A Christian theologian was on a plane speaking to the woman next to him. She indicated at one point that ‘I am much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than in Christianity.’ He asked why this was her preference?
She replied, saying ‘Because they are about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing.’ She continued, ‘I don’t think that beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way.’
Like the man who told this story I can understand the woman’s statement even though I have some disagreement with what she says. The fact is that Christianity is first and foremost about a way. It is a way of living, a way of being that reflects the way of Jesus in the world. The earliest name for Christians was People of the Way. They were people who lived a way of life that incarnated the Reign of God in the world. They lived according to various teachings of Jesus about love – for God, others and self. They received everyone into their fellowship in a community of equality and respect for each person. They lived justly and shared resources amongst those who had needs. This was a whole way of life that reflected the grace, justice, love, peace, hope and joy of God!
I can understand something of the woman’s statement because for many Christianity has become a system of belief – believe (in your head) the correct statements, doctrines, beliefs, dogma… and you will be okay (‘saved,’ ‘going to heaven,’ ‘forgiven’). It is all about beliefs for many. I remember my earliest days in Sunday School and then church where my understanding was essentially ‘Believe these things and you will be saved.’ The belief I was called to was a series of statements and ideas, doctrines and dogma that this particular congregation held up as the truth of God.
They weren’t unusual because most churches have done this – the statements of beliefs may vary but the reality is that Christian faith is about believing the right things in your head.
The problem with this modern notion (and it has only been the case since the development of the modern Western Society) is that it is contrary to the Biblical witness and of Jesus. If you read carefully you will recognise that Jesus never called us to believe certain statements to be true in order to be his follower. He invited people to follow him on the road. His life and teaching was about how to live, another way to live that was grounded in God’s Reign rather than the pattern and system of living grounded in the dominant systems of the world around – the Jewish Temple system of the Roman Empire. It was a way of the heart!
Faith is central to Christianity and there are different words for faith in our history. It is also central to life and the modern world messes with the notions of faith that have been important to people throughout history. When we talk of science we tend to think of certainty, factuality and truth. The scientific paradigm of Western culture has given us the sense that there is truth and falsehood; there is truth that is provable and false nonsense based on folklore, opinion and so on. We have had belief moved from heart to head as the modern world connects truth and factuality in a way that no other society has done.
In the Christian (and other) sense, belief has different elements. There is the belief of giving assent to a statement of truth – believing something to be true. In Christian faith we believe in God, the centrality of Jesus and the foundational centrality of the Biblical witness. Various Christians will add other statements of belief to these central elements.
There is also belief as trust where we trust ourselves, even our lives to something – in Christian faith we trust in God. This trust is to give one’s life in trust (faith) to God as the rock, the foundation in whom live we and breathe and have our being. We move further into this life of faith as we enter into a relationship of trust and fidelity. This is faith as faithfulness; faithfulness not to statements but to God as central to our lives. Finally there is faith as a way of seeing, a vision of what can and should be. The Christian vision derives predominantly from the vision of Jesus’ teaching around the Kingdom or reign of God. We see another way of living, of being and we live into by faith because it is not the predominant way expressed in the lives of people around us.
This week’s reading comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews (Hebrews 11) and is a wonderful essay on faith. It speaks of the Old Testament as a story of faith and details the stories of its heroes as stories of faith. We aren’t told what they believe in their heads because that isn’t the point – it is what they do with their lives. Having said that there is an essential belief in God – with heart, mind and soul! So there is head stuff here – they believe in God, the very being of God who is beyond all creation but also intimately close, who calls people and empowers them to live into this call. They believe in God but this belief is expressed in a life lived.
Abraham hears a call from God (we don’t know how he received or perceived this call only that he did) and it was to pack up family and servants and journey to a place that God would tell him. He did it. He didn’t think about it and believe God in his head. He didn’t think about it, write about it, talk about and formulate it into a creedal statement. He packed everything and left his home to journey to an unknown place. This is faith – believing in God and then living in that faith with our lives.
Today in Scripture I told the year 6 students about martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. They were intrigued by his story – that he stood up to the powers of white racism and government policy and he did it out of faith. He did it non-violently and he did it knowing he may lose his life! Faith for King and others was worth living and dying for. It was about living into things they believed about God. For example justice means nothing if it is contained within statements but not lived out in human life.
The modern rise of atheism is a symptom of people’s desire for factuality and uncertainty about faith. In the church many want absolute certainty about everything and fear doubts, questions or change. Faith is about putting on the boots and walking into the future because God is God and we believe in God, even if we don’t know all the answers!
I often find myself somewhat caught between two extremes. The first is those who turn to science and scientific principles in order to understand the world. These people want and seek proof, evidence and the ability to analyse ideas, beliefs and hypotheses before they will accept them as true. God doesn’t fit neatly into their world-view. God cannot be brought into a test tube and analysed, proven and studied. God cannot be proved, no matter how much people of faith want to suggest that God is provable.
