My Religious Beliefs

January 1, 2015

Responses When Prompted by a Survey

Revised 3 July 2017

I have no established idea of how religion or questions of faith relate to psychological type. I know that as an INTJ, I am intellectual about religion as a viable subject of study and reflection. Attentiveness to religion depends upon recognizing that the subject differs from others in one significant way. In matters of faith, basic beliefs and tenets escape proof in the evidentiary way common to other arguments.

In the post-enlightenment era, we have lost our ready acceptance of transcendence. Religion originates outside nature in sources beyond human knowing; revelation operates instead. This lack of provability and reliance on belief in the absence of proof is what makes religion a matter of faith.

Therefore, my views and the comments following come from personal background and experience. For a time in my adolescence, I had some difficulties with Christian teaching as I found puzzlements over views of self and related ethical questions. I was never bothered about questions of the supernatural: my motto was, “It is as easy to believe in one miracle as another.” My uncertainties lasted a couple years. Then, most of my theological problems receded by reading Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church; 4th edition (1948) and Tillich’s The Courage To Be and Love, Power, and Justice, and thanks to the excellent teaching of Frederick Bainton for whose class I read these books. Even earlier I had acknowledged the existential differences between eternity, time and the fullness of time thanks to Schnackenberg (1957) upon the subject.

This domain of belief rebounds from my life as a Christian and one of the Lutheran persuasion. Being of Norwegian descent, I say that I have been Lutheran since the late middle ages when Lutheranism came to Norway by way of Denmark. Norway was at that time attached to Denmark, a step away from the Reformation wrought by Luther and his colleagues in Germany. I have attended church since the womb, Sunday School from pre-school days, release time instruction through the years of public school, Luther League, confirmation and morning matins in my senior year.

In junior and senior high, I became the perennial Pocket Testament League secretary. I read both the King James and Revised Standard versions of the Bible straight through and wrote a pageant of the Bible story for Luther League performance.

Then I attended four years at St. Olaf, a college of the church, and subsequently became an active member of congregational life. I have since teen age years continuously studied history, then Bible, theology and philosophy and viewed my denomination (currently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, thanks to a century of mergers) as mainstream in Christian life and thought.

Over the years, I have worked to explore my faith in terms of a systematic theology as far as I could endeavor to comprehend and apply it. For me, theology is a rational and exegetical means of seeking and forming an understanding of what is beyond full comprehension and experience in matters of faith. Admittedly, theology establishes itself consequential from what a believer takes as the basis of faith. My theology remains dependent on a “deep reading” of Biblical testimonies and a deliberate effort to comprehend the growth of Biblically resonant theology over the ages. I do not see theology as dogmatic, but as exploratory, wrestling with matters of faith in order to better appreciate, receive and employ them.

The prompt for my responses at this point comes from an older book, one I acquired in April 2000 because of its title: Challenge of a Liberal Faith (1980) by George N. Marshall; revised, updated, and enlarged. When I recently chose to read it, I discovered that it comes from the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have worked in interfaith collaboration on social justice with members of this denomination: as a result , I know them to be progressive and eager to seek equality for others. Mainly, I have been ignorant of their religious beliefs that appear broad to me without ever having the need to explore, let alone, understand them.

The book is both narrative and instructional and prior to the lessons requires a “Self-Inventory of Religious Attitudes.” Before I began to read anything else in the book, I took the inventory. I had not gone far when I realized responses depend on the understanding of the terms used and how understanding them likely varies with context. I find this to be a common challenge in completing any survey or public opinion poll.

My understandings or clarifications to the following survey particulars appear in brackets [].

I. I believe that God is: [Use of “God” is one familiar word humans use as reference to divine, transcendent being.]

a) a person – yes [God has personhood, however distinct from humankind, and distinct from being an operating principle or force.]

b) a spirit – yes [God exists as otherness, neither physical nor corporeal.]

c) a superhuman power – yes [God’s power transcends the human experience and the human consciousness, and because of otherness is without measure.]

d) a mystery – yes [We may attempt to comprehend God; however, God remains beyond our ability to fully frame any accurate concept.]

e) an impersonal power that rules the Universe by natural laws – no. [Contrary to a.]

f) a fiction created by wishful thinkers to console themselves – no. [People are free to think God is fictional or as true, even when others charge that belief is wishful and emotionally motivated.]

g) the creator of the world as stated in the Bible – yes [As long as we understand that the Genesis accounts use mythic forms to illustrate God as beyond time and space. God calls all worlds into existence.]

h) in some sense the creator and preserver of the best we know – yes [As long as this means an ethic of love of God and all creation that God makes possible, intends, expects, engenders and sustains.]

i) an outgrown idea in a age of science – no [Science is a human invention based on our ability to seek knowledge; God is beyond knowing through scientific investigation or any human means.]

