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faith is not religious

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

It's not a new idea. Faith is not religious.

People who limit "faith" to religion make a common mistake. They maintain a narrow interpretation of the word, confusing “faith” as a matter of language or discourse with the act or decision of faith. The act or decision of faith is what's essential.

"Faith" is clearly a religious term, but the word essentially points beyond narrow doctrinal definitions. Faith is something elemental and central to living life. Faith is an act of trust. It accompanies every act of vulnerability and decision-making, even something as small as getting up to face the day.

Faith rests in a trust that is not 100% certain or overly self-confident. Even when we bluster about, act certain or feel deeply about something, our bluster and bravado can mask or sign underlying vulnerability. We’re taking a risk, hence the force of self-expression and feeling.

Trusting our actions, judgments, or passion alongside uncertainty makes us vulnerable, like the fragility of a sprouting tree's first leaves on the forest floor. It makes us vulnerable to anything that can squelch it, smash it, or pluck it up. Faith requires such risks. The risk is not always intentional, but faith increases with both risk and intentionality.

Paul Tillich, one of the most prolific and profound 20th Century theologians, defined faith as "ultimate concern" and a total act of personality. (Check out Tillich's Dynamics of Faith) Tillich conceives faith in universal and existential, rather than narrow religious, terms.

Feminist Sharon Welch takes the idea further in her early book, Feminist Ethic of Risk. Writing from experience facing sexism, challenging racism, and working against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and 1990s, Welch expresses faith in the way I mean it. Her ethic of risk places faith against faith. To clarify, Welch imagines faith as risking hope and resistance even when "the faith" is a problem. This is faith narrowly and religiously defined. When "the faith" (or religion) is a source of oppression, repression, and violence, it takes faith to hope, resist, trust and act anyway. In that way, Welch is like other feminists that take faith in Tillich’s terms and turn religious “faith” on its head. It takes faith to defy faith...or "the faith."

Faith, in that sense, is the power within us to transform religion (and other things, including ourselves) inside out.

The idea of faith as something beyond religion, and instead, a vulnerable act of trust, hope, and resistance is obviously relevant in a world where conservative religion (especially some forms of American Christianity) is a cruel source of cultural and political backlash.

Conservative religion (not just Christianity) is too often a source of cultural conservatism that reacts against "others." By "others," I mean those outside of certain cultural and religious norms. Cultural and religious conservatism is a contemporary source of personal and political activity to demonize gay pride, transgender persons, gender-fluidity, and non-traditional relationships. Its proponents seek to suppress critical accounts of US society and American history, attacking anything that deviates from (or is critical of) "traditional" and "Christian" America.

The culture wars pit many churches and families against public schools, democratic institutions, businesses, and other "outsiders" to conserve cultural and religious norms that historically have marginalized, excluded, and silenced others. The ”faith” funding these culture wars can, itself, be toxic. It’s toxic because “true faith” is presented as certain, invulnerable, under attack, and beyond question.

True, it takes faith for any self-identified cultural or religious conservative person to face a changing world. The world is changing. Living in a world you no longer recognize, that challenges traditional definitions or norms, and no longer privileges what was once "given" is uncomfortable. It can feel threatening.

This is what marginalized communities, excluded groups, and the oppressed have experienced for generations.

But, the faith of toxic religion betrays itself. It trades faith for “Truth” as a personal possession, confirmation bias, something some have and others don't, and, at worst, a weapon. That’s not faith. That's toxic religion. And, it can fund toxic politics.

Real faith is an act of trust, a decision to be vulnerable. It risks something new, and hopes despite evidence. I think Hebrews 1:11 agrees.

For way too many in our world, it takes faith to simply be oneself. It takes faith to risk a relationship or love, even ourselves. It takes faith to admit who we are, what we honestly think, or how we truly feel. It takes faith even to confess to ourselves.

For way too many and way too long, it takes faith for many to live in a white world and simply feel safe in their own bodies.

Religion, at its best and most vulnerable, professes and teaches faith as I’m talking about it. It's a faith that ultimately lies beyond religion. True faith is never limited to religion. It’s a part of life, itself.

As a Christian theologian, the faith I care about isn’t confined to religion. Real faith cannot be conflated with Truth. Faith risks the truth. Faith is creative. It is a relation to something outside itself. Faith is an act, a vulnerable decision to be and search for truth, risk the truth, and let it find you.

Religion may or may not be part of it.

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