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Belief, Faith and Unrest

10/13/2012 10:30 am ET | Updated Dec 13, 2012

There's a difference between the words faith and belief. This confusion between these two words is both a source of unrest in our world and the potential for healing. Political gridlock in our House of Representatives. The tragedy rolling through Libya ignited (in part) by a demeaning YouTube video. Voting pledges demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion or free-will or non-violence.

Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 years, we've tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, "You're only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs." But that's a modern sense of religious life. It's also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it's not in line with central Christian teachings.

How is it modern? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren't trying to make the people believe that God existed; they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.

The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a "dual-belonging." They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It's both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.

From a Christian perspective, linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith is not a Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion.

"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me..."

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.

If one's faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one's religious life. Such an affront to the mind's assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn't take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies, and the toll on the lives it affects.

In Unitarian Universalism, we're asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It's an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn't prevent us from continuing to act with grace ourselves. What's foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious. Belief can make false gods of our opinions. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief.

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