What Faith Is Not – Part III

The Owl continues unfolding the post “What the Owl Is Trying to Say” using its five main terms: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, and Obedience, for an outline, under the title “What Faith Is Not. The negative approach is necessary to challenge people who think they know what it is. As some wise person said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll git you; it’s what you do know that ain’t so.”

So far, the Owl has said faith is not religion; it is not spiritualism; it is not a belief system; and it is not an inner psychological state. Now we will go the rest of the way: Faith is not moralism, and nor humanism. Remember, throughout all this, God has the initiative. Faith is God’s gift to us. If it can be found in our insides, that is because God put it there.


Christians are criticized for being moralistic, and the criticism is just. All kinds of people, Christians or not, get their sense of belonging by identifying with a group of like-minded people. Etymologically, “moral” refers not to transcendent principles, but simply to custom. It applies in any social context, where conformity in personal conduct is expected; also in politics, where adherence to a party’s policies is expected. One’s opinions are not independently arrived at, but assigned. So moral-ism always turns out to be the morals of a certain class, nation, or subgroup. When it is promoted to the status of a divine edict, as some religious teachers do, it becomes a dangerous idolatry.

We in America have a special problem with this. It goes back to our Puritanism, and behind that to Calvinistic teaching about predestination, which leaves everyone unsure of salvation. One has to go all the way through life, not knowing what God’s judgment will be. That way of stating the case is so crude that it is misleading, but it still tormented people, who then looked for assurances. Amendment of life, i.e., good morals, rewarded with personal prosperity, amount to assurance. Today in our churches and our secular politics, we still want to see a bright line between good and evil, and ourselves on the right side of it. The sheer vehemence of political opinions today is the measure of our worse than existential dread on this score.

It does not follow that we can act any way we see fit. Authentic human life is life for each other, as Jesus Christ lived and died for us. Nobody can deny that hunger, disability, injustice, and the whole litany require action. Christians going about their work are aware of our dual citizenship. We are here together, called to do something about each other, while we also live in another kingdom.

We may rightly reject moralism, but there is still such a thing as obedience. The motive for obedience is not fear of damnation but gratitude to God for his patience, mercy, and simple sustenance. We do what we do because of what we know God has already done for us. The motive for moralisms public and private is anxiety about what God might or might not do to us in the future, out of his pleasure or his wrath. The two things could not be more different.

The God to whom we are obedient is a free God; obedience to him is freedom for ourselves. Each of us can have a vocation different from others, sometimes to their consternation. So be it. The Owl’s greatest friends are people inspired to live for others. They say their faith drives them to it. One definition of faith is faithfulness to others: loyalty to family, friends, church, country, and more. None of those objects of loyalty want vague sentiments aimed at them; they need concrete contributions. Parents support their children not with gushing sentimentality, but with shoes and food. Children care for their aging parents; parishioners give money and work on church projects from trimming roses to feeding the hungry.


The last error for the Owl to tackle here we will call humanism. It has two faces. The first is to humanize Jesus, to worship the part of him that we think resembles ourselves, in a one-sided, sentimental way. The second is to worship humanity in general, and ourselves in particular, as possessed of quasi-divine dignity, inspiration, natural altruism, rationality, nobility . . . and the list goes on.

Never during my lifetime has the church ceased to teach that Jesus was a human being; a man like us who lived and died where we could see, hear, and touch him. —not we ourselves, to be sure, but the disciple Thomas for us, so we are blessed having believed but not seen (John 20:24–29). All that is true, but it is disastrously incomplete.

The idea is that people are intimidated by images of Jesus that emphasize his majesty and his suffering. The people want an accessible personal god, not one of overwhelming power. They don’t want to see the tortured Christ who died for them, whose death is their salvation. Since we are already good (see moralism above), that should all be unnecessary. Then what of resurrection from the dead? Is that an old wives’ tale?

So we get Jesus as William Holman Hunt painted him in The Light of the World: long white robe, soft curls and beard, smiling benignly over us, waiting patiently outside a door that we may choose to open or not, according to our good pleasure. Hunt’s image dates from 1851, but preachers still present it as news. The Jesus who goes to hell and back, and hangs in the hot Palestinian sun for us is left out of account.

In the same building, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, a few feet from the Hunt painting, is a photo of St. Paul’s under bombing in the Battle of Britain, and a sign that says “The majesty of God is the measure of his mercy.” But we humans who have all those lovely qualities listed above don’t need him. We are already good. God loves us not out of mercy, but out of his exquisite good taste. Something must be profoundly wrong with this understanding.

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