Dear People of Holy Comforter,
For a month now, we have been asking: what’s the Christian thing to do during and after a pandemic? The movie Contagionmay not provide a change of pace from the present trials. But it is instructive. It shows how people behave well and behave badly under this sort of challenge, how some grow and some deteriorate.[i] We are tempted to just try to ward off the unpleasant feelings, and that may work for the moment. But over the long haul it feels better to be growing toward wholeness than to be coming apart. All the psychological tools for coping are fine. But we’ll get through this better if we are not just maintaining but growing toward wholeness and that happens through the intentional practice of Christian virtues. Virtues are habits of the heart, disciplined practices that over time become our very characters.
We started with the four cardinal virtues: Prudence (facing facts, living in the real world); Fortitude (courage, strength, endurance); Justice (treating everyone as if they matter); and Temperance (serenity, self-control). We started there because that’s where the most down to earth practical action happens. But the four cardinal virtues are intimately related to the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Their relationship is reciprocal. On one hand, the Cardinal Virtues grow out of and express the Theological Virtues. On the other hand, practicing the Cardinal Virtues flowers in an experience of the Theological Virtues. That is my hope for you (for all of us) in this pandemic.
This week we consider the virtue of Faith. The meaning of that word has been twisted and constricted into something that is not helpful for life and many intelligent people reject as naïve and superstitious. But that twisted, constricted meaning is not what ancient or contemporary theologians mean by “faith.” It isn’t saluting doctrines we have been taught, either by the Church or the Bible, just because those authorities have said to do so. It isn’t pushing the pause button on our rationality to unquestionably accept non-sense.
The reasonableness of faith goes back at least to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. I do not agree with the currently popular view that Jesus was nothing but a Wisdom Teacher, but he certainly was a Wisdom Teacher. The first Christian theologians like Origen of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, and St. Augustine were students (and sometimes teachers) of Greek philosophy and shaped Christian teachings in dialogue with it. By the 10th Century, St. Anselm said, our quest was for “a reasonable faith.” In search of a reasonable faith, he developed the “ontological proof of God.”[ii] St. Thomas Aquinas added five more proofs of God relying on logic and philosophy going back to Aristotle.[iii] My point isn’t that we need to study those proofs or even rely on them overmuch. It is just to say our beliefs aren’t just a matter of “the Bible tells me so.” Christians think and that thought is part and parcel of our faith. St. Thomas Aquinas said that we begin with reason, but reason takes us only so far. It establishes a trajectory, but we eventually come to the end of reason in mystery and faith leads us onward into the mystery where we experience God. Contemporary philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion says:
“Christians themselves should be the first the realize
that their faith cannot and must not in any way do
without reason . . . . Believing without reason
actually amounts to scorning Him in whom they claim
So what do we mean by “Faith”? It is both more and less than an opinion that something is a fact. It is more in that it matters more; we have more at stake. It is more because it is the foundation on which we stand. It is less than an opinion in that it is not so precisely defined or dogmatically proclaimed.
Before we get to Christian faith, let’s consider a faith that is more universally accepted in our time – the faith of scientists. Philosophers of Science agree that the whole scientific enterprise of experimentation rests on the faith that there is some order in the cosmos to be discovered, that you can repeat an experiment to see if you get the same result and if you do, that signifies you may be onto something. The Christian mystery writer Dorothy Sayers said mysteries work because of an implicit faith that there is an answer and that investigation and reasoning can find it. In that sense, science is an investigation of mystery based on faith in some as yet undiscovered reason.
My poet friend, Donald Revell, says poetry is an exercise in faith that language has meaning. He begins a poem by writing words that come to him. Then he puts them together waiting for the meaning to emerge. His act of writing is a stepping out in faith. Science, mystery novels, and poetry alike rests on a kind of faith that is the foundation for them to proceed with the search. Such faith is not a clear, precise answer. It is a foggier but more fundamental trust that the road leads somewhere worth going.
For Christian faith, let’s turn to the Nicene Creed that defines it. Each part of the Creed begins with these crucial words “I believe in . . . “ Modern people mistranslate those words in their heads as “I hold the opinion that . . .” But “I believe in” is quite a different matter. “I believe” translates the Latin, “credo” (from which we get the word, “Creed”). “Credo” – comes from “cor do” which means “I give my heart.” That is considerably more than an opinion about a fact. How did we get from “Credo” to “I believe”? The connection is that “believe” comes from the Old English “beleven” which is the root of “beloved.” When we say, “I believe,” we are not expressing an opinion, but pouring our hearts out in trust.
That’s why we do not say to each other, “I believe that.” We say to God, “I believe in you.” Country fans may get a sense of “I believe in” from Don Williams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xbqe_GajtQ Or if your tastes run otherwise, perhaps try Celine Dion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6CXuSMx9ZI; Michael Bublé https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir8iuRuW7WQ or Whitey Houston https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQGt6VNm_iQ. I don’t mean those are adequate statements of faith for a life, but they are closer to the “I believe in” of the Creed than any “I believe that.” Since the Reformation, several denominations have adopted “Confessions”[v] which are “I believe that” statements, and that is fine for defining themselves, but agreement with precise doctrines is not the faith that saves us. Faith is a matter of “I give my heart.”
