Book Review

The Return of Faith

Sometimes a step back is necessary for us to move forward.

Faith vs. Belief

Every once in awhile I run across a book that keeps me up late and has me excited to wake up in the morning.  Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith is one such book.

In the first chapter he notes that contrary to earlier predictions, faith and religion are as vibrant as ever.  But things are shifting.  People are turning to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.  “The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institution and beliefs.”  In short, Cox claims that we are moving from an era of ‘belief’ to an era of ‘faith.’  But aren’t belief and faith the same thing, you ask?  No, and understanding the difference is vital, not only for one’s own spiritual journey, but for grasping the undercurrents of the larger shifts in the world of spirituality.

An excerpt from Chapter One:

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing.  But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference.  Faith is about deep-seated confidence.  In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure.  It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion.  We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty.  “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” future_faith_book_520Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential.  We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.  Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.

The Spanish writer Migual Unamuno (1864-1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” in which a young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying.  In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her.  The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in Unamuno’s story recognized the difference between faith and belief.  He knew that prayer, like faith, is more primordial than belief. He might have engaged the son who wanted to pray but did not believe in God in a theological squabble.  He could have hauled out the frayed old “proofs” for the existence of God, whereupon the young man might have quoted the equally jaded arguments against the proofs.  Both probably knew that such arguments go nowhere.  The French writer Simone Weil (1909-43) also knew.  In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.”  Weil’s words sound paradoxical, but in the course of her short and painful life—she died at thirty-four—she learned that love and faith are both more primal than beliefs.

Debates about the existence of God or the gods were raging in Plato’s time, twenty-five hundred years ago.  Remarkable, they still rage on today, as a recent spate of books rehearsing the routine arguments for and against the existence of God demonstrates.  By their nature these quarrels are about beliefs and can never be finally settled.  But faith, which is more closely related to awe, love, and wonder, arose long before Plato, among our most primitive Homo sapiens forebears. Plato engaged in disputes about beliefs, not about faith.

Creeds are clusters of beliefs.  But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds.  It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs.  It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds.  As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians have at times sought to represent their faith.  But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end.  Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

The nearly two thousand years of Christian history can be divided into three uneven periods.  The first might be called the “Age of Faith.” It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated.  During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.  To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.

The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.” Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally.  Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.  Thus, even during that early Age of Faith the tension between faith and belief was already foreshadowed.

Then, during the closing years of the third century, something more ominous occurred.  An elite class—soon to become a clerical class—began to take shape, and ecclesial specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs.  Still, however, these varied widely from place to place, and as the fourth century began there was still no single creed.  The scattered congregations were united by a common Spirit.  A wide range of different theologies thrived.  The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire.  He decreed that the formerly outlawed new religion of the Galilean should now be legal, but he continued to reverence the sun god Helios alongside Jesus.

Constantine also imposed a muscular leadership over the churches, appointing and dismissing bishops, paying salaries, funding buildings, and distributing largesse.  He and not the pope was the real head of the church.  Whatever his motives, Constantine’s policies and those of his successors crowned Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The emperors undoubtedly hoped this strategy would shore up their crumbling dominion, from which the old gods seemed to have fled.  The tactic, however, did not save the empire from collapse.  But for Christianity it proved to be a disaster: its enthronement actually degraded it. From an energetic movement of faith it coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs, thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries to come.

The ancient corporate merger triggered a titanic makeover.  The empire became “Christian,” and Christianity became imperial.  Thousands of people scurried to join a church they had previously despised, but now bore the emperor’s seal of approval.  Bishops assumed quasi-imperial powers and began living like imperial elites.  During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees.  Heresy became treason, and reason became heresy.

…Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation did much to alter the underlying foundations of the Age of Belief… The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century.

Still, to think of this long middle ear as a nothing but a dark age is misleading.  As we have seen, throughout those fifteen centuries Christian movements and personalities continued to live by faith and according to the Spirit.  Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his Kingdom their motivating drive. [I cut a fair bit of this and the preceding paragraph for the sake of brevity.]

Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story.  Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster that it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies.  We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are sharking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined.

So, can we make a distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?

The book, as best I can tell (I’m into Chapter Four), dives further into this delineation, into what got us to where we’ve been, and what might move us forward into the future.

Terrific stuff, and as I read it, it seems to make a decent amount of sense.  And perhaps more pertinent, it seems to connect with what we find in the text: Jesus himself and the earliest believers, it seems, were not motivated by assent to a list of beliefs, but rather a deep-seated and profound faith that God was doing something new and his kingdom was breaking into the world in unprecedented ways.

I find that for some time perhaps I’ve been losing faith in belief, even as my faith continues to grow in new and exciting ways.  It is encouraging to consider this larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world, which, despite our best efforts to constrain it, continues to “blow wherever it will.”

