From This Week’s Talk at Crosswind Church: Some Foundational Beliefs and the Importance of Articulating Faith For Ourselves

On New Year’s Eve I was invited to speak and participate in a question and answer session at Crosswind Church in Union City, Tennessee about my perspective as someone engaged in Christian Education.  Below is a rough reproduction of what I said.  To contact me about speaking at your church or an event you are organizing, please e-mail me at alexanderpmarshall@gmail.com.

About 3 or 4 years ago a team of sociologists led by Christian Smith, a noted scholar on the sociology of religion, conducted a series of studies on the spirituality of adolescents and college age young people in America.  They wanted to know what faith these people held to, if any, why they held to it, why they considered their faith important and what it meant to the rest of their lives.

One of the most remarkable things that came out of those studies were that young adults and adolescents, almost universally across the board in all religions, whether Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, etc., and from all persuasions, whether very conservative or very liberal or somewhere in between, that all of these young people struggled with articulating basic concepts about their faith and especially with articulating why their faith is important to their lives.

What the research suggests is that this is largely because these young people have very little practice discussing these issues.

When we talk about something a lot, when we are involved in a lot of discussions about a particular issue, we get good at articulating our thoughts about that issue.  So for instance, the 24-hour news cycle and the every-other-year election cycle in this country mean that we are never very far from a conversation about politics.

I heard a statistic once when I was younger on some science show on television that you are never more than 3 feet away from a spider.  So look around, there’s bound to be one close by.

Kinda similarly, maybe for more reason than one, we are never far from a conversation about politics in this country.  And the result of that is that we get pretty good at explaining why we believe what we believe abut various political issues.

Just one example: I live in New Haven, CT, and about three weeks ago the state of Connecticut was rocked by the horrible tragedy of the shooting that occurred in Newtown.

Since then, I cannot tell you how many people have directly engaged me with the question, “What do you think about gun-control?”  It just keeps coming up in conversation after conversation, whether I’m looking for it or not.  So I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining what I think about gun-control and why I think it.

That doesn’t happen very often, especially not for young people, with issues that deal with how our faith relates to our lives.  And when we do have conversations about that, they usually, especially from the perspective of young people, involve somebody like me or a pastor or some other “expert” explaining their view while everybody else listens.  So  young people don’t get very much practice articulating the meaning of their faith for themselves.

Because of this, a lot of what I do in my work is very discussion based.  I set up conversations where young people are invited to both ask and answer questions for themselves.  I am there to help them, but mostly I’m there to pose questions for them to think about and push them a little bit to come up with their own answers to those questions, to give them the chance to talk about their faith and why it matters for themselves.

This is all based on a few fundamental beliefs I hold about the Christian faith which I think are worth reflecting on because they have implications beyond how I lead discussions for a group of students, they should push us all to think critically about the role of our faith in our lives, and I think make good points for reflection as we get ready to start a new year.

The first of these beliefs is that the Christian faith has real implications for life right now.

This past semester we did a series of discussions about Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the campus chaplaincy I work for.  I thought it was great yesterday when I heard that you guys here at Crosswind have just finished up a series of sermons on the life of Abraham because for Paul Abraham is a really important witness to what faith is supposed to look like.

If you look at how Paul understands Abraham’s faith in the book of Romans, you’ll notice that is not simply that Abraham held particular beliefs about God or God’s word.

Instead, there are two things we can observe from Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s faith in Romans chapter 4.  First, Abraham’s faith, for Paul, is found in the fact that Abraham was willing to leave behind his hometown, his family, everything he had known his entire life, and follow God to some place he had never heard of.  Second, Abraham’s faith has ramifications beyond the life of Abraham because the promise to Abraham is that through Abraham all the nations of the world will be blessed.

What I think Paul is getting at with the example of Abraham’s faith in the book of Romans, and something that I think marks Paul’s understanding of faith and his understanding of the whole biblical story in general, could be put this way:  First, faith is a call to action, not a set of beliefs.  Second, faith isn’t just about us, its about the kingdom of God happening right now in and through us to bless other people.  Both of these points underscore the idea that our faith has significant implications for our lives as we live them now.

