Reframing “Religion” from Belief to Belonging

The Jesus Movement arises from the sacred Gospel story in which we participate.

Vern Barnet 10 minute read.   Resources


… The Palm Sunday parade, the Maundy Thursday washing of feet, and the Good Friday adoration of the cross … are no more superstitious than a client following a therapist’s suggestion to “place your deceased mother in this chair and tell her how you miss her.” Image credit: Gary Allman

I see crowds of young people arriving at a nearby church as I walk to the bus stop on my way to the Cathedral Sunday mornings. I admire this thriving church’s ministry to my neighborhood.

Doing interfaith work in the community for 35 years convinces me that there ought to be different churches because people have different needs. Different religions are gifts to us, not threats.

Still, I doubt that most young people, whether they attend church or not, are conscious of how our culture frames religion and limits their ways of accessing the most sacred treasures of faith. I worry that we Episcopalians are unintentionally hiding the treasures we cherish. I reckon a good number of the young people I see would be astonished and grateful to learn about our evolving Episcopalian tradition.

1. Cultural framing

To most media, religion is regularly told as conflict, abuse, and other forms of oppression, and even anti-science. I need not give examples. The “nones,” the expanding number of folks with no faith affiliation, often explain their rejection of organized religion with a sense of righteousness, unsullied from the institutional corruption the media report. “I can be spiritual by myself,” they sometimes claim.

Many “nones” reject religion because they find it incredible, superstitious, or repulsive. “Do you really insist that God sent those Ten Plagues to the Egyptians and killed their innocent firstborn children and animals?”

For some who do go to church, the motivation is personal guilt, or to make or connect with friends, to enjoy musical entertainment, and so many other reasons. One of my students wanted to survey his church to find out why people attended. He received answers such as the church is nearby, the windows are pretty, the preacher is friendly, the grandmother helped found the church — none of the responses concerned the stated beliefs of the church. Which is profoundly ironic since most people associate religion with beliefs. When I was asked by the Kansas City Star to write a weekly religion column (which I did for eighteen years), my column’s name was “Faith and Beliefs” even though I told my editors beliefs are not important in most religions.

For example, to be Jewish, you don’t need to believe anything. You can be a good Jew and an atheist. You simply need to have a Jewish mother. You can believe in one god, or no god, or 330 million gods and be a good Hindu. The Buddhist Heart Sutra denies the basic doctrine of the Buddha to teach that what is important is not belief but practice.

Scholars sometimes identify dimensions of religion with four C’s: Creed (belief), Cultus (rituals), Community, and Code (moral expectations). Different faiths and different adherents may emphasize one or two of these dimensions over others.

Nonetheless, the persistent modern framing of religion as belief is, in my view, problematic.

2. The Sacred Story

As the great late sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, an Episcopalian, has demonstrated in a lifetime of scholarship, religion is a sacred story. Most scholars, I think, agree. The four C’s are ways of understanding, reenacting, sharing, and behaving in harmony with the story.

Since the time of the first Book of Common Prayer, 1549, the meaning of “belief” has changed. Then it meant something more like “trust” or “commitment to.” When a wife says of her husband, or a producer says of one’s actor, or a partisan says of one’s candidate, “I believe in them,” this is not so much a factual statement as a declaration of relationship. “Belief” derives from the same Latin root as libido, desire, and is akin to the German liebe, beloved. It’s not about facts. It’s about a bond.

When I say I believe in Jesus, I am not affirming any historical or theological speculation; rather, I am belonging to Him. Instead of a virtual faith confined to a compartment of my mind with answers to theological questions, Jesus becomes the Bread and Word for my whole life.

The 20th Century Anglican poet T. S. Eliot theorized that the power of 17th Century poets like John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is in part due to the fact that they wrote before the “dissociation of sensibility,” when thinking and feeling were still united. Then belief and be-love were the same.

Believing in the Christian story is not singularly an intellectual decision. When I recite the Creed, I am outlining a cosmic story of salvation in which I am involved, not a scientific proof (The Latin word credo has many meanings including “to entrust.”)

Belief in the shallow sense of cerebral assent hinders us from understanding who we are from stories. This is so, even of fiction. Anglicans defended the fiction of Elizabethan theater against the Puritans who decried the stage because it was not true. The enjoyment and benefit of fiction, from Aesop’s fables to your favorite movies, arises from encountering them with a “willing suspension of disbelief,” in the phrase of Anglican poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Another Anglican poet, W. H. Auden wrote, “It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character in a novel; one can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.”

Our story is genuine, and we participate in it and are formed by it. The Palm Sunday parade, the Maundy Thursday washing of feet, and the Good Friday adoration of the cross, as examples, are no more superstitious than a client following a therapist’s suggestion to “place your deceased mother in this chair and tell her how you miss her.” Neither is about facts so much as about a relationship which ritual appreciation or therapeutic methods may deepen.

So we can tell that story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt as a spur to our evolving questions about how to live in the light of the Gospel.

3. What Episcopalians Can Offer

To the “nones,” we can offer a spiritual reframing service. We can replace a superficial, virtual frame of religion with what is genuine. God is not an HD display idea; God is reality. Over the virtual we chose embodiment. Christ is incarnate. Religion is less as an inventory of disputed facts and more as a sacred story. Instead of religion focused on concepts, we offer a faith embracing and balancing creed, cultus, community, and code, each dimension of the holy narrative.

Since becoming an Episcopalian seven years ago, I’ve often visited with young people about what they desire in religion. From these conversations, I am convinced our living heritage offers what the future needs. Reframing is the first step.

Young people want to participate, belong to an open tradition that requires something of them, something like the ancient meaning of “belief.” In a future article, I’ll suggest how our tradition of table and word offers fulfillment, but the way we present our faith may yet be clarified and our mission in the Jesus Movement enhanced.

Vern Barnet’s latest book is Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire. He previously wrote for The Kansas City Star.

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Vern Barnet

Vern Barnet’s latest book is Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire. He previously wrote for The Kansas City Star.

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