Photograph by Hannah Busing via Unsplash

What if you have faith in God but not in people?

May 30, 2024

Struggle and doubt are two hallmarks of religious faith, no matter your background. My own experience with faith has proven no exception. I have been tested time and again through seasons of personal and societal struggle – from the time I found God in my struggle with a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis as a child, to working through multiple suicides and deaths of loved ones as a young man, to founding The Harwood Institute at 27 and then living out a journey of seeking a more just society. Struggle and doubt have been my constant companions.

While moments of doubt naturally test our faith in God, I believe there’s another kind of doubt that many people of faith wrestle with today that often gets ignored. I find this other doubt best expressed as a question. What if we have faith in God but not in people?

When that’s the case, do you turn away from the world – and exclusively back toward God? Do you assume things will work out according to a divine plan? Do you equip yourself with Scripture and try to convince others of your rightness – even your righteousness – at all costs?

I find myself on the road regularly for work. Just this year I’ve been to Michigan, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. It’s clear, wherever I go, that we have largely lost our faith in one another. There are good reasons for this. A constellation of fractures and divisions wrack society today. Anxiety and isolation and fear of one another grip us. Yet under these conditions, I find people of faith often reacting in one of two ways.

Either they retreat, withdrawing into a hermetically-sealed existence rooted in their religious faith, where the rest of the world is allowed to fade into the background. Or they come out fighting, doubling down on proselytizing, looking to convert people to a specific doctrine regardless of the bridges they may burn. While either approach may work in protecting an individual’s faith in God, it fails to restore our faith in each other. Nor do these reactions contribute to moving our communities forward.

Like with any faith struggle, I believe the answer is to lean into the discomfort of a third way. To wrestle and work at it. To know our doubts in our fellow human beings but not to let them overtake us.

At this crossroads, how might people of faith choose to operate in order to create a better world together?

I think it’s instructive to turn to the story of Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. When this story begins, Moses has fled Egypt. His faith in God, himself, and his fellow Israelites has been tested. Indeed, in many ways it has been found wanting.

Civic faith in no way replaces or supplants our faith in God. It surely doesn’t for me. But it is essential for our lives together. After all, if we aim to make a difference in the world, people must be at the center of what we do.

But when God calls to him from within the flame, Moses answers, “Here I am.” In these three simple words Moses chooses to make himself visible. To account for not only a God-centered purpose, but a public purpose.

His doubts did not end after saying, “Here I am.” Read the rest of Exodus 3 and you will see Moses practically overflowing with doubts. Yet by answering that initial call, he set in motion a series of actions that led to the transformation of his entire community.

Today, what might it look like for us to restore our faith in one another? And to do so in a way that doesn’t force us to either retreat or wield faith as a weapon?

I believe engendering a civic faith is a starting point. Civic faith is the idea that placing people, community, and shared responsibility at the center of our public lives will create a more equitable, fair, just, inclusive, and hopeful society for all.

At the core of this practical philosophy sits a civic covenant. We live in relationship with one another. That is the only way shared society works. Nothing substitutes for the relational nature of our public lives.

Civic faith in no way replaces or supplants our faith in God. It surely doesn’t for me. But it is essential for our lives together. After all, if we aim to make a difference in the world, people must be at the center of what we do. Their lives, what matters to them, their aspirations, their dignity. We must not put requirements on their faith, what God they pray to, or if they even recognize a higher power in the first place.

We can build civic faith by recognizing people’s innate desire to express their human agency together. To bring about change in their own lives and the collective life of their community. We don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t even have to like each other. We certainly don’t have to compromise our religious beliefs. But neither must we share beliefs 100% in order to have faith in our fellow humans.

Like Moses before us, we are called to be in the world. To make a difference with the time we’ve been given in partnership with our fellow humans of all different beliefs. Through my work, and through my own faith, I have come to believe ever more fervently that it is our time to answer this call.

Will we answer?

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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