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Monday, June 20, 2011

Living with commas

Here's the thing about faith - it's a bit of a conundrum.

Faith is a matter more of the heart than of the head. Faith does not necessarily answer questions or provide absolute certainty. Rather, faith provides us with a confidence to face the myriad of life's questions.

Faith, at its best, is not so much a noun as it is a verb. By that I mean that it is both a state of being and a call to continue the journey. It is both a resting place and a destination. Faith can provide a measure of both solace and disturbance, comfort and challenge.

That being said, you'll understand, then, when the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise when I hear "God-talk" which is stridently certain or makes certain proclamations about God - or the human condition or the world or the church - which are absolute.

I've discovered, over the years, that it's a very short trip on a very slippery slope from 'absolute' to 'arrogance'.

The ironic thing is that most of those who make absolute pronouncements of certainty are absolutely horrified to be described in this way, seeing themselves, as they do, as pious, devout, humble servants of God.

I do not mean that sarcastically or pejoratively. Rather, it is my personal observation of one of the many ironies of religious life which is, I think, reflective of the conundrum of faith - especially faith as bound up within religious structures.

Indeed, it is my observation and experience that if one were to scratch the surface of the person who has made an absolute pronouncement of faith, one would find a person who is so insecure, so terrified of the Great Mystery that is our God, that s/he is clinging to "the faith first delivered to the fathers" rather than taking the risks which our faith calls us to take.

'Bibliolatry'. That's what some folks are calling it. Holding up the bible as an idol as opposed to a vehicle. Rather than opening up and unlocking the treasures behind every word of every Sacred Story, some folks would rather place it on a pedestal, encase it in glass, and build an impenetrable wall around them and scripture, hoping to keep the world - and every anxiety or fear or doubt - away.

Those are, of course, polar opposites on the spectrum of faith expression. There are even greater extremes. Sometimes, that which looks like faith can actually becomes an expression of neurosis or pathology dressed up in religious garb and language.

Feminist theologian Mary Daly once said, "'God's plan' is often a front for men's plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance and evil." She also said, "Work is a substitute 'religious experience' for many workaholics."

God knows, Jesus can be a powerful substitute addictive substance.

Want to stop drinking? Get drunk on Jesus! The 'new wine' He offers will alter your perceptions and transform your life.

Want to stop using drugs? Get high on a life in Christ! You'll never come down.

Well, that's all well and good, I suppose, as a starting point. Unfortunately, some people never really move on from that point. They simply trade off their addiction to alcohol or drugs for an addiction to the opiate that religion can sometimes be.

There's an expression in 12 Step Programs: "Faith is what you turn to when you grow tired of relying on common sense."

Well, there is that element to faith, isn't there? I have taken risks of faith that were, frankly, insane. No reasonable person would have done some of the things I have done in the name of faith.

Here's the thing I've learned: There is a mysterious trinity of human response to the mystery of The Trinity of God - Creator, Word and Spirit. That trinity is faith, hope and love. They are not the same, but they are one.

In my experience, it begins with love. Love that is present and has been present and will be present even when were were not - or are not - conscious or even aware of its presence.  It is a Love that we may never be able to return in equal measure.

Love warms the cold heart and stirs the weak soul. If we are fortunate, we are able to see a reflection of that Love in the eyes or actions of another person.

If we are especially blessed, we may see a reflection of that Love in the eyes of another human being who sees beyond all of our warts and blemishes and finds not only our goodness, but our potential for even greater goodness.

In seeing our own goodness in the eyes of Love, we find the courage to hope. Hope which lifts up our head to see beyond what's right in front of our eyes.

Hope which casts our vision from the earth beneath our feet to the horizon and beyond.

Hope which infuses our tired bodies to take a step forward when we didn't know we had the strength.

Hope which raises a song in our weary throats when we didn't know we could sing, much less know the words or melody.

The work of Love is not yet over, for it kindles the embers of hope, breathing over it to inspire faith. It is this faith that can move mountains of doubt and fear until we find ourselves accomplishing something we had no idea we could achieve.

Faith does not provide certainty but it does give us a sense of confidence that, because we know that we are Loved, we might also love enough to hope to love even more through a life of faith.

Faith does not demand miracles, but often accomplishes them.

So, Love, hope and faith, together these three abide, but the genesis of this sacred human trinity is Love. 

This is love: It is not so much that we love God but that God loved us first and God will love us to the end. (1 John 4:19)

And, this is love: It is confident enough to draw the circle larger to bring those who live at the margins without love and hope and faith closer into the center.

And, this is love: It is fearless of The Changer and the changed. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, so that we might be free to love even more.

And, this is love: It is lavish and wasteful and prodigal.  It sometimes takes us beyond that which is "meet, right and proper" and into scandal, transporting us to what Martin Smith calls the "crucifyingly obscure boundaries of our faith". 

Jesus said to His disciples,
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes s/he will guide you into all the truth. " (John 16:12-13)
Which is why my faith teaches me that, although I can not lay claim to absolute certainty, I am confident that God is still speaking.  God is still revealing Godself in the world.

That brilliant comedian and theologian, Gracie Allen, is credited with saying, "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."

At the end of the day, that's as good a definition of a life of faith as any I've ever heard: living life with commas while we wait for God to end the sentence with a period.

That's hard to do unless you know that you are loved, living a life of "sure and certain" hope which inspires faith in the face of life's uncertainties.

Faith is living with commas.


Muthah+ said...

The opposite of faith is not unbelief--it is certainty. As I water my tomatoes this morning, I have faith that God will do the growing. I just must do my part.

wv: porte

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I would imagine that growing tomatoes in TX takes an act of faith. Growing zucchini anywhere does not.

Brother David said...

I have hit bibliolotry head on of recent.

I have entered the discussions at Anglican Down Under, a Kiwi blog, a number of times and the reasserters there scoff at those of us who say that the Holy Spirit has led TEC and the ACoCanada in regard to GLBT folks.

They believe that we have the HS inspired Holy Bible and that the canon is now closed. So the work of the HS is in revealing nothing more than what is in the canon. And since everyone knows that the HB condemns homosexuality in both the Old and the New Testaments, what has been revealed to the Anglican churches of North America has come from another source. It cannot have been inspired by the HS because it might contradict what they believe is stated emphatically in the HB.

I am not sure that conversation will ever get us very far with these folks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think that conversation with those who are certain they are right pisses Jesus off. Really. It's a waste of time and energy. As long as they do no harm, are not allowed to block my access to my Civil Rights, and we can both meet Jesus at the Altar Rail they can believe whatever they want. They just can't hurt me.

Matthew said...

I agree but I've also come across some liberal progressive Episcopalians that are also 100% certain of some of their less Orthodox ideas and can disbarage others who don't agree with them. For example, I once knew a parishioner who was 100% certain that there was no physical resurrection and she called anyone stupid and anti-science and anti-intellectual who dared to believe in a physical resurrection. I admit I feel pretty certain that my love for my partner is holy and God given and not sinful but I try not to be too arrogant about it. And, I feel pretty certain that God intends women to be ordained (something about putting the holy spirit in cages). And I feel pretty certain so far the holy spirit has not altered the commandment to feed the hungry. Perhaps the disagreement is defining what the essential are and where God might be doing a new thing. I suspect not two Anglicans would agree completely on those questions.

The way I sometimes try to frame it is that even if we are not certain, we DO have to vote. I mean, Gene Robinson required all of the standing committes and Bishops with jurisdiction to say yeay or nay. You may be uncertain but you do have to decide. Hence the legislative process.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You raise some interesting points, Matthew. Living with the legislative process is one way to live with commas.