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Can We Have Religion Without Religion and God Without God?

08/17/2010 08:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Echoing the work of John Caputo, my last post for The Huffington Post articulated a vision of God beyond theism, a concept of God that sees the word "God" as a word used to describe love. Other words sometimes used are mercy, justice, passion, joy, goodness. This suggested that we have a conception of religion that is less about religious beliefs and more about a passion for the religious life -- an awe of life, living and the growing world and universe that can only be called religious. You hear this sort of religious awe in, say, Richard Dawkins when he speaks on the beauty of evolution. This model suggests that there is no line between theism on the one hand and atheism on the other.

A way of being alive rooted in a religious awe of life would view God as a verb -- an action and activity we make real in the world, not a creature or being that sits outside of time and space. In this way God is not a strong force -- God does not cause earthquakes, hurricanes or 9/11 -- but is instead the call toward awe and the flourishing of life in its multiplicity and plurality.

Here we come to a space that is a line between faith and belief. Belief can be described as assenting to certain doctrines -- infallible scripture, resurrection, virgin birth etc. Faith, on the other hand, would be about placing our trust in the work of Love -- and our ability to be agents of the work of love -- in order to make change in the world.

In his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, author and biblical scholar Marcus Borg talks about the Christian life as not being about believing doctrines or positions but in entering into a "relationship to that which the Christian religion points," which we can speak of as God, or the living Jesus or the Spirit -- or Love in Action. This he calls faith.

In a Christianity that is religion without religion but not trusting in an otherworldly Big Other, claims to the absolute and a position that negotiates meaning in the moment but does not lock it down for the future, that means trusting in a narrative that says goodness erupts in the midst of the marginal and forgotten (e.g., the nativity), places parables of justice and inclusion in opposition to practices of empire (e.g., the parables and teachings of Jesus) and says that despite death, life flourishes and the community of human persons working together can make Love -- justice, equality, passion -- in the face of empire real (e.g., passion narratives and sending of the disciples).

Faith-as-belief came out of the post-reformation world as new religious sects had to defend themselves and their positions in the new theological landscape of the world. The institutions that came out of the reformation -- denominations and church bodies -- have that conflict internally now. A liberal or progressive Lutheran, let's say, has more in common with a liberal or progressive Catholic than conservative members of his or her own church.

This is seen in the denominational battle lines over homosexuality and women's ordination. What seems to be a battle over scripture -- how to read, how to interpret, whether it is "infallible" -- is in fact about the shift from a modern to postmodern world and how we understand power and authority. As a postmodern religious person -- both in the sense of wanting to cultivate religious awe of life and belonging to the Christian tradition -- I stand by my tradition as a "wisdom tradition" but not as an absolute tradition. By wisdom tradition, one can affirm his or her tradition and its practices as a place of growth and self-discovery without affirming all of the doctrines, hierarchies or historical power abuses.

For the religious person, a shift from belief to faith is also a switch from hierarchy and structure to wisdom tradition, to affirming the practices of your own tradition in a way that opens you to the traditions of others as well as cultivating a passionate and erotic -- bodily -- love for the world. For the secular religious person (including agnostics, atheists and questioning individuals), affirming the idea of religious awe of life means affirming a faith in the goodness of humanity and the flourishing of love in the world. If we remove Big Other from the question and replace with a God -- or god -- who is only made real through the action of love, then these sorts of faiths become the same thing.

Faith, then, is about a radical trust in the work of love, a work that requires action! Religious people are people of action. Agree with them or not, it's obvious that people of faithful action are the people who believe an impossible thing, God, and make the world better through soup kitchens, serving the poor and protesting radical injustice. They make the impossible thing possible, and the world has never been the same since. Secular atheists lack this (and religious secular atheists need to adopt this!), as the work of charity and social identity done with a sense of religious awe is the action of verb-ified love in the world. It makes the impossible possible!

Faith is the slow-growing thing in the heart that allows us to have faith in the beauty of humanity and the goodness of the growing, living world. Faith is the thing that allows us to confront the darker aspects of ourselves, the world and religion -- the tragic sense of life, as Caputo calls it.