It is pious heresy that “belief is the ultimate achievement and final goal of faith.”
It is invalid to use “belief” as a test of faith. We do that when we limit the inquiry into a person’s suitability for church membership to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?” A variation of that, and that’s all it is, is the question, “Are you saved?” Such questions imply that faith is cognitive. It’s something to be thought. Even institutions (in this case churches) that accept people from birth require them to think about it and come to an appropriate, overarching conclusion.
This is actually important only for institutional maintenance. It filters out potential members who will prove disloyal or uncooperative. But the test does not work even to do that. No member, not even one installed into leadership, relinquishes the right to dissent. Unconditional assent is not a legitimate requirement if institutions and the people who compose them are functionally organic. And we are organic. We change as we grow, even if the change is toward decay or decadence. Institutions change. Change is constant. Therefore, the expectation of unyielding agreement is absurd.
But that is exactly what is meant when belief is the measure of a person’s soul and spirit. Nor are institutions consistent about it.
The same organizations that insist “human life begins at the moment of conception” and “abortion at any time is murder” also insist that the essential proof of human worth is consciousness of salvation. The moment of cognition is the one that counts. It is impossible to have it both ways, squirm as you may about the details.
Even “Holy Mother Church” has fallen short, and sometimes admitted it, although the confessions were tardy, abbreviated, and did nothing to amend anything for those abused.
The idea, of course, is that proper belief leads to proper actions and attitudes. Pure belief purifies a person’s thought, word and deed. So there is no need to ask about a person’s actions when questioning them about their belief. A person’s belief may not be “all there is to it” but belief is sufficient to test since it must lead to action. In retrospect, in celebrating memories for example, actions and accomplishments are mentioned prominently as if they signify the value and identity of the person and proof of their belief which indicates how worthy they are to be honored and certified for rewards temporal and eternal.
If this concept works as it should, there can be no exceptions.
But there are exceptions. In fact, there are exceptions without exception. There is no case in which a mortal human being can be held to be blameless throughout life in thought, word and deed. No, not one.
Actually, it is belief in the trustworthiness of belief that is faulty.
We have thousands of proofs that belief is not final.
For example, there are vaccine resisters who are letting their belief about the vaccine dominate their actions and often even their actions against people who believe otherwise. But some of them, having refused vaccine, masks, and social restrictions, get sick with COVID. Deathbed confessions that “I wish I’d been vaccinated” are heart-rending. But their window of opportunity for believing is over.
There is a window of opportunity to believe; beyond that it no longer matters whether you believe or not.
What is it, then, that is ultimate if belief is penultimate?
It is action, but not our action as individuals. Concerted, compassionate, action by communities is of greater consequence than individual efforts. That is obvious. And it is the best that we can do. At its best it is noble and influential. But even that is not ultimate.
The measure of what is ultimately important resides outside history and is integrated within dimensions beyond human admittance. We cannot speak of it.
In matters of ultimate belief we can only confess our limitations and profess hope. We cannot know that which cannot be known. We can only move forward as if our belief is sufficient. The god of whom we can speak is too small to be God (to use JB Phillips’s venerable phrase). Theological language is all liturgical, it is language of worship. Religious belief, then, is something worshipful we do as we pay attention to things we can see that need our attention. Effective belief depends on discernment about what is demanding our attention. Eyesight and brainpower are not enough. The best indicator of authentic discernment is a radical change of heart and perspective towards compassion for the most abused and unfortunate.
Belief that matters is what we believe about who we are in the world. That is what informs us. Hope and reverence are what inspire us to care.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.