Conversations among pilgrims along the faith journey can lead to interesting insights about the ebb and flow of things that matter.
It isn’t unusual to hear a veteran traveler say, “I used to believe (fill in the blank), but now I don’t feel a need to believe that anymore.”
To which a younger traveler might well say, “Well, I think believing that is an essential part of faith.”
The conversation may not go any further at the time. However, if the level of community is strong, they will continue the journey together where something can matter a lot to one without having to matter to another.
The larger lesson is that faithful travel can survive, and indeed be enriched by, an evolution of beliefs among the travelers.
Communities of faith lose their nurturing capacity when rigidity of belief replaces the vitality of a growing faith.
The theological climate of our time reflects a tendency to claim and defend the rightness of a particular understanding of what matters against alternative understandings.
Even with a starting point of St. Anselm’s description of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” theological discussion easily slips into “[a given] understanding defending itself as the right one.”
Diversity of perspective and understanding has certainly characterized the Christian community throughout its history, and our increasing acquaintance with other faith traditions suggests this is true for them as well.
Multiple vantage points and patterns of experience with any aspect of life clearly enrich our understanding beyond what a limited view can provide.
But there seems to be something in us that wants to claim superiority, even exclusive supremacy, for perspectives and experiences that happen to be our own.
We do not ever seem far from the thought, “This matters to me and it should (or must) matter to you as well.”
I have wondered if the healthy faith community is one that is able to embrace the fact that different beliefs matter to different people while at the same time being a context where a natural evolution of beliefs can occur as time, experience and study refine the thoughts that accompany the relationship of faith.
Training wheels matter a lot to a young cyclist, navigating a relationship with balance, motion and the law of gravity; so does the steadying hand of a patient adult.
They provide the framework and the security to support growth toward the freedom of being able to ride on one’s own and enjoy cycling at a new level.
We would not expect someone to say, “Training wheels are important and essential, and you should keep them on your bike at all times, to keep you from falling.”
The maturing cyclist might well say, “Training wheels and a supporting hand don’t matter to me anymore,” but would not likely say, “And they shouldn’t matter to you either,” when speaking to a beginning rider.
I wonder if early beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible and the church are a bit like training wheels in the growth of faith in God, Jesus, the Bible and the church – supports that get us started, keep us from falling and enable us to mature in the relationship that faith is.
I’ve often listened to fellow pilgrims describe beliefs that once mattered a lot and no longer do, and point to beliefs that now matter a lot but before did not.
This leads me to think that our faith journey is always accompanied by beliefs that matter, but that also might change, evolve and even cease to matter and be replaced by new ones.
Communities of faith seem to thrive on the sharing of things that matter among their people, and the respect and openness that come from recognizing that different things matter to different people.
If any part of a community begins to insist that something that matters shouldn’t, or that because something matters in one place it must matter in another place, something of the openness to the unfolding mystery of God is lost.
The Bible itself, with its own diversity of perspective, seems to invite us to embrace the kind of theological humility that seeks continued refinement of understanding rather than defending and enforcing a particular level of it.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).