylights out of most Evangelicals. That cuts to the core of what Evangelical Christianity is about. That makes atheists the most viscerally repulsive people of all.

Hopefully this will explain why you see so much of the culture wars playing out between Evangelicals and atheists in the United States. I hear my friends from other countries (and from regions in the US where Evangelicalism is underrepresented) questioning: “Why the fuss? What gives?” The reason why people like me keep writing about religion is because it continues to drive people in my region to do oppressive, marginalizing things to people who are outside their faith. They feel the vulnerability of their worldview in the face of ever-encroaching reason and scientific progress, and it makes them act out, often targeting people like me. We threaten their faith by our very existence, and they’d really rather we went away entirely. But since we won’t, they’ll use whatever means they can find to protect their place of privilege in the public sphere, trusting us least of all. It’s all about protecting faith, which makes us their greatest enemy.


* After the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, the leaders of Jerusalem (evidently led by James) sent a letter to be read in all the churches, instructing them to stay kosher; but when Paul tells the exact same story, he says, “They added nothing to my message…all they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.” Not a word about dietary laws, which is significant.

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21 Responses to Having Faith in Faith

  1. Sheldon says:

    Then there also the issue of their belief in objective morality, if you don’t have a religion, and a holy book of some kind, they feel that you can’t possibly be moral. That’s another reason for them to be afraid of atheists.

    I wonder how they explain the high rates of professing Christians in prisons then….

  2. Alice says:

    Believing the right things turns on the “auto pilot” for right living. Of course, if that doesn’t happen, it is your doing, but the good stuff….don’t take credit for that.

    • I was taught to believe that even doing the right things is wrong if it doesn’t issue forth from the right mental state. Paul said, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin,” which means that it’s less about what you do and more about whether or not you’re thinking correctly about what makes you do things. That’s why I’m calling it cerebral legalism.

  3. Great post! Spot on! Evangelical Christians are spread all over the southern states. In fact, I look out my front window and see an Evangelical church directly in front of my house!
    Christians are very un-accepting of people who are different from themselves, especially people who “believe” differently. I left the church over a year ago when I realized I could no longer believe in Yahweh. At that point I really wanted to believe but I couldn’t force myself, even if I tried. Needless to say, it has been an exciting roller coaster ride since then and I’m very happy with my new world view.

  4. Gra*ma Banana says:

    Wow! That explains a lot! I keep thinking, wouldn’t we have such a productive and peaceful world if ‘people of faith’ and people who believe in “believing in believing in Jesus”, would re-direct their (in my opinion) misguided zealotry into doing what the Bible says and what Jesus did…good works. What a monumental waste of time, energy, and brain power. Just trying to wrap my brain around the evangelical meaning of ‘faith’ is exhausting. Thankfully when I was attending catechism in the Catholic faith the priest uttered some nonsense about everyone but Catholics going to hell which is what set me on my path of ditching all religion. Again, thanks Neil for clarifying and validating. You do it so well.

    • Chad Bunch says:

      I was also taught as a Catholic that all other religious beings would burn for eternity, along with homosexuals, unwedded parents, promiscuous teenagers, money grubbers, nonbelievers, desperate housewives, lying children….

  5. Courtney says:

    I was shocked at how Mormonism was suddenly an acceptable form of Christianity when it came to Romney vs. Obama. Never in my life had I seen or heard people I once went to church with consider Mormons to be Christians before that election.

    • You ain’t kiddin’! That about-face gave a lot of people whiplash. In case there was any question remaining that Evangelicals and the GOP have become symbiotically dependent upon one another, that should have clinched it. Poor Graham looked like he hardly even knew what was going on in the room. His opportunistic son wheeled him in for a publicity shot and voila! Suddenly Mormonism isn’t a cult any more. It was promoted overnight.

      • Garrett Glass says:

        It really did look like Franklin Graham was calling the shots, and his dad was too feeble to object. Billy Graham always prided himself on meeting every President and being friends with most of them. I don’t know if he ever met Obama, but taking sides in an election in such an open way seemed so much against his character.

