09 August 2010

Faith in a Skeptical Age

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th August 2010
“I wish I had more faith.”  It’s a refrain we often hear in the church.  Even when it’s not heard, this hope, and the accompanying anxiety associated with it, is always just below the surface in the church.  Surprisingly, there’s a lot of anxiety around faith in the church.  Religion is about, faith, right?  It’s supposed to be, we think, about having lots of it and using it.  Jesus tells us that if we had just a little faith, mustard-seed-sized faith (Matthew 17:20) it would be enough to move mountains.   And because the literalist in all of us takes him at his word and because none of us are moving mountains, it’s very easy for us to feel as if we don’t have faith – or that whatever faith we do have, it’s not enough.

            The anxiety is around a feeling of insufficiency.  Hence we pray, “Lord give me more faith.”  Or we say to a close friend, “I wish I had more faith.”  Or we confess, “I wish I could have your faith. For me, it’s so difficult to believe at all.”  This last comment is often said to pastors – the professional faith people – as if we were the experts in this area.

            The anxiety is also around a feeling of inadequacy.  In addition to not having enough faith, there is the feeling that the faith we have is not good enough or the right kind of faith that we think God wants from us.

            The anxiety of insufficiency (not having enough) and inadequacy (not good enough) together leads, unintentionally, to further anxiety about one’s relationship with God, anxiety about what it means to have faith, to live from and for faith.  It leads to a lack of confidence that works against faith and makes it difficult for us to talk about our faith, about how it shapes our lives.

            All of this goes on in church settings, religious settings, among, so-called, “people of faith.”  Just imagine what it feels like beyond the church, for people who didn’t grow up in a religious environment, who have some interest in spiritual things, in theological questions, maybe even curious about what goes on behind the mysterious walls of a church, but never venture through our doors because they think they don’t have enough faith.  Never suspecting that we on the inside have the same questions!

            “I wish I had more faith,” people say.  But what is faith?  Why do some people seem to have it, in abundance, and others can’t quite get there?  Why are some people troubled by the fact that they don’t have faith and why are there folks who don’t seem to care? What do we really mean by it?  What does it mean?

            For some, faith is equated with belief.  “I wish I had more faith,” means, “I wish I had more faith to believe …,” in the existence of God or believe that Jesus was divine, believe in the reality of grace or believe in life after death.  Belief and faith are related, but they’re not the same.  Belief is associated with the content of the faith, the various articles in a creed or confession, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth…,” as in the Apostles’ Creed.  Belief has to do with ideas or content of a faith.  Belief, then, easily slips over into the world of intellectual argument and debate, dependent upon proof and defense.

            This is where most of the arguments around faith and religion like to live – arguing over the content of belief, what I believe and don’t believe and why, what one should or should not believe, determining what is and isn’t orthodox.  Sometimes these discussions are rooted in strong intellectual arguments; sometimes they’re rooted in nothing more than uninformed opinion, yet believed uncritically.  

            In our age, despite the rising interest in things spiritual, religion, particularly Christianity is under widespread attack in our culture.  It’s been this way for about two hundred years, but it’s particularly worse now.  There are many reasons for this shift.  One is the fact that we live in an exceptionally skeptical age – we’re suspicious of everyone and everything, it seems, we take little at face value, we’re often trying to protect ourselves against being betrayed or disappointed or betrayed or robbed.  From personal experience we have come to question authority – sometimes with good reason – whether it’s the church or government or any other organized institution with power, money, and influence.  Far too many people have been burned, emotionally and personally wounded by family, by church, by government; lied to by family members, by church members, and government.  Skepticism makes sense; it’s a defense.  It’s very difficult for people to believe in what a church says it believes (or is supposed to) when their experience has been something very different.  How does one have faith then? 

