A LESS TRAVELED ROAD TO FAITH

Many people come to faith by putting their trust in what religious leaders tell them. They live praiseworthy lives without ever asking questions about, or experiencing for themselves, the Ultimate source of what they have been told.

Others come to faith the same way, but they grow in it differently.

For them, too, faith begins by giving credence to others’ testimony rather than on the basis of their own experiences. Soon, though, they begin to weigh carefully what they have heard, in the light of everything else they hope and believe is true about the Sacred.

Once this process begins, there is no telling what its outcome will be on the faith which motivates it.

What steadies the first road to faith is the maintaining of loyalties. What steadies the second is the seeking of understanding. Most religious institutions present the first as the straighter and easier road to the spiritual life, even if the narrower one.

The second road is wide, winding, and sometimes dangerous. But for more than a few faith-seekers, it is the only road that will get them where they know they need to go.

In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts there is a fascinating story about a group of people who most certainly were finding their way on this less traveled road.

Working in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica, Paul becomes besieged by frighteningly hostile responses to his teaching about Jesus. With the threats increasing, he and his disciple Silas are whisked away under cover of darkness to a safer place, a town then called Berea.

Luke refers to Paul’s audience at Berea as “fair-minded” Jews who listened to his message eagerly. But, and this is what makes the story so interesting, they tested what they heard daily in the light of their own scriptures “to see whether it was true.”

The clear implication of this little story is that those who became followers of Paul — Jews and non-Jews alike — were followers of evidence first.

What made them Paul’s followers was the consistency they found between ancient Jewish prophecies about a Savior’s coming and Paul’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. To be sure, this is not the kind of evidence that can help modern-day Christianity much in making its case to the world.

But an openness to every kind evidence both for and against it just might.

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QUESTIONING AND DOUBTING AS SPIRITUAL EXERCISES

A number of things can get in the way of a growing faith. One of the biggest is a sense of obligation to respect authoritative religious teachings, no matter what.

Closely related to it is a willingness to ignore ambiguity, incompleteness, and even flat out contradictions in these same teachings. For some, this is what “taking things on faith” means.

Usually, this attitude involves looking at articles of faith as straightforward assertions of indisputable fact. Such as:

  • Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.
  • Jesus ascended bodily into heaven.
  • Muhammad rode a horse through the sky from Mecca to Jerusalem.
  • The Buddha achieved Nirvana before dying.

These statements do look very much like factual statements. Eventually, however, if faith is to be a growing faith, they will need to be understood as referring to a spiritual world better described in terms that are more evocative and symbolic than descriptive and literal.

Eventually, but not necessarily right now. A better way to begin honoring statements like these is to accept their factual import but to deny that the facts they allege are indisputable facts.

Like all books of the Bible, the first five exhibit the work of human hands. But many sets of hands, and not just one set.

Ascent into the next life, whether Jesus’ or anyone else’s, will have to begin with a very different kind of body than an earthly one, and just what that body will be like is anything but beyond dispute.

While many Muslims understand Muhammad’s Night Journey as an actual, physical flight, others regard it as his personally transforming dream.

And in Buddhism, Nirvana has meant and can mean everything from extinction to everlasting bliss.

Putting other factual claims like these up for discussion, calling for more than just a vote up or down on any of them, and remaining open to fresh disclosures from God in whatever form and from whatever source, is what a growing faith is all about.

It is about asking more questions, reconsidering more assumptions, and holding off on declaring any matter of faith settled for all time.

It isn’t easy to do any of these things. What helps is to trust that the God in whom we want to believe unconditionally will never abandon us in our search for more adequate ways of expressing our trust fully and joyfully.

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ON NOT AGREEING WITH SOME THINGS IN THE SCRIPTURES

Does the God of the Old Testament give Israel the right to destroy its enemies as if they are his own? Does the God of the New Testament consign to everlasting fire all who do not honor Jesus as his only son? There are passages in both collections of scriptures which suggest that he does.

I very much wish that there weren’t.

