There are some major differences between belief-centered Christianity that focuses on creeds and doctrine and the kind that puts a priority on following in the way of Jesus.
Some Christians mistakenly think that in the beginning of the Jesus movement there was uniformity of belief and all differences emerged later. But that is simply not true.
The Jesus movement that later became known as Christianity was diverse from its inception, as any careful study of the New Testament demonstrates. This is confirmed by other early Christian writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament, like the Gospel of Thomas. What the early expressions of the Jesus movement had in common was their focus on following in “the way” of Jesus – his way of life.
How did Christianity come to this? How did the main thing – loving God and loving neighbor – get lost amid a quagmire of detailed doctrines and beliefs?
It is much easier, you see, to have a battle for the Bible and be against some belief or group than it is to love and serve one another in the way of Jesus. It’s much simpler to be correct and self-affirming (or group-affirming) than it is to live with mystery and be committed to this messy business of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It is much more ego-satisfying to be right and convinced that one’s mission is to convert the world to a particular version of truth than it is to admit that one does not have all the answers and learn how to live with those of different beliefs in mutual acceptance and respect.
It is much more convenient to acquire a claim to heaven by believing the right things than it is to follow the radical Jesus who loved the unlovable, welcomed all to table fellowship and called his followers to join him in suffering with the marginalized, caring for the downtrodden, announcing good news to the poor and liberating the oppressed. (See Luke 4:14-21.)
The Christian mystics are a great source for helping Christians today realize what is important. Trappist monk Thomas Merton, well known for his spiritual writings, wrote about an experience he had in 1958 that had a transformative impact upon his life.
He had just been to Louisville, Ky., to see a doctor. Then, standing on a busy intersection at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in the center of the shopping district, Merton had something of an epiphany. He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Merton was at that moment experiencing the divine love of God for the world. Mystics never attempt to define God by a string of words or concepts, but they do stretch the boundaries of language when talking about the wide, large, expansive and inclusive mercy that pervades all reality.
Mystics challenge the rest of us to move beyond either/or thinking and the kind of group thinking that divides the world into “us” and “them.” They encourage us to let go of our silly comparisons and petty judgments and see God in every person.
A living faith is not a script of beliefs to be memorized and mastered, but a landscape to be walked, where there are fresh experiences of God around every twist and turn.
Simply confessing Jesus as Savior or believing doctrines about Jesus will not change us; walking in the way of Jesus will. Loving the way Jesus loved is what transforms individuals, relationships and communities; it is the truth that sets us free.