A Naive Approach to Interfaith Dialogue

You really believe that?  So naive.
You really believe that? So naive.

My book, Pub Theology, has been out for about six months now.  I have heard from readers all over, nearly all of whom have really enjoyed the book.  The reviews on Amazon are all positive.  The Goodreads ratings are great.  This is a bit surprising to me, as I expected a certain amount of push back from readers.  Perhaps they have been biding their time.  A disappointed reader recently responded to the feature review of Pub Theology posted at the Englewood Review of Books.

Check out this response from Alex:

I am nearly finished with Berghoef’s work, which I had high hopes for. I appreciate points of your review, but I have to say that I do disagree about some of Berghoef’s intentions. If it were merely a monograph to discuss active listening in interfaith settings, I would be all ears. But within that framework he exposes that he is not a Christian living in a pluralistic world, he is a pluralist. I don’t say this with disrespect but in recognition that he is seeking to shed the “exclusitivity” of fundamentalism and traditional Christianity while learning what it means to “climb to the top of the mountain” of understanding and knowing God, asserting that multiple faiths can be incorporated into Christianity without any taking priority. (See his illustration of the telescope for an example). In establishing pub theology, he is also seeking to deconstruct Christian theology into a more cultural friendly model. I admittedly am frustrated with what you call his “whimsical” approaches to these gatherings. I too believe that there needs to be real listening and understanding, but I would not go so far as to say that this negates some central tenets to my own faith. I think that I can still be an “orthodox” Christian while also dialoguing with other faiths. From Berghoef’s Reformed background, he seems to posit the rigidness and fear of that upbringing as something that all people universally experience with tradtional (sic) Christianity. I would say that his context is dictating his views of others’ experience with the church in a way that molds his book. Maybe I am not progressive enough, but I don’t see religious pluralism as the necessary next step for Christianity, remembering that Jesus calls Himself the “way, truth, and the life.” The trouble I have with this multi-faith approach to God is that many of the faiths mentioned, at least in their primary Scriptures, see themselves as the sole route to God. To omit this is to in some way neglect what is a central part of the different faiths represented, and it’s a naive approach to interfaith dialogue.

These are just some of my relatively disjointed thoughts, but I’ve been wrestling with this book and needed to get them out.

Alright.  There we go.  That wasn’t so hard, was it?  If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the above.  If you haven’t read the book… what are you waiting for?  (Spend $10 of your Christmas cash and start reading now on your Kindle).

I actually really appreciate where Alex is coming from.  I’ve encountered others who have had the same frustration.  I expected more people would have this same concern, and probably they do, but for whatever reason haven’t voiced it.  But that very frustration highlights to me why the book (and the gatherings) are needed!  Too often Christians can only contemplate a space in which they are allowed to have the final say, they are allowed to ‘be right,’ and the forum which purports to be an open dialogue really masks for the latest in a clever church outreach attempt.  People should be treated like adults.  We shouldn’t need to try to con anyone, by attempting to ‘be relevant’ and hang out at the pub, while secretly just waiting to do our evangelistic duty, all the while despising pubs and beer and anyone who wonders if God actually exists.  We shouldn’t say we’re having a conversation where all are welcome at the table and there’s no requirement for any particular faith, and then turn around and make it into a Bible study or recruitment session for a particular church.  A true open space will be divested of hidden motives to convert.  A true open space will allow for anyone present to have the floor, and even, the final say.  If we really trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work, we should never have to resort to manipulative tactics.

Further, a true open space will also require its attendants to be honest.  And, yes, this will lead to disagreements.  There will be times where I, as a Christian, flat out disagree with a Muslim, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, about some central issues!  I find God most fully revealed in the person of Jesus.  I don’t expect a Muslim or Jew to agree about this.  And the book notes that disagreements will occur – and even highlights this with some actual pub theology dialogue.  (I actually think much of Alex’s concerns are addressed in the book, but then I often don’t land where he wants me to, hence the frustration).

Here is how I responded to him:

Hi Alex-

Glad to hear you are reading the book, and I share your high hopes for it. 🙂 I entirely appreciate your comments and your frustrations, and am glad you posted them. Also, before I forget, I’ve spent significant time in evangelical settings, so I think I have a fair grasp of (and to an extent have been shaped by) this perspective as well.

pub theology picThe book is meant to draw us into a setting of conversations where we actually do encounter others. Part of that requires at least sitting down to the table as a “pluralist,” in the minimal sense of: I believe all people are created in God’s image and have something to teach me. This does not necessarily mean everyone is right, or all paths lead to God, or anything of the sort. At that point you’re reading into what I’m saying (or not saying). I’m pretty sure I don’t make any claims in the book as to people’s eternal destinies. (Though I do hope and trust that God’s grace and mercy are much wider than I can imagine).

