By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion . . . Faith as a set of passionately accepted and defended doctrines does not produce acts of love”
― Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith
Years ago, when the cultural reality of declining church trust, membership, and participation became dramatically visible in opinion surveys and denominational population data, I recall trying to make a distinction between faith and religion as a way to restore the church’s reputation for those who’d lost faith in it. I thought there was something to the idea of faith being personal and religion being institutional that could convince people of the power of faith against religion’s failures. It is easy to disparage religion because of the excesses of its most violent or intolerant adherents. But as expressions of faith have become more noisily bigoted and nationalistic, the distinction I’ve been imposing between faith and religion has not held up well. I’ve since seen my mistake: I assumed that if people had more theological, biblical, and religious knowledge, it would lead them to faith. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that. I have found love to be the source of a deeper faith.
The theologian Paul Tillich maintained that “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” and “religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.” Quite a few people of faith have demonstrated over the years that their ultimate concerns are power, money, ideology, or something else that is finite and preliminary. Whether one uses the language of faith or the practices of religion to demonstrate discipleship, if there is to be a meaningful distinction, it will be made so by the power of love. Perhaps what those who find the church, faith, and religion hypocritical or who find the idea of faith incompatible with scientific truth are most assuredly not seeing in the church is expressions of love.
The theologian James K. A. Smith invites us to rethink how love inheres in the human person, asking, “what if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?” The church testifies that God is love and exhorts people to love God with all their hearts, souls, and might while offering the world creeds, rules, dogma, and doctrine and rejecting those who do not embrace them without question. A few offer LGBTQ people nothing but attacks and curses justified by tradition and Scripture. And I’ve encountered people of faith who love the church and the Bible more than they love their neighbors. Dogma and doctrine do not produce acts of love; people do. As we continue to explore how to shift the narratives about the church, faith, and religion, I hope we begin with love. Always love. Again, love is the answer. Amen.