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Faith and knowledge can occupy the same space in believers’ hearts and minds

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III answers a question from ‘A Matter of Faith’ listener

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III

LOUISVILLE — Can faith and knowledge co-exist? They can and they do, the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III said during  the June 23 edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” and our faith can deepen even as we add to our knowledge base.

Jones, director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, was the guest last month of the Rev. Lee Catoe, editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Simon Doong, a mission specialist for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, who co-host A Matter of Faith each week. Previous episodes can be found here.

“I think there is a real difference between knowledge and belief,” Jones said in response to a listener’s question, “but I see there is also a connection. Within that connection we can have a deep conversation about faith.”

Drawing on the example of scientific disciplines that are constantly being updated, “I believe what happens to belief systems is when you no longer are processing information, they become very restrictive and legalistic,” Jones said. “One of the things I love about Jesus is that the only real harsh words Jesus ever spoke to people were religious leaders who were stuck in a religious belief system that was narrow, restricted and rigid.”

“One of the reasons I’m drawn to the gospel is I believe it’s all about life,” Jones said. “There’s always more knowledge coming our way as Jesus teaches about how to live, how to love our neighbor, how to pray and how to be in relationship with one another. But then his life actually reveals his teachings. We see his love, his compassion, his healing, his justice, his mercy — and it’s just a way of life that I believe will enhance a belief system.”

Jones said he’s been reading Adam Grant’s book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” Grant’s premise includes this: Rather than affirming our beliefs, learning evolves our beliefs. “He says we’re called to engage new views and revise old ones. I think that’s where faith comes in,” Jones said. “We are getting more and more information that continues to open us up to life, and that enlarges our belief system. If we aren’t taking in information through experiences and relationships, then our belief system becomes very rigid.”

Another of Jones’ recommended books is Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Innovating for Love: Joining God’s Expedition Through Christian Social Innovation.” Our purpose, according to the author, is to love God and love one another — and, wherever we are, to cause that community to flourish. Creasy Dean explains that task using John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. “Unbind him and let him go” is Jesus’ instruction to the crowd regarding what Jones described as “a cadaver wrapped from head to toe, with a kerchief over his face.”

Creasy Dean’s point is that “life is all about unwrapping one another so that the things that have bound us to death no longer do so and we are open to life,” Jones said. “I think that unwrapping is dealing with systems of injustice, systems that keep people marginalized and in poverty and racist systems. As we do this unwrapping, we find that we are all flourishing.”

Belief systems “expand as knowledge is made available and we learn more and more about who we are,” Jones said. “Faith for me in that process is that trust, the trust to say, ‘OK, this is the way I’m going to put my life together: I’m just going to love God and love other people and allow God to continue to change me and open me to who God is and what God desires.”

Anxiety and isolation brought on by the pandemic, the racism that’s resurfaced over the past two years — and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — all got Jones to thinking.

“I think it was fueled by a belief system that was so rigid it would not allow any other information in — would not even allow the truth in,” he said. “I think it’s an example of what happens when we settle for something small and rigid that is only for a few people and not for everyone. We can get trapped into something very dangerous that has nothing to do with life.”

For Jones, “I become a person who is more alive when people are flourishing … We always need a faith that trusts in something bigger, which is God — something bigger, which is love, which will carry us through and be there in the end.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

For Doong, “During dark times in our lives, we say, ‘Is there justice anywhere?’ But when we look closer, we find God continues to be at work. We have to be willing to look for God and ask a better question — not just, ‘Why?’”

Jones said he finds going deeper “into the meaning of life causes a sense of humility in us.” But “when we come to that place and say, ‘There is so much I don’t know,’ there’s a tendency for doubt to creep in.”

That doubt, Jones said, “is the avenue by which we begin to ask those questions that take us into discovery. We begin to realize, ‘Oh my goodness, this life is so much bigger than I am!’ We begin to make our way — but that way is always in relationship with other people and learning from them, and in relationship with God.”

The Hebrew word for knowledge “really is about relationship,” Jones said. “I don’t see how we can deeply know someone and then not include them and not work for justice and diversity.”

It was Presbyterian pastor and novelist Frederick Buechner who once said something Jones appreciated: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

“It kinda keeps your faith moving and going when you ask those questions that take you into new discoveries,” Jones said.

When we’re doubting, “we don’t want anyone to know we’re doubting because we think it’s just us,” Doong said. But through our relationships, “we find out there’s a lot of us doubting — or just wondering the same thing.”

“I believe that’s the way it works. We can’t do this life by ourselves. We need one another,” Jones replied. It might be helpful to offer up this kind of expression, he said: “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m even doubting my organization or my faith community that we know what we’re doing. As we share these things and others go, ‘Yeah, I’ve kinda thought the same thing,’ then we can begin to discover together what God is actually doing, and I believe God is always up to something new.”

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