When discussions happen with people of various (and often competing) worldviews, there are going to be disagreements. Yes. Absolutely. Perhaps I could have articulated this more strongly in the book (though I think it is evident in some of the pub anecdotes and elsewhere). There have often been evenings at the pub where I have, as a Christian, flat out disagreed with people over important issues. An honest discussion demands this.

However, the point of the book is not to give an exposition of my own theology (though it arises at points), but rather to encourage the setting in which true and good dialogue can happen, and indicate ways in which one’s own faith or perspective (regardless of which kind), can be broadened.

I intentionally don’t show all of my cards, or even give the hoped for “But you’re going to tell everyone Jesus is the only way to God, right?”, because I want people to live in the tension. The tension of true interfaith connection, in which we hold the possibility (even if we don’t embrace it), that “the other” may well be right, and we are the ones who need to learn. As I note in the introduction, for too long the church has taken the place of preacher and teacher, and perhaps it is our turn to listen. Your comments indicate the discomfort that arises with such tension. You want to enter such discussions, not really to learn, but with the safe knowledge that you are right, and anticipating the moment you can share that. (Ironically, we Christians often come to such discussions hoping others will be open to our perspectives, while having no intention of being open to theirs).

You may not be in a place where you have something to learn from others, which perhaps might indicate your frustration with the book, and that’s fine. But many, many others have found the book to be a welcome volume which allows their own doubts, questions, and answers to be honestly wrestled with.

The book is not a defense of the Christian faith, or any other faith, though I write it as a Christian. It is simply one person’s experience of engaging others, and realizing that our world will be a better place if we can all sit down together and talk, instead of dismissing each other from our own safe enclaves.

I have no grand project of converting others at Pub Theology, except to this: to be a better person — one who loves more fully, questions more broadly, listens more intently, and hopes more strongly. I trust that at the end of the day, God’s purposes will happen, and the truth will win out.

As Augustine put it: “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

God doesn’t need me to sit at the pub and tell everyone they’re wrong if they don’t believe a particular (often, narrow) version of Christianity. He needs me to create a space of hospitality, where all are received and welcome, and where his very way is incarnated and on display. Where saints and sinners are equals. And occasionally [in fact, often!], yes, I tell people about Jesus.

What do you think?  Is Pub Theology a ‘naive approach to interfaith dialogue’?  Or is it a needed shift toward creating true spaces of connection in our communities?

Relevant no matter your belief system, great read all around

With a Perseus Porter at Elysian's Capitol Hill Pub on Pike Street in Seattle
With a Perseus Porter at Elysian’s Capitol Hill Pub on Pike Street in Seattle

Latest reader review of Pub Theology posted on

Let me preface this review
with the fact that I am by no means a Christian, nor a non-believer. A skeptic at heart, I came into the book and the concept of Pub Theology warily. I had never heard of Pub Theology or even met Bryan, but the book found me by chance.

That being said, it was a delightful read. He’s wise beyond his years and brings us a message of love, understanding, and openness. Do not let the word ‘theology’ turn you off – it’s relevant life-enriching information no matter your belief system. Whether you come into this as a veteran on the subject or as a fresh mind, you’ll find value. Worst-case scenario it’s a fun read on an interesting subject and a wonderful refresher. Best-case, you’re going to start seeing things differently and come away with some very useful information.

I was invited to and attended a Pub Theology event while in midst of the book. If you have the opportunity to visit one, do not miss the chance.


A Goodreads Review of Pub Theology

By Adriane Devries

Finally, Bryan Berghoef, evangelical Christian pastor and beer connoisseur, gives us in written form what so many of us secretly desire: permission to mix up our beer and religion, in public even!

“It makes perfect sense, really.”

In Pub Theology, he describes the formation of a club so unique as to be both hated and feared in his community, a club in which the only requirement is humble curiosity and the willingness to discuss things of God and faith. Invited are Islamists, Buddhists, atheists, Christians, and learners of all persuasions who would like to discuss key topics that form the basis of religion, in a setting that provides the consumption of good IPAs and Extra Special Darks.

It makes perfect sense, really. The availability of alcohol both precludes the arrival of Bible-toting ranters who need to dominate the conversation; and the presence of alcohol in the veins ensures conversation flows with less inhibition than such a subject generally engenders. Opponents of such an idea express outrage that a Christian pastor would not only meet in such a pagan setting, but also that he would not even subtly direct the conversation to a three-point sermon on salvation through the blood of Jesus at the end of each meeting.

