No one these days escapes powerful uprushes of fear. Economic stagnation, terror threats, high unemployment, government ineffectiveness, collapsing social values, and corruption on a global scale will do that to you. But ratcheting down our fears will not help us very much to cope with an even larger problem.

That problem is despair. Theologians call it accedia, a listless sorrow that can end in a state of soul-killing sloth. It is a deep and abiding sadness over losses too numerous to enumerate, too important to discount, and too searing fully to heal.

John Bunyan referred to sadness like this as a “slough of despond.” For Kierkegaard it was a “sickness unto death.” Today, we settle for calling it a sense of hopelessness.

Actually, though, despair is anything but hopeless. It springs from something quite commonplace, what Freud named the ordinary human unhappiness that plagues us before neurotic misery sets in.

Mostly, we make ourselves unhappy by refusing to accept as inevitable the gap between our aspirations and accomplishments, between what we ought to make so, can make so, and actually do make so. Then we cling to the conviction that we are alone in our misery. Finally, we fall into the delusion that, if we can’t cure our unhappiness, we can at least medicate it by alcohol, sex, drugs, social media, money, pills, bucking for promotions, running for office, or all of the above.

Despair is avoidable, even if the sadness that gives rise to it is not. We make ourselves vulnerable to sadness because we let things and people matter to us. The pain that comes from losing them is inevitable, but it is also endurable, if we resist defining the whole of life in terms of it and anesthetizing it.

To borrow a couple of words from William Faulkner, we can do more than merely endure sadness. We can prevail over it. How? By accepting the nurture of others, who know from experience what the pain of loss and sadness is like. By allowing them to teach us how hope soothes sorrow, love transforms self-preoccupation, and empathy gives way to ecstasy, to the standing outside of ourselves in an enveloping of others with care.

Johann Franck’s words make both for good advice and good hymnody:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,

Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,

Come into the daylight’s splendor…

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One thing I find especially encouraging in the Bible is the infrequency of its allusions to unforgivable offenses. In fact, they come down to one kind of action only, “blaspheming the Holy Spirit.” Mark’s Gospel defines this as attributing the effectiveness of Jesus’ exorcisms, and possibly his ministry, to the power of Satan.

The discussion of an unforgivable sin seems to have arisen in the first place because scribes had traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee to accuse Jesus both of being possessed by Satan and of driving out other demons by Satan’s own power. When Jesus asked the scribes, in response, how Satan can drive out Satan, they dropped the whole subject.

Would that everyone else had as well. But at least by the mid-second century, Christians finally began easing off from their own morbid fascination with unforgivable sin. A powerful sign of the permanent shift in this attitude is evident in the Apostles’ Creed of that time, which gives expression to a strong belief “in the forgiveness of sins.”

Forgiveness is not of some sins. Nor is it of all sins except one. Forgiveness is forgiveness of all sins, period.

Although I still meet people who are absolutely convinced that they have done something truly unpardonable, I do not know anyone who has actually committed the sin that Mark referred to and that the Apostles’ Creed does not.

If there is no unforgivable sin, though, there certainly are sinful actions serious enough to put the integrity of a relationship with God and one’s neighbors in jeopardy. My own list of these is becoming shorter and shorter, but the things on it are bothering me more and more, e.g.: denigrating other people according to their beliefs, affiliations, income, gender, ethnicity; celebrating having more while others have less; treating the created order as something there for the taking.

But there is nothing in any offensive or harmful act, even an act like one of these, that is powerful enough to keep separated those who commit it from those who are willing to forgive it. Where sin is, grace also abounds, especially as the forgiven reach out to forgive others.

If there is a loving God at all, as I believe there is, that God will always love us more than we love our sins.

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First John says that we must “test the spirits, to see whether they are from God; for there are many false prophets about in the world.”( 4:1) Well said. There is one kind of test, however, that no prophet should ever have to endure, much less any religious believer or seeker. It is the kind that consists of only one question, which must be answered either yes or no. Get the answer right and you’re in the company of the saints; get it wrong and you’re, well…

I used to fumble this kind of test pretty badly, to the amusement and sometimes the derision of their administrators. There was this one: Brother Leroy, you do believe in the virgin birth, don‘t you? And others: Do you believe that abortion is a sin? That the Bible is infallible? That God only saves Christians? And more besides.