A second foundational belief is that the scriptures and theological traditions of our faith should challenge us, not just confirm everything we naturally believe.

I think all too often what we encounter among Christians of all persuasions, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” is a method of using scripture that boils down to finding a pet verse to back up their agenda.  And if that’s your goal, you can find a verse somewhere in the Bible to support just about anything.

But I think that’s a really bad way to use scripture.

If we really delve into scripture and attempt to understand it in a more holistic and complete way, I think it should really challenge us to think critically about our beliefs and our lives.

I think we can draw a really good example of this, circling back to the series of discussions my chaplaincy has had with our students this past semester, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

The book of Romans addresses one of the greatest controversies of the early church.  When the church began, the twelve disciples and most of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish and Jesus was understood to be the long-awaited Messiah sent to bring salvation to Israel.  Think about the hymn we sing during advent:

O’ come, o’ come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.

Who mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appears.

This salvation was thought to be the rescue of Israel from captivity.  But as the church expands, more and more Gentiles, or non-Jews, enter the community.  And this creates a problem: what is supposed to be done with these Gentile believers?

So two groups form up:  One claims that salvation is for Israel, so for the Gentiles to be saved, they have to become “Jews” by submitting to the Jewish law first.

The other, led by Paul, says that salvation is for every nation, not just Israel, and therefore the Gentiles have no need of submitting to the law.

In making this argument, which Paul does throughout the book of Romans, Paul is posing a serious challenge to the Jewish conception of their own identity and relationship with God.

And if we are really grappling with this text, I think it should pose a similar challenge for us and our conceptions of how we relate to God.  It should prompt us to ask where are we drawing false boundaries between groups of people?  Who are we excluding that should be let in?  Who are we demanding jump through serious hoops before we would let them in the door of this church or allow them to stand up here and speak?

These kinds of questions, brought out from a serious study of the text, illustrate how scripture should challenge our beliefs, not merely confirm them.

A third foundational belief is that we as Christians are called to embody the best our faith has to offer to the world around us.

A great example of this can be found, I think, in the life of Abraham.  In Genesis 19, God sends messengers to Abraham and they tell him that God is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Now, what does Abraham do in response to these messengers?

Abraham argues with God!  Abraham pleads, if God can find just 10 righteous people in these large cities, for God to spare these cities from judgment.  And God agrees!

What is going on here?

I think that this is an illustration of Abraham embodying the fact that our God is a God of mercy.  So since we follow a God of mercy, we should be a people that extends mercy to the world around us.

Or take the life of Jesus.

Jesus spends his time with the undesirables of the world, sinners and tax-collectors.  He tells us in Matthew 5 that the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden will inherit the earth.

What is this about?  Embodying love.

Our God is a God of love.  So we should be a people who extend love to others, especially those whom no one else loves.

It is in ways like these that we are called to embody the best of our faith to the world around us.

One more story to wrap this up.

I have a professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf who wrote a book called Exclusion and Embrace, which is an awesome book though very dense, be forewarned, not for the faint of heart, but for those up for a challenging read I highly recommend checking it out.

In the introduction of this book, Volf writes that he wrote the book in response to a question he got after a talk.

Volf is Croatian, and in the early 90’s there was a major war in the region of Southern Europe and many Croatian citizens were killed in an ethnic cleansing type situation by invading Serbian armies.

At the time, Volf, a theologian, gave a talk about the sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ command to love our enemies.  Another theologian in the audience then asked him, “Can you love the Serbian troops that are killing your people right now?”

Our faith has immense implications for our lives right now, it challenges us deeply, and in doing so it calls us to embody the love and mercy of our God to others.

But for those implications, challenges, and calls to embody love and mercy to really take root, we need to be able to articulate our faith for ourselves.  That’s what I try to help my students do and I hope you will find the time to take up the challenge of this work of articulating your faith for yourself in the coming year.

To contact me about speaking at your church or an event you are organizing, please e-mail me at alexanderpmarshall@gmail.com.

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