The second is the life of faith, specifically for me, Christian faith. Whilst I can say that I know God and can suggest experiences of the Divine, I cannot prove God’s existence and must accept it as a faith step. I cannot prove that prayer is efficacious or that praying will change anything but I have anecdotes from mine and other’s lives that suggest that perhaps prayer does make a difference and change things. Whether it is the calming and peaceful effects of meditation or the centring influence of mantras, I feel the effects of prayer. There are the myriad stories of mystical experiences of the Divine impacting human life in surprising ways – flashes of inspiration; visions of another realm; convictions of a path to take and so on. Prayer is also the crucible where I am formed in the likeness of the Christ, of God. As I pray for the world and people around me, I am drawn into the place where I am challenged to be changed. One cannot pray that the poor be fed and not feel somewhat responsible for contributing to the bread they need!
In other words, in my daily living I live between the worlds of scientific proof and certainty (even when at the edges science is not as certain as often realised!) and the life of faith. Somewhat surprisingly I don’t usually find the conflict that many others do. I love science and what it provides me with in terms of understanding the world within, around and beyond me. I love being curious about life and the world and seeking ways of understanding the ‘how’ of life. I also want to go deeper than I can with my scientific tools. I want to ask other questions about the ‘why’ behind life and the world. I want to explore the relational elements of life in ways that is often less consistent to science, which often pulls things apart to study how they work. Beyond all of this is the morality of life. Science is not specifically interested in matters of morality or moral choice. It is not immoral but neutral in that it is not interested in such questions.
For me faith is a risk. It is a risk to believe, whether in religious faith or believing in other choices of life. It is a risk to purchase a house when we can never fully know what may or may be good or bad about it. It is a risk to get married, have children, enter other relationships, take on a life of integrity, choose an occupation… These are risks of faith in that we cannot know at the outset whether it is right to trust and love that person. We cannot know whether our decision to love will be good and right or go awry. It is faith.
For me, it is faith to trust in the reality of God because I cannot prove God. It is also a risk – what if it is all make believe? What if I’ve missed something and this is not real? Sure, my experiences of the Divine and what I see in other people and the stories I hear help convince me that this is the right path for me but it is never provable! So I would rather take a risk and follow a path that is about peace and justice, hope and love than reject these things. I would prefer to live in a world of generous sharing and gracious care than one of dog eat dog. I don’t like rampant individualism or greedy accumulation that seems to dominate other parts of society. I don’t like the morality that seems to arise in the vacuum of neutral values. The hopelessness of lives devoid of direction, love or meaning that descend into addictive life patterns is deeply sad. I have seen too many people who live in a world of loneliness, fear, confusion and defeat. Whilst it may be a risk to believe in a loving God at the centre of life, it also offers a hope and foundation for something richer and deeper.
I look at the church and what it does – beyond the negative stuff we tend to hear about. Why does the church in this land provide the foundation of support, care and service for so many people who need special help? Why is the church the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the nation – by a long, long stretch? Why do various studies indicate that people of faith (whatever faith) tend to be more generous and volunteer more frequently? These things are all a risk but we take them because they are a good risk and even if we’re wrong about God, isn’t the world a better place when we love each other, care for each other, seek justice and try to live peacefully – the life that Jesus calls us to?
The life of faith finds its origin and sustenance in the belief that God is love and this Love is at the centre of the universe. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being – a profound and wonderful thought! It is about living in the loving embrace of a God we cannot see or even truly define. We risk believing that God is love and not the judgemental, vindictive being that so many envision. We risk believing that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ, as Paul says in Romans 8. This love provides a joyous background to believing and living where defeat and rejection can be taken in our stride. Such defeat is experienced in the light of God’s love and transforms our response into one characterised by a belief and hope that God and love will prevail. It is even prepared to suffer or die for this belief – this is risk!
In some parts of the church there has been a focus on the sinfulness of humans and Divine judgement as the starting point. Various verses of Scripture certainly can be used to justify this position but it isn’t the predominant way of Jesus who was inclusive and embracing of the diversity of people, welcoming them into God’s Kingdom of gracious acceptance. This is actually the beginning of faith – God loves all people and wants the best for each of us as a truly good parent might. The life of faith grows in the seedbed of love and acceptance and out of that love takes risks for the sake of God’s Kingdom. We grow into a life that is centred more and more deeply in God and God’s nature and become more truly the people we are created to be. Forgiveness and healing, growth and understanding all occur in this crucible of transformation.
Faith is a risk that involves our whole lives and calls forth greater things from us. We risk God’s love and grace believing, hoping and trusting what we know in our hearts and believe in our minds – God is Love!