Whenever I got asked questions like these, I wanted to ask my own questions back. One was: “Who are you to claim the right to determine the genuineness of someone else’s faith?” And another was: “What makes you think that only one question could possibly determine the integrity of a person’s faith anyway?”  Nowadays, I just go ahead and ask my questions and let mouths drop where they may. More often than not, my doing so stimulates lively discussion about what Christians should believe and why, who says so, and why faith is not reducible to merely believing what someone else says you must believe.

We have long lamented the deformation of political rhetoric into tunnel-vision pleadings for single causes and the dissing of politicians who do not do what we want done about that one cause. Unfortunately, one-issue mentality is rampant in religion, too, on all sides of the theological spectrum, e.g.:

  •             Be loyal to a particular set of doctrines, or else.
  •             Dump doctrines altogether, or choke on your own fundamentalist smoke.
  •             Take only Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha as your guide, or be lost forever.
  •             Make room for other religions, or just stuff it.

As louder and louder political and religious broadsides are hurled across wider and wider divides, the cries of people desperate for food, clothing, shelter, safety, community, and meaning still sound in the distance, but unheard. God’s hurting world no longer has time for one-issue wars within either its governments or its religions

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Some believers find it hard to accept that reasonable questions can be asked about most things  their churches tell them never to doubt. For these believers and for their churches, to doubt is to sin. And the only atonement for it is to go and doubt no more.

The problem is that we cannot simply will sincere doubts away. They must be countered with evidence better than whatever raised the doubts in the first place. But that means taking the doubts seriously and trusting that doing so can make faith stronger.

For many inquirers today, the struggle is already over with religious traditions inimical to questioning, doubting, and choosing beliefs carefully. They have gone on to put in the place of faith a secular/liberal dogmatism that stifles the sense of mystery just as thoroughly as fundamentalist theologies do. Some are even scientists, who should know better.

In Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality, there is a particularly arresting (as in cardiac arrest) example of this ideology. Initially confessing as a “bias” his view that physical systems are completely determined by how their particles are arranged, Greene then went on to declare as fact — a pretty big fact — that mental characteristics (the habitat of both faith and reason) are “nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one’s body are arranged.”

It’s the “nothing but” here that got my attention. It reminded me of language hurled at me once by a liberation theologian who insisted that every interpretation of a scriptural text is determined by the social context and status of the interpreter. Conditioned? Sure. Determined? Hmm… At least neither Greene nor my theological colleague added  “and let all who think otherwise be accursed.”  But then again, they didn’t have to.

Many Christians today are every bit as certain of their theological liberalism as their antagonists are proud of their conservatism. One thing both groups hold in common is an antipathy to taking seriously any doubts raised from standpoints different from their own.

I’d love to get their reactions to something a former student of mine said to me the afternoon of his graduation from seminary: “When I got here my faith was so weak I couldn’t allow myself to doubt anything my church had taught me. Now, I believe in God so much that I’m willing to doubt everything.”

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It’s inspiring to be around people who express their faith quietly rather than bombastically, gratefully rather than militantly. But what makes confidence like this possible?

This question has inspired many different answers. Here is a particularly problematic one: quietly confident faith comes from growing up in a faith community so nurturing that the nurtured never remember a time when they did not feel surrounded by love, important to God, and a cherished part of its spiritual environment.

Without doubt, there is a sweet glow to this answer. But there is a worrisome side to it as well.

In communities like these, there tends to be a shared conviction, not always stated, that the purest faith is an unquestioning faith. The truly faithful, its members are led to believe, are those who gratefully accept at face value all they have been taught in it, and who show compassion toward those who have not have been raised rightly in the right faith.

Unfortunately, the compassion is often a mask behind which there is little more than condescension.

This approach to faith reduces it to something that has to be received intact from others and guarded carefully against change. It is not something that one must come to on one’s own, by asking questions, entertaining doubts, and respecting that there is more to Sacred Reality than any religious tradition can possibly bring to full expression.

Faith that is only other peoples’ faith, itself taken on faith, cannot separate what is central and transformational in a religious tradition from what is peripheral and spiritually destructive to it. And because it cannot, its vitality depends almost wholly upon its practitioners’ losing themselves not in the Divine but in the faith communities that cling to it.

It can be a good thing to be held comfortingly and lovingly in the embrace of a caring community of humble and thankful people. But not if its members are unwilling to consider the possibility that spiritual growth often goes better outside than inside it. And that it is always better to experience the truth of faith for oneself.

