Sunday, February 8, 2009

Which Came First: Chicken or Egg? Thoughts about Belief and Chrsitian Faith

It’s been a VERY long time since my last post. Since then I finished an academic semester, been to London and Belfast and participated on a panel at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship’s Worship Symposium with Jason Clark and Pete Rollins on Emerging Christianity. And I’ve also been trying to explain on someone’s blog claims I made at the panel discussion concerning belief and Christianity.

First, a word about the panel. As I said, the panel was made up of myself, Jason Clark and Pete Rollins with Jamie Smith, Lori Wilson and Mike Wittmer acting as respondents. Nathan Bierma deftly played the role of moderator. We attracted somewhere between 120-130 to the four hour panel discussion and roughly another 100 over the course of the next two days at one-hour discussions for those who didn’t make it to the panel. The Worship Symposium as a whole drew some 1400 participants from 38 different countries.

The impetus for the panel is a book that Pete, Jason, myself and Scot McKnight are doing addressing various issues in emerging. We gathered (except for Scot) the day before the symposium to go over drafts of our chapters. It was for me an enormously beneficial experience; both the colloquium at which we went over chapter drafts and the panel discussion.

Okay, now to the meat and potatoes. At the panel discussion, Mike Wittmer, a theologian at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, asked the panel whether there are any beliefs that are necessary to be a Christian. He wanted to know if someone could be a follower of Christ and lack belief in the resurrection, for example. Each of the panel members was reluctant to answer the question. Speaking for myself, I said that I was reluctant only because belief admits of different grammars and that the question(er) suggested there was only one. I said there that belief must be thought of not synchronically (as happening at a specific point in time) but diachronically (as something that happens over time). I elaborated on this later on Mike Wittmer’s blog.

Let me state briefly how I am thinking of belief and you good folks (if there are any of you left out there) can tell me what you think. The preferred grammar of the questioner is the grammar of assent, the view that belief is belief that: belief that Jesus was both God and human; belief that Jesus rose from the dead, etc. Here the idea is that belief is belief that certain propositions are true, and he wanted to know if in order to be a follower of Christ one must assent to certain propositions and if so, which ones.

My response was to tell a story about Pascal, who upon being told by a friend that he wanted to become a Christian, doesn’t tell the guy what to believe; rather, Pascal tells him to “go to Mass and take the Eucharist.”

The idea here is that belief can be the result of engaging in certain practices and rituals. Now most 21st Century, Western, Protestant Christians probably think that engaging in Christian practices or rituals follows on the heels of belief. Pascal suggests that the causal chain runs in the opposite direction, from practices and rituals to belief. Indeed, most of us probably think that belief is what brings about salvation itself and not salvation that brings about belief.

God, I take it, is never satisfied with belief that. God is interested in the total reorientation and rearrangement of our lives, our loves, our desires our entire way of being in the world. The important question is whether being a Christian is fundamentally and primarily about belief that certain propositions are true.

At the most basic level it seems clear to me that God is most interested in the total reorganization and reconfiguration of human life, of reorienting the human will, heart, desires and loves. God is interested in our moral and existential transformation. This of course is in no way incompatible with belief that certain propositions of the relevant sort are true. But the goal is transformed lives, not belief in “Jesus facts.”

And this is why when asked whether followers of Christ must know and put their trust in him, I’m inclined to point out that “being a Christian” (like belief) is progressive, that I am even now, and after all these years still becoming a Christian. Followers of Christ must, of course, put their trust in him. I must put my trust in him: today I must; tomorrow I must, and the next day I must. My frustration with myself is that I often put my trust in Christ one moment and then take it back the next.

As to the resurrection and whether someone could become a follower of Jesus before they come to believe in the resurrection, this is what I said on MW’s blog:

“I think that someone could become a follower of Jesus BEFORE they come to believe in the resurrection. But let me preface this…by saying that I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is indeed an essential piece of the Jesus story.

“Suppose you’re a fledgling writer. And suppose you meet someone at a writer’s workshop in Ann Arbor, another author with whom you share coffee and conversation during the breaks. Suppose this author speaks with you throughout the three day conference about the ins and outs of constructing plot and characters and does so in a way that you’ve never experienced before. You find yourself drawn to this author and to his words, even more so than the author leading the workshop. Suppose he has the effect of revolutionizing your own writing and that after all that time you spent together at the workshop you never bothered to get his last name. You knew him simply as John, the name on his name tag.