But what does it mean to “give our heart?” It means “this is where I place my existential chips. This is where I invest my life. This is the basic assumption I trust so that I may live.” I entrust my life, it’s worth, and its destiny – not to an idea, not to a principle, not to a cause, but to the Person of God. When we say we “believe in God,” that determines our attitude toward each other, toward the world, toward life itself. H. Richard Niebuhr said there are three basic outlooks to choose from:
First, we may see reality as hostile and threatening, lock our doors, stock our cupboards, gun up, and hunker down to defend ourselves from Reality. Second, we may see Reality as cold and indifferent, and assemble our resources to fend for ourselves as best we can, leaving others to do the same. Third, we may see Reality as life-giving, nourishing, even gracious, and live boldly and generously out of that conviction.
This coming Sunday we will read John’s account of the disciples huddled in the upper room after the crucifixion, the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Then Jesus appeared in the midst of them saying, “Shalom. Peace be with you.” He showed them a Reality worth living for and even dying for. As we imagine the disciples cowering behind locked doors – “locked for fear,” we see the very opposite of faith, desperate fear, abandonment of the mission – not a discerning, thinking doubt, but a collapse of courage.
Jesus steps into the room not to judge the disciples for their faithlessness but rather to restore their faith so they can live. He appears for their sake, to defibrillate their fear-frozen hearts.
That scene repeats in Revelation. St. John the Divine is trembling in his cave on Patmos despairing over the slaughter of the Church by the Emperor Domitian. But the Risen Lord appears to him.
His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.[vi]
“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last, the origin and the destiny of your life.” As Jesus restored the faith of the disciples, he restored the faith of his prophet John the Divine so he in turn could write a book of comfort and courage for Christians facing persecution in Anatolia.
The opposite of the disciples hiding behind locked doors is Abraham, the paragon of faith.
The Lord called Abram, inviting him to embark on a lifelong journey with no visible destination, only the promise of a blessing. Abraham “believed” God’s promise “and it was accounted to him as righteousness.”[vii] Lest we think faith is easy, remember Abraham’s faith lasted only 10 verses before he handed over Sarah to be essentially a sex slave to Pharaoh to save his own skin. Faith isn’t a once for all decision. It takes practice over the course of a lifetime. Abraham faltered, as do we all, but he then got back on the horse of faith and rode on into a brave life. The faith that inspired Abraham, the disciples, and St. John the Divine was not an opinion but trust in a promise. Believing a fact isn’t faith. Faith is believing a promise.
Marcus Borg said there are three interconnected meanings of faith: trust (faith in – it’s personal); vision (“faith is the assurance of things hoped for but not (yet) seen”[viii] -- a looking beyond the present troubles); fidelity (faithfulness; sticking with the one we believe in).
So what difference might faith make for us in our present troubles? Faith isn’t “positive thinking.” It isn’t pretending everything is fine. Faith rather gives us the brave foundation we need in order to face hard times. Faith is trusting God’s promise:
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’”[ix]
Faith is trusting the Order of the Cosmos which is the foundation for the blessed destiny of our lives and the lives of all. We need such faith if we are to face life and even face death. Job said, “Even though he slay me, I will trust in him.”[x] Our Faith is not contingent on anything other than God being God. If God is God and God is Love, then all will be well. Holding that assurance in our hearts, trusting it in our souls empowers us to face the facts, to be strong in the face of adversity, to treat one another as if we all matter, and to remain serene and balanced no matter what the winds of fortune may blow our way. Faith is stronger than anxiety, stronger than loneliness, stronger than any virus, stronger than the economic hardship of a recession.
Economist James Galbraith says there are three stages to this pandemic challenge: the crisis (where we are now), containment (the period of extra restraint on our lives in coming months), and the aftermath (a period of economic and political change). None of that is going to be easy. Living through it will take all three of the theological virtues and all four of the cardinal virtues. It will be a test of our virtues. It will reveal our characters. But it can also grow our characters, make us strong. This hard time is an opportunity for us to grow up in Christ, to become whole, to become more fully our true selves, the people God invites us to become.
[i] Contagion is far more real and insightful than the paranoid, individual rebel cliché-ridden, melodrama, Outbreak.
[ii] Whatever is the greatest possible thing we can think of, that is God.
[iv] Jean-Luc Marion, Believing In Order To See, p. 3 I believe Marion is referring to our understanding that God is the Order, the Reason itself of everything. St. John calls the 2nd Person of the Godhead “the Logos” which is the Greek term for the Cosmic Order, the equivalent of Eastern philosophical terms such as “the Dharma” or “the Tao.”
[vi] Revelation 1: 16-18
[vii] Galatians 3: 6. “Righteousness” means right relationship. The right relationship with God is trust; i.e., faith.
[viii] Hebrews 11: 1
[ix] Jeremiah 29: 11-13
[x] Job 13: 15 (KJV)