Does the God of the Quran condone, and even encourage, the rape of women — and very young girls — who practice other religions? I have not been able to find passages in this book of recitations which clearly suggest that he does.

And I am praying that my search for them will continue to fail.

The God of all three religions’ scriptures condones slavery. I can only hope that he didn’t also have it in mind for female slaves to be abused sexually. But I have no doubt that the true God, of whom these scriptures sometimes speak falsely, could not possibly condone either slavery or sexual abuse, ever.

Hate-filled passages of religious scriptures stretch almost to the breaking point — or should, at least — the tolerance which otherwise helps to make mutual understanding possible. In their presence, it is very difficult — or should be — to hold onto the deeper truths of the religion whose own scriptures sometimes so viciously undermine.

Truths such as what? Such as these: that what is truly divine is greater than tribal gods eaten up with jealously toward all the other demi-gods. That human beings are created for the purpose of dwelling lovingly toward one another and in the divine presence, forever. That divine love, and its suffering over the conditions of the unloved, can never be deformed into hatred against the unloving. And that divine love never ends and never fails, even if human love does.

To the ISIS fighter who thought he was honoring Allah by raping a 12 year old girl, the approach I have taken here to his religion’s scriptures — and my own — may seem like a pick and choose approach. It is. So is everyone else’s. But for him and others like him, my hope is that the best that is in them will bring into view a God who far surpasses anything that he or they have thus far thought or even imagined.

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IS THERE A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF EVIL?

Early in my faith-seeking, I realized how attractive the idea had become to me that the world was created with human beings especially in mind. Later on, my take on the sciences suggested giving up on the idea altogether. Contemplating doing so left me feeling angry and sad.

Then theology came along, and with it the encouragement to look at the idea a little differently. With the help of the eighth Psalm, I began to see that God can still be God and be “mindful” of human beings without being especially mindful of them. God’s mind is on the whole of things, in which we can have an important place without having to be at the center of it all.

This accommodation comes with difficulties, however. For one thing, it can leave people deeply troubled whenever they get a feeling of living in an order of nature whose center is not holding. For another, there is a lot about nature that seems anything but a fit habitat for human beings. She “wrongs” us too often, whether from earthquakes, sunamis, famine, disease, or errant asteroids.

It just may be, though, that her seeming wrongdoing — “natural evil,” as philosophers talk about it — is not in fact something intrinsic to the working out of her natural laws. Our positing of it may stem more from a stubborn refusal to accept her either on her own terms or God’s.

By taking issue with the earth and the universe being just what they are and doing just what they do, we can all too easily lose the capacity to take wonder and delight from them. Instead, we demand participation in the natural order on our own terms, and become mired in feelings of anxiety, and loss when nature fails us.

With all due respect to the Priestly writer’s account of creation in Genesis 1, striving to “subdue” the earth is not the most fruitful way to relate to it. The Jahwist understood the relationship more in terms of “caring” for the earth, tenderly. (Genesis 2) I like his idea better.

Natural evil does not lie in natural things and processes themselves. Like feelings, these are neither good nor bad. They just “are.” When we acknowledge and respect them in their own right, and not for what we want from them,  the “evil” attributed to them goes away.

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KEEPING FAITH SIMPLE, BUT NOT TOO SIMPLE

For at least one listener, my talk went on too long and made a bad impression. She held little back: Life gets overwhelming sometimes, and I just want things boiled down to the essentials, like they were before people became too smart for their own good.

 I got it right away that I was one of those “people.” About all I could do was hope that she was not completely right. She certainly was not alone in wanting faith to be simpler than people like me believe it is.

Simplicity and the certitude that goes with it often come down to little more than an intense wishing for things to be either this or that, beliefs to be either true or false, and decisions to be either right or wrong. For no gray areas, no middle ground, no compromises.

Especially in matters of faith. God has told human beings all they need to know, including whose version of the telling is right. And that is all that needs to be said about anything.

But this description does not fit well my listener, who usually entertains new ideas eagerly, and makes good arguments for her own. Her reference to life getting “overwhelming” clearly signals something more than just petulance, or insecurity, or a false sense of self-assurance.