“Now suppose you go home utterly changed as a writer. Your writing from that workshop on is of a different caliber and gravitas than what preceded it. And then suppose that a week, a month, a year later you read an article in a writer’s magazine about the weekend John Updike attended a workshop in Ann Arbor and about the many conversations he had with this fledgling writer from Grand Rapids. You’re stunned! You’re shocked! You spent three days conversing with John Updike, whose work you love, and you didn’t even know it was John Updike. Now you do.

“The point of this little story is obvious. It’s certainly possible for you to have an experience of someone, to have your life changed by this someone, without at that very moment knowing who or what that someone is or is about. I imagine the resurrected Jesus could draw people to himself without those people knowing at the time of meeting who he is or what he’s done. Knowledge of that sort, if things go well, will come.

I went on to make a point about the resurrection itself.

“I want to stress again that the resurrection of Jesus gets its meaning and weight from the story it’s embedded in. Apart from that story it’s no more than a historical curiosity. I’m not interested in getting people simply to believe that a guy named Jesus was resurrected from the grave, and I doubt you [MW] are either. The good news is that our sins have been forgiven, that God has reconciled us, that there’s a new way to be human and that everything has changed because of the incarnation, life, death AND resurrection of Jesus. The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are themselves embedded in a six thousand year old, unfolding story of a bent and broken world and a God working for its restoration and renewal. In other words, the resurrection as an isolated factoid is not what is of paramount importance. It’s the resurrection as part of God’s program of love and reconciliation that is the issue of supreme importance.”

Well, that was my last and final contribution to the discussion on Mike’s blog. Thoughts?


daniel said...


Glad to see you back in the arena! I've enjoyed the short life of this blog immensely.

Do you get the feeling that MW would agree or disagree with that final paragraph of yours?

Would he agree with it as far as it goes, but want to add more?

- Daniel Coleman

Kevin Corcoran said...


I get the feeling he would agree, but want to add to it. But I dunno.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. I think your ideas about belief are right on, and often ignored. Modern desires to assert correctness have boiled evangelism and even faith down to convincing people (including ourselves) of ideas without any radical life change. Thanks again.

Stephen Krogh said...


Aristotle espouses a similar view in the Ethics. We are habituated by our actions, our surroundings, our character (which is formed by the previous two), etc., and then we come to knowledge or belief. So, someone, who is poorly habituated is simply not going to be able to come to proper belief (here the belief is in regards to Ethics, e.g. belief in the virtues and the appropriate actions, which spring therefrom). All of this is to say, that (along with Pascal) I agree that before someone believes Christ's and the Church's claims (some of which, I don't need to tell you, are incredible, she should try to pray, go to mass, live as though she believed God exists and any number of teachings in the church. It seems that belief can only arise after such things. In fact, it seems like we see this in our day to day lives. Children cannot possibly have a robust belief system regarding resurrection, the trinity (well, perhaps a robust knowledge of this one is impossible), etc., and yet we encourage them from a young age to be baptized, receive the Eucharist, pray, etc., with the hope that God will grant them a robust belief by imitating and habituating proper action.

I like it. Good to have you back.


Kevin Corcoran said...


Yes. Exactly; the point is not a new one. I said in the discussion on Mike's blog that it strikes me that much of what he was saying is forgetful of the first 1500 or 1600 years of church history. And that the overly cerebral, overly cognitive view of belief excludes children and people with mental retardation from the ranks of fellow Christians. But, I think his view is probably the reigning view w/in evangelicalism.

Thanks for the Aristotle reference.

Yooper said...

If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, He would be a liar/sinner and not God. We would be dead in our sins. But He is risen! -I Corinthians 15

Do you have an answer for the hope that is within you? -I Peter 3:15

The Word of God is Truth, not man's opinion.

Christi said...

Hey Kev,
I am in full agreement with you. Where would you position the Bible in your idea? I would say that the Bible enlightens our experiences and affirms the propositions ("belief that").

great post!

Yooper said...

By the way, the chicken came first. :-)

Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17).

Because the Word of God is Truth (John 17:17), it divides (Hebrews 4:12).

Don't put your trust in what feels right.

Christi said...

hey Yooper, I don't think I fully understand where you are coming from. What assumptions are you making exactly? If I understand you correctly, your position is something like:
The Bible is the inerrant word of God and is therefore trustworthy. It is all that is necessary for knowing what is true; if we just choose to adopt what it says as the truth, then we...? are saved? will be good people? will go to heaven?

Yooper said...


We all have a source for our beliefs, and the Word of God is mine. We can read very clearly in John 3 the answer that Jesus Christ gave to a man who asked how he could be born again. We can read of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30,31) who asked Paul, "what must I do to be saved?"