II. I believe that people are:

a) basically good – no [Although not clear what is meant by basic or good, my understanding is that if we were basically good we would not have the great amount of ill-will, prejudice, and injustice that we have in the world. We would work harder to live together though deep-seated cooperative endeavors and without force.

b) basically sinful – yes [In the religious sense, sin means our separation from God in nature and will. Despite whatever goodness we manage, we are still distant from the power of goodness and love that represents God.]

c) weak and indecisive, and needs help to do anything worthwhile – no [The statement offers an all or nothing choice. Human actions are inconsistent and mixed. Of course, we ought to give one another as much help as we can manage. God’s gift to us is perpetual love and forgiveness.]

d) good, but still need God’s help – no [God gave this world and calls us to action. See the answers in II a-c.

e) the highest form of earthly life – yes [If by highest is meant most capable, thanks to the ability to intend and attend.]

f) beings that are able to choose between good and evil by their own native wisdom – yes [Generally we do have this ability as God has endowed us. Whether we utilize such ability and to what extent remains a matter of great difference between individuals and societies.]

g) capable of building a better world – yes [As in II f.]

h) created by God to aid in the progressive betterment of the world – yes [As in II f, g.]

III. I believe that Jesus:

a) was a son of God in some special sense – yes [Except that the personhood of Jesus always was and will be an agency of God.]

b) was a prophet, like Amos or Isaiah, but for a later time in history – yes [As long as we understand “prophet” as one who professes God and God’s works.]

c) was a human being like ourselves – yes [Understanding that like ourselves, Jesus as incarnated on Earth was truly human while being truly God, something that is the deepest of mysteries.]

d) was the greatest human being who ever lived, whose teaching and example sum up the best we know of the good life – yes [Of course the “greatness” of Jesus consists in the strength and efficacy of divine love professed and lived through teaching and example.]

e) was only one of many great leaders, like Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, Schweitzer, etc. – no [Many other humans evidence greatness and goodness as regards paths of faith and action: yet, Jesus transcends all others as stated in III d and is not to be reduced or otherwise confined.]

IV. I believe that the Bible is:

a) true as no other book is true –yes [The Bible is a source of faith and a carrier of revelations of God from creation to the end of time.]

b) either all true or all false – no [The Bible is a collection or “scrapbook” of various literary forms composed and edited over millennia and in consequence varies in truth and application from part to part and carries the past and current limits of human knowledge and accuracy.]

c) a collection of both good and bad, plus some that is indifferent – no [The use of “good” and “bad” and even “indifferent” is not clear. As stated in IV b, the Bible varies in content and the utility of its parts and other related texts.]

d) interesting chiefly for historical reasons, like other old books – no [The Bible does provide some history, but is not chiefly historical unless history is understood as the story of God through created and human time.]

e) a valuable record of the search for God, or for enduring truth, full of the fascinating story of our upward growth toward maturity in religious understanding – yes [Actually, the Bible is invaluable to faith-formation. Through the story of the faithful, the Bible revolves around the work of God in the world in order that we humans may live and act to the fullest of our capacity. I will question whether there is much “upward growth toward maturity” in a consistent fashion.

f) a rule book for daily life – no [Neither am I sure what “rule book” means. The Bible has commandments, holiness codes, and other laws many of which have specific applications. At basis the greatest and transcendent of such commands is to love God and all other humans while caring for creation.]

g) a general guide to our own faith – yes [As expressed in IV f. Our task is to diligently read the Bible and take direction from its thematic and contextual message.]

h) a unique library of religious books, produced by a people who gave the world more basic individual and social religion than others – yes [These are claims as far as I know or can judge without having read all other scriptures or pertinent texts in other faiths.]

V. I believe that prayer is:

a) a means whereby people can really talk to God, and receive help – yes

b) a technique for taking stock of ourselves – yes

c) talking to oneself – no [Certainly not exclusively. It has been said “If we want God to hear our prayers, we must first hear them ourselves.”]

d) a merely formal way of influencing other people’s thoughts, as used in church services – no [Community prayers have value as to sharing concerns, enlarging recognition of the needs of others, affirming the union of those called together.]

e) a power that can actually change the course of events – yes [Of course, this does not necessarily mean every event at every time. Prayer is more likely observable to change those who pray.]

f) a way of consulting one’s own conscience – yes [Prayer encompasses both self-examination and admission or confession of needs and errors.]

g) I am undecided – no [I ought to pray more and more regularly and with greater articulation. I should move beyond general reliance on liturgy (which I dearly love and enjoy), routine and rote.]

