I know it’s irritating to read, “On the one hand…and on the other.” That’s how life is, however. It’s never as simple as we would like, and faith (at least for me) is no exception.
So in considering the question whether belief is a matter of “all or nothing,” I would say that, yes, there’s a sense in which it must be all or nothing, but maybe not all at once. Here’s what I mean.
Some pretty graphic language in the Bible is reserved for people who are “neither hot nor cold.”
“…But since you are neither,” says the Book of Revelation, “but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Instead of “spit,” I’ve seen that translated as “spew” or “vomit.” Strong stuff and an example of the “apocalyptic” literature of its time. Revelation is among the most difficult of New Testament books, which may be why so many preachers like to quote and (mis)interpret it.
A common form of being lukewarm, in my view, is the practice of many Christians who believe their religion consists only in going to church. A Christian can't have a “religion” drawer in life, where we keep all our religious “stuff” separate from our everyday life. We can’t just pull the religion stuff out when convenient, or when we want somebody to notice, so that our faith doesn’t interfere with anything else.
The fork-lift driver
For three summers when I was in college, I worked at a brewery in
, my hometown. One of the brewery
workers, a forklift driver on the loading dock, attended DAILY mass. I noticed
this on the few occasions when I also attended. You would think that would have
made him sensitive to others, or at least a bit more thoughtful. But when he
came to work, he was a terror. He drove the forklift recklessly and
aggressively, placing others at risk and not seeming to care. St. Joseph, Mo.
I’ve often thought about him in this context. Was he placing his faith in his “religion drawer,” separate from his “work” drawer, his “family” drawer and his “fun” drawer? In other words, did he think his religion had nothing to do with the rest of his life? (I really can’t judge him, though. If not for daily Mass, he may have become a mass murderer.)
Yes, I think faith requires “all or nothing,” but I don’t think you can expect it early in a search for God, who I believe is involved with everyone no matter where they are in life. Following the pattern of the universe, I believe, faith evolves – both for individuals and for humankind.
For most of us, becoming a person of faith requires a lifetime. There are always new insights, new opportunities to learn more and do more to express your faith. There are always struggles and setbacks.
So, what about acceptance of “doctrine,” which is a stumbling block for many seeking God and faith? What if you are attracted to a religion but can’t accept all its doctrine? Must that be an insurmountable obstacle?
Doctrines not equivalent
Not in my view. Here’s how I see it for my religion, Catholicism, which, after 2,000 years, has more than its share of doctrine. There’s no Catholic doctrine I would deny, but doctrines aren’t equivalent, nor are they all relevant for me. In fact, there are many that are important to others but not to me. I don’t deny them. Why would I? They mean a lot to some people. But they aren’t important in my faith life, at least not now.
Many searchers for God are especially skeptical, or even cynical, when it comes to doctrine. They rightly point out, in the case of Christianity, that Jesus wasn’t a doctrine sort of guy. As far as we know, he didn’t write down anything (except whatever, if anything, he wrote in the dirt in the story of the “woman caught in adultery”) nor, as far as we know, did he say anything directly about orthodoxy or heresy.
But he preached and taught continuously and those teachings, along with the interpretations of followers throughout the ages, constitute Christian doctrine. Doctrines that are relevant for some eras, or some people, may not be relevant for others. And if you have competing doctrines, you’ll have competing religions. And if the followers are around for two thousand years, you’ll have that much more doctrine, and competition. All that seems natural to me.
So, to get back to our original question, does it have to be “all or nothing,” including doctrine? Half measures don’t hack it in any human endeavor, but God knows our hearts and we often must wait for a fullness of faith (that we may not recognize when it comes). As for doctrine, searchers for God should be open to it, willing to learn and change but remain unflappable if some doctrines don’t seem relevant.