            Our skeptical age is also fueled by the science-religion debate, including the evolution vs. intelligent design argument, which has been going on since the 19th century.  While many people in the scientific community do indeed hold to religious beliefs and would consider themselves people of faith, there is a general perception that to be a sophisticated, intelligent, ‘with-it’ modern means to cast off primitive religion and move on up to the reasoned world of science. For those who live that way, it’s remarkable how much they sound like people of faith, with beliefs and conviction, religiously holding to a dogmatic anti-religious view of reality.[1]

            All of this has led some to think that to be a person of faith, to be a Christian one has to leave one’s head, one’s reason at the door and just accept the religious things we talk about “by faith,” which generally means without thought.  And because many value their thought and the value of reason as a gift (from God!), they’re not willing to set these aside in order to be religious.  Sometimes we inside the doors of the church don’t help the matter when we think that “having faith” means we just accept certain things to be true and then never have to think about them again or what they mean – or ever wonder that we might, indeed, be wrong.  It’s a “leap of faith,” we say.[2]  We just have to jump and hope that there’s something, someone on the other to catch us or save us.

            Such a view brings us back to a feeling of inadequacy and insufficiency – who is courageous enough to just leap, to jump? Some are.  There are risk-takers and adventurers among us, who, like Abraham, will leave everything behind and go because they heard God say, “Go.”  But most of us, including myself, don’t have that kind of courage. 

            We know we’re supposed to live by faith, but when we look at how much of our lives are planned and organized, either by ourselves or by someone else, truth is, there’s very little room left for the unknown, so that we never have to take that leap.  In fact, we are skilled, trained, educated to anticipate the unknown, to prepare for the unknown, so that nothing ever catches us by surprise.  We’re even insured up to the gills against the unknown. We’re very good at making sure there’s little in our lives by which we have to live by any kind of faith in the unknown.  Unless we know the known, we won’t go there.  There’s probably no other time in the life of this church when how we relate to the unknown is tested than when your Session has to wrestle long and hard in putting together the annual budget.  This year, Session presented what some would call a deficit budget for 2010, a $20,000 deficit. Others refer to that deficit line as the “Holy Spirit line” or the “Hoped for Additional Giving,” a hopeful budget because we know how much we need to do God’s work here this year and we’re going to trust that God working through the members and friends of this congregation will be generous and provide.  Church budgets are written with faith.  Our home budgets might not be, but they are in the church.

            An example of this church venturing out with faith is our decision to proceed with the renovations, which included securing a $900,000 mortgage.  That was a leap into the unknown.  We’re slowly reducing that balance (now to just above $710,000) and doing this in the midst of a major recession.  We’re still here, the better for taking the risk.

            The author of Hebrews didn’t have church budgets in mind when he wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).”  What we have here in Hebrews, and other places in the New Testament, is a very different understanding of this word, “faith.”  Hebrews has a particular meaning of the word that could change how we view the Christian life and offers good news for the skeptic among us and within us.  Yes, we know verses like, we are “saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).”  As Protestants we know is it faith that saves, not works, not living up to commandments.  It’s faith that is salvific. Yet, it’s easy to think that the more faith we have the more we can be assured that we are saved.  What if one doubts?  Does this mean that one’s salvation is in question?   I used to think this way.  When I was in seminary I found myself conscious of my own inadequacies and insufficiencies, struggling for more faith, trying to remove all doubt from my mind.  Until one day it dawned upon me that I was turning faith into a kind of work, using it as something that was going to earn God’s favor and acceptance.  No wonder people feel guilty for not having faith in God.  No wonder people feel inadequate and insufficient because who ever has enough faith?  No wonder people feel guilty when they doubt or question.  There are so many who think that doubt and questioning are the opposite of faith, yet both are integral to it.         

            The author to Hebrews didn’t ask for “more faith.”  For him, it’s already a given.  He wants his hearers to live from it.  For him, it’s not an intellectual exercise.  He’s not asking them to defend the truths of Christianity.  It’s not really about belief.  This is about exercising faith, faith understood as primarily trust, assurance, and confidence.  And this is not a blind trust, either, a leap into the dark.  The author of Hebrews, in giving this long overview of Abraham’s faith and Isaac and Moses and all the others in Israel’s history, right up to and including Jesus, is offering a distinctively Jewish-Christian understanding of faith as trust, assurance, and confidence in God. Why?  How?  Not because God just wants us to trust as some kind of test.  Hebrews shows us that Israel and now the church can place its trust in God and live from that trust because God was and is and always will be faithful.

