This chapter may be where the rubber hits the road in this book: Dean says we have to talk about our faith in order to combat Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and in order to pass it on. Just doing things isn’t enough, just “being” isn’t even enough–we have to learn to TALK coherently about what we believe, the God we love, and why we do what we do. And then we have to do that talking to other people, particularly young people.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know very many people who are comfortable doing that.
One of the most common phrases I hear when I ask someone to be a mentor or a youth leader is “but I don’t know what to say!” or “I don’t know enough!” and I’ve even had at least one person respond to my statement that it’s more about sharing your own faith journey than about knowing the answers with the statement “I don’t HAVE a faith journey!” Now, since that’s obviously not true (the person is at church, and is over 50, so…they have SOME kind of faith journey!), the problem is more likely to be putting into words what we know, do, feel, think, and believe. And this is hard work–especially since faith is a combination of all these things, right? Faith is more than just intellectual belief, it involves love/trust/hope/dreams/feelings/thoughts/experiences as well as things we’ve learned and maybe even doctrines the church has taught. How do we put all that stuff into words? Isn’t it easier to just take the “we do/live our faith, we don’t talk about it” approach?
Dean says that it may be easier, but it’s not effective when it comes to passing our faith on, to our own children or to young people in our churches or to people outside our churches. “Since we don’t hear a language of faith, we do not speak one. The “God-talk” we absorb from the surrounding culture is much closer to what homiletician (preaching teacher) Thomas G Long calls “God chatter,” rather than a usable vocabulary of faith.” (p138) In other words, since we don’t have a language of faith, since we don’t have a behind-the-wall vocabulary and conversation, we’re left cobbling together a patchwork of whatever comes to mind, whatever we pick up in various places, and whatever seems to work for the moment. This is not the same as building on a tradition handed down for 2000 years. We want the faith to be ours, and for our time and place, but there’s already a foundation on which to build–we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and in fact when we DO reinvent the wheel, we’re more likely to get something like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (“just be nice, and god wants you to be happy, that’s all really”), Disney stories, or simple American Values than we are to get a robust faith that can carry us through our lives.
In addition, Dean points out, “unless the church offers an alternative behind-the-wall story of God in Jesus Christ, teenagers naturally assume that the self-serving caricatures of Christianity they see offered by the media are accurate–meaning that Christianity has no apparent purpose except to benefit the believer.” (p138) Ouch. But true–many of us have ceded the religious conversation to the media and to the fundamentalist churches with the ear of the media. Rather than offend someone or risk being lumped in with “them,” we’ve decided not to talk about it at all. So the religious conversation in this country is more about whether the President mentioned God in his Thanksgiving youtube video than it is about actually listening TO God and following Jesus.
There’s so much to talk about in this chapter, I could write a blog post much longer than anyone would read. I just want to highlight a couple of other things…
Our faith has always been one of words in addition to action–in Genesis, God spoke the world into being. In John we hear that Jesus is the Word made Flesh–in Greek it says he is the “Logos”–the word, the logic, the language–of God. On Easter morning the first thing that happens is that the women run back from the tomb and tell the others what they have seen AND what they believe about it–they say “I have seen the Lord!” In our own lives, do we ever do the equivalent? Do we tell others what we have seen and what we believe about it? Most of us have had experiences we would say are God’s movement or action in our lives, whether it’s seeing something a new way, a door opening (or closing), a feeling, or an outright intervention. Do we ever tell our own faith stories? And if not, why not? How can we get past ourselves to follow the women who went to the garden that first Easter morning? Or at least to report, perhaps during joys and concerns, where we’ve seen God at work in the past week? Dean puts it well when she says “divine grace is a gift, but not one we get to keep.” (p139) Grace works best when we pass it on.
Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t talk well about what God is doing in our midst is that we’re not actually paying close enough attention to notice. Dean also says that if faith doesn’t get talked about, God/Jesus/Spirit/etc) quickly fade from our awareness, and while of course Christ is still present in our lives even when we’re not paying attention, our ability to recognize God’s work or acknowledge the movement of the Spirit is so lessened that it seems as if we’re on our own (p140). So how can we cultivate our ability to pay attention, how can we hone our senses so we are seeking God and therefore seeing God? Once we’re seeing, we won’t be able to keep ourselves from sharing, and that will help us all as we continue to look! After all, Love cannot be contained–not in a box, not in the Bible, not even in a tomb 2000 years ago. It is constantly going out, looking for the beloved…and that’s us. But hopefully it’s also God–the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we are and everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But if we do not see God’s own love at work in the world, how can we reciprocate or pass it on?
One last thing. Dean says “those who have a hard time articulating what they believe about God also seem to have trouble forging a significant connection go God–and those who do not have a language for Christ are unlikely to imagine an identity in Christ.” (p142). And then again Thomas Long: “We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is part of how we come to believe.”
So…what DO you believe? Not “what to Presbyterians believe” or “what does our church/pastor/person-next-to-me-in-the-pew believe” but what do YOU believe? Take a few minutes to write down your own statement of faith. We ask our confirmands to do this, and it used to be asked of everyone in the Inquirer’s class. We ask people who think they might have a call to ministry to write a statement of faith (before they ever set foot in a seminary!). And it turns out, we should be asking it of ourselves! Remember, this is not a statement for the whole world church, or a statement for all times and places. Your faith may very well shift throughout your life, and the language you use to talk about it most definitely will change. But for right now: December 2011, what do YOU believe? Who is this God? What difference does Jesus make to your life? Where has the Holy Spirit been at work in your life story, and where is the Spirit moving today? Why does church matter? What’s up with the world?
Feel free to share–either a whole statement or tidbits. Feel free to ask questions! There are no wrong answers and no stupid questions. We’re on a quest here–as a community, to love God, to learn about God, and to follow God. And that means talking about God, too.
note: there is a really important conversation in this chapter, beginning on page 144, about how we involve youth in the lives of our congregations. I’m going to put up a post just about that last ten pages of the chapter on Saturday, so check back!
Are you interested in hearing more from Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian? She was interviewed on the podcast “God Complex Radio” last week. Here’s the link (the interview starts about 10 minutes in): http://godcomplexradio.com/