Nominal belief

Christ transforms the heart by grace through a (partially) visible membership in a corporate body and in accord with a set of credal beliefs. This allows for the possibility of nominal belief, where one can belong to the corporate body of the Church and pronounce one’s belief in the creed without an ongoing process of transforming the heart or growth in the interior life.

Nominal belief has its full actuality in a social-interactive process. A paradigmatic example would be the phone survey: someone from Pew calls you up and asks if you are religious and you say “yes.” The “yes” however is almost entirely performative, as the surveys themselves tell us that in a vast number of cases the yeses live no differently from the nos. We’re safe in assuming that the nos were not transformed interiorly by the truth of the Gospel, but a good number of yeses are simply using a different word in spite of the same interior reality.

By the interior life I understand one’s lived sense of what makes or could make him happy. Taken in this sense the interior life is fundamentally a trust that is faith in X when we impute to X the ability to make us happy, and hope when we’re confident that X will deliver. As the evidence comes in that we are right, we respond more and more to X with love, by both losing ourselves in it and defining our identity by it. Christianity proposes as X (a) an experience of the love of the Father with the sacramental presence of the Son by the interior transformation of the Holy Spirit, though this often simplifies to a trust that one is loved by God through all situations of lived experience, just as Christ testified to the love of the Father even during his show trial, torture, and execution. Leaving aside other religious opinions for the moment, the alternatives to (a) are (b) believing one simply can’t be happy, or (c) our only shot at it comes from trusting our skills, wealth, family and friends, natural endowments, job, social capital, or control of institutional power. (c) is what Christianity calls the flesh or the exterior man or the world, and it sees it as intrinsically ordered to (b.) Nominal Christianity is an interior life dedicated to (b) or (c) on top of which one builds a set of social responses like “yes” to cues like “do you believe in God?”

On this axis of description, there is probably little difference between most Christians and most non-Christians. I’ve been a practicing the faith every day of my life, but e.g. I’ve rarely thought in the face of my anxiety that it was pointless since I was personally loved by an omnipotent Father and forbidden by Christ from worrying. So taken, what difference was there between my interior life and a non-believer’s? If I built a set of responses to social interactions that were different from his, how significant is that? One could build a pull-string doll to do the same.

The real is what could make us happy or the fact that there is no such thing, so for most persons most of the time only one’s self is real. There are times when other realities break through, and each brings with it the sense of the sacred, radiant and inviolable. Erotic love commonly does this, and it can be developed into something better, but we all know it’s unjust to task another person with the burden of making us happy, even if only by their presence. Demanding that erotic love bear the whole weight of the sacred and inviolable inevitably collapses into either the love of ourselves or the continual desire to start the erotic moment from its beginning, which of course means casing one aside to start over with another. Try comparing that to one’s belief that the erotic is sacred! Once one recognizes the limitations of eros, it disenchants our usually half-conscious thought that consumerism or entertainment could be real in the sense described.

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