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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Faith is in the Living

Written by: on January 23, 2018

I used to collect fossils.  When I was pastoring in Pennsylvania I found this huge fossil—about the size of a basketball split in half. It looked like a sponge on one side and like a coiled snake on the other. I had never seen anything like it before. At the time we didn’t have the internet—it was the dark ages; how did we ever get along?—and so I called Bucknell University’s geology department and a professor invited me to talk with him. We https://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/thumbnails/image/2017/03/29/14/fossil-main.jpghad a fascinating discussion. He told me what it was—I don’t remember though. However, one statement he made has stuck with me all these years. When I told him I was a pastor who was very interested in fossils and geology he said, “At one time, members of the clergy were one of the major collectors of fossils. I don’t know what happened, but now the church is the biggest opponent of my life’s work!” Ouch!

We find ourselves in a world where story-tellers share a narrative that highlights the triumph of science and secular thought over religion and belief in God. We live in a world were,  according to Erdozain “’religion and unbelief’ are looked upon as ‘alien worldviews,’ locked in mortal combat.”[1]  Christians are concerned—rightly so—about this trend and so they tend to give negative attention to those who are part of or who pass on the story of the triumph of science and modern thought.

However, there may be another story where the Christian church has in part set the stage for the present attacks against religion and belief in God. This is Erdozain’s main thesis and an argument for which he presents solidly within its historical context in The Soul of Doubt: Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. Erdozain argues that the Christian faith itself has set the stage for this present unbelief. “The ‘secular’ critique of Christianity was a burning product of the religion it dared to appraise” [2]. The author tells the story of “aggressive and articulate unbelief” beginning with Luther and the Reformation through the Marxist revolution and beyond.[3] It’s a story of religious liberty, power, individualism, the search for meaning and acceptance. It is also a story of a faith dominated by fear of losing itself and therefore working harder at control. What is it at the core of the history of Christianity that would push people away from the church. Erdozain states,  “It may be that people are repelled by a religion that threatens to diminish them.” [4]

This statement brought me back to Bucknell University and the conversation I had with the geology professor. Historically many people who are outside of the church look into the windows of the church and see an organization that preaches Augustinian, “doom, destruction, and selective redemption.” [5] These in-lookers have either lost faith in faith or are not inclined to look through the window again because of what they see and even experience.

To illustrate the point Erdozain turns to the Scopes trial and the announcement by the fiancé, “it wasn’t God he abandoned, only the church.” [6] This thought is similarly expressed today in the saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” [7]  Voltaire, he says, was searching for a father but instead sees a tyrant in God. [8] Concerning Spinoza he states, “Spinoza lived and worked with the kind of Christian that can embarrass a biographer, and he may have learned as much from them as they from him.” [9]

In these words, there is no sense that Erdozain is in any way attacking the church, as some might suggest. In fact, I think in his deep love of God and the Christian faith that he does the Christian church a service worth considering. Though Soul of Doubt is an historical treatise, the point rings clear today. It is important for Christians to understand how others see them. In the context of a discussion of Soul of Doubt, I’ve heard it said that Voltaire and even Spinoza where looking for beauty in the world; however, Christianity only brought them theory and a limited theological framework. It had altogether missed relationship.[10]

At the end of the day, it always comes back to practice—the day to day living as the salt and the light that impacts people and impacts the world. Is it possible that in an effort to protect we might actually be hindering the mission of the church? Can the effort to remain true take the place of the Truth itself so that we are no longer purveyors of the Truth but purveyors of the “effort” to remain true? Faith is in the living, and living in the relationships we have first with God and then with others.

 

 

  1. Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief From Luther to Marx. 1 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 2.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 264.
  6. Ibid., 174.
  7. Barnes, Julian. Nothing to be Frightened Of. Reprint ed. Vintage, 2009.
  8. Erdozain, 148.
  9. Ibid., 71.
  10. Clark, Jason. Online Class Lecture. January 23, 2017.

About the Author

Jim Sabella

14 responses to “Faith is in the Living”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Great question Jim: “Is it possible that in an effort to protect we might actually be hindering the mission of the church?” This reminds me of John Piper’s recent comments about not supporting women to preach or teach in a seminary as it is scripturally unsound. How do we live in a country that advocates for freedom and equity all, and he thinks this is appropriate to teach? Again, I wonder, how is this in any way helping the church? I have to assume his efforts is in protecting the church that he holds sacred and believes women’s voice and insight will hurt versus help the integrity of the church. This grieves me for him, the church that supports this faulty thinking and the disregard for the many great women who have had a profound spiritual impact on my life.

    Beautiful summary statement and so similar to mine: “Faith is in the living, and living in the relationships we have first with God and then with others.” If we can keep this at the forefront of our hearts and minds, it will greatly influence how we treat and relate to others in our diversity.

