Saturday, December 30, 2006

Belonging and Believing

I've just finished reading through Tom Wright's Simply Christian, it was okay, but it didn't exactly set my world on fire. But one thing that did set me off thinking was his chapter on "Believing and Belonging".

What has always intrigued me is that it is often assumed that the way that one becomes a Christian is that first one believes the right doctrines and then one belongs to the community and formally becomes a member. I think there are a few things that contribute to this scenario: (1) Even in the ancient world you have the genre of the pilgrimage for religious truth where young curious intellectuals from Josephus to Justin Martyr go on a journey to find spiritual truth among all the various religious offerings and they finally stick to the one that takes their fancy (for Josephus it was Pharisaism, for Justin it was Christianity). (2) In the West, or at least since the Enlightenment, Christianity has been defined largely as a set of ethical and philosophical premises that one assents too. The enlightenment pattern is very much a matter of believe then belong.

But I wonder if, in the early church, there were some converts who belonged before they believed. For instance, some poor Christians in Rome gather together in an insula to share what little food they have and to say prayers to Jesus. One day a labourer or beggar is invited or gets himself invited since he's starving. He does not care much for this Jesus-god, but free food is free food. This goes on for some time until one day he is sick and the Christians he's been meeting with take care of him and they pray for him in Jesus' name, he gets better, the outsider starts to think that since he got better maybe there is something to this Jesus-god thing, maybe Jesus is superior to Artemis or whoever he worshipped, and so he becomes more interested in Jesus and the beliefs of the Christiani. Take another possiblity, a wealthy and honourable noble from the upper tier of society invites a friend to a dinner celebration in honour of this Jesus-god. The guest is somewhat put off that the meal held in the triclinium includes freedman, slaves and even common women, but he is touched by their sense of common brotherhood (a good Greek virtue as Plato would agree) and he does find the literature that they read at these meals quite fascinating, some work by an author called Luke captures his imagination. Eventually, the more and more he meets with this group, discovers what they believe about this Jesus-god, reads their literature, he finally adopts their own identity as his own and formally becomes a Christian through baptism.

My point is that not everyone in the early church heard Paul or Peter on a street corner, got converted then and there, and thereafter became Christians. In some instances the process of going from sympathizer to adherent was a slow and prolonged one. There may well have been some who belonged before they believed. Although there are undoubtedly ethical and cerebral aspects to conversion, we must not forget that socialization was also a vital component as well.

Those who have not read A.D. Nock's study on conversion in the ancient world should certainly do so at first chance. Other works on this topic by Judith Lieu, Scot McKnight, and Peder Borgen are all well worth reading.


Anonymous said...

In this regard, notice that Jesus calls disciples by saying, "Come, follow me," and they do. He doesn't start by saying, "Come, believe these set of propositions about me and then follow." They struggle to find out who Jesus is and what they believe about him ON THE JOURNEY with him.

Origen, the first systematic theologian, started his students with ethics, with discipleship. AFTER their minds and lives had been sufficiently shaped by faithful Christian practices, they went on to talk about various Christian doctrines.

BTW, Mike, I have finally gotten around to starting that series on a theological case for GLBT full inclusion and equality on my blog. I know you promised to be skeptical, but I would appreciate your stopping by from time to time. It will take at least 8 major posts for me to lay out the full case.

Michael F. Bird said...

I will definitely read-over your posts and I promise to be charitable in any comments. But don't get your hopes up on bringing me round to the LGBT view.

Anonymous said...

Hey, no problem, Michael. That's not my business--it's between you and God. Oh, btw, I said the same thing to others for 10 years, so, you never know! :-)

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of George Hunter's book "The Celtic Way of Evangelism." He talks about belonging before believing. Short book but well worth anyone's time.