Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bare Bones Faith

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  -- Hebrews 11:1

This is the beginning of a section in the Letter to the Hebrews in which the phrase, "By faith..." is repeated over and over:  "By faith Abel...  By faith Enoch...  By faith Noah ...  By faith Abraham...."  And so on.  The writer repeats this phrase to emphasize that it was a very simple faith or trust in God which kept the ancient "cloud of witnesses" always walking with God.  There wasn't anything else one needed to have except faith.  The author is smart to repeat this phrase.  For some reason, it's a message that's hard to accept. 

Even within my own mainline Protestant Christian culture, where "faith alone" is almost a mantra, people seem to think that it's got to be harder than that:  it's good works, right beliefs, or social/material/physical success that determines whether you are right with God, not just plain old faith. These ideas are so strong, and spoken with such authority, that I sometimes question my own experience of God.

I was reading "The Parables of Peanuts," by Robert L. Short last week.  Using Charles Shultz's "Peanuts" cartoon strip, Short explores the Gospel message.  Short sees these cartoon strips as modern day parables, which are able to teach us truths about ourselves in a kind of roundabout, or curved, or "parabolic" way; truths that we would refuse to hear if told to us straight.  I found the book informative, insightful, and humorous, until that is, I started to read the third chapter:  "Savior?! Who Needs a Savior?"  Then, I felt like I had been hit upside the head.

Using Shultz's cartoons in a way that does not fit my own interpretation of them, Short explains that we are all born evil, depraved, and in need of a savior, who is Jesus Christ.  He talks about how the children in Shultz's cartoon illustrate "Christ's bedrock teaching of man's basic and innate depravity." (pg. 48).  "Evil is literally 'unadulterated' in children..." (pg. 54).  He quotes Luther, Augustine, Barth, Kierkegaard, plus countless other famous people, as well as various Bible passages to prove the idea of Original Sin.  And, if you don't believe in Original Sin then Christ came for nothing:  No original sin, no need for a redeemer, which is clearly what Jesus was.  Short even says, "...only he who is without sin should throw stones at the Church's venerable teaching of man's basic -- or original -- sinfulness."  (pg. 54)  Well then.

Seriously?  I think of my children, and other people's children, and I don't see moral depravity.  I see fundamentally loving, caring beings who teach me many things about purity of heart and all that's really important in the world.  Sure, they aren't always nice to each other, and sometimes children can be downright mean.  But that's because we're a mixture, adults and children, not completely good, not completely bad.  And I think the characters in the "Peanuts" strip illustrate this mixture, as well as any two-dimensional characters can do in four squares.

Last week, I wrote about everyone being on a different path to God.  Afterwards, I wondered.  Is this really true?  Isn't it possible that some people get on the wrong path, a path away from God?  I can think of a number of people, Christians in particular, like Short, who seem to be straying pretty far from Jesus's message as I see it.  They just have such a totally different viewpoint than I do about what it means to be a Christian.  Can we all really be heading towards the same God?  Doesn't it make a difference what we believe?

A "Non Sequitur" cartoon by Wiley Miller, in the papers recently illustrates the irony perfectly.

Non Sequitur
(August 2, 2013)

The cartoon shows everyone going into Heaven through the "Right Religion Entrance" and no one going into the "Wrong Religion Entrance."  One angel nearby says to another, "The funny thing is, none of them ever get the joke..."  We all think so differently about God, and yet we each think our understanding is the correct understanding. 

I am reminded of Jesus's last words:  "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  And I think... if God can forgive thieves, murderers, adulterers, and those who betrayed him, can't God also forgive wrong-thinking?  After all, isn't ignorance the crux of all our troubles?

Later, I came across another book, a perfect counterpoint to Short's book:  "Original Sinners:  Why Genesis Still Matters," by John R. Coats.  It really does help to remember that all the patriarchs of my faith, from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham to Sarah to Isaac to Jacob and Rebekah, were a mixture, too:  Not all evil, or morally depraved, but containing within them much good, as well as some serious flaws.  Even going beyond the people in Genesis to Moses and to David and beyond, we see the same mixed bag of humanity.  And yet, and here is the really important part:  all of these people were loved, and guided, by God.  David, especially, was beloved of God, and he seems to be the worst of the bunch.  Why is that?  Well, because David had a heart for God.  And though he sometimes put his own desires in front of God, he also always repented and returned to God.   

John R. Coats writes beautifully about Abraham's faith, using insights gained from Karen Armstrong's book, "In The Beginning":   " '[Abraham] was not allowed to approach his new God with any preconceived ideas.  The authors of Genesis do not show Abraham evolving a theology, a set of beliefs. ...[T]hey imagined him responding to events and experiencing the divine in an imperative that broke down old certainties and expectations.'  In other words, ... whatever Abraham may have believed about the nature of divinity was to be assaulted by the experience of this new diety. ... 'In the ancient world,' writes Armstrong, 'faith did not mean theological conviction as it does today, but rather a total reliance on another.  Having launched himself on the quest for the unknown, Abraham was impelled not by a set of strong, orthodox beliefs in one or another particular god, but by a sense of presence that it was impossible to define or categorize.  He is depicted as traveling forward toward the perpetually new, rather than taking his stand on ancestral piety.'"  (pg. 103)  The same could be true of many of the characters in the Bible. 

These words about Abraham echo my own experience of God as a near constant presence guiding my life.  But not too long ago, God was a very distant figure to me, not thought about much at all, except for an hour on Sunday, if then.   What changed?  Well, I began to question what I had been taught about God.  As I stripped away the beliefs I had been taught as a child, and the doctrine that I had been taught as a teenager, then I began to see and hear God more clearly.  I felt like Jacob, discovering for the first time that God is present in this place, here and now.  Now, as I work on stripping away the idols, or little gods, of my culture, God's presence becomes even more clear.  And yet I can't really say that I know much about God, except that God truly is.  It's that steadfast presence that I am learning to trust more and more.

Is it just a coincidence that the more I make God my "all in all," the more clearly I can see and hear God's presence in my life?  I don't think so.  That seems like a no-brainer to me.

Faith truly is a reciprocal process.  The more I give, trusting in God alone, the more I receive.  

Dear God, thank you for not giving up on me.  May I always be as patiently loving and forgiving as you are.  Love always, Pam

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