To Believe For Real

During a seminar this past week a student brought to the discussion of Paul Tillich, one of the theological giants of the twentieth century, a phrase something like this: to believe a truth is to deny that which is conflict with it. It seems rather self-evident when put so simply.

In a very real sense, theology is all about identifying those conflicts. When Christians confess (literally, speak together) their faith in Jesus Christ through the Apostles’ Creed or something very much like it, they are not just stating a doctrinal formula. That is the starting point for expressing in words the living reality of a relationship with God in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. It is also the touchstone for evaluating the many proposed truth claims placed before us on a daily basis, including the claim that all truth claims are to be considered as relative only. In the same vein but on a different level, when we come to the Lord’s table we are affirming that Christ came in flesh and blood to offer himself for our redemption. In both cases. Yet again, when we gather to worship we give witness to a reality above and beyond the physical world, yet one that also encompasses and explains this world.

All well and good. Most Christians would say that they believe these things, to the extent that one wonders what could possibly be meant by the term “Christian” when used by one who does not believe them. What Tillich’s statement reminds us, however, is that these “truths” are never held in a vacuum. We simply cannot take them seriously if they are applicable only to some private realm, cordoned off from ideas that conflict with them, ideas which also act as descriptors of the same world as our faith is lived in. To believe one set is to deny the other when they conflict; while each version may be recognized as partial, and sometimes reconcilable to one another, there are occasions where conflict is absolute. And if our thinking and living are to be done with integrity (oneness, wholeness), we will be unsuccessful to the extent that we fail to reject the ideas that are incompatible with what we believe.

Allow me to give a couple of simple examples. One cannot say the first line of the Christian creeds, or read and believe the first verse of the Bible and also believe that the world we inhabit and the universe in which it is located are accidental and without purpose. And one cannot say that God created humanity in His image and also affirm that life is ours to define as we wish. Rather than offer further examples, or dive more specifically into these two, I’d like to ask what conflicts between essential Christian beliefs, especially those included in the Apostles” Creed, and cultural norms you might identify.

I do this in preparation for the period of Lent. My intent is to use that period, beginning in a few days, as a time of reflection and repentance–not of behaviors as much as of thoughts we entertain. I will look at passages of Scripture with the intent of identifying those tensions between Christian belief and contemporary norms where if one is believed, the other must be false. But let’s begin the project with a consideration of your ideas as to what must be denied for Christian tenets to be truly believed.