We need beliefs and we need to live those beliefs out. Don't get the cart in front of the horse.

Take care.

Christi said...

Hey Yooper,
I think we are in agreement :) We need beliefs, we need to live them out. So is the question "where does authority lie? In the text or in experience?" I like to read Lauren Winner a lot, she's a smart lady. She explained how following the rituals of prayer and Eucharist sustained her faith during times when she struggled with belief. So maybe the Spirit works through experiences as well as the scripture.

Yooper said...


I would have to say that authority lies in the Word of God - experiences can vary.

Yooper said...

Hey Christi,

I bet you are like me in that "pat answers" just don't cut it.

I hadn't been a Christian very long when I was asked the question, "if I was to die and Jesus was to ask me why He should let me into His heaven, what would I say?" That question blew me away. I didn't know what to say; I took the question literally - I hadn't heard that there was a part II of salvation. My friend (who grew up in a Christian home) knew the answer - because I have Jesus in my heart. :-)

Christi said...

Yooper, Yep. I am not an easy-answers kind of gal. I grew up in a christian home with a Mom who told me that if I didn't accept Jesus into my heart I would go to hell. She failed to explain that having Jesus in my heart meant that I would be spend my life on the incredible journey of sanctification. She also failed to explain that there are more questions than answers and when we are really honest about it we just have to obediently submit to God in trust that He is God and we are not. I am becoming more and more convinced that hell is a place here right now on earth, and so is heaven. We see glimpses of both and when Jesus comes back we will know fully what we only see in part. I believe the Word of God was a person and I believe He is still living and active among us and in us. It's so much more vibrant than a simple set of writings. If we want to know truth, we need to know Jesus, and I think we can both agree on that. Certainly it's a little harder to police such a statement. I have heard people on more than one occasion assert that God told them to do something that seemed... well, less than Biblical. And while I probably challenged them on it a bit, ultimately I believe it's between them and God. We do all have to answer for the time that is given us. I think Jesus is the plumbline for our time here. If I am not inline with him, then I am off course and am in need of intervention (ie Grace). Anyway... I could go on and on. And I do.. on my own blog. Which you can visit at

Anonymous said...

Kevin - I believe the idea that there are a set of standard beliefs that makes us a Christian is our way of wanting to reduce being a Christian down to something that we can control and achieve. It really shook me up when I first encountered the idea that believing certain things did not make me a Christian because it makes being a Christian much more demanding. At this point I am sure that someone will jump to the conclusion that I am promoting a salvation that requires works - let me say that I am not saying that at all. I believe that what Jesus did is completely sufficient. What I do believe is that being a Christian (I prefer Christ follower) is all about following the way of Jesus - the way he lived, loved, thought etc. My thoughts no longer go from thinking of being a Christian to "does that mean I will go to heaven" - now my thoughts go from thinking of being a Christian to "am I like Jesus". I think that making personal salvation the central goal of being a Christian makes us unable (from that perspective) to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. So when I hear the question "Are there certain things a person HAS to believe in order to be a Christian?" I immediately think “that’s the wrong question”. I am not sure exactly what the question should be but I think it would be something along the lines of asking if a person is committed to following the way/ideals of Jesus, learning from him and becoming like him.

Anonymous said...


I would agree with that last paragraph, and indeed, most all of what you have written. My only point is that we can't have "belief in" Jesus without a "belief that" about Jesus. Of course I don't think "belief that" is enough, for even demons believe and tremble. I just don't understand how a person can follow Jesus if he or she does not know who he is. That's it. But we've been down this road before, so I'll understand if it's time for this thread to end (though your readers might be interested in it).

Pete Scribner said...

Kevin -

Thanks for your thoughts. I'm still trying to get my mind around what you're saying...

You state, "The good news is that our sins have been forgiven, that God has reconciled us..." I'm curious to know who exactly would you say comprise the who/us in that statement? Thanks again for your input.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hey Pete,

I think the "us" is all of us. Some of us realize this good news and others of us, sadly, don't. Some of us glory in it and others of us live in ignorance of it or even in open rebellion against it. But I believe God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself and that includes all of us.


Anonymous said...

"...But I believe God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself and that includes all of us."

What does this mean?

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ryan Herr said...

Just came across this blog through a blog search for "grammar of assent". Do you believe that you are using the phrase in a related way to how John Henry Newman used it?

Also, here's a tip: You may want to check out At the Origin of the Christian Claim by Luigi Giussani.

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