I think it is Complexity Fatigue. Reality is just that: complex. Our theories about it are constantly changing, partly because we are just not smart enough to get them right, but even more because reality seems to relish representing itself to us in ever new ways.

Trying to take everything into account that must be taken into account in order to understand even the physical world, not to mention the spiritual, can exhaust even the brightest among us.

In clinical terms, the only lasting cure for Complexity Fatigue is (a) to relinquish the wish for reality to explain itself in the simplest terms possible and (b) to learn to enjoy the unfolding of new possibilities for understanding. Complexity begets serenity as well as confusion.

In spiritual terms, the cure is to make friends with the paradoxes which a growing faith cannot avoid encountering. The spiritual world is both seen and unseen. Breaking spiritual laws has consequences, but grace abounds. We are alone in the universe, yet embraced by its Creator.

With faith comes weariness — but also peace.

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HELPING THE EYES OF FAITH TO SEE BETTER

Tucked neatly into John Calvin’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed is an intriguing idea about the proper use of the Bible in the life of faith. I think it can be applied to all religious scriptures.

The idea is this: scriptures are to faith as corrective lenses are to vision. The purpose of both is to help people see things more clearly, in heaven and on earth respectively.

There are at least three ways in which religious scriptures seek to strengthen believers’ eyes of faith. One way is to focus their vision more on the overarching message of a religion and less on its myriad and often conflicting stories. For example, in Judaism knowing which of the many possible routes the ancient Hebrews followed to the Promised Land is not of importance to faith. Knowing the God who finally got them there is.

Another way religious scriptures focus vision is by directing attention toward what is truly ultimate in a religion’s stories rather than to the idols in them which are of human making. At the heart of the Christian story is the image of seeing into God through seeing Jesus. The image leads to idolatry when it morphs into a belief that people can see God only through seeing Jesus.

And the third away is to help believers become a servant people with one voice to a world rife with war. When the lenses of scripture become cloudy or cracked, however, what believers too often see through them is themselves as the warriors rather than as the peacemakers.

This last observation opens out on the fact that all analogies are imperfect, Calvin’s included. What is imperfect about his is its depiction of the Bible as a single set of lenses rather than as a container of many different ones. And as the only set that fits everyone.

There are many verses, chapters, and even whole books in the Bible which obscure rather than clarify the holiness of God. Testing faith by means of them is like testing vision by means of a chart painted over in black.

What is helpful about Calvin’s analogy, however, is its reminding us that in every body of religious scriptures there are verses, chapters, and books through which we can see Divine glory, majesty, power, and goodness with a clarity that can be almost blinding in its splendor.

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ON PAIN WITHOUT MEANING AND PRAISE WITHOUT CEASING

There are people suffering much greater pain than I am, she said, and they don’t deserve theirs any more than I deserve mine. The day after my theology student, a 32-year-old mother of two, said this to me, her cancer cells finally defeated her.

Throughout her year-long struggle, she — may I call her “Susan?” — and I had many talks and prayers together — after class, in my office, then in ER’s, and finally in a hospital room, there with her husband holding her tenderly and the three of us humming together with her nurses a song of praise.

One thing that kept Susan going, while her cancer spread relentlessly and her pain increased exponentially, was the arguing she did with God. After all, she once teased, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do with my theological studies?

She argued well, against all the so-called answers she had received to her heart-felt questioning. Mine is a pretty simple question, really, she said: Why does God allow people suffer pain they don’t deserve to suffer? For a while, it angered Susan that the reasons she had been given seemed so far off-base.

It angered me, too. These were the “answers” we talked about together: Since God is a just God, all suffering has to be deserved. And: All suffering, especially the worst kinds of suffering, serves a greater good. And: There are evils that not even God can overcome. And even: Pain isn’t real; we only think it is.

Then, of course, there was the most outrageous answer of all: We have no right to question how God apportions or withholds his benefits.

Eventually, Susan came to a better “answer” to the question of undeserved pain than any of these, all on her own. The first part went this way: Undeserved pain is just that, undeserved, and because it is undeserved there can’t be any good reason for it.

