When I was young, faith often seemed to be about straight lines. Right or. wrong. Do or. don’t. Pure or impure. In or out. Faith or doubt. Virtue or sin. Blessed or cursed. Victorious or suffering. Innocent or guilty. Saved or damned. The lines were clean and true, and not to be trifled with. To suggest that the lines might not be so straight was itself evidence that you were on the wrong side of the line. To live and think rightly in the world involved accepting and preserving a lot of straight lines.
I remember not thinking too highly of straight lines. This was partly because I often found crooked lines more personally convenient. But it was also because even as a younger person I had the strong sense that the straight lines just didn’t work. Life always seemed considerably less clean and simple than the sellers of straight lines would have me believe. I observed faith that I once considered unshakeable begin to wobble and fracture. I saw relationships that seemed sturdy and admirable fall apart. I saw people suffer—despite the earnest prayers of the faithful. I saw churches that claimed to follow Jesus yet looked little like him. I saw good coming out of what I once assumed could only be bad and bad coming out of what I once assumed could only be good.
And I didn’t just see, of course. I also experienced. Through every season of life that I have walked through, the straight lines have proved inadequate to the task of interpreting and explaining my own experience and the experiences of those around me. Pray to God for healing… But sometimes the healing doesn’t come, at least not in the way you hoped for. Train up a child in the way he should go… But kids are not widgets on an assembly line, and sometimes no matter what you do or try, parenting is just brutally hard—for your kids and for you—and things don’t turn out the way you assumed they would. God will show you the path… But sometimes trying to figure out your vocation just feels like groping around in a fog. Jesus is the answer… Yes, but what kind of answer? And what about when the church has asked and answered the wrong questions? What about when Jesus is used as a weapon by human hands and hearts and minds that are all too greedy for power and security and status? The list could go on and on, but the common theme remains. The formulas don’t work. The lines aren’t that straight.
Perhaps it’s worth evaluating our love of straight lines. Lines are about demarcating abstract boundaries. Life and faith are about people and stories and stories behind stories. And people and stories tend to wind their way to their destinations in meandering, sometimes frustrating ways. Lines are about keeping things separate, making sure things are in the right place. They seem to have a lot more to do with us and our perceived needs than they do with God. God has for some time now been in the process of blurring our straight lines, breaking down walls that we frantically scramble to erect. Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female…. On and on it goes. On and on God goes.
And yet I also have a hunger for straight lines, for clarity, for structure, for clean, concise categories. I wish the lines were straighter than they were. I wish life worked more like a formula where the right inputs always and necessarily led to the right results in the equation. I wish God and God’s ways were easier to figure out and live according to. I am not one of these people who claims to love living in the messy, muddled grey spaces of life. I wouldn’t mind a bit of black and white, a few straight lines.
But this is not our world and this is not our God. And the thing is, our epistemic situation is pretty theologically interesting, when you stop to think about it. The mere fact that we do not and cannot know everything we would like to can serve as a sort of built-in guard against the idolatry of the self that comes so naturally to us. The inherent limitations of the human condition force us away from the sufficiency of our own answers and boundaries and intellectual formulas and toward things like trust, openness, humility, faith.
And, perhaps most importantly, toward a relationship in place of an intellectual abstraction as the ultimate reality with which we all must deal.
If God intended like to work like a uniformly predictable formula where the equations always came out right and the straight lines always held, then God wouldn’t have had to give us much more than an assortment of data and a list of instructions. This is, to be sure, how many people think of the life of faith, but I think things are much better and more hopeful than that. Rather than the manageable data we (think) we want, God gives us a story of salvation, a people with whom to walk and learn and grow and discover, a love to light our paths and welcome us home. In place of a collection of sterile straight lines, God gives himself to us, in the person of Christ, and invites us into a Jesus-shaped life—a life where we, too, learn what it means to give ourselves away for God and others.
And the hope, of course, that things will one day straighten out. I used to puzzle at passages like Isaiah 40:3-5 which talk about making a “straight way in the desert” and how “every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” This didn’t sound like much of a vision to me. Aren’t the hilly, rugged things of life what make the landscape more interesting? What could be duller than a flat, nondescript plain with no mountains or valleys?
I was guilty of an overly literalistic reading of this passage, to be sure. But I was also guilty of failing to read in context. In a world before cars and planes and easy transport, rugged terrain was undoubtedly experienced primarily as an obstacle to hot, weary, and heavily burdened travelers. The hope of Isaiah surely was (and is) nothing less than that one day all that stands between us and our destination—which is God himself—will give way. Our paths will be smooth and straight for we will no longer be able to get in the way of the One we have always been stretching and stumbling crookedly towards.
Your opening made me think of a student’s poem of long ago that began, “When I was young, my heart was green.”
A young woman just this morning wrote of her nervousness before an important job interview. Her research of the non-profit showed its affiliations with strict religious institutions. Her life is Jesus-shaped now, such a nice expression of yours. She worried, though, that she wasn’t going to prove traditional enough. We talked online and decided she would accentuate the NOW and ask that the concentration be there.
I think this essay has been one of your very best explorations.
“My heart was green… ” What an evocative phrase. Thank you for this.
Thank you very much, Mike.
I’ve been reading your blog on and off for a while now (several hours of random internet surfing one day leads inexplicably to Ryan’s blog) but have never commented. I’m a little hesitant because it seems like most of your other comment-ers have some sort of personal connection with you, and I don’t have a habit of conversing with faceless people I don’t know on the internet. But your post hits on things that keep really bugging me, so I’m giving it a try.
Ok, first: I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble but I didn’t find this post as helpful/insightful as the previous two comment-ers did. I hope you don’t take this personally; usually, I find your writing very helpful. But today, not. I will outline my thoughts below.
