Recently, I read two chapters from Marcus Borg’s book, Jesus and was particularly interested in his discussion of the two paradigms of contemporary Christianity: the belief-centered and the emerging paradigms. I don’t read Marcus Borg often but when I do I find that I often agree with his analysis, but when it comes to interpretation/application he and I go off in different directions. When I begin to think that I might be becoming a theological liberal, Borg reminds me I really am not. However, I was also struck by the absence of a third, much more compelling, paradigm.
Borg first talks about what he calls the belief centered paradigm of Christianity. In that context he discusses the effect the Enlightenment had on the Christian understanding of belief. Prior to the Enlightenment belief or faith was synonymous with trust in and loyalty to God. The Enlightenment challenged the factual basis of Christian faith with its scientific worldview and critical stance toward anything that was not able to be grasped by the five senses. Thus, he says in Christian circles there was a shift from “belief in” to “belief that.” In other words the trust/loyalty view of faith gave way to an affirmation of certain “truths’ and doctrines. I think that is a helpful discussion, and today it is true that for many churchgoers a “belief that” approach to faith is all that seems to matter. Many churchgoing folks seem to think that as long as they believe certain truths, that is all there is to being a Christian.
However, for most evangelicals this is a false dichotomy because the “belief that” leads to and supports the “belief in.” So for instance, my belief that Jesus is a savior, leads me to entrust my life to Jesus; belief in a doctrine leads me to seek a relationship with God thru Jesus Christ. Borg rightly stresses the trust/loyalty dimension of faith as most important, but for many theologically conservative Christians, they are two sides of the same coin. Borg believes one can have a belief in God without a belief that certain things are true about God. I find it is sort of like building a house without a framework; one hangs on the other.
However, I was reminded recently at how middle class, educated and white this whole discussion is. Quite by accident I came across an article called “The Christian Revolution” (someone left it on the copier at work) from a book by Philip Jenkins called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Jenkins points out that the plurality of Christians has shifted from Europe and North America to Africa, Latin America and increasingly Asia. He points out “beyond the simple demographic transition, there are countless implications for theology and practice.” For instance, a major implication is that moving into the future the vast majority of Christians are and will be relatively impoverished and live life on the edge of material sustenance. As a result, their world and worldview is much closer that of the first century Christians. They know what Howard Thurman means in Jesus and the Disinherited when he says that the message of Jesus was a “survival strategy” for the oppressed. Writing as an oppressed person Jesus speaks out of and into their situation much more readily. Jenkins says that for the vast majority of Christians in the world, this is a truth that literally sustains them day to day. He calls those of us in North America to take notice that our way of thinking is not the only game in town and isn’t even the biggest or most important game. He calls us to reconsider our Enlightenment-based arrogance and blindness to the reality of the supernatural.
Jenkins points out that for most of the world’s Christians belief in the supernatural and the possibility of miracles, healings and other examples of God breaking into the natural order are not a troubling intellectual dilemma, but a life-affirming and life-saving strategy. Their testimony is that God is at work in the world in these ways. I see this same mindset in some of my students, who come from the underside of U.S. society. God’s movement in their lives is real in a way that as an educated, white, middle class intellectual I find hard to accept. Even so I find their testimony compelling.
In the end Jenkins causes me to reconsider my framework — have I so bought into Enlightenment thinking that I have become blind to what Jesus and the people of his day saw as a natural part of reality, and which people in the developing world have come to see is their lifeline to God? It is a question I can not shake.