            This is the foundation of faith, this is the source our faith, this is the reason for our faith, the justification of our faith:  the faithfulness of God.  Our faith is rooted in the fact that God is faithful to us, no matter what.  Our faith is grounded in God’s faithfulness to us – to creation, to humanity – no matter what.  God has made promises to us – covenants with us – that link us inextricably to God and God to us and God cannot give up on these covenants of faithfulness without God betraying Godself.  In other words, God has made these promises to us and God is trustworthy and worthy of our trust.  God keeps God’s word.  God relates to us in good-faith.  For God to do otherwise would mean that God has turned on his identity, God has ceased being God.  If you look very closely at the New Testament and see how faith is exercised, particularly in Jesus, it’s never done in a vacuum; it’s done within the context, the prior knowledge or experience that God was and is faithful.  At the height of the storm depicted in Mark 4: 25-41, we find Jesus “in the stern, asleep on the cushion,” – “asleep on the cushion,” – for “such was his own trust in God.”[3]  Jesus knows God to be trustworthy; therefore Jesus can rest in God.  Knowing God as faithful calls forth from within us assurance, calls for faith.  As John Calvin (1509-1564) said, “We make the freely given promise of God the foundation of faith because upon it faith properly rests. …faith properly begins with the promise [of God], rests in it, and ends in it.  For in God faith seeks life:  a life that is not found in commandments and declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a freely given promise.”[4]

            It’s the exercising of this kind of faith, of assurance, that then sends us forward into God’s future.  The entire orientation of this Hebrews text is forward, into the future.  If God has been faithful to Israel, and faithful to Jesus raising him from the dead, then God will be faithful to the church, and to those of us who continue this pilgrim journey. Because God is faithful we venture forth into the unknown. We can risk. We can step-out.  This kind of faith actually gives us a future. With faces forward we wait with anticipation for the further fulfillment of God’s promises.  This becomes the foundation of Christian hope.  Things that are yet unseen will in time be seen, will become real and true and worthy of praise.[5]

            In the meantime, there are times when we can exercise our faith and other times when we will feel weak and scared.  What do we do in those moments?  Maybe we shouldn’t pray, “Give us more faith.”  We don’t have to go inward to find resources within us to believe, to have more faith.   Calvin on faith was really sublime.  He gives us the best advice, liberating advice.  “Therefore, if we would not have our faith tremble and waver, we must buttress it with the promise of salvation, which is willingly and freely offered to us by the Lord in consideration of our misery rather than our deserts.”[6]    In other words: Remember the promise.  Look back and remember all the times in your life when God has been faithful.  Remember the promise.  The Lord was and is and will be merciful and good.  Remember the God you have come to know, especially through the life and witness, in the face of Jesus Christ. Remember the promise and then venture forth into God’s future with confidence, with faith, in faith.

[i] See Marilynne Robinson on religion and science, most recently in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2010).
[2] The phrase, “leap of faith,” is often attributed to Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), although an analysis of his works in Danish suggest that this is a mistranslation into the English.  He did, at length, refer to “leap,” particularly in The Concept of Anxiety (1844); or,What if, rather than speaking or dreaming of an absolute beginning, we speak of a leap?” Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846).
[3] See Robin McL. Wilson, Hebrews (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1987), 202.
[4] John Calvin, Institutes of  the Christian Religion (1559), III. II. 29.
[5] Cf. Marcus Dods, “…faith gives to things future, which as yet are only hoped for, all the reality of actual present existence; and irresistibly convinces us of the reality of things unseen and brings us into their presence.  Things future and things unseen must become certainties to the mind if a balanced life is to be lived.”  Cited in Wilson, 202.  I’m grateful for Wilson’s scholarship and, most of all, his friendship over the years through our mutual associations with St. Leonard’s Parish Church, St. Andrews, Scotland.
[6] Calvin, Institutes, III. II. 29.  Emphasis added.

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