In-Sight: “External” Faith

Conversations about “external markers” of the faith have resumed within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.  They raise the issue of how important, or even necessary, these things are in the overall scheme of things.

In some parts of Protestantism, the conversation would be suspect from the get-go.  We have championed “sola fide” in ways that make it almost exclusively a matter of the heart, with (of course) the true and inevitable expressions of faith in acts of mercy and social holiness.

The current conversation is surely built upon this rock-solid connection between the inner and outer Christian life, but it is focusing specifically on the “markers” which have often been part of the Christian community.  Some are seriously asking if we are entering a time when creating a “more visible” Christianity would be a good thing.

An analogy might be the wearing of rings by married persons.  Behaviorists rightly show that some kind of “externalization” plays a valuable role in matters of the heart.

When it comes to our Roman Catholic and Anglican friends, their traditions have them ready and waiting:  making the sign of the Cross, praying a Rosary, designated Fast days, stained glass, and incense, to name a few.

Intersecting these more-ancient traditions is the whole movement of “visio dei,” which rightly shows how the visual arts have been (and can be) recruited into a whole-life spiritual formation.  Here, some of our Orthodox friends are way ahead of us, in such things as praying with icons and using great art to grow the soul.

The point is simply this:  the pendulum of what’s “right and wrong” in Christianity swings back and forth.  To be entering a time when a legitimate “marking” of our faith externally is taking place is not a bad thing.  We do not have to stereotype or caricature such things as “white-washed tombs” or superficial religiosity.

In a world that increasingly marginalizes the Christian faith, it is a legitimate concern that we do not “marginalize” it ourselves by making it so invisible and internal that no one can tell us from the rest of the world.  I knew a man who said, “In our home faith was such a private thing, there was reason to wonder if anyone had any.”

To be sure, living the virtuous life (Galatians 5:22-23) is the foundation of any social holiness.  But we may, in fact, be living in a time when “marking” our faith externally is a necessary witness to the faith we profess.   In some places, this would be downright counter-cultural—even dangerous.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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