Critical thought down the rabbit hole: A need for intellectual faith

One thing that tests my faith more than anything else is when a sermon or argument feels like it has an intellectual hole. The other part that deters me is when faith pretends to be above politics, or divorced from it, when in practicality, the two have been dancing closely for millennia.

Today I listened to (mostly strong) sermon about how to keep money as a tool and not let it become your master. The pastor told the parable of Jesus and his disciples feeding 5,000 followers with only five loaves of bread and two fish. He tied this in with instruction to give our money first, before we save or spend it, because in doing so we will have enough to help others and ourselves.

He followed his sermon with a call to donate ten dollars on a particular day so that the church could take the money and give it all away to missions or organizations serving the community.

I really enjoyed the message that we should all grow rich from generosity first; through faith, we learn that we always have more than we think. We have plenty to give and we come back richly blessed. Money should not dictate how we live, but it should always be a tool for us to serve others.

So what then, tested my faith?

Devil’s in the details. First, this particular church prides itself on “not being into politics.” (I don’t feel like Jesus ever had such a luxury. Heck, the Jewish people were expecting a king who would be the next political savior and securer of their earthly territory and rights.) So I found it odd that the pastor asked the congregation, “Why is it so hard to give everything I have over to God?” He followed this by saying that he felt comfortable with his money in the hands of a tax advisor or his retirement planner. He even gave everything (information-wise) over to the government! When the IRS came calling, he dutifully delivered his tax paperwork to show them everything he had. Surely, he said, if he could trust the government with his money, he could trust God to do well with it all! He made a few more quick cracks about the government’s use of money before moving on.

I could make the argument that my pastor just really knows his audience. Most people in rural Georgia are not fans of big government, for whatever reason, although much of it stems from the idea that the government will never do as good a job with your money as you do. (Oh, and they’re corrupt hooligans, too.)

Never mind that 80% of the country is in debt and one-third of Americans have nothing saved for retirement (apart from Social Security). All I’m saying is, if the government sucks so hard at handling people’s money, the average citizen hasn’t proven to me that he or she could do any better. Most Americans aren’t in a position to turn down the Social Security program or Medicare or another large benefits program.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just say the pastor really dislikes paying taxes, reason be darned. By making such a statement in a sermon, the sermon has just gone political. He just told your congregation that the U.S. government won’t do as good a job with your money as God will. That is probably true. What irks me about this, though, is that churches, by law in the USA, are tax-exempt organizations.

To me, this is really a case of biting the hand that feeds you. The government doesn’t have the right, nor should it, to tell you not to criticize it. While I support this freedom, I often wonder how many comments are made with lack of acknowledgement or gratitude – not only do we believe in religious liberty in this country, but we support it to such an extent that we give faith organizations special financial status.

From an intellectual argument, one could say that donations to the church are multiplied because of their tax-exempt status, which should encourage even more giving. God could be seen as using the U.S. government to do his work. Rarely does one hear this argument in church. But, if you’re not a political church, then leave the politics out of the sermon.

Better yet, acknowledge that politics and religion are closer than kissing cousins.

Churches argue for all kinds of things in the politics of our society. The most recent and divisive examples being gay marriage (usually against, but some progressive churches came out in favor) and abortion (usually against). Some people argue that churches should provide for the poor in society, which use to be the case before some of our national welfare programs came about.

I can live with knowing that churches have certain views, as long as they are transparent about them, but to say that a church is “not into politics” seems disingenuous, at best.

If a church really wanted to capture my attention intellectually, it would host political forums to have debates on specific issues from a Biblical perspective. Ideally, these discussions would respect differing viewpoints as a ground rule. But to take it a step further, I would hope they be moderated by theologians who have differing opinions. This could really encourage parishioners to think critically and for themselves on each issue, rather than saying, “I believe in God and family values,” when exiting the polling booth.

The other place the sermon let me down was encouraging the congregation to come together for a day-long fundraiser that would result in the church redistributing the funds to worthy organizations (rather than putting it toward its own operating costs). If the church wants donations to redistribute, it seems contradictory to complain about government operating from the same principle.

As a corollary question for analysis, if the church just a middle man, do people assume that the church is going to give to causes they agree with and support? If people think they can do more good with their money as individuals than by giving to the government collective, why would the same argument not hold true for giving to a church? To be sure, I’ve found just as much variability in ideas and values within churches that gives no guarantee of how funds would be used.

Worse, since the parable of loaves and fish saw Jesus asking the disciples to give the bread themselves, this can be seen as Jesus telling them they must have faith in him, but do the legwork of helping others themselves. It seems incorrect, then, to encourage your parishioners to give through the church as a lazy conduit rather than self-select their own organizations to support. Maybe the church is happy with lazy parishioners, especially if they have an agenda to push.

I crave discussions with people of faith who analyze and critique the messages they are given. When I find a church that doesn’t back away from intellectual, analytical arguments, especially as they dance with politics, my comfort with “just have faith” may stand a chance.





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