Christianity as practice vs. belief system

Brian McLaren was featured in an interesting interview on the FERMI Project podcast discussing his new book, Finding Our Way: The Return of the Ancient Practices. I picked up a copy last week but haven’t finished it yet. At the beginning of chapter one, he tells about interviewing Peter Senge at a pastor’s conference. McLaren opened the interview by acknowledging for Senge that the audience of pastors was probably different than his usual gatherings of business leaders. Senge replied,

“Well, Brian, you’re right. I don’t normally speak to pastors. Actually, I was thinking about that very question yesterday when I was in a large bookstore. I asked the bookstore manager what the most popular books are these days. Most popular, he said, were books about how to get rich in the new information economy, which didn’t surprise me. …Second most popular, the manager said were books about spirituality, and in particular, books about Buddhism. And so when I thought about speaking to five hundred Christian pastors today, I thought I’d begin by asking you all a question: why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?” (McLaren, Finding Our Way, p.3)

McLaren returned the question to Senge, “How would you answer that question?” Senge’s answer was, I believe, profound and very intriguing:

“I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life, because that’s what people are searching for today. That’s what they need most.”

This was a wonderful statement for me personally because it speaks very pointedly to my own faith context at this particular time of my life. (I alluded to this in a blog post a couple of months ago). I have found my received Christianity-as-belief-system increasingly problematic as I move through my life. The fact that this belief system began 44 years ago as an extremely fundamentalist and literal form of Christianity has had much to do with my discontent. It simply could not bear the weight of life and circumstances and I found I could no longer ignore the empirical evidence of life lived outside the bubble of Christendom. And yet, I couldn’t leave “the church” or faith or Jesus.

Several weeks ago, I attended a 5 Day Academy for Spiritual Formation. To be perfectly honest, I began the experience extremely cynical and with very low expectations. I left that experience with a profound new understanding of my own faith journey and of my practice of faith from that point forward. Specifically, my new understanding revolves around this tension between practice and system of belief. I would love to hear some of your thoughts on this.

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5 thoughts on “Christianity as practice vs. belief system

  1. The beliefs and traditions that I was raised with don’t have an answer for the questions and issues I have and see around me every day. In my opinion, the church as an institution no longer represents the message it was founded on. In order to defend its own existence it has made doctrine more important than practice, more important than loving the unlovable, more important than forgiving the unforgivable. Focused inward rather than outward. Meeting certain standards rather than unconditional acceptance.
    The struggle I face is to redefine my practice of faith without losing it altogether.

  2. I think what I’m trying to do over the last couple of months is redefine “practice”. Although, I have begun to (attempt) to incorporate a couple of what might be called the “classical spiritual disciplines” into my routine (ex. daily office in the mornings), I have found a regular volunteer gig at a local elementary school. (This public post notwithstanding), I do this quietly and view it as much a spiritual practice as I would prayer.

    Other routines can be redefined as spiritual practices. If one were to look at the activities of members of monastic communities, it would look a lot like “work” to those of us on the outside. A brief interview of those in the community would reveal a disciplined spiritual practice. I assume this transformation of work to spiritual practice is connected to their practice of some of the classic spiritual disciplines as well.

  3. I love the two strips…I think they are (mostly) dead on accurate. I think there is a place for raising one’s colors…at some point, I take a position on something…I’m for Obama, I like what “Coexist” represents for me, I support the American Cancer Society, etc. However, when these positions become mere flags to be waved and defended minus the corresponding practice or “way of life”, they become become something as trite fashion or bumper-stickers, or as toxic as a measure of ones orthodoxy.

  4. Mike,
    Great to hear from you. Though I am not a professional “minister”, I too am intrigued that Buddhism is of such interest to so many people. I would have thought Islam would be of greater interest in today’s world.
    I understand the issue posed with “belief system” vs “way of life”. My understanding is that “way of life” the result of the “belief system”. If I’m wrong, help me understand.


    Thanks for provoking deep thinking.

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