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Breaking down the binary between belief and action

To what extent are our ethics, our life in the public square and our personal lives shaped by our theological convictions? Chris Currie, Erin Kesterson Bowers and David Fergusson discuss.

Convenor: Chris Currie
Participants: Erin Kesterson Bowers and David Fergusson

CHRIS: Many years ago, I saw a skateboarder wearing a black T-shirt that read: What we believe, shapes how we live. I was taken aback at first as I expected the T-shirt to say something more existentially dire or nihilistic, but instead, it spoke truth. That what we believe about God, about humanity, about the good life, matters, and shapes how we live, from small things like ordinary daily virtues to our collective and corporate witness as a Christian community, to our interactions in the quotidian world.

The alternative to that T-shirt is that our theological convictions are irrelevant to or separate from our ethical actions and life in the world. So, to what extent are our ethics, our life in the public square and our personal lives shaped by our theological convictions? Where do our theological beliefs and convictions come from?

ERIN: It is easy to get stuck thinking through these kinds of questions. To get un-stuck, I did what I often do in these situations — I asked my fourth grader. She said our beliefs come “from all those little books.” I inquired further, “What little books?” She said, “You know those little books at church and those little Bible books we have at home.” So I gave that some thought, and it seems that she is formed by the people around her and the stories they tell her about God — and particularly the people who she thinks are designated to teach her about God. So, in a general sense, I think our theological convictions come from the stories we tell in our communities about who God is and how God works.

DAVID: There is a positive feedback loop between what we believe and how we live. Beliefs shape activity — these can be illumined and reinforced through prayer, teaching, ritual and worship. But I also want to say that how we live shapes our beliefs. Practice, habituation and commitment can make the cognitive elements of faith more plausible.

CHRIS: So perhaps our beliefs and our theological claims are shaped, tested and actualized in our lived context, and for those who dare to be Christians, that lived context is the community of faith, the church. Where would you say that we make theological claims and how do they shape our ethics?

DAVID: These arise in the church, though there is no prospect of sealing off the church from the world and avoiding what sociologists call “cognitive contamination.” Beliefs are developed in the Christian community as it reflects upon Scripture and its own traditions, and a it seeks to interpret these in each day and generation. There will be distinctive ethical commitments grounded in core beliefs, but these might be expected to show some similarities to what is held by other faiths. A good example would be concern for the care of God’s good creation.

ERIN: Well, we can claim them everywhere, and sometimes we do, even without words – like the T-shirt Chris describes – by the way we live our lives. But I also think that the marriage of the two, an explicit theological conviction spoken aloud together with an ethical action, is the way to go. It has become popular to appeal to a quote often attributed to Francis of Assisi, whether he said it or not, I don’t know, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” My sense is that it is pretty much always necessary to use words.

Christians don’t really have the corner on the market on ethical behavior. There are a lot of folks living all kinds of lives — some are selfish and greedy; others are kind and selfless. And those folks don’t always match up according to whether they are practicing Christians or not. So, it seems to me that a theological/ethical claim ought to be explicit — with a rationale easily given for the “why” of any ethical action.

CHRIS: I am always struck by attempts to create a false binary between belief and action. It is not hard to find social media memes or one-liners that say things like “Early Christians did not worship Jesus, they followed him,” or other attempts to divorce faith and action. It seems to me that you both are advocating for a faith that seeks to know, a faith that seeks understanding (fides quaerens intellectum), but also a faith as doing and living out the gospel through faithful action. How have your theological beliefs shaped who you are and how you seek to live?

DAVID: I return here to the feedback loop mentioned above. My theological beliefs, I hope, bear some correlation to how I live or at least to my recognition of how I should live. They act as a check or corrective in relation to practice and they often yield further illumination. For example, my attitude to animal welfare has shifted as a result of having some of my beliefs challenged. In other ways, I would need to acknowledge the influence of more secular factors in shaping my ethical outlook. This might reflect my dual location in church and university, though this duality must be experienced in some way by every Christian person in the contemporary world. I’d also want to stress that our beliefs give us a motivation and a commitment that might otherwise be lacking or diminished. Too much focus on the particularity of belief can cause us to lose sight of the motivational force of Christian faith. The Apostle Paul exhorts us not to grow weary of well doing.

ERIN: Because my life is spent primarily in the church, among church people, I think I sometimes don’t even notice the way my life is shaped by my theological beliefs — and I can even get discouraged, thinking that an attempt to live after the manner of Christ doesn’t make any difference. And, there is some truth to that, I suppose. One can find ethical living inside and outside the church; and I think one can find selfishness and self-centeredness in both places, too. On occasion, though, I will find myself in some sort of group of people without a particular religious association of any sort — and I find that I am encouraged about myself or the church because sometimes I get a glimpse of some sort of marked difference between those who seek to follow Christ and those not doing that.

CHRIS: There is a caricature of the role of doctrine or thinking theologically for the sake of the church and our ethical convictions; it goes like this: Theology is like a museum that holds all our set of beliefs that must be preserved or that theology is simply scholastic doctrinal hairsplitting that has no relevance to the present context and the challenges of today. I am reminded though of Karl Barth’s more dynamic description of the theological task, which is the unending endeavor to depict or convey a bird in flight. That God is dynamic and is constantly calling us to revisit who God is for us in Jesus Christ, today. In what sense do you believe our theological convictions change as a result of ethical challenges or changing social norms? Should they?

ERIN: I’m not sure I would have been as committed to this position a few years ago as I am today, but my sense is now that theology has to determine ethics, and not vice versa. I don’t want to say it is impossible for theological convictions to change as the result of an ethical challenge, because I think we have to revisit our theological convictions again and again; but somehow, the litmus test always has to begin and end with the theological claim. I feel much more strongly about that these days, having seen and read too many Christians (so-called Christians?) over the past few years who have twisted theological claims to suit abhorrent ethical positions.

DAVID: German Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel once wrote of how secular forces have often led Christians to change their understanding of Scripture and tradition, not as an act of betrayal but as a recognition of their capacity to speak in new ways. With respect to usury, abolitionism, democracy, womenʼs ordination and gay marriage, this strikes me as being the common experience of many Protestant churches. One contribution Christian ethical teaching might make today is to avoid the bundling or packaging of ethical commitments into a simple socio-political binary, e.g., woke versus anti-woke, left versus right or liberal versus conservative. The prophets often surprised and disturbed the ethical assumptions of those to whom they preached.

CHRIS: Erin and David, thank you for having this conversation about why our beliefs matter and how they shape our lives. And thank you for sharing your own thoughts and experiences from home and hearth and church and university. If I were to create my own meme, it would say, “Belief without action is cowardice, but action without belief is thoughtless.” But I prefer these kinds of conversations rather than lobbing “memes” and Twitter posts at each other. I look forward to more faithful conversations.

Erin Kesterson Bowers is associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, High Point, North Carolina, where she has served since 2009. 

David Fergusson is Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University and Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge University.