Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Rightness" and Righteousness

       I come from a faith tradition that emphasized the “rightness” of our beliefs.  In fact, you could say that the path to “righteousness”—the forgiveness of sins and restoration of our relationship with God—was through the “rightness” of our beliefs.  This is what was meant by being saved by faith.  You weren’t saved by doing anything, because that would be a work, and we are not saved by works, we are saved by faith, which had to be an internal thing, a matter of the mind and the heart.  If you believed the right things about Jesus, you were saved.  If you didn’t believe the right things about Jesus, you weren’t saved.  Even worse than not believing the right things about Jesus was believing the wrong things about Jesus.  So while we were taught to have sympathy toward those who didn’t believe in Jesus, we were taught to have contempt toward those “Christian” groups or individuals who believed the wrong things about Jesus.  Of course, it wasn’t like my teachers said, “OK, you need to be contemptuous toward Catholic priests because they teach salvation by works”, but when teaching us what was wrong with Catholicism they did so with a contemptuous attitude and with contemptuous remarks, we learned to be contemptuous.  (That contempt was even clearer later when I learned that they had caricatured Catholic teaching about salvation.)  And it wasn’t just Catholics who believed wrong things about Jesus.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals—oh, my! The Pentecostals!—Lutherans, and even some in the Baptist family all had some questionable things in their theology of which I was warned.
When I got older and began to think for myself and learn how to interpret the Bible for myself, and as I talked with Christians and pastors of other denominations and read books by those outside of my narrow brand of Christianity, I learned that the Baptists of my particular clan weren’t always right.  Which meant that I wasn’t always right.  And I learned that that was all right.
And I also saw that holding a contemptuous attitude toward other Christians was never right.  If I hold and understand all of the right beliefs without love, then I am violating the very nature of what God came to achieve in humanity through Jesus.  Right beliefs without love does not lead to righteousness, and in our contempt we deceive ourselves.
I'm not dismissing the importance of right beliefs, not at all.  In fact, I think that right thinking about God is very important , which is why I keep studying, reading the Bible, listening to other Christians, searching, revising, and questioning.  If I think all my beliefs are right I won’t do any of those things.  To stop thinking, studying, questioning and revising is to solidify those areas in which I'm wrong but don’t  yet know it.  But even in those areas in which I'm right I have to recognize that I still see through a glass darkly, that my “rightness” is just a faint shadow compared to what I will see when I stand face-to-face.
Some may accuse me of becoming wishy-washy about my beliefs, preferring me to assert my certainty: Here I stand!  I can do no other!  But, no, those of you who have engaged me in theological conversation or sat under my teaching know that what I believe I tend to believe strongly.  It’s not wishy-washy.  But I have realized that if I’ve been wrong in the past about certain matters of belief I'm probably wrong about certain things right now, and will undoubtedly be wrong about certain things in the future.   I have learned that certainty is actually dangerous.  It’s antithetical to faith.  Doubt and uncertainty aren’t the opposites of faith, they are the essence of faith.  Faith is committing to a course of action even though one is uncertain.  I follow Jesus even though I don’t know everything I feel like I need to know, and even though the way is rough and steep and looks like it leads to deprivation and maybe even death.
I follow Jesus because I know that I don’t know, but I trust that he does.  I can’t trust the rightness of my beliefs, but I can trust Jesus.  Of him I can be certain.

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