But it was the second part of her answer that for Susan represented the answer of faith: God sees undeserved pain just as I do, as undeserved, and that is good enough for me.

It was indeed “good enough.” As the end drew near, Susan had already achieved inner peace with respect both to her condition and her faith. It came not from abandoning her struggle with faith’s logic, but by entering even more deeply into it.

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MAKING ROOM FOR FAITH TO GROW

In many faith communities, space is tight — too tight. Not for pews, pulpits, and altars. But for questions, doubts, and new ideas.

For the first kind of tightness, the remedy is simple and affordable: add on a room or three. For the second, it is complicated and demanding: make the community a welcoming place to people who think for themselves.

Opening things up for membership to grow is a short-term, landscape-altering project. Opening things up for faith to grow is a long-term, soul-transforming one.

Faith communities bring off the first better than they do the second. The main reason is that it’s easier to figure out where to move dirt than it is how to move the human spirit.

Making room for faith to grow becomes easier, though, when one major impediment in particular gets cleared away: wrapping people too tightly in the language of “You must,” “You can’t,” and “Or else.” Wrappings like these mummify; they do not liberate.

The problem with religious language-games like these is not that they are devoid of truth. Religion does make demands on us, and some of them are crucial to genuine spirituality.

No one could quarrel with a “must” like this: We must care about others as much as we care about ourselves. Or a “can’t” like: You can’t be a spiritual person and cheat people in your business dealings. Or an “or else” like: …or else you’ll never find the God you’re really looking for.

But many can and do quarrel with the must-do’s and can’t-do’s of faith communities that are hurled from on high by all too human officials who view questions as dangerous, alternatives as meaningless, and discussions as pointless.

Examples? Here is one that is making the rounds yet again, and with the same ferocity that it always displays: If you are married, you must remain married. If you don’t, you can’t receive communion. If you take communion anyway, you will be damned for doing so. And if you ask any questions about any of this, you are not one of us.

It is precisely in the encouraging of the questions, though, — and the wrestling with alternatives, and the tireless discussing of both — that we make room for faith to grow, both for ourselves and for others. Come, then, says the Lord, and let us argue things out. (Isaiah 1:18)

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BELIEVING THAT GOD IS, AND TRUSTING THAT GOD LOVES

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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HOW CAN A FAITH THAT KEEPS ON GIVING BECOME SO ANNOYING?

I thought she had come to talk about her final paper for my theology class. Instead, she (I’ll call her Polly) began murmuring a series of epithets against her pastor, her church, and even God.

What provoked the outburst was her husband’s conversion — eleven years previously. I was eager to hear more.

All the years he fought me over religion, she said, I tried to be a faithful person like I was raised to be. But nobody — nobody — in my church ever prayed for me the way they did for him, or ever expressed any appreciation whatever for my being there.

And then, her husband — let’s call him Pete — became their church’s success story of the decade. A guy who thought that religion was for people who couldn’t manage to get through life on their own.

By Polly’s account, Pete’s conversion was a made-for-TV one. On a Sunday afternoon, watching cynically from a distance as his 13-year-old-son walked into a fast moving river to be baptized, Pete all of a sudden raced into the swirling waters himself and asked to be baptized too, then and there. He told the minister: God was standing there right beside me on the bank, telling me that he loved me and wanted me.

The story gets even more interesting. Pete’s conversion “took.” According to Polly, he has been a changed man ever since. But for her, it is still a source of annoyance that, as she put it, he draws crowds with his story and mine just doesn’t seem to matter.

The rest of my conversation with Polly focused on two major challenges to faith. She defined the first one herself, and almost immediately: keeping score of the accolades we don’t get for being steady and not dramatic in our faith.

And the second challenge: acknowledging the many and very different ways by which people come to faith.  There isn’t just one way.

For people like Pete, it is being made a different person, in the twinkling of an eye. For people like Polly, it is making the way you were brought up your own way, but on your own terms. For people like me, it is eliminating everything that doesn’t make sense about God until something remains that does.

And there are so many more ways besides.

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