Faith. The word conjures up magic. Something we posses that grants us powers of unbelievable strength. To have faith means to have the missing jigsaw piece that makes the picture complete, grants us our wishes, and general makes us into supermen. Believe, we are told, and all of our problems will melt away in the strength of our beliefs. Believe in what? The object is not important; the act belief is what matters.
Yet, it also is a word under fire. The Gnu Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens see it as the source of evil. To believe without reasons to believe will lead men to throw acid in the face of young girls, fly planes into buildings, and generally lead to the decay of humanity. To eradicate faith is to bring enlightenment to our world. To eradicate faith is to turn to reason and evidence. It will solve all of the problems plaguing humanity. To be a man of faith is not to have superpowers, but to be an enemy of humanity and the devil himself. We must have faith in our human intellect and not in faith itself, they shout from the mountain top of their best sellers.
Yet in both common understandings of faith, our culture betrays us. Faith is view in both cases is seen as a consumer item. In the first example, faith, like a product, comes in the various flavors of the self: God, money, one’s own strength, fashion, reason, fame, … the list is endless. Even faith, itself, is thought of a product to be taken off the shelf, wrapped in easy to use bottle with a beautiful label, maybe be laced with omega 3, promising to make us younger, smarter and ultimately happier. In the second, Faith comes across as junk food, good tasting and yet leading to empty calories, empty thoughts, empty life. It makes us fat in our thinking accepting any old idea that comes along.
In both cases, faith is a whiteboard in which everyone writes either their wishes and desires or the fears and horrors. Recently, Stanley Hauerwas made a buzz by claiming Americans’ faith is less Christian and more a vague civil religion with a nice, but meaningless God.
This civil faith is a faith without a story and the underlining its foundation is our ability to choose. We choose our church by how it feeds our needs, and not by any demand on us or we choose no church at all. Our church has to support our political beliefs. Yet, this complete ignores the demands of the Jesus story on us. This vague understanding of God explains seemly paradoxical studies recently. Most sociological studies find that most Americans go to church and, then again, the recent Pew survey found that Atheists knew more about the Christian faith than those who claim to practice it. The lost part of the survey is how little either knew. Could most Americans recite the books of the bible, much less know the content of those books? Many could perhaps cite numerous verses to support their own preferences, but without being able to put them in the context of the whole writing. The good we want to do is not the good we do. What a wretched people we are.
So, taking Hauerwas serious for a minute and seriously look at this civil religion. One of the facts of this civil faith is it is Manichean in nature. I have written before on how this aspect of civil religion maybe a cold war relic. This civic God maybe vague, but this God picks sides. David Brooks pointed this out in his recent op-ed piece:
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
Also, this civil faith takes for it foundation a consumerism in which me choose our beliefs like we choose our soda. Lost in this civil religion is Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. This week is the start of Advent. Advent is where God, takes on flesh, and enters our story and transforms us. It is not a vague God that gives us peace, but Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus forces us transcend our politics and our sinful nature. Faith, in general, may make us stronger, but faith in Jesus makes us realize the limits of ourselves. Faith, in general, may make us sure in our own purity and virtue. Faith in Jesus makes me confront my weakness and see my own sin. This is the season of Advent, the season of amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.