A terminology transformation is taking place—a transformation that alienates people from words like “religion” and “belief,” waters down the meaning of “faith” and leads people to settle for an amorphous “spirituality” rather than an encounter with the living God. The subtle shift in language distorts the meaning of these words and divorces them from that which is ultimately meaningful: Truth.
Words are symbols that link to realities. We should guard their meanings, and particularly those that shape our understanding of truth.
Consider the lyrics to this contemporary song by John Mayer:
Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign? Is there anyone who really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?
Belief is a beautiful armor that makes for the heaviest sword Like punching under water you never can hit who you’re trying for We’re never gonna win the world we’re never gonna stop the war we’re never gonna beat this if belief is what we’re fighting for. (from the song “Belief” by John Mayer)
If you found the imagery difficult to follow, Mayer’s song echoes what John Lennon wrote decades ago. Here is an excerpt:
Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today . . . Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people Living life in peace . . .
These songs broadcast the message that belief is bad; that it is the source of fruitless fighting and needless suffering. They promote a skewed idealism that urges people to sacrifice anything—even belief in truth—to achieve peace. But these “idealists” have missed a crucial piece of the peace equation.
Why is there war and fighting? Sin. Not only is sin omitted from the equation, but its effects are wrongly attributed to belief. Songs like these ignore the specific cause of our problems and make the solution (faith in Jesus) into the scapegoat. What a neat trick of the world, the flesh and the devil!
But if religion and belief are bad because they cause wars, then marriage must be bad because it causes infidelity, and trust is bad because it causes betrayal. Ludicrous? Yes, but this is what ignoring the reality of sin does to people’s ability to see clearly.
But there is more. Why is “belief” belittled while the idea of “faith” is not? Why is “spirituality” deemed preferable to “religion”? Religion is that to which people bind themselves, that which we allow to instruct us on what is right or wrong. Beliefs are ideas that we hold to be true; they become the basis of action. And faith? The Bible explains it best: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Religion and belief are rejected— considered intrusive—because they involve personal convictions. Those convictions are labeled misguided, narrow-minded, intolerant, arrogant and even dangerous. “Fundamentalist” and “terrorist” are equal in some minds. People associate the word “fanatic” with religion and belief, but not necessarily with faith and spirituality.
But might there be more to the rejection of religion and belief? Is it conceivable that people prefer vagueness and uncertainty because of the commitment and action that religion and belief require—and the restrictions they impose? Society embraces faith and spirituality because it misunderstands the one, and the other is too vague to offend anyone. The word “faith” has been devalued to describe one’s private and personal preferences concerning spirituality. People frequently say “I have my own faith,” whereas the Bible indicates that faith is not a religious opinion at all. Rather it is a way of apprehending (without physically seeing) a specific truth, a reality that exists completely independently from us. “Spiritual” is simply non-corporeal—it doesn’t mean much in and of itself. People love the idea of spirituality as long as it is not too specific and makes no demands. Thus the words that imply specific truth or claims on our lives are either demonized or redefined to be much broader than their true meaning allows.
This trend from the specific to the vague, the certain to the uncertain, sets itself against the gospel—and yet it is trickling into the cracks and crevices of the Church. For example, in his book A New Kind of Christian, Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren disparages the certainty of Christian pastors he hears on the radio: “And the more sure he seems, the less I find myself wanting to be a Christian, because on this side of the microphone . . . life isn’t that simple, answers aren't’t that clear, and nothing is that sure.” McLaren seems to hold up his uncertainty as a virtue and hints that it is more “real” to say we can’t be certain of truth. Do some situations defy our ability to describe them in black and white? Of course. But the Bible gives us ample specific certainties where and when we need them.
Since the 16th century, the sovereign in the United Kingdom has held the title “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” But in 1994 the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, was quoted as saying, “I personally would rather see it as Defender of Faith, not the faith.” The faith has been spun into many faiths that are mainly viewed as cultural and ethnic sensibilities— not anything connected to a truth we should proclaim or defend. People who talk about their faith as a truth-based belief that stands in opposition to other beliefs (which must then be false) are not considered very “spiritual.”
In the Jewish worldview it is part of religious duty to examine competing opinions within Judaism, not to determine which is right but in order to find a way to harmonize them. In the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye the milkman holds forth with a few other Jews on the problems of the world. One person says, “Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let the outside world break its own head.” Tevye responds, “He is right; if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” Another man responds, “Nonsense, you cannot be blind to what happens outside.” Then Tevye says, “You know, he is also right.” In frustration, a third man points to both men and says, “He is right and he is right, they can’t both be right!” Tevye looks at him and says, “You know, you are also right.”
Some in the Jewish community have concluded that Judaism is more concerned with the search for truth than it is with belief in truth itself. One can be considered a good Jew without actually believing much at all. This flies in the face of one of the standards of the Jewish religion known as the Ani Ma’amim, written by Moses Maimonides. It is a confession of conviction and each line begins: “I believe with perfect faith . . .”
What is perfect faith? It is trust in an unseen reality and belief that this unseen reality has every right to call the believer to action.
This kind of religious conviction is under attack by proponents of fuzzy faith and spirituality, but also by trendy atheists who vociferously contend that any truth claims made by religion or those who claim to be spiritual people are absurd.
Yet no one seems to apply this standard to other areas of life. Politicians and journalists are expected to “tell the truth.” The double standard for that which is seen and unseen is another triumph of hell.
Spirituality without truth is mere sentiment. Faith with no object is just a fuzzy feeling. Devaluing words that deal with truth perpetuates a spiritual fog—until the moment of unavoidable truth comes. Then the fog will lift and the reality of being with God or separated from Him forever will be eternally clear.
Yes, a terminology transformation is taking place in the world. We are in a spiritual battle with forces that distort spiritual reality—undermining even the words that can help people understand that reality.
We need to be clear-headed if we are to prevent foggy, fuzzy thinking from clouding our vision of Jesus, who told us with great certainty, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John14:6).
What can we do with such a specific truth in a world that loves spiritual vagueness? We can be humble when the world accuses us of being arrogant, gracious when the world says we are hateful, gentle ambassadors for Jesus when the world says we are destroyers of peace. We can be ready to defend the truth rather than quick to defend ourselves. And we can, we must, proclaim Jesus without caveat or apology. Thank God, Jesus is the Living Word who cannot be transformed or devalued. He is the Prince of Peace who transforms us - and He is too good to keep all to ourselves.