It was an unlikely place for a theological discussion! I was undergoing a medical test that required a lot of waiting and interaction with a technician.
Noting a book I was reading by Walter Brueggemann and having seen on my chart that I had taught at Duke, he asked, “Are you a liberal or conservative?”
“I don’t really like labels. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others,” I responded.
“Well, what do you believe?” he retorted.
“Believe about what?” I asked.
“About God, Jesus, and the Bible,” he said.
“Wow, that’s a lot to cover. I have lots of beliefs about those topics, but I’m not sure that what I believe about them is the most important thing.”
“Oh? Then, what is most important about being religious?” he inquired with interest.
I replied, “I think a more important question is, What do you do? What do you practice? How do you behave, treat people?”
There followed several minutes of conversation about treating people with respect, dignity, compassion, justice, and hospitality.
“But beliefs are important, aren’t they?” he pushed.
I responded, “Definitely! They should motivate, form, and guide what we do. The validity of our beliefs is what kind of persons they produce. The test is what’s in our hearts more than what’s in our heads.”
Continuing, I added, “You asked me what I believe about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Here it is in a nutshell. I believe God is love and that love became flesh in Jesus who shows us what it means to love and empowers us to love one another as God loves us. The Bible is the story of the unfolding of that love.”
With calmness, he reflected, “So, you’re more concerned about what I do than what I believe? Right?”
I remarked: “I’m interested in both, but our actions reveal our true beliefs. Your kindness, respect, and compassion indicate to me that you know God as love, kindness, and justice. You may not even call that “God” but to practice love, generosity, hospitality, and justice is to “believe” in God as I understand the term.”
As the tests and wait continued, the conversation turned to our shared concern for loved ones living with dementia. He was no longer curious about whether I was “liberal” or “conservative,” and I still don’t know what his religious formulations are.
I do know that in that brief exchange two people treated one another with mutual respect, compassion, and dignity. In so doing, we pointed to what the Lord requires: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)