Belonging, Behaving, Believing

I recently read Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass, in which she argues that the Church in the United States is losing its hold on the imagination of its people. She offers evidence that mainstream Christianity in America is entering into a period of sharp decline, mirroring the decay of Christendom in Western Europe in the last century. Yet, while she has dire predictions about the future of the established Church, she is optimistic about faith in America.

Bass notes that while increasing numbers of Americans shy away from the word “religion,” many identify themselves as being “spiritual.” “Spirituality,” she argues, has become a code word for experiential religion, based on the direct, practical and transformative experience of God. “Religion,” on the other hand, serves as a label for all of the institutional baggage and heavy-handed dogma that the Christian community has developed over the course of recent centuries.

Bass points out that in recent centuries the Church has operated primarily on the basis of accepting propositional statements (e.g. “Jesus is fully human and fully divine”). That is, to belong to the Christian community, you must first believe certain things aboutJesus. A transformed life was beneficial, of course, but the act of accepting certain theological statements was the most essential element of Christian identity.
Bass is convinced that this emphasis on right belief no longer works in our present cultural context. Instead, she argues that the health of the Church depends on reversing the established dynamic of “believing, behaving, belonging.” While propositional beliefs about God and Jesus are ultimately essential, they are not the first order of business. For this generation, the hierarchy of needs is different.

This was certainly my own experience. When I first committed to nurturing my relationship with God, my top priority was finding a community to belong to. I was beginning to trust in God, but I did not have any specific beliefs about Jesus, and was skeptical of Christianity in general (as many in my generation are). Fortunately, I found a Quaker community that was able to love and accept me as I was. Though I had lots of hang-ups, and my theology was still a jumbled mess, they were patient with me and did not jump in to correct me. Instead, my newfound community encouraged me to study the Quaker tradition, and to dedicate myself to the practices of waiting worship, discernment and personal prayer.

These practices were a gateway for me into discovering the intellectual contours of my faith. As I waited in the silence, studied the tradition, learned to pray and began to read the Scriptures, my life began to change – and so did my ideas about God! I started learning about who Jesus is, allowing him to speak to me through the Scriptures and through his Spirit. No one was forcing me to adopt a party line, yet as I continued to engage in prayer and study, I found myself growing into a deeper appreciation for orthodox Christian faith.

Just as Diana Butler Bass argues, for me the traditional pattern was reversed: Instead of “believing, behaving, belonging,” I first found belonging in a supportive spiritual community. There, I learned practices that taught me how to “behave.” Finally, this supportive community and the spiritual practices they taught me drew me into an authentic set of beliefs, grounded in both my own personal experience and in Scripture.

Ironically, now that I have gone through this process, I often forget how I got here. It is easy for me to get into a mindset that demands belief first, rather than seeing propositional belief as the product of a journey through belonging and practice. This tendency to insist on belief up front is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Christian community, and it will take real effort on our part to learn to reverse the equation.

Here in our context at Capitol Hill Friends, this might look like an emphasis on naming spiritual gifts and nurturing spiritual practices. By acknowledging the spiritual gifts that God has given to our community, we nurture belonging. A person does not have to believe that Jesus is divine before we can recognize that God has given that person a gift of healing, or administration, or knowledge. And by naming these gifts, we can invite each one, no matter where they are at in their journey, to walk deeper on the path of faith. We can provide resources for adopting spiritual practices that help sustain us in our personal lives, and in the work that we do in the world.

At the end of the day, I hope that this combination of unconditional acceptance and the teaching of spiritual practices will lead to deeply rooted faith. In the context of loving community and time-tested spiritual practices, we can open up space in our lives to discover the Truth that we find expressed in Scripture and our tradition as Quakers. On this path of “belonging, behaving, believing,” the acceptance of certain theological concepts will represent the culmination of a long process of engagement and growth, rather than the starting point.

How does this resonate with you? What is your own experience of  belief, behavior (practice) and belonging? How do you think that we can do a better job of inviting seekers into our Christian communities, teaching spiritual practices, and encouraging an ever-deepening engagement with our shared faith?