“Better” here does not mean “easier.” It is anything but easy to discover for oneself what is true and what may not be true about a faith tradition, especially one’s own. And why we cannot avoid the journey and have genuine faith at all.

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Close to the end of his ministry, Jesus made one of the strongest statements in all of religious history about the power of faith: With faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to move, and the mountain will do it. And nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20, Mark 11:23).

Though inspiring — eventually, at least — to his disciples’ own faith, Jesus’ promise has proved immensely challenging to others’. Telling people with mountain-size troubles just to have a little more faith, as well as to pray more, can make them feel even worse.

This little story of “mustard seed faith” offers a classic example of what can go wrong when religious texts are taken out of context, and when they are overly literalized.

In Matthew’s version of it, Jesus’ comparing faith with moving a mountain was in response to his disciples’ consternation over not curing a young boy’s epilepsy. They failed, Jesus told them, because their faith was too small — smaller even than a mustard seed. Here, the “mountain” in Jesus’ saying is illness, and faith is what (re)moves it.

Mark retains the statement, but gives it a very different setting and meaning. Jesus is standing with the disciples on or near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and telling them that by faith they can hurl the whole mountain — that is, Judaism with all its priestly trappings — into the sea.

The kind of faith that Mark seems to be envisioning here is unwavering confidence — with not the slightest admixture of doubt — that the repudiators of Jesus’ message about God’s coming Kingdom will, and should, all be destroyed. That this has not yet come to pass in the generations which followed Jesus’ own, Mark is attempting to explain, is clearly the result of Christians’ insufficient faith.

It should be more difficult than it has proved to be to imagine Jesus believing in a God who deliberately brings about others’ harm.

Pretty obviously, both of these Gospel writers ventured very, very far from what Jesus himself most likely understood by “mustard seed faith”: the courage to confront hardships, overcome obstacles that can be overcome, and trust God when they cannot be. Sometimes, the mountains are just too big to overcome, and the faith which knows it is stronger than the faith which denies it.

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A student says to his religion teacher: I’m not sure I still believe in God. The teacher says back: The real question is whether God still believes in you.

This is an old, old story in church, university, and seminary circles. Its glibness still elicits groans along with gratitude, because it substitutes cuteness for empathy in making what are in fact several important points about God and faith.

One is that having an idea of what the Divine is like comes before having an assurance that anything divine exists. To say this another way, the central question for faith is not whether there is a God at all, but whether there is a God worthy of being worshipped.

Throughout the history of religions, many ideas of God have surfaced which cannot yield a satisfactory answer to this question. The deities they conjure are best referred to with a small g. G for false.

Some of these gods seem utterly indifferent, others endlessly demanding, and still others perpetually angry. All of them are more self-absorbed than they are evil. But none exhibits a goodness that should ever be construed as deserving of praise. Alienated from whatever wisdom they once might have possessed, their power runs amok far more often than it secures order in the world.

Gods like these are best hoped to have no existence at all outside the overstimulated neurons of disordered brains.

Another point this story’s judgment-laden punchline suggests is that religious people, who should know better, often do not listen well. From this perspective, the story’s cleverness cannot cover over how shockingly uncaring “answers” to serious questions can be. In this case, instead of respecting its poser’s inner distress, it one-ups him with an almost gleeful flourish.

Many, many people are suffering this same kind of distress today. The dark side of the gods they have been told about are slowly and insidiously extinguishing the light, truth, and life which are the gifts of faith at its fullest. And sometimes they do not know to whom to turn for help.

What they most need is permission and encouragement to name the kinds of god in whom they neither can nor should any longer believe. And an invitation to think about what it would be like to worship a God who believes in unbelievers more than they may believe in themselves.

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Many people can recall to the day, hour, and even minute when their faith began. And the experience with which it began. As if in a moment, they say, their old life passed away and a new one began.

In many respects, coming to faith is very much like being reborn. The powerful embrace of losses, suffering, and pain, of resentments, fears, and sadness, of self-centeredness, guilt, and shame are all of a sudden broken. A new world dawns, this time filled with grace, meaning, possibilities, hope, love, and the joy of welcoming others into it all.

For many faith traditions, having a deep, personal, and transforming experience is an essential condition for considering oneself, and being considered by others, to be a believer. Without it, or without at least a desire for it, faith is either incomplete or not genuine at all.

