A Faith That Can Change Is A Faith That Lasts

09/19/2011 11:10 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

If you're reading this, you might be irrelevant. Don't feel bad: I could be too.

It's easy for people of faith to wonder about their relevancy in a post-faith world. We cherish beliefs and insights that a great deal of our culture now ignores. That puts us on the periphery of many dialogues around the issues of our day.

Take sex and marriage. In my own life, I've experienced the incredible treasures long-term monogamy can bestow, and I would wish those blessings on anyone. I also happen to believe that sex can be far richer and more fulfilling in the context of commitment. (These two perspectives, in turn, happen to inform my ardent belief in marriage equality.)

But the "general conversation" of our culture has moved on. Nowadays, sex in most romantic contexts is taken for granted. Millions of people are navigating entirely different issues: the trauma (and sometimes the joy) of divorce, the issues surrounding single parenthood, expectations around dating, choices of birth control, adoption or abortion. Moral discussions of living together before marriage, and even the word monogamy itself, sound quaint nowadays, relics of a distant past.

This isn't just an issue with sex and marriage. In an era when dominant world views have given way to individual choice, the shoulds and oughts traditionally associated with religion hold less influence. Many in our secular world wonder why we hold on to ancient beliefs at all, particularly when science and reason seem more than adequate replacements. Grand Moff Tarkin's words to Darth Vader have an eerie ring in this context: "The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion."

Where does this leave people of faith? It leaves us, I think, in search of a new way to live out our beliefs in the world -- a way that is both faithful to what we treasure and helpful to those around us.

This is actually a good thing, because the old way wasn't all sweetness and light. Once upon a time, long-standing traditions dictated the terms of beliefs and morals. This held true whether the morals had merit or were out-and-out destructive: society exerted tremendous pressure in favor of family stability and nurturing homes for children, but it also condemned interracial marriage and same-sex relationships. People of faith didn't have to think through each and every value they held; the dominant social paradigm essentially told them what to think.

Not anymore. In a vastly more diverse world, with an emerging secular consensus that has left them behind, people of faith now face two challenges: to revisit their values, and to change the way they talk (and listen) with the world.

On the values side, the challenge of new ideas and norms invites us to ask questions we had no need to ask 50 years ago. Take the once widespread belief that sex belonged exclusively within the bounds of formal, government-sanctioned marriage. Why have we, as people of faith, believed that in the past? Have the new ideas and norms exposed a flaw in that thinking? Is it a stance that people of faith should still uphold? Should we look deeper into that belief and perhaps uphold a slightly different ideal, like sex in the context of commitment?

To see how this might change our beliefs, take another look at the third paragraph of this article. There was a time when I would have said that long-term monogamy is the ideal for all couples, and that sex outside of marriage is immoral. The process of questioning has led me to a somewhat different stance: still faithful to my understanding of relationship and commitment, but now informed by what the new realities of our society have to tell us.

And how do we relate our revisited beliefs to the world? Rather than proclaim shoulds and oughts from a position of authority -- and thus doom ourselves to being ignored -- we can model these beliefs and join the general conversation. So I don't go around telling my divorced friends they should have stayed married. That kind of approach is both cruel and, more likely than not, inaccurate. I can, however, live out and share the joy that comes from my own long-term relationship while being fully present to my friends and loved ones whose experience is vastly different.

Some might interpret this approach as another liberal effort to "get with the times" -- to let the morals of the age dictate the values of faith. It is not. Rather, it is an invitation to dig deeper into our faith while spreading the love and will of God in a way that resonates with the people of our age.