One of my favorite gospel stories is the one about Jesus and his disciples eating their way through a corn field on the Sabbath. Not sure if this was stealing or not, pretty sure they didn’t own the field but that’s beside the point, I guess. Anyway, some religious leaders saw this and said to Jesus, “Why do you and your disciples do what is unlawful on the Sabbath (meaning harvesting food on the day of rest)?” Keep in mind that Exodus 31 says that anyone who breaks the Sabbath should be put to death. So this was no minor religious infraction and yet Jesus admits his crime by responding, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
There are two important things to take away from Jesus’ statement: First, his response applies to all religious traditions and beliefs because if it applies to Sabbath keeping, a tradition that carried a death penalty for breaking, it must apply to everything else. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed something similar in Paul’s writings and wrote, “The Pauline question of whether circumcision is a condition for justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition for salvation.” Fundamentalists today would have us believe that while religious laws like Sabbath keeping no longer apply, new religious laws about right-belief do and carry a punishment much worse than stoning (i.e., everlasting torture). So much for this being a “better covenant” or “good news.”
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Jesus’ point here (“The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”) seems to be – religion was made for us and not us for religion. Our particular religious traditions and beliefs are important but they were made for us and not us for them. We don’t serve them, they serve us. They are not unconditional and universal things like the laws of physics that apply to everybody everywhere but they are conditional, contingent, contrived, and contextual to a specific people at a specific place and time. And yet they exist as a kind of response to what is unconditional and universal in the human heart, something that exists within us regardless of culture, creed, color, time, or place. The unconditional and universal can be described as like a call towards justice, love, hope, meaning, transcendence, and serenity. The longing for these things seem to be part of the universal human experience. Whatever we construct in response to it is a language of the soul. Religion is one of those languages. Art would be another.
Have you ever seen a painting, listened to a piece of music, watched a film, or read a book and felt like you’ve had a religious experience? Like you’ve connected to something transcendent that fills you with awe and wonder or a deep appreciation for life? That’s the unconditional/universal. Whatever we construct in response to it (i.e., art or religion) is always conditional and contingent. It’s always steeped in the idiosyncratic. It’s always steeped in the symbolic. It’s never the unconditional/universal itself, but a necessary representation of it. To misunderstand this is the heart of idolatry but to understand it is the heart of something called “faith beyond belief.”
Faith beyond belief doesn’t mean faith without doubt, perfect certainty, or perfect belief. Rather, faith beyond belief means believing in the power of the unconditional/universal. It means believing in what Caputo calls “the event of God.” It means believing in the hidden religion within your religion. It means believing in the power of love itself; the love of life and the love of others. This “belief” not only transforms us and our world but infuses life with a sense of ultimate depth and meaning.
Faith beyond belief means that whatever beliefs we may hold about God, the supernatural, or the afterlife; we hold onto lightly and instead focus on what it means to invest ourselves completely in this life and world. This is what it means to live as Christ. This is what Christianity is all about. Faith beyond belief is not faith without belief or faith after belief so much, but it’s faith that transcends whatever we may believe about God and instead is about a way of living in the world. It’s about giving ourselves completely over to the love of life and others. If our religious symbols, traditions, and beliefs don’t help us do that, then we need to change them or change the way we relate to them because remember, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.”