However, it is one thing to find the idea of being born again attractive and inspiring. It is quite another to insist that without the experience of it, one’s life will be neither.

In truth, faith is as much something sought for as it is something found. It is something in process more than something perfected.

This is, of course, a different kind of faith than conformity with others’ teachings and practices. It is the deeply personal faith that arises from anguishing over life as it has come to be and of wondering whether and how more can be made of it. No one moment of this kind of faith’s appearing — no single, overwhelming experience — can provide sufficient understanding of all that a relationship with the Divine is meant to be across a lifetime.

A richly symbolic representation of this fundamental fact about faith is Islam’s story of Muhammad’s multiple encounters with God-sent angels. To The Prophet, they bore many messages in and for many different situations. Each contained something new for him to remember, recite, and to struggle with as much as its hearers would struggle with it in their own inner jihad.

In the language of faith, “conversion” means a turning away from — or a being turned away from — one way of living toward another. It can take place in an instant, or require a whole lifetime to come to fruition. What matters is the turn itself, not the time it takes to make it

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One of the Bible’s most sobering passages is the litany of life’s “seasons” in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8). It culminates in difficult to translate words at verse 11: … he has given to human beings a sense of time in its wholeness. Or: an understanding of our own allotted span of time and of what we are meant to accomplish in it.

For the Preacher — or Speaker (Qoholeth) — of this book, the human experience of time is the experience of recurrences. The same things, good and bad, come to pass and repeat themselves over and over.

We cannot know whether there is any ultimate upward movement in this process. We can know only that whatever happiness there is to be found in it will be in the brief interludes of satisfaction through our “work.”

Even though we may eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves from it, the sage says, the work that God metes out to us is meaningless toil meant merely to keep us occupied. If he is right about this, there can be little real difference between the time for living and the time for dying.

But the Preacher is not right about this. Most especially, he is not right about why we are meant to do the work that we are meant to do.

In the language of faith, that work is to discover within ourselves what makes us most like the Divine. Then, it is to make it the foundation of our deepest sense of self, personal identity, and responsibility toward others.

Put in more philosophical and psychological terms, it is to discover within ourselves what we are uniquely capable of doing that is worth doing, and to cultivate the insights and the skills to do it well. And it is to experience the transporting sense of meaning that accompanies doing what we are meant to do, and becoming who we are meant to be.

Joseph Campbell frequently referred to this process as following our bliss. A less self-centered way of characterizing it is to say the divine part of our nature is most fully expressed as finding our greatest joy in putting others’ well-being ahead of our own.

The greatest frustration about life is not that it must come to an end. It is that our bodies will fail before our souls fully know that the quest for meaning never does.

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Can there be a good reason why some people live in constant pain and others escape most forms of it altogether?

For many faith traditions, there is a reason, but not a good one: pain is a necessary punishment for offending or disobeying Deity. Those who experience it very intensely and/or for very long are simply getting what they deserve for how they have chosen to live their lives.

Compared with this outrageously condemnatory perspective, the view of modern medical science on chronic pain, based on empirical knowledge rather than faulty theology, almost overflows with understanding and empathy.

Pain, physicians tell us, is not always a bad thing. The capacity to feel it when we inadvertently touch a pan of boiling water, or stupidly exercise too long at the gym, is what keeps us from bringing even greater harm to ourselves.

But physicians also acknowledge that the pain some people endure seems wholly disproportionate to any good that can possibly come from it. And to make matters even worse, some painful conditions offer up neither a cause nor a cure.

Fortunately, there is now available a considerable variety of medications which, if not capable of eliminating pain completely, can make it at least manageable. And because there is, it is difficult to understand why so many medical practitioners seem so indecisive about making effective use of them.

More often than not, their stated concern is to minimize the possibility that a patient will become addicted to “pain killers.” This is a legitimate concern. But what if the killer is the pain itself?

From the standpoint of medical practice, the primary purpose of alleviating pain is to make it easier for people to get more enjoyment out of the life they have ahead of them, however long or short it may be. From the perspective of faith, there is more involved.

Certainly it is a worthy goal of physicians to help their patients enjoy life more. But it is also a worthy goal to help people make the kind of difference in other peoples’ lives that God enjoins all of us to do. When pain gets in the way of both endeavors, and when it can be reduced, it is a good thing to expend every effort to reduce it.

Medications can help, as can the compassion of understanding friends and caregivers. Staying other-centered may help even more.

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