It was called the Christian Inquisition. You were placed in the center of a circle of elderly monks, each waving a Bible and all talking at once. The first monk shouted;
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
“Well, yes, but ….”
“And in Mary, the Virgin Mother?”
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“Well, maybe not a virgin.”
That’s it! You flunked. If you were a Jew or a Muslim, they shipped you out of town, but if you were a heretical Christian, they burned you at the stake. How many died because they refused to accept the faith of the Christians who were in power that year? Today, of course, it’s not that bad, they just exclude you from their clubs and churches and write about you in letters to the editors. So, what kind of faith do you have?
Recently, I found a different way to look at faith. It has nothing to do with a list of dogmatic beliefs. It deals with concern. It asks: What is your major concern? For example, are you concerned about the pregnant teenage girls whose fatherless sons grow up to populate 70 percent of our Macon prison cells? Are you concerned about the homeless who live under our Macon bridges? Are you concerned about the fact that most of our churches are segregated? Or are you more concerned about whether Jesus really walked on water?
Whatever concerns and absorbs you is your faith. “Concern faith” will drive you to do great things. It’s a lot different from “dogmatic faith.” Dogma is nice for church hymns and sermons but it doesn’t do much to change the world.
Dr. Kay Shurden led our Sunday School class in a fascinating discussion of James W. Fowler III. He was an American theologian who was professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He wrote the monumental book called: “The Stages of Faith,” in which he describes the six stages of human concern, beginning with a child’s basic concern for safety and climbing all the way up to enlightenment. He calls this faith. And it makes a lot of sense to me.
We all know that “dogmatic faith” can be phony. You may be familiar with the six televangelists who are under Senate investigation. All six preach the “gospel to the poor” and these poor people give each preacher a private jet, several luxury cars, a mansion for a home, and a multimillion-dollar salary. The Rev. Kenneth Copeland, who flies around in his private $20 million, never taxed Cessna says: “Hey, it’s God’s money; get over it!”
Dogmatic faith is like a letter to the editors proclaiming the “Truth,” (which I don’t have). It’s shallow and childish, and can’t be trusted because the focus is on dogma, not concern. These people preach loudly and flail about with incorrect scripture quotes — but if they’re not really concerned about anybody but themselves, they’re phony. Faith that is truly “deep concern” resonates with other people.
When I hear about “concern faith,” I think about Mother Teresa, who was just canonized a saint. She spent many years on the streets and in the gutters of Calcutta helping the poor. She was a controversial figure; many people didn’t like her then and feel even less love for her now. But no one doubts her “concern faith.” I asked a former priest friend of mine who worked with her in India to describe her. He smiled and said: “She was one tough broad.” She had to be tough to work those streets; they were ugly and filthy and running with rats.
But the thing that thrills me about Mother Teresa is her lack of “dogmatic faith.” Oh sure, she abided by the dogma of the Catholic church — after all, she was a nun — but she struggled with doubts for over 50 years, and never “preached” that dogma. In a letter she wrote:
“Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.
If there is a God — please forgive me.
When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness
that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”
I can only wonder what kind of letters she would have written to our editor.