    As usual, thoughtful and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Jenn, Katy mentioned John Piper in her post too! I wish I knew exactly who it was that said this. But I remember a quote from my undergrad years that went something like this. “Sir—they are outside of the gate trying to break in. They what to completely destroy the church! What should we do? Brother, it is not they who you should fear; if we haven’t destroyed the church yet from the inside, let’s not worry about those pressing against the door!” Okay, it’s not exactly the quote but you get the point, I hope. Sometimes, I think we may fear the wrong things. Thank you, Jenn.

  2. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    There are so many points in your blog that we can comment on, Jim, but I want to highlight one insight you make: “I’ve heard it said that Voltaire and even Spinoza where looking for beauty in the world; however, Christianity only brought them theory and a limited theological framework. It had altogether missed relationship.” (First, nice to catch & quote Jase!). I think that is wisdom for us to keep in mind as well, in the midst of our busyness in work and study. Theory and framework are all well and good (heaven knows we need them!), but not to the detriment of missing relationships. This comment gave me a flashback to Dominic’s acknowledgements, when his kids slid a note under his study room door, pleading for him to pause working to play with them. It’s encouraging to know an afternoon of rambunctiousness ensued. I want to keep that balance and not miss those important moments.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Katy! I do pay attention in class…sometimes! And sometimes I wonder how we miss something as simple as relationship. In my opinion, it is the cornerstone of all we do as Christians. Great story of the note under the door. Reminds me of the CNN interview where the kids came running into the room! I too want to keep the balance and not miss the important moments. We’ll conquer that one with the next book!

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “Can the effort to remain true take the place of the Truth itself so that we are no longer purveyors of the Truth but purveyors of the “effort” to remain true?”

    Jim, I admit that I had to read this a few times, but I really like what you are saying.

    Since the reformation, Christian leaders have battled against “heresies.” This is still happening today. Yet, the danger is that sometimes leaders try to “out conservative” one another. When we care more about winning theological battles than we do in glorifying God and loving our brother, there is a problem.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Stu. I could have said it better, but I got wordy! I may have said something like, “tradition takes the place of truth.” Or, we fight for the way we used to do it so vigorously that we forget what it was we were really fighting for in the first place. Great point… “When we care more about winning theological battles than we do in glorifying God and loving our brother, there is a problem.”

  4. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    “At the end of the day, it always comes back to practice—the day to day living as the salt and the light that impacts people and impacts the world. Is it possible that in an effort to protect we might actually be hindering the mission of the church? Can the effort to remain true take the place of the Truth itself so that we are no longer purveyors of the Truth but purveyors of the “effort” to remain true? ”

    Jim Yes I do think that we can be a distraction to accomplishing the mission but God’s mission will prevail regardless of our actions.

    As to your second question, I do think that is what is occurring in the American church today. It is a dangerous substitute that accomplishes nothing but more division and tension. It is sad and unfortunate.

    Enjoyed your highlights and summary!

  5. Mary says:

    I agree with you (and the others above!) Jim that we need to think about how we are going about things as a church. When has tradition ceased to be helpful? Is it time to stop limiting women in ministry?
    In order to protect, where and how do we draw lines before we call those outside heretics?
    Can we listen to what people say before we judge?
    I pray that as we keep the mission foremost, we don’t change the message Christ gave us, but look really hard at how we present it.
    So insightful, Jim.

  6. Jim Sabella says:

    Thanks, Mary. I too pray that we keep the mission foremost and not change the message.

  7. Lynda Gittens says:

    Jim,
    I loved the relationship of tying Scopes and Barnes statements, “To illustrate the point Erdozain turns to the Scopes trial and the announcement by the fiancé, “it wasn’t God he abandoned, only the church.” [6] This thought is similarly expressed today in the saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” [7]

    I have not attended my normal church service time slot in a few years. Many thought I just stopped coming because they were used to seeing me involved. I would say sometimes, you know we have many services knowing I had not been attending just to avoid backlash conversations. This is a church I have been involved with since age 8.
    Now you have given me a new statement. I am more in the community and going the path God has set for me. So many don’t understand that it often calls you to leave what you have known all your life. “I haven’t abandoned God”

  8. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Excellent summary, Jim! You capture so much of what Dominic is expressing.
    You mentioned that Dominic isn’t attacking the church. I’m not sure whether he means to or not, but I don’t believe there is anything wrong with “attacks” here and there that are an attempt to bring the church around to a clear view of herself. Luther and Calvin attacked the church because of the atrocities they saw. Sometimes attacking the church and attacking the Body are different things. We can love the Body and despise the actions of an institution that ultimately not only sullies God’s name, but tears apart the Body as well.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Great point Kristin. I agree. Sometimes the word attack is used as a negative i.e. wanting to distroy— and I’ve seen the word used negatively in at least one review of Dominic’s book. I agree if there is any “attack” at all it not on the body but the structure and systems. It is out of love for the church and the desire for change and not for destruction. Appreciate your making that point.

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