VI I believe that the church is:

a) the best means we have of bringing religious influence into life – yes [Presumably “church” means the body of those on the path of faith – that is, the called of God – a term that has local, institutional, finite, historical, and eternal dimensions. Thus “church” is both particular and transcendent. Church is the vehicle to engage and join individuals into this community. It is also eternally inescapable.

b) an old-fashioned institution that should be superseded by some newer and more efficient form of teaching religious and moral truth – no [As an institution, the church is always changing and widely varies in particulars from place to place. My personal view is that churches have never plumbed to the core how religious and moral truth are best learned and what their role is in nurturing that learning.]

c) still useful as the guardian of our moral and spiritual welfare, but should not be placed first in a busy person’s life – no [A statement like this posits that the church is “them” when it is in faith terms “us.” Church is not so much the guardian as it is the home and family of our welfare.]

d) important to the word-wide effort to secure peace and democracy – yes [Presumably in the world context, peace means concord and harmony among all people and democracy means the participation of all people in the process of living together. Love, community, and justice are all basic components of God’s will for humanity. Our challenge is to follow and exercise that will.]

e) indispensable to the attainment of a worldwide community among people everywhere – yes [As in VI d.]

f) badly needs to be improved – no [What is the sense of “badly?” Improvement is always desirable. All worship communities and all individuals outside of their institutional settings can do far better in committing and working towards our common good.]

g) all right as it is – no [As in VI f.]

VII. I believe:

a) that all people are of equal value in the sight of God or of history regardless of color, race, creed, or class – yes [Except I would prefer “sight of God and of history.”]

b) that some people are inherently superior to others – yes [Assuming that “superior” refers to characteristics or attributes that vary among individuals accounting for our differences. The importance of community is that we differ and we need one another’s talents or gifts for the common good.]

c) that while all people are equal, conditions today make racial equality impossible to attain, and that we must wait – no [Rather, we must act by examining ourselves against the call to love the neighbor and work towards greater association and inclusion of all people.]

d) that the attainment of inter-racial good will is the first objective of the church today, especially the liberal church – no [Race relations are one aspect of our lives together while the first objective of the “church,” however situated, is to proclaim the gospel. That is the good news of God’s love, forgiveness and command.]

e) the church should say nothing about politics in any form – no [Given that politics is the understanding and actions necessary to foster our lives together, the church has the charge to speak out for love, peace and justice – all necessary components of politics.]

f) that while the church should avoid party politics, it should express itself courageously on great social and moral questions that are being discussed by the agencies of government – yes [From the foundation as in VI e.]

g) the church should never engage in controversial discussions, regardless of their moral significance – no [As in VI e, f., never is a long time and contrary to the church’s existence.]

h) the church should not hesitate to take a stand on controversial questions in which the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of all people is at stake – yes [Exactly; unfortunately not all church bodies agree or even all members of the same body.]

All the above illustrates how I have worked through faith issues over my lifetime. Most of my adulthood, I have remained consistent but still questioning. I continue to recognize that I can increase my understanding as well as the actionable aspects of my faith.

This is where I am now.

© Copyright 2015 by Roger D. Sween.


Metro Life

June 7, 2012

First posted February 24, 2012; revised June 6, 2012.

Metro life has its benefits. I am closer to friends from my working years, more active in my favorite associations – Minnesota Association for Continuing Adult Education (MACAE) and Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum (MISF). I also became far more active in the life of our church membership – Pilgrim Lutheran congregation. Pilgrim heralds itself as a home for hungry minds and souls. Accordingly, Pilgrim chose to be an open, welcoming and affirming participant in the Reconciling in Christ program associated with Lutherans Concerned, North America. When you join Pilgrim, the working ethos of the congregation expect you to be a fully participating member. You fill out an interest and talent inventory and find yourself automatically assigned to a worship team that supplies assistance in Sunday services at six months intervals. We have become far more active than 35 years in our previous congregation.

Almost right away upon becoming members, the Properties Committee asked me to coordinate the volunteers that take care of Pilgrim’s gardens. Because I searched for a book club to join, I learned of a member who wanted a book club devoted to the classics but did not want to organize it. Therefore, I took on Classics for Pilgrim with the encouragement of the Vestry. We meet monthly during the school year to discuss a fiction title published somewhere between 1800 and fifty years ago.

In the fall, the Vestry asked me to convene a task force in order to address how the congregation and its members should respond to the proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment that defines marriage as only valid between a man and a woman. This project was soon well under way.