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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

American Faith and American Belief

If you know me, you know that the key distinction that I make, when talking about religion or theology or the spiritual dimension of anything we do, is between faith and belief. The confusion of these two concepts is responsible for a lot of trouble in our lives and world.

I know, I know. A lot of people use them as synonyms and you will see in most dictionaries they are defined by each other. But it is so very important to distinguish the two.

I am trying to distinguish (not separate) the act of speaking from the spoken word, the uttering from the utterance, the thinking from the thought, the knowing from knowledge, the expressing act and the completed expression.  One is subjectively perceived, the other objectively perceived.

But besides act and expression, I am also trying to distinguish between creative speaking and secondary speech. When I just prattle on saying what everyone else is saying, I'm hardly moving the conversation forward or exploring new avenues of thinking. But when I take what you are saying, relate it to what others have said, and even get new insights to put in other words, then I am co-initiating with you, adding different perspectives, opening up to future understandings.

Faith is the dynamic and transcending feature of creative expressive activity. It includes decision-making, expressing into the world of others, and the subjective or lived experience of so doing. Faith is an openness beyond the present beliefs--mine and yours. Faith is an adventure, a risk towards the unknown, an drive to the future. It doesn't get stuck in its this-time-and-place expressions. It is transcendence in human acting in the world.

Transcending religions are religions of faith, not of dogmas and beliefs. That doesn't mean they don't have doctrines and beliefs.  They do; but they are not stuck in them. That is why transcending religions condemn idolatry--no word, no symbol, no teaching, no proposition, no book, no rite, no behavior, no person is absolute. Faith beyond belief.

In the 1950s Will Herberg opined that there were three ways you could be American--as Catholic, Protestant, and Jew because these cultural traditions all adopted the American political principles of the founding documents. This was an acceptance of Jefferson's notion of a civil religion (devoid of superstition, supernature, and sacrament) by which private, even bizarre, factions (Hamilton's term) could exist and cooperate for the public good. Sociologist Robert Bellah studied America's civil religion and demonstrated that it consisted not merely in those principles but in how they were being interpreted in the present context.

The civil religion in America is a journey towards the achievement of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or "freedom and justice for all" on this earth through political engagement or action together for the common good. It is more of a faith than a set of hard beliefs. It has beliefs and behaviors but they too must be understood in terms of American political principles.  It is that faith that unites, not the beliefs. Culture and economy in the private sector divides, republican politics unites--e pluribus unum.

Would Herberg include Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous religions in his ways of being American today. Yes, I believe he would argue, but only to the extent that they are transcending religions that share the same faith in the human pursuit of life, happiness, freedom, and justice for all.

Next: Interpreting the American civil religion.



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