Columnists > Voices

Roots vs. shoots

The "people of faith" label contains both poisonous and edible plants

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

The juxtaposition was bizarre. Both through the local newspaper and on public radio came the invitation for "people of faith" to gather to pray for the crisis in the Middle East.

But wasn't the very root of the problem that "people of faith" had so many radical disagreements? Weren't they the very people who were fighting?

I guess the phrase is meant to be helpful-but it isn't at all. I suppose it's meant to refer to people who openly confess a sort of trust in some higher power. As such, it would include not just Christians (both Protestant and Catholic, both evangelical and liberal, both fervent and nominal), but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, and others too numerous and too diverse to mention.

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I've complained here before, and I'll renew that complaint, that the "people of faith" label is both way too broad and way too narrow to be of any use. The label assumes first that all "people of faith" somehow belong in one category-or at least that what makes them alike is more important than any differences among them.

But trying to cram all "people of faith" into the same box is at best a meaningless exercise. It's like taking 1,000 different plants-some edible, some poisonous-and stressing that their most important characteristic is that they all have roots. Never mind who dies as a result of such superficial classification.

Two critical issues have to be dealt with first. What's the purpose of the faith in question? And who's the object of that faith?

Part of what distinguishes Christian "faith" is that it has to do with life and death. That separates it from any mere system of self-improvement that sees faith as a sort of picker-upper, something that will add a little zing to your optimism. Biblical faith grapples with radical rather than with superficial problems. It's a desperate confession that we are in such terrible straits that we need outside help. It's a transfer of trust from ourselves to someone else for everything that's important.

So for starters, if a person doesn't think of faith in such radical terms-if that person doesn't think of faith quite literally as "saving faith"-then it doesn't really matter that he or she associates with other "people of faith." It's a meaningless association.

It's also essential to ask: Who's the object of this faith? People always answer that in one of three ways:

1. The God of the Bible.

2. Somebody or something else.

3. A combination of the God of the Bible and somebody or something else.

Biblically and historically, Christianity has always declared that any fudging on this matter constitutes serious error. The Apostle Paul wasn't terribly ecumenical when he said flatly that if anyone came suggesting there was hope anywhere other than in Jesus, that person should be considered outside "the faith." Some such heretics came close to the truth, but still missed-and Paul didn't award them the fuzzy title "people of faith."

Yet if faith is very often defined too broadly, it is also defined too narrowly by those who so casually bandy the "people of faith" terminology. For in fact every human being who has ever lived has had faith in something. That's what some philosophers mean when they say that all of life is religious. Everything we do is a sorting out of where different ones of us put our ultimate confidence.

Are New Agers "people of faith"? What about people who devote their whole lives to the pursuit of material success? What of those who sincerely worship the gods of science or research or education? The faith of all these folks is often not just profound, but zealous. The trust they exhibit sometimes puts to shame the faith many evangelicals have in Jesus.

I didn't go to the prayer gathering for "people of faith." Christians don't serve their own cause well, even in secular settings, when they blur words like this. It may be fine (and even necessary in some circumstances) to find things that Jews and Muslims and Christians agree on or hold in common. But please don't call it "faith"-which is usually the very thing that separates them in the first place.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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