As I mentioned earlier, one of the Big 12 books I’m working through this year is William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology. So far, it’s been enjoyable, but I really haven’t gotten into much of Shedd’s actual thought. I did however run across this anecdote about David Hume in the reading this week:
According to Johnson (Boswell’s Life), “Hume owned to a clergyman in the bishopric of Durham that he had never read the New Testament with attention” (p. 54)
In other words, though a harsh critic of Christianity, Hume didn’t really study the object of his criticism very deeply. I thought that was rather telling, but thought Shedd’s elaboration was even more interesting:
[Hume] was unacquainted with the careful analysis and close reasoning of Nicene trinitarianism, Chalcedon Christology, the Schoolmen, and the Protestant divines. The whole immense body of patristic, medieval, and modern divinity was comparatively a terra incognita [unknown land] to him. His knowledge of the Christian religion did not go beyond what was floating in the atmosphere. He lived in a Christian country, among a theological people, and knew something of Christianity by absorption. But he never studied the documents and mastered the doctrines of the Christian religion as Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin studied and mastered them; as Cudworth studied pagan theology, and Schleiermacher studied Plato; as Schlegel and Coleridge studied Shakespeare (emphasis mine).
I would say this not only applies to many modern atheists/skeptics (though not all certainly) but could also be said about many people in the church. We live in a culture (esp. here in the South) where mostly everybody could be consider an “Atmospheric Christian.” They breath the air, they speak the language, but it hasn’t really permeated their hearts and minds in any kind of transformative, Spirit accomplishing regenerative sense.
Another way of looking at this is to say that for many Americans, their Christian faith is “rented” rather than “owned.” I first came across this way of looking at things in Brad House’s Community. He’s actually got a good post on this very topic over at The Resurgence as it relates to our community groups. The essence of the idea is that we are passionate about things we own and tend to both value and take greater care of them. Things we rent on the other hand are not esteemed so highly.
I’d like to make this a little more personal though. I think in my own life, and Ali would agree as well, that we both switched from renting Christianity from our parents to actually owning it while we were at Word of Life. It is hard to say whether or not that is the place where we actually were regenerated by the Spirit and came to saving faith, or whether that was where all the kindling our parents had gather around us when we were younger finally caught fire. Either way, we’re in a position now where we’re fully owning our faith.
I think this is a much better way to conceive of the difference between supposedly “real” and “nominal” Christians. The rhetoric of “nominal” vs. “real” implies that the nominal Christians aren’t really Christians, whereas referring to it as “renting” vs. “owning” doesn’t imply the “renter” doesn’t have faith. It merely suggests it hasn’t fully taken root yet. They may be fully regenerated believers who just haven’t started growing or taking their faith seriously, but like Ali and me, they might quickly start to do so once they transition from renting to owning.
Drawing from this, a goal in ministry, specifically in my context of working with youth and college students, is to encourage people to own their faith. For those already owning their faith, the encouragement is to reckon more fully with the implications not just of owning your faith, but of being owned by the object of your faith. Because after all, in the end, though you do really own your faith since it is a gift given to you by grace, you are also bought with a price and so are owned by Christ.
Owning your faith, and not merely renting it, means you make your faith your own and in the process realize Who has made you his own.