I want to play a video of a song that is stuck in my head. It is from 1966, and this version is by the Monkees, but it was actually written and first recorded by Neil Diamond. It has been recorded by many different groups, and a version by Smashmouth was used in the movie Shrek. It’s called “I’m a Believer”. Play video clip.
My daughter Naomi and I are revising lyrics for this pop classic, with the hope that the youth choir at St. Paul’s can add it to their repertoire. We are following in the great tradition of people like Martin Luther, the German reformer whose efforts led to the founding of the Lutheran Church, and John and Charles Wesley, who started the movement that became the Methodist Church. They were known for taking music from popular culture, like drinking songs from the neighbourhood pub, and turning them into hymns. (I have not mentioned the drinking song part to my daughter.)
Most good hymns are love songs, and many popular love songs are not far from being hymns. “I’m a believer” contains a few lines we will keep in our version, because they point to things that are true whether the relationship being sung about is with your romantic partner, or with God.
I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
Meant for someone else, but not for me
Ah, love was out to get me,
That’s the way it seemed,
Disappointment haunted all my dreams.
The singer yearns for the connection to their beloved. They experience disappointment along the way. They worry that their long search, their journey will be fruitless. But for some reason they persist, they don’t give up. The pilgrimage, the quest, the long search is finally rewarded.
Then I saw her face,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind,
I’m in love
I’m a believer,
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.
I appreciate the connection between doubt and faith, although I think it is a bit overstated. I think that for most of us, the desire to believe, and active, curious, sceptical doubt can co-exist. We don’t know things for sure, but we don’t let that stop us from living, and loving.
My two favourite lines in the song are: “ I’m in love, I’m a believer “.
I mentioned that the song was written by Neil Diamond. I don’t think he has any particular training in theology, or the history of Christianity. Even so, his song reminded me of the book, “The Case for God”, in which Karen Armstrong, the British historian of religion, discussed the meaning of the word “belief”.
“Originally the Middle English bileven meant ‘to love; to prize; to hold dear’; and the noun bileve meant ‘loyalty; trust; commitment; engagement.’ It was related to the German liebe and the Latin libido (“desire.”) “(From the Glossary of The Case for God, p.370)
She went on to say that when translators worked on the first English versions of the Bible, they used the word belief or faith almost interchangeably. But in our modern world, we no longer do that. Over time the understanding of the word faith has moved from being a heart thing- what you love, to a head thing- what you agree with.
In the early church, converts were not taught the creeds, the ideas about God, until after they were baptized. You joined the community of the faithful first, and then learned the fine points of the teachings. In recent years we have tended to do the exact opposite- confirming people as members only after teaching them our ideas about God, and asking them to agree.
Here is part of Armstrong’s description of how people joined the church in 4th century Jerusalem, under Bishop Cyril:
“the ceremony of baptism took place in the small hours of Easter Sunday morning in the Basilica of the Resurrection…..
“When the ceremony began, baptismal candidates were lined up outside the church facing westward, in the direction of Egypt, the realm of sunset and death. As a first step in their reenactment of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery, they renounced Satan. They were then “turned around” in a “conversion” toward the east- to the dawn, new life, and the pristine innocence of Eden. Processing into the church, they discarded their clothes, symbolically shedding their old selves, so that they stood naked, like Adam and Eve before the fall. Each mystes (candidate) was then plunged three times into the waters of the baptismal pool. This was their crossing of the Sea and their symbolic immersion in the death of Christ, whose tomb stood only a few yards away. Each time they were pulled underwater, the bishop asked them: Do you have pistis (faith) in the Father- in the Son- and in the Holy Spirit? And each time, the mystes (candidate) cried, “Pisteuo!”: “I give him my heart, my loyalty and my commitment!”
In his book “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg discussed what Christians have traditionally had in mind when they used the word faith. The first is called “Assensus”, and it seems to be the prevailing, or most commonly held idea about what faith is.
To “assent” to something is to nod your head, to agree that something is true. It is fairly easy to assent to simple, “concrete” facts, but much harder when it comes to more complex or abstract ideas.
How many here would agree that I am holding up five fingers? (The only debate here might be whether or not the thumb counts as a finger.) How many here would agree with the provincial governments approach to solving labour disputes? (This kind of issue requires us to bring facts, opinions, feelings, principles into the discussion.)
One of the difficulties with the “assent” model of faith is the idea of “truth”. We live in a time when the prevailing idea of “truth” is that something is true, only if we can show it to be true. 2+2= 4 We can prove it. The mathematical or scientific model dominates in our world today. Everything has to “add up”. Statements are either proven or unproven, true or false.
This understanding of truth sets up a real problem for religious people. There is so much in Christianity that we cannot prove: God created the world. God cares about each of us. There is purpose and meaning in life for each of us. Jesus came to teach us about God. We may find meaning in these statements, but we can’t prove them to be true.
Marcus Borg taught religious studies at a college in Oregon. Many of his students think that believing is what you do when you aren’t sure or don’t know. There are some things you can know, and other things you aren’t sure about, so you have to say you believe them.
This sets up knowing and believing as opposites. It also leaves no room for doubt. If along with this notion of faith a person also has the idea that faith is a requirement in order to qualify to be “saved” or loved by God, then you either have to believe, or you are doomed. Doubt then becomes a dangerous sin. This is a shame, because doubt, or openness to questions, is a healthy part of a spiritual life.
Many people end up rejecting the kind of faith that means that they cannot ask intelligent questions, or express doubt. The other weakness in the idea of faith as “assent” is that you can agree in your head with all the “right” ideas, and still be living a miserable life. What’s in your head can be totally separate from how you live, and what’s in your heart.
Borg describes three other ways of talking about faith that are more about being in relationship.
Faith as Fiducia: Fiducia is the latin word for “Trust”. This does not mean trusting in the truth of statements about God- it is about placing trust in God. The opposite of this kind of trust is anxiety, or worry. The relationship with God is in some ways like a relationship with a friend or partner. Trust is something that grows over time, and has to be exercised. There is always risk in trusting.
Faith as Fidelitas: Fidelity. Often at weddings I remind the couple that they are promising before God and their family and friends that they will love and honour their partner from this day forward, whether or not they feel like it. This kind of faithfulness is a conscious, lived commitment- a daily, hourly decision about who we are as a person. This kind of faith is only real if we live it out.
Faith as Visio: This is faith as vision, or a way of seeing. Borg suggests that there are 3 basic ways to look at reality.
- Life is short, cruel, painful, and then you die. This view of life is self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only look for bad, you will surely find it.
- The universe is indifferent. It is energy and chemical reactions. Nothing really matters, and nothing really has purpose. Your life may mean something to you, but that’s about it.
- Life is a gift from a generous God. We live in response to the gifts God gives. There is purpose and meaning in life, and God knows what it is, even when we have trouble seeing it.
This third way of seeing life is faith as Visio- living with a vision for life. Believing that God is the source of life, and living and dying, we are always with God.
Borg suggests that a fuller understanding of faith requires all these aspects. We assent to certain ideas or propostions about God. We place trust, or Fiducia in God. We make conscious choice to give God our fidelis, our loyalty. We embrace a vision or way of looking at life that is brighter because God and God’s love are part of the picture.
Borg concludes his chapter on faith by saying that faith is about love. “The Christian life is as simple and challenging as this: to love God and to love that which God loves. “
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
As Borg says “To believe in God is to belove God”. Amen