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A list and a prayer

Faith is golden – Beliefs are overrated

By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 26, 2012

Faith is golden. Beliefs are overrated. As are works.

When one reduces religion to either beliefs or good works, both are overrated. Reductionism (think "nothing but") usually destroys anything it attempts to explain, as in religion is nothing but belief or religion is nothing but morality.

Morality itself has for many been reduced to nothing but sexual morality. It is so much more, embracing personal, business and community relationships. And faith is so much more than belief, as in “I set my heart on” God rather than purely intellectual acts of belief.
Belief and good works are overrated especially when we think of them as prerequisites to being befriended by God.
Some 50 years ago, I sat in a university classroom in Rome when a professor introduced his course on the theology of revelation –– what we know about God because God told us –– with this image.

In a large lecture hall, accommodating several hundred students from perhaps 50 countries, he paced, slowly, along a raised platform.

He pressed one white dot with chalk on an enormous blackboard. After a dramatic pause, he said, in French-accented Latin, “The white is what we know about God. The black is what we don’t. What we know is little. But the little God has given us to know is precious.”

Among that precious little are two biblical themes: Be not afraid and you are loved.

A few years ago, as Monica and I walked through a subway corridor in New York City’s Port Authority, we passed a woman hawking literature near a table laden with posters proclaiming that judgment was at hand. Bold strokes. “Be afraid.”

I was embarrassed that anyone might think she and I were colleagues. As we passed her, to allay my anger within, I smiled and slowly shook my head.

She screamed. Threats of God’s wrath. God would get me. She followed us, proclaiming her caricature of God to everyone within earshot along hundreds of feet of subway corridor. Thirty seconds seemed like five minutes.

The irony is that versions of “Be not afraid” and “You are loved” appear throughout the Bible, the same Bible the tormented woman had deconstructed because she thought people had to be frightened into repentance before an angry and vengeful God.

Our scriptures, Jewish and Christian, tell the story of God’s love in many ways… from the Exodus story of deliverance from slavery to freedom to the Paschal Mystery of God in Jesus Christ demonstrating his love on a cross to God raising Jesus. In between are many stories of God’s love and our freedom to respond.

Those stories abound, I think, because the single, most difficult Christian belief is not belief in God as Trinity, nor that God became one of us in Jesus Christ, nor that God raised Jesus from the dead, nor that God continues to live in us through the Holy Spirit, nor that we too will be raised. It’s none of those. It is that God forgives and loves us even before we repent.

God’s Good News, as I understand it, is threefold. First: we’re all sinners. We stand in a long biblical line of negative role models.

Second: we’re all forgiven and loved by God. “You can’t conceive, nor can I,” wrote Graham Greene, “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Third: we’re all forgiven and loved by God not because we’ve been repentant. We’re repentant and transformed because we’ve been forgiven and loved.

God’s relentless love will last. I promise you. I set my heart on God's incredible love. I do not rely on beliefs or works.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, [email protected], a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


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