      • As one of those Christians who caused you to have whiplash, let me say that I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt (Nashville, TN), I’m surrounded by evangelicals, and none of the Christians I know supported Romney’s religion. None of them ever suggested that he was not in a cult. I have always believed Mormonism to be a false religion. Romney didn’t change that. It really isn’t fair to say that we erased the spiritual divide between Mormons and Christians simply because we voted for a Mormon. We merely recognized that his political views were far more in line with what we consider to be Biblical than his opponent’s. None of my Christian friends were happy with supporting Romney. I held my nose when I voted for him and I certainly didn’t vote for him in the primary. Sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils. Forgive us for not touting that loudly during the pre-election season, but “Romney: the Best Choice We Have Left!” isn’t exactly a motivating campaign slogan. We would certainly prefer to be ideologically pure in our presidential choices, but that wasn’t the choice we had.

        • Well, it’s not just about voting for a lesser of two evils, Catherine. Billy Graham’s website had for many years classified Mormonism as a cult. But the day after Graham & Co. met with Romney, their website got edited and I believe to this day it has not been edited back. They got promoted out of “cult” status by the last living patriarch of American Evangelicalism, or at least by his organization.

          I do realize that Evangelicals do “as they please” and Graham is no pope, making pronouncements for the masses to follow. But his outfit wasn’t the only one that dropped the cult label for the Mormons. It happened in many more places as well. Sounds like you guys kept the faith, though, and kept them “out.”

          • I saw your comment here after I left my “additional thought.” I can certainly see how the Graham’s were inconsistent. Perhaps they should not have ventured into the political fray. It is hard to win when a ministry or religious figure does. Graham Sr. got into a political quandary during the Nixon era which he later regretted. During the last election, I believe that many ministries were faced with the same dilemma that I had. We saw two very different roads: by our vantage point, one was flooring the accelerator towards a cliff, the other was applying a little break action, or at least not applying more gas. As a respected religious figure, Graham felt compelled to do something with so much at stake. But then there was the religious contradiction. How to deal with that… Do you remain silent or create an ally with a cult member? And if you must create the ally, do you stop advertising his cult membership? You are doomed to get pummeled either way.

            I’ve been familiar with Graham’s organization for decades and I don’t think that they changed their beliefs on Mormonism. But I do believe that he got caught in the proverbial crosshairs of mixing faith and politics. Graham couldn’t endorse that political candidate without playing the the political game. So he advanced politically and retreated spiritually. You are right to criticize the inconsistency and are entitled to a pound of Graham flesh. But our faith professes the reality of human weakness and inconsistency, even amongst the brethren. I am blessed to know that Christ always managed to steer clear of these political conundrums, outwitting his adversaries even when the traps were well laid. So I’ll try to follow His example and then extend some mercy, because I won’t always succeed.

      • One additional thought… both of the candidates for president in the last election professed to have faith in a god. They both professed to be religious. Did you vote? As an atheist agnostic, it is contradictory to criticize Christians who supported someone with different religious beliefs if you did the same. I believe that we all look at the candidates available and choose the one that best matches our core convictions. My core convictions emanate from my faith. Unfortunately the candidate that best matched my core convictions happened to be a member of the Mormon cult, not a member of Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology/collective salvation church (which many consider to be a cult as well.) And it was a poor match, I will admit. But that does not mean that the Christians you criticize changed our beliefs on Mormonism.

  6. MN Atheist says:

    I haven’t read this blog yet…maybe tomorrow. But I have to say that the bike thief quote at the top about made me fall off my chair!

  7. Pingback: No, Virginia, Jesus Doesn’t Magically Change People. | Roll to Disbelieve

  8. Pingback: Faithiness | Beyond God

  9. Your musings are intriguing and I commend you for writing what you do from the South. Freethinking lives.

  10. Pingback: Link Love (2014-01-18) | Becky's Kaleidoscope

  11. I think allot of what Paul was dealing with was the Jewish ceremonial laws not the moral teachings. As you might imagine circumcision would be a barrier to making people Christian. But evangelicals later took this issue out of context as if Paul was saying we can murder and lie etc.

    I grew up Catholic and really was surprised when I heard what many protestants thought. That is not to say beliefs are not important for Catholics. But the issue of how beliefs and actions are related is tricky even outside religion. I think beliefs do have a connection with action. If someone says they believe they will go to hell if they don’t attend church every Sunday, yet they don’t actually go, you have grounds to question whether they really believe what they said.

    “Believing in Jesus” might mean different things to different people. As it says in James “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” The demons no doubt believe Jesus existed and that he was the son of God and died on the cross for the sins of humans. But they do not really believe his message do they? If we truly believed in Jesus we would follow his commands.

    IMO the protestants go too far with “faith alone.” But before the reformation Catholics seemed to be going to far in the other direction.

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