The first part of the post made a lot of sense to me. It has been my experience as well that most people think of goodness/morality in terms of straight lines – although I would argue that even most non-Christians do this as well, perhaps with a few differences in the location of the lines – and that the lines do not seem to work. So along I went, reading happily, and all was well until I got to:
“And, perhaps most importantly, toward a relationship in place of an intellectual abstraction as the ultimate reality with which we all must deal.”
It seems to me, although I have not really lived very long at all, that there are two basic types of Christianity: a) the one that’s about Following God’s Rules and b) the one that’s about A (Good) Relationship With God. And, that there are roughly 4 choices for how Christians fit themselves into this structure.
1) a), as in, you must follow God’s Set of Rules all the time but if you happen to make a mistake, Jesus has probably got your back (but actually that’s not certain unless you’re doing the right things….)
2) b) as in, you will always be a terrible person no matter what, but God/Jesus loves you anyway, and the only thing you have to do to be, uh, faithful is…………ermmm….believe in him…..or have some sort of special spiritual connection to him…or something….maybe pray a lot?
3) Some weird combination of the two which frankly never makes a lot of sense to me and always feels like an evasion of the real problem, as if mixing a) and b) would make them better or clearer.
4) “I don’t know”. Or “I’m really confused about everything”.
It probably would not surprise you if I told you I felt most comfortable with 4) at the moment.
Obviously, I don’t believe that a) is right. But I can’t understand anymore how b) could be right either. I can’t MAKE myself believe in God or, ummmm……feel some sort of spiritual connection to God. It seems like people take – going to church/praying/doing things that “serve God” – for “having a ‘relationship’ with God”. Even Mennonites, and I should know because I have grown up amongst them. I don’t know, but to me it seems like these are not very good markers. Or if they are, it makes this seem like a pretty undefined/perhaps weak? at least, confusing, relationship. God’s not like…a person that’s hiding out there somewhere. It’s confusing to me what it would even mean to ‘have a relationship’ with something that’s…so everywhere and infinite.
Wow, that turned out to be pretty long. If you’re still reading, thanks. And if it sounded snarky or grumpy or something of the sort, I hope you will know it’s not meant that way and that I appreciate your writing.
First, thanks for commenting. I always appreciate the different voices that show up here, and I’m glad you took the time to respond. (Re: other commenters on this blog, there are some that I know personally, but there are many more that I have never met in the flesh.)
I’m sorry you didn’t find the post helpful, but I don’t really expect everything I write here to be or do that. Writing in this space is one of the few places where I can (kind of) take off the “pastor” or “teacher” hat and just reflect on my own experience, to “think out loud.” I would be shocked if people found everything I wrote here to be helpful.
Re: “relationship” language, I understand what you’re saying here. I have similar reservations, not least because of how the word is and has been used and abused over the years (I wrote a post back in 2009 that probed some of these issues). I am well-acquainted with all four of the categories you list, and it can be very difficult to make heads or tails of what Christians are talking about, particularly when the categories all bleed together. I am not one for understanding a relationship with God as a kind of warm and fuzzy “Jesus is my best friend/spiritual security blanket” or something. Far from it. Yet, so often Christians use “relationship” language in such vague and incoherent ways… Almost as if it’s a substitute for “my ideas about God make me feel really, really, really happy and warm and meaningful.” So, yes, there are problems with the word.
But as I read the biblical narrative, and as I live with this God, it seems inescapable to me that there is something inherently personal about the whole enterprise. The foundational call of the Christian (and Jewish) life is rooted in the twofold command to love God and neighbour. Love is a personal word. A relationship word. Whatever else the fact that love is at the heart of who this God is claimed to be and what this God is claimed to want might mean, I take it to mean that this God is not an intellectual abstraction or some kind of cosmic “explanation” or any of the things that we so often reduce him to. Whatever else casting my lot with this God means, it necessarily involves the deepest parts of who I am, what I value, what I hope for, what moves and breaks me, what inspires and exalts me. It also necessarily involves me with other people, because as 1 John 4 reminds us, we can’t love the God we can’t see unless we love the human beings in front of us that we can see. So, these are some of the senses in which I understand the terms “personal” and “relationship.”
I hope this at least goes some distance in clarifying what I was talking about in the post. If not, feel free to push back. Again, thanks for taking the time to write.
Thanks for answering. I wasn’t meaning to say that I expected all your posts to be helpful all of the time. I often wonder how you pastor-people manage to stay sane when people often seem to expect you to always have all the answers or something. Guess it turns out they write blogs…. 🙂
Anyway, I wasn’t so much interested in “getting an explanation of what you wrote in your post and why”, because that makes me feel like a bit of a cross-examiner – but more interested in hearing if you had any more thoughts about the “ultimate relationship with which we all must deal” that you referenced in paragraph 7. You say that this is better and more hopeful than straight lines, and you list the things God gives us, presumably to help (?) with this relationship (people, story, love, himself), but other than that you don’t talk a lot about it. Which is fine; I mean, I’m obviously no one to tell you what to write about. But to me it felt like another reiteration of the somewhat vague idea “Christians are special/different because they’re in a personal relationship with God”. Which may seem a bit obvious to you – like, “well, duh, that’s one of the central tenets of Christianity/Judaism,” but which to me has for a while been only a source of confusion/frustration that keeps coming back to bug me. I won’t be offended if you don’t want to go on with this topic because I realize you do have a life, but if you do, perhaps I can explain better what confuses me about the idea.
I have grown up in a liberal-ish Mennonite church – similar to yours, I suspect from your writing – so I am very familiar with the idea “You can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor”. But something in me says “Can I love God even if I do