Biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes about sitting next to a passenger on a plane who told him, “I’m much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism that I am in Christianity.” When he asked why, she said, “Because they’re about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing.”
Unfortunately, this is the way Christianity is often perceived. Ask a friend what he or she thinks is meant by the phrase “true believer” and most likely your friend will say something about having the correct beliefs. What one believes about God, Jesus, and other teachings of Christian faith, however, is only one aspect of Christian faith.
Borg suggests that this is a rather odd notion when you think about it—that God would care that much about the beliefs we have in our heads, as if believing the right things is what God is after. It seems much more likely that God would be vastly more interested in the life we actually live—how we love and care for one another and our planet—than the limited, flawed, inaccurate beliefs we cling to in our minds.
It is not just progressive Christians who make this point. Evangelical philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, speaks disparagingly of what he calls “bar code faith.”
Think of the bar codes on products we purchase. The scanner responds only to the bar code. It makes no difference what is actually in the package, bottle, or container. The calculator reads the bar code through its electronic eye and then assigns a value.
Many Christians conceive of salvation very similarly. They think that by believing certain things about Jesus—that he is Divine, that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead, etc. (for some Christians it is a fairly long list)—God saves the believer (understood primarily as being forgiven and fit for heaven) and that is what constitutes a Christian.
Willard asks the questions: “Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? . . . Can we believe that the essense of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after? Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?”
There are reasons, some simple and some complex, why this understanding of Christian salvation developed, but it certainly did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus both taught and embodied a way of life that he envisioned for his own people, Israel, and the rest of the world. He called this the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, living in the kingdom involves a lifestyle of nonviolence, forgiveness, compassion, peace, reconciliation, and distributive justice (where everyone has enough of this world’s resources to live a flourishing life).
This is why, in the book of Acts, the most common designation used for Christians is “people who belong to the way.” Not the way to heaven. Jesus hardly even spoke of heaven. Jesus manifested and spoke primarily about the kingdom of God and told his followers to pray for its realization on earth.
What one believes about Jesus is not nearly important as the daily commitment to be like Jesus. A belief in the head is useless, unless it is able to transform the heart, so that “the believer” exudes the faith, hope, and love of Jesus, and aspires to pursue his compassionate, nonviolent, self-giving way of life.