I have been teaching international students at one of the colleges where I adjunct, and more than half of them are from Saudi Arabia. The other half are almost all Chinese, but that's not at all relevant here, except to say that the overwhelming majority of international students at this school seem to come from two utterly disparate places, both of which struggle to understand the U.S. The classes are freshman composition classes, but the conversations regularly turn fascinating because I decided early on that I was going to learn as much about their home countries, customs, practices, etc., as possible, both to develop teaching methods and examples that actually resonate and because I tend to be voraciously curious by temperament.
The assignment we are on right now is a compare/constrast essay. One of the students, a Muslim from Tunisia, which is incredibly moderate compared to Saudi Arabia, asked if he could compare and contrast Christianity and Islam. How could I say no to that? This generated a conversation between three of the Saudi students and me about American Christianity, Islam, and politics. I told them up front that I used to be a pastor and that I no longer am a person of faith. (They were mystified and a bit distressed to learn that their professor is a non-theist, I believe.) The conversation began with me acknowledging that I don't count terrorists as Muslims, a position they said they had heard all too rarely in the U.S. I explained that I teach world religions and am broadly familiar with Islam. One of the students asked me to explain Christian practice over against the idea of Islam's Five Pillars: creed, prayer, giving, fasting, pilgrimage.
As I thought through the differences and similarities between sacraments and Muslim practices, it occurred to me that I was speaking to people who had spent a lifetime, albeit a short one to this point, actually practicing a faith. For Muslims, the practices are the faith. The nearest parallel to be drawn was that baptism in the catechetical sense is close to the Shahada, the Muslim creed or confession: There is not God but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of God. That confessions makes one a Muslim, but I had to explain that baptism, in the minds of most American Christians, does not make one a Christian. Imagine trying to explain the sinner's prayer to Muslims at this point; the idea is, of course, blasphemous to them, but they understand enough about Christianity to get the point.
Finally, after working through the differences, one of the students observed that the American Christians he had met don't really practice a faith. "How would I know they are Christian? They don't do anything." He was not being harsh or critical. He meant that there is no way to spot a Christian in America: no prayer rugs, no ritualistic practices, no head coverings, no ablutions, no nothing. This is the legacy of Revivalism and Evangelicalism--an individualized faith devoid of any actual practice of a faith. (I'm assuming here that going to worship service isn't really a practice, but I could be convinced otherwise.) When the Muslim students assess who is a Christian, they look for practices, and their recognition of rampant Biblical illiteracy amongst the faithful causes them confusion. How do Christians not know their book? A fair question.
I tried to explain the dualistic mindset that leads to a believing/doing division in American Evangelicalism, but they didn't quite grasp the difference. I'll let Asem finish this out. He's brilliant and relatively moderate (compared to his Saudi classmates) in his positions vis-a-vis faith and freedom.
"What does it mean to believe but not to do? I suppose you can do anything you want in secret and pretend to believe in public, but that man does not believe in God. Practicing the faith is believing the faith. How can you do one and not both? How are they even different?"