Saturday, October 09, 2010

What is Faith?

Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 3, 2010) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

What were the apostles asking for? What is faith? We often call ourselves “people of faith;” we call this a “faith community.” What do we mean?

I have always loved the passage from Alice in Wonderland where Alice reacts to the Queen’s announcement that she is one hundred and one, five months and a day.

“I can’t believe that,” Alice said. “Can’t you,” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed: “There's no use trying,” she said; “one can't believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”[1]

Is that what faith is: the ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

Sometimes Christians have been clearer about what faith is not that what it is. Our definition of faith has tended to be the opposite of something else. And that something else has changed over time.

For a very long time in the Church’s life—at least from around the time the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 until well into the seventeenth century, the opposite of faith was heresy. Faith was right belief—orthodoxy.

Having faith was about keeping order in the universe. Believing and teaching something other than the authorized version of truth threatened the very fabric of life. As Martin Smith says, “There was a logic behind inquisition and crusade.”[2]

This way of looking at faith has never entirely died out. Church hierarchies can still get caught up in it, and it has even reared its head in our Anglicanism as of late. There are Anglicans and Episcopalians who consider themselves “orthodox,” guardians of right faith. To think differently from them is to be a heretic.

By the 19th century, though, the way many people looked at faith began to change with the rise of modern science and what is known as modernism. That long authorized view of God and the world came under close scrutiny. Did God create the world in seven days? The opposite of faith in this climate became doubt, and for the first time on any wide scale, people began to have to choose whether or not to be religious, to “have faith.”

We have continued along this trajectory through the present time that many people call “post-modern.” In a post-modern way of thinking, everything is relative. This can seem at best disorienting to religious people like you and me. At worst it can seem outrageous.

So what is the opposite of faith in our time? Martin Smith says

If for our ancestors the opposite of faith was heresy, and for our great-grandparents the opposite of faith was doubt, for us the opposite of faith is certitude. Faith is now the exercise of a choice to interpret reality in terms of a loving God in full, unblinking recognition that every particle of evidence that we call forth as signs of divine presence and activity can be and is everywhere interpreted in other terms.[3]

Christianity is just one way of interpreting how the world works in competition with many others. And many of us Christians simply accept that. We know that we have precious little evidence to back up our claims about God. We can only, really, invite people into faith: this way of interpreting reality rings true for us. It is a way of love and hope. It is a way of justice and peace.

If it is true that the opposite of faith is certitude, and I think it is, I think we have arrived pretty much back to where we started. The most remembered biblical definition of faith is from the beginning of the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Faith is not how we deal with certainty. Faith is how we deal with mystery, and it is not to make it un-mysterious but simply to take it as it is.

You have heard me say before that I thought the opposite of faith was fear or anxiety. I’ve been saying that since seminary when I read something that convinced me that was the truth. Twenty-five years later I think I have been wrong.

Faith may indeed calm our fears, relieve our anxiety, but we are human, and fear and anxiety are always going to be part of our lives. They are sometimes very unhelpful things, but there are also times when they are helpful. Sometimes we have perfectly good reasons to be anxious and it puts us on a kind of alert that can be very creative. Fear necessarily protects us sometimes. Faith exists, I think, so that we cannot be overcome by them. They cannot take control of our lives. In that sense I have been right: out of control anxiety and fear are the opposite of faith.

But the true opposite of faith is certitude. I suspect that causes most of us to struggle. It doesn’t feel right. We like being certain and it seems like being certain about God and the ways of God is the way it should be.

But to be absolutely certain of God and the ways of God is to pretend to know too much. It violates God’s freedom and mystery, as well as our own. Faith becomes a kind of fatalism if I am certain about everything.

Take, for instance, something somebody said to me when I expressed a little anxiety about the long-term future of my former parish. I think it was a perfectly normal thing for me to have this feeling and it doesn’t mean that I was anywhere near hopeless or ready to give up. Quite the opposite.

But the person I was talking to wanted to move me to some certainty, so this is what the person said:

If God wants St. George's to survive, it will. If he doesn’t, it won’t. It’s as simple as that.

I told the person I didn’t think it was as simple as that at all, that the question of whether or not God wants St. George’s to survive is not a particularly helpful question because we can never definitively know the answer, and that the only thing I knew God wanted was to be our partners as a community of faith, helping to build the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We should beware, I think, of what are simple solutions in the face of mystery. Another phrase people throw around a lot, “Everything happens for a reason,” is like that too. We don’t know that. When we say it we are trying to turn mystery into certitude, and I don’t think that does anybody any good.

Like the apostles, we might very well ask the Lord, “Increase our faith.” It would probably be a good idea if we regularly did. What would we be asking for?

We would be asking for the wisdom and courage to keep embracing the mystery of God and the mystery of life. As Christians we would be asking to continue to interpret life through the lens of our brother Jesus and his ancestors. And we would be asking for the grace to do this together, in community, because that is where Jesus taught us faith always lives.

Sometimes keeping it simple is the best thing we can do. What is the ultimate physical sign of faith for us? Our hands open together to receive the promise of God at the Altar rail. That is really all we need to say about faith.

[1] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter V, “Wool and Water.”

[2] Nativities & Passions: Words for Transformation, Cowley, 1995, p. 178.

[3] Ibid., p. 179.

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