Quite the contrary, he provides merely the questions to get conversation going, allowing all parties to share openly their opinions and experiences, and if a Bible-thumper starts filibustering, the conversation is politely re-directed to a new topic. Berghoef encourages an “exploration approach” to faith, which focuses on experiencing God graciously in life-affirming and socially beneficial community, rather than an “indoctrination approach,” which focuses on knowing right answers. Christians who feel the need to believe the right things will no doubt cringe when reading much of this book, but to them he would say, No Fear! The very strength of our faith, and yes, even the faiths of others who are different, is his ultimate goal. Such conversations strip down notions that we perhaps have never thought through, that perhaps are not truly necessary components of traditions that may be entirely human in origin, citing that “Ironically, it may well be that opening ourselves up to the traditions of others is the very thing that helps save our own.”

Perhaps, he contests, being right is not really very Christian at all: “In our efforts to refute other perspectives, to shout the loudest, to make sure people know that we are right, we may in fact be betraying the very God we are seeking to represent,” and the best way to show faith in Jesus is to “simply spend time with anyone, simply because they are a fellow human being, and that perhaps I am especially called to spend time with those who are often outcast by our communities of faith.”

A pub seems like one of the least intimidating places to meet folks of different backgrounds, who might ultimately benefit most from such conversations. Do you dare do it yourself?   Maybe a Pub Theology setting is just the challenge your faith has been needing.

» Pub Theology is available in paperback or for Kindle at

Drop Your Defenses… and Pick Up a Beer!

Pub Theology: A Book Review

By Rob Kroese

Disclaimer: Bryan Berghoef is the husband of the cousin of a guy I went to college with. His kids swam in my pool and proclaimed it to be the best part of their California vacation. In exchange, Bryan gave me a copy of Pub Theology.

As I was reading Pub Theology, my thoughts alternated between, “Wow, this is such a great idea,” and “Wow, this is so embarrassing.” Allow me to explain.

Pamphlets are used to convey information quickly, often by summarizing.

Pub Theology is about an idea. The idea is this: let’s get together with other people and talk about theology over beer. That’s it. That’s the whole idea. Not exactly rocket surgery, as I’ve been known to say after I’ve had a few beers myself. You’d hardly think you’d need to write a book about an idea like that. I mean, it’s a fairly short book, but still. An idea like that needs a flyer, or maybe a pamphlet. Pamphlet is a really strange word. It’s kind of creeping me out. Pamphlet. OK, moving on.

Warning: May Impair Theological Judgment

The embarrassing part is that I can see why Bryan did have to write this book. You see, in Christian circles, there’s a long tradition of discussing theology. It works like this: we meet with a bunch of other Christians in the church social hall, open with prayer, have coffee and windmill cookies (type of cookies may vary by denomination), listen to a presentation by some recognized authority (generally a pastor) and then discuss the topic amongst ourselves for 22 minutes. Often there are breakout groups and worksheets involved. At the end, the leader presents the answers to the questions and we mark up our worksheets. Then we close with prayer. I daresay that most North American Christians have never seriously discussed theology in any environment that was not ultimately controlled by some religious authority (church, Sunday school, Christian school, Christian camp, etc.).

“Dude, I got lost. Is this the theology discussion?”

If you grew up in that tradition and you’re uncomfortable with the idea of discussing theology over beer, with atheists, Buddhists, Jedis, or whoever else might show up, in an uncontrolled environment without any “leaders” and without any real structure (no worksheets, no agenda, no prayer), then you should read this book. Bryan makes an excellent case for why that’s exactly what we should be doing – and not as a strategy to “reach the unbelievers,” but rather as a way of building bridges and (gasp!) possibly learning something from people who believe differently than you.

If you’re outside of that tradition, the amount of effort that Bryan puts into convincing Christians that this this is a good idea may seem a little baffling to you. On the other hand, when’s the last time you had a serious discussion about theology (or religion, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it) with someone whose beliefs are starkly different from your own? North American Christians have had a particularly easy time avoiding “unbelievers,” over the past couple hundred years, since Christianity has been the dominant religion during that time. But we all tend to congregate with like-minded people, dismissing those who disagree with us as ignorant or morally deficient.

Pub Theology is a call to all of us, not just Christians, to put down our biases and have an honest, respectful discussion over beer. And lest you think the book is one long polemic against dogmatism, it’s really more of an account of Bryan’s own experiences with facilitating pub theology gatherings (I hate that word, facilitating, but “running” doesn’t seem right), why he got started with it in the first place, and what worked and didn’t work. It’s an encouraging story and I’ll be surprised if, when you finish it, you aren’t tempted to get together for beer and discussion with some local heretics, weirdos and Bible-thumpers at your own local tavern.

Robert Kroese’s sense of irony was honed growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan – home of the Amway Corporation and the Gerald R. Ford Museum, and the first city in the United States to fluoridate its water supply. In 2009, he called upon his extensive knowledge of useless information and love of explosions to write his first novel, Mercury Falls. Since then, he has written two sequels, Mercury Rises (2011) and Mercury Rests (due out October 18, 2012).