A Variety of Faiths – just not what you might think of…

We have a multitude of faiths in our nation. Some of them are traditional religious faiths – like Christianity. But also other faith traditions are here as well in this nation – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more are just a few examples.

And there are other non-traditional religious faiths that have many adherents in this nation. Some people have their faith in sports teams. Being a long time Buffalo Bills fan, that never really took hold for me – after watching my team fail in four Super Bowls straight, I don’t really have faith in them as much as I do a wish that some time they will win. It would be fun to be supportive of a winning team after all. Faith in a team can be a great thing. It’s not the same thing as religious faith of course. But it offers some things that religious faith claims – a sense of hopeful expectation, a sense of identity with others who believe, a vision of triumph or the “good guys” being victorious. Those types of things. Nothing bad there.

There are other types of faiths too. Faith in our economic system. This starts to get a bit more fuzzy in relation to religious faith whether we want to admit it or not. There could be whole books written about how our faith in financial systems and money causes us problems. For some, their faith in a human-made economic system has religious overtones to it. Some even claim that our economic system is divinely inspired. No economic system is divinely inspired. They all have problems. They all have abuses. They all have some good things to them too. And because they aren’t divinely inspired, we can change them when we need to in order to improve them so they make life better for more people. Yet, that very idea usually is met with resistance. I would argue that the resistance comes because those resisting change have put their faith too far into an economic system. What does faith in an economic system look like? Well, it is usually expressed in beliefs about the economic system separate from the actual outcomes that affect real people and their lives and communities.

Others have faith in partisan political parties and politicians who present a vision of a possible future, a sense of identity and belonging, and more beliefs that are not grounded in actual outcomes that affect people. Now we’re moving even closer to religious faith being blurred with something else. Humanity has a multitude of stories who have replaced religious faith with political faith. The story is always the same – it doesn’t end well. Mostly because we try to make our political systems and politicians into something they are not – divine. They are made up of broken people, in broken systems.

Some people put their faith in the nation. Americanism is a faith. There’s some wonderful things about belief in America. America has done some wonderful things that have advanced humanity in incredible ways technologically, societally, in terms of freedoms, and more. And yet, America isn’t divine either. Believing that America is exceptional is ignoring our troubled history which includes slavery, racism, taking land that wasn’t ours, breaking treaties, moving people without their consent, greed, stamping on rights when they were inconvenient, and more. These things are not pleasant, but they are a part of our nation. Trying to cover up those things or dismissing them without dealing with them is not healthy. What kind of faith is it that isn’t willing to looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly? A pretty shallow faith that can’t handle criticism or critique. Why would anyone continue in such a faith? It falls apart at the slightest examination.

The list can go on with different types of faith. The question for us is what is our faith based in? For those of us who claim the label of Christian, is our faith actually in Christianity/Jesus, or is it in Christendom? They are not the same thing. Is it in Christ or in something else – money or an economic system, America, a politician, a movement? They aren’t the same thing. Are you willing to be honest about what your faith is actually centered on? Are you willing to examine it and see what it is all about?

Take this one example. Do you believe that faith is only an individual thing, only a personal piety, only something private? What are you basing that on? If we believe that faith is just an individual experience, then maybe our faith is based on something other than Christianity. Maybe it’s a Christendom faith, or an American faith, a money faith, or a partisan faith. Individualism is very much an American value that flows through these other things as well. Let’s face it, we highly value the individual and what they can do here in this country. We’re willing to sacrifice the good of the community for the rights of the individual. Our preference of not touching gun rights and continuing to allow mass shootings seems to be evidence of this. Disputes over mitigation efforts related to the highly contagious COVID-19 virus is more confirmation – people’s individual preferences have won the debate, while a million of our fellow citizens have died. Our approach to poverty is often founded on the notion that individuals make choices and suffer the consequences of those choices – very little acknowledgement is made about larger societal systems that keep people in poverty. The same happens for racism with a heavy focus on individual overt acts of racism while not acknowledging any larger societal systems in place to keep racism going. There are plenty of other examples, but I hope you get the idea.

The problem with this type of faith grounded in individualism is that it is not grounded in Christian faith.

If we eliminated how faith was communal in nature beyond just individual faith, we would have to get rid of much of Scripture.  The Creation story is communal in nature.  It’s not just creation of one individual, but the start of community – that’s what Adam and Eve are all about. And that’s not counting being in community and harmony with the rest of creation.

Move a bit further and get to Abraham. There are certainly individual aspects of faith related to Abraham. God recognizes and credits righteousness to Abraham. But it’s not just for him alone. It has a long term effect that we hear about – “your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky…” If that’s not communal in nature, I don’t know what is.

In fact, every covenant God makes is not just with an individual, but with a multitude ultimately.

Moving on, we get to Jacob, who God renames Israel. He becomes the father of a nation.

The story of exodus is a story of communal faith almost entirely.

The Hebrew Scriptures are all about God promising land to the people of Israel, not an individual.

The covenant with David is about his lineage, not just for him alone. The Messiah will end up coming from the House of David.

The story of Israel as a nation is a communal faith story in which the people are in covenant as a people, with God, then break that covenant as a people, they suffer the consequences of that breakage as a people, they cry out as a people, and God sends someone to save them as a people.

The prophets aren’t just stories of individual faith, but rather an individual messenger that speaks to the people on behalf of God.

Esther is a story of communal faith in which she saves her people from extinction.  And that’s just part of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

When we get to the New Testament, let’s just skip over the Gospels for a moment.  If faith is only individual in nature, then we can pretty quickly delete Paul’s letters written to communities, as well as what are known as catholic letters – those letters written to the church universal.  They are written directly to communities, not individuals.

In addition we can delete Revelation since it is all about empire vs. the Kingdom of God, which is communal in nature.  

Even the individual letters aren’t written just for individual faith.  They have a communal impact.  The letter to Philemon is a prime example of that. They are about restoration of relationships and how to be in community. 

And when we turn to the Gospels we hear over and over again about the communal nature of faith, how God so loves the world, how God draws in the peoples, how God saves all of creation.  We hear about miracles that don’t just impact individuals but restore communities because of a healing of one person. 

And if you think faith is only individual, then what do you make about the stories of resurrection – whether we are talking about Lazarus or Tabitha.  You think resurrection only impacted those who were raised?  Or do you think it had a greater impact on so many others? 

I can tell you for certain that it impacted others.  We can read the Gospels themselves and see that because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the religious leaders not only plotted to kill Jesus, but also Lazarus. 

Jesus isn’t crucified because he was proclaiming an individual faith. The faith that Jesus proclaims and gives has a communal impact. At his birth, in the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod slaughters innocents in an effort to kill Jesus. At this death, the title above him on the cross is “King of the Jews.” The religious leaders had Jesus killed by the empire because Jesus was having a communal effect and was upsetting the status quo of power which was abusive and exploitive to the core.

Scripture is loaded with communal faith elements to the point that the notion that faith is only personal and individual makes no sense at all.  It is not grounded in Scripture – not the core theme of Scripture anyway. Can you take individual passages out and make an argument for an individual faith only. Sure, but that’s not what faith is about. You have to try hard to avoid the communal nature of faith to only see the individualism. 

And all of this is just Scripture. It says nothing about the communal nature of church – a community of faith, the body of Christ. If faith is just individual, then what’s the point of a congregation? What is the point of Jesus having disciples and calling us to go and teach and make disciples? And how do we square individual faith with the communal nature of God – the Trinity?

Regardless of what individualism as faith is grounded in, it is not Christian. It’s something else.

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