Monday, July 20, 2020

Faith Is Not a Moral Virtue

"No one had a word to say against her, for she was a deeply religious woman." —
Judith 8:8 Revised English Bible

"Domina omnium et regina ratio." — Cicero, Tusculanarum Disputationum, II. 21.

Growing up I didn't hear it said often that someone was a 'great man (or woman) of faith.' As a Roman Catholic, I heard 'he (or sometimes she) is/was a good Catholic.' In Brazil almost 20 years ago I heard someone described as 'very Catholic,' and it was meant as high praise. Beyond Catholicism, in my time as an evangelical, what I heard and sometimes said was that this or that person had 'great faith' or was a man/woman 'of faith.' There were other superlatives in circulation as well, but they all hinged on beliefs and a trust in God. Now, from where I'm standing at this point in my life, it seems strange to me that anyone thinks of faith as a virtue.

In ancient times religion was far less about adhering to certain beliefs, and more about allegiance to the tribe or nation, represented by its gods. A person in ancient Greece could worship any of a number of gods, and hold to a variety of theological views about those gods without much trouble. There weren't tomes written of systematic theology about Zeus, Athena, or Apollo. You wouldn't have seen preachers debating about the true nature of Demeter. Such a thing would have been complete nonsense. Much the same was true in other ancient religions. They were more like folk beliefs. You offered sacrifice, perhaps prayed for a good harvest, and life kept going. 

Someone in ancient times could have been described as blessed by the gods, of course. A hero would arise and lead an army to victory, and he would be deemed the chosen of the gods. A woman could be infertile for years, and then suddenly bear children without problem, and it would be considered a divine blessing. That is, except in post-exilic Judaism and its successors, including Christianity. Throughout the Common Era rabbis have argued the meaning of scripture and tradition, while priests and preachers have done the same. Both ink and blood have been spilled in the process, in copious amounts. 

Let's fast-forward right up to our current era. When I was on a work crew while on summer break from college in 1995 I had to deal with some pretty shady co-workers. The foreman, who was only a year or two older than me, and another crew member were padding their hour sheets with extra time. The plan was to bank extra money for a trip down to St. Louis with their girlfriends. That foreman, by the way, was very active at his church and preparing to go to a Bible college that Fall, with a plan of becoming a youth pastor. In the meantime, he encouraged the crew to slack off, and he was usually the one with the most vulgar things to say. Early on I questioned him about it, the good evangelical that I was, and he seemed puzzled that I saw a problem. For him, faith alone was good enough.

One day while working with another crew member, he mentioned being 'saved.' I was surprised, given how raunchy this guy was in the ongoing internal discussions of the crew. Asking him how he knew he was saved, if it didn't change how he behaved, he replied, "because I was bapTIZED." 

This is something I found to be the state of affairs time and again in young adulthood, as I ministered while in college, in Brazil as a missionary, and in New Mexico as a full-time minister. While a core of church members were giving every indication of striving to live better, there were always the many who got the message that salvation was by grace through faith (and sometimes baptism), and figured that was good enough. A sinner's prayer or dip in the baptismal was enough to provide the 'fire insurance' they needed. How they lived their lives beyond that was of no significance. 

The Unitarians of the 18th and 19th century came to believe in salvation by character. While retaining their Christian faith, essentially, they believed that seeking to be a good person, and developing one's moral character, was the path to salvation. Hell became less and less a concern. While there was a lot of privilege wrapped up in this, and it doesn't coordinate well with the historic position of Christian orthodoxy, it certainly makes better sense. 

According to the logic of traditional evangelical theology, Adolph Hitler could have been saved if he called out to Jesus in the last moments of his life, while someone's sweet grandfather who had made sacrifices all of his life for his family, and did his best for friends and neighbors, would be burning in hell for all eternity because church wasn't really his thing. It's warped thinking that puts the focus almost entirely on particulars of belief, leaving practicalities of living a good life as very much secondary. 

There are far worse, real-world impacts from putting faith on a pedestal, above the virtues. It twists logic, looking the other way from injustice and abuse. The racist sheriff in the South who targets people of color for minor or imagined infractions could also be a deacon, a faithful man of God, at his local church. The president in the White House is a sexist, racist and a xenophobe, but since he pushes forward policies that favor evangelicalism, he must be a 'Cyrus' appointed by God and therefore supported. The mindset fostered by the exaltation of faith as a prime virtue — or a virtue at all — justifies the unjustifiable and approves of baseless and dangerous conspiracy theories.

There are verses in the Bible that discuss good character and honorable living as the product of salvation by grace through faith, and these are often pointed to by people attempting to defend the their beliefs from criticism. We're told that we're all sinners and shouldn't cast stones. We're assured that anyone who does terrible evil must not be true Christians. And yet, all the while the evangelical church not only tolerates but even celebrates evil. Their unholy union with Trumpism, their anti-lgbtq polemics, and their persistence in perpetuating racist stereotypes and upholding white supremacy culture while denying is reality is damning. When someone among them engages in sexual abuse, for example, we see them circle up to defend and protect the 'repentant' sinner. At the same time victims have been further victimized by the church's insistence that they forgive those who violated their trust and their bodies. 

Faith is not moral virtue. When believing in something without or against evidence is held up as a moral triumph, a door is opened to embracing virtually anything that someone thinks 'makes sense' to them. This is, in my opinion, a large part of what is sickening and debilitating the United States, and those parts of the world where we still hold cultural influence. What we need is a revival of reason, and renewal of virtue ethics at the center of our society.