I was in the bookstore recently and I picked up a book called “Explicit Gospel” by a Dallas megachurch pastor named Matt Chandler. I flipped through it, and he mainly contrasts two opposing ways of approaching the Gospel- what he calls the gospel of the air, trying to address society in general, and the gospel on the ground, which is addressing the situations of particular people. He sees drawbacks in both, the gospel of the air becoming too weak and accommodating, as I understand, and the gospel on the ground being sometime too hard on people. Or maybe I missed something important.
At one point, however, he makes what appears to be an aside and talks about all the great things about faith, and makes a long numbered list. Why do Protestants, or at least many Protestants, have such faith in faith?
I think it comes from the nature of medieval society and the reformers. The daily life of the typical member of medieval society is very distant from us. Most people were farmers, doing manual labor to produce food. Some where craftsmen, making things needed for farming and food production, such as farm implements, horseshoes and barrels, or food from raw products, such as bakers, brewers or butchers. A few were rulers controlling things, a few were priests performing public prayers.
But in any case, unlike today, almost everyone was performing a function necessary for society to keep going. People needed food, or essential tools or products, and they needed basic government control. It was very important for a farmer to be a good, hardworking farmer, for a baker to be a good, hardworking baker, and for a warrior/lord to be a good, hardworking warrior and lord. If they weren’t, things fell apart quickly.
Abstracts had very little meaning for such people. Such people did a lot, and though little. Even the priests were mainly doing, performing a set of rituals and prayers, and not thinking about theology. If we look at doing as “works”, works was the most critical thing to having a well-functioning society.
The primary reformers, Luther and Calvin, were on the other hand very modern people. Luther was a university professor and Calvin a lawyer. They were people who did little, but instead dealt in abstracts all day. Doing wasn’t important to them at all. A cow has to get milked every day, and a fire needs constant tending. A farmer realistically can be off for half a day once a week, any more and the farm falls apart. If a professor or lawyer is gone for a month, hardly anybody notices.
I can see why Luther and Calvin would be puzzled by the idea of religion as something to be done, rather than something thought. To them the most important thing was always to be right rather than wrong. To most of the world, this was a meaningless idea, there were only things to be done, and it was hard to be wrong about them because you learned them from an early age from your parents. The moral thing was to perform your duties, and the immoral thing to neglect them.
To the extent that Luther and Calvin were right, it was in that there is a limit to doing, a point at which there is no more doing, only believing. People who deal with abstracts and don’t live with the necessity of doing something reliably and consistently are more comfortable with emphasizing believing rather than doing.
If you really believe something, you’ll do it, and if you do something you probably believe it even if you don’t think you do. Just as there is a point where there is no more doing, only believing, there is a point at which there is no more believing, only doing.
Ironically the people who now say you are evil if you don’t do as they say are mostly the intellectual heirs of Luther and Calvin.