Please forgive my blatant hook of a title, but I do wish to seriously ask this question. In a previous post I said that the bible does not actually tell us to believe, but rather that the word we translate “believe” is actually “do faith.” If you want to know more about this, please read that previous post and another that explains this more thoroughly.
But if the bible says that we must “do faith” to be saved, then what about believing?
This is truly an important question. Can you be an “unbeliever” and still be a Christian? If the answer is yes, then into what are we converting those who we “win for Christ?” If the answer is no, then what do we do with the bible?
Let’s start with some basics: What to we mean when we say “believe?”
We mean the mental and imaginative consent to a set of limits for what can be real. That is, to believe is to agree to consider the possibility of reality to stop and start at such and such a point. It is to think and consider that only certain things can be real. This limit to reality is further defined by certain criteria that must be met. Those criteria are generally defined in historical and objective terms: saying you “believe in Jesus” means that you consider him to have been an actual person who was and is God the Son. Believing in this sense means you think this is real; this is a set of parameters for reality that you accept and try to abide within.
This seems to offer an easy and obvious distinction for those who are “in” versus those who are “out.” If you think this is real, you’re in; if not, you’re out. But there are a number of problems with this. For one, it assumes that thinking is the only aspect of human life that matters soteriologically (with significance for salvation). For another it relies exclusively on the subjective opinion of the individual while claiming objectivity for the opinion.
But the biggest problem is that it disagrees with what the bible says.
There are a number of passages that clearly oppose this sort of understanding for salvation (I am of course assuming that being a Christian means “being saved.” This is not the only nor the best explanation of the term, but for the present post it is my preference). I’ve written previously on Matthew 25, and encourage you to investigate my reading of that text. Matthew 25:31-46 relays Jesus’ warning/promise of judgment following the coming of his kingdom; the judgment is between the “sheep” and the “goats.” Those who are welcomed into the kingdom are not those who performed miraculous signs, but are those who engaged in loving and caring acts. But it is the response of those who were “put out” of the kingdom that gives the idea that assenting to a definition of reality is the condition of salvation real trouble- “Didn’t we cast out demons in your name? Didn’t we heal the sick in your name? Didn’t we perform miracles in your name?” These actions, on the surface, appear to be the kind of actions that faith alone could produce. Yet they are not, according to Jesus.
Those actions are based on belief; on a perspective of reality.
These actions, while being a part of what Jesus did, are not the hallmark of faith, it seems. And that is because they are performed for the benefit of the self and the personal sense of righteousness that results from them. It is the Car Window Effect that puffs up the ego and assures the performer of his or her personal righteousness, but does not meet the actual need of the other. It does not meet that need because there is no sacrifice involved. To give of your own food, shelter, time, is to sacrifice.
Sacrifice is what belief protects us from.
Why did the Ancient Israelites need to sacrifice their produce and livestock? It was not to appease a bloodthirsty or greedy divine spirit! It was instead to ritually remind and bind the people to what it costs to be for others, to be “the seed of blessing for the nations” (Gen. 22:17-18). To be the means of restoration for the whole world cannot involve hoarding or greed.
When we make the terms of the salvation an assent to certain metaphysical tenets about the limit of reality, we remove the crucial criterion from the table.
This is what I think James was getting at in chapter 2. “Faith without works is dead” because faith without works is belief. And the “works” are not transactional, they are sacrificial. Faith is the sacrificial movement towards others in love. Sometimes this movement requires a lack of belief, because belief can prevent us from having faith. Sometimes it means being courageous in acting out those beliefs.
But can I be a Christian and not believe?
Yes and no. Christianity is not a reductionist proposition, nor is it defined by assent to conceptualizations. However, belief alone is not what determines a person’s status within or beyond the promised kingdom of heaven (salvation). Of course, none of us will ever be able to give up believing in something. But those beliefs can never be afforded the authority we seem to give them at present. Instead, faith seems to act as an altogether independent force from belief. Sometimes faith affirms belief in a secondary sort of way. Sometimes faith opposes belief directly.
But what we really mean when we ask if belief is what matters is “Can you be a Christian and not believe like me?“ When we realize that this is what we are asking, the answer is immediately yes. You are not a Christian because of what you believe, but rather you are a Christian because you participate in the faithful life of restoration of the whole world to Christ-modelled relationship with God through the ongoing work of the Spirit. This participation happens on every level; emotional, physical, mental, physiological, spiritual. And as we participate we become transformed even as we are renewed. This is never quantifiable or controllable. But it is obvious when we see it, we just can’t quite explain why it’s obvious or what it is exactly.