"To call oneself a practicing Christian, but not necessarily a believing one acknowledges the variable admixture of certainties and uncertainties that mark the life of any religious person. In August of 2007 the New York Times reported that in her collection of letters, Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa (1910-97) confessed that for years she had harbored troubling doubts about the existence of God, even as she worked ceaselessly to relieve the anguish of the sick and dying in Calcutta. Her confession evoked a wave of criticism. Was she a hypocrite? Had she been faking it all along? But in the tumble of public comments that followed, a student named Krista E. Hughes made the most telling comment in a letter to the editor. 'Mother Teresa's life,' she wrote, 'exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives. Shouldn't it be the other way around?'
"Eliminating the spurious use of 'belief' to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves 'unbelievers' have episodic doubts about their unbelief. 'Believers' go through similar swings. Beliefs come and go, change, fade, and mature. The pattern of beliefs one holds at ten are not identical with the ones one holds at fifty or seventy-five. To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that 'faith' consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. But it does not.
"When I first realized this, it came as a welcome liberation. Starting when I was quite young, I often had serious doubts about whether I 'believed' some church teaching or something I found in the Bible. Did God really stop the sun so that Joshua could continue the battle? Did Jesus really turn water into wine or walk on the sea? Was Mary really a virgin? But I know now that even when I struggled with these childhood doubts, I never 'lost my faith.' Somehow I sensed instinctively that faith was something deeper than belief. Without knowing it, I was beginning to tiptoe, almost unconsciously, toward my personal 'age of the spirit.' Like any major change in one's life, this one did not take place suddenly. It took a while, and it was only much later that I began to apply this insight to my thinking about religious studies and theology.
"During my adult life various experiences continued to nudge me along the path. My many encounters with the followers of other religions, especially Buddhists and Hindus, taught me that 'beliefs,' in the way we use the word, were not part of their vocabularies. In fact none of the other major world religions has a 'creed.' Even Islam, a close cousin of Christianity, only expects its followers to affirm, 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger' (the Shahada). In all these traditions, religion means something quite different from attaching credence to doctrines. My marriage to a Jewish woman, and with it an unusual opportunity to participate as a 'fellow traveler' in the liturgies and holidays (and food) of her tradition, taught me things I had never known about her faith, and things I had never realized about my own (Jesus, after all, was a rabbi). Jews always say their religion is best understood not as a creed, but as a way of life. Slowly it dawned on me that the same is true of my religion. The earliest term used to describe it in the New Testament is 'The Way.'
"Once I realized that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than of axioms, things changed. I began to look at people I met in a new way. Some of the ones I admired most were 'believers' in the conventional sense, but others were not. For example, the individuals with whom I marched and demonstrated and even went to jail, during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests, included both 'believers' and 'nonbelievers.' But we found ourselves looking out from behind the iron bars in the same jail cells. This suggested to me just how mistaken conventional belief-oriented Christianity is in the way it separates the sheep from the goats. But then according to the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) Jesus also rejects this predictable schema. What he said then no doubt shocked his listeners. He insisted that those who are welcomed into the Kingdom of God those who were clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the prisoners were not 'believers' and were not even aware that they had been practicing the faith he was teaching and exemplifying."