Making the Faith Your Own Is not the Same as Making Up Your Own Faith
A pastor told me how encouraging it is when, years later, former students return to tell him how they’ve made the “faith their own.” It’s a phrase he used to encourage students with, especially those near graduation.
But he also told me how discouraging it was when one particular student returned to tell how he had made the faith his own. As the former student described this thing he considered “the faith,” it became clear he had not made the faith his own but rather made up his own faith. There’s a big difference.
Over the Easter weekend, the New York Times ran an interview with Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary. In the first few paragraphs you realize she’s done the same thing. In the short interview, she uses the phrase “for me” five times, as well as several other similar statements, such as “I don’t believe” and “seems to me,” as in the sentence, “For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith” (emphasis added).
In addition to rejecting the bodily resurrection of Christ, Jones also dismisses the reliability of the Bible, human depravity, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross, and eternal bliss in the new heavens and new earth and eternal torment in hell.
When my friend retweeted the article, he said, “I have more in common with Islam than I do with the religion described as ‘Christianity’ in this interview.” That’s probably not hyperbole. Readers get the sense that if the interview kept going, no remaining doctrine of historic Christianity would have been left un-denounced.
At one point, Nicholas Kristof, who conducted the interview, asks, “For someone like myself who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” Jones responds, “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.”
That’s a fascinating response, to say the least. In what sense can people call themselves Christian ministers—or Christians for that matter—while holding no beliefs of the historic Christian faith?
In the New Testament, Jude wrote, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). Did you catch that? He speaks of “common salvation” and contending “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude’s statement becomes meaningless if Christianity is infinitely malleable.
Words have meaning, and authors have intent. And Jones knows this. In one sentence she says, “At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing . . .” But she ends the paragraph saying, “I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being . . . That’s not the God of Easter.” So does the faith mean something or is it too mysterious to mean anything? Which is it?
When asked about what happens when we die, Jones responds, “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.” Did you notice another one of those “my faith” phrases? It all sounds so humble.
In his book Taking God at His Word, Kevin DeYoung writes about the infamous elephant metaphor for faith, the one where each person holds one part of the elephant, but because each is blindfolded, they don’t realize each holds the same thing. People often trot out the metaphor to explain how all religions are basically the same: some touch the elephant’s tail, others the side, and some the trunk. But if they all could only see, then they’d know that all religions are the same.
DeYoung disarms the faux-humility of religious pluralism that so often retreats to claims of mystery when there is no mystery. It isn’t actually humble, he notes, to profess agnosticism about what one is holding if the object you’re holding is shouting, “I’m an elephant.” That type of humility is better known as disobedience.
To be sure, there are aspects of mystery in the Christian faith, but the Christian faith cannot be all mystery or else there would be nothing to call “the Christian faith.” Moses wrote that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are secret things, and there are revealed things, but the faith once for all delivered is not a secret thing.
It was Eugene Peterson who described Christian faithfulness as a long obedience in the same direction. Serene Jones and Union Theological Seminary’s departure from the faith, however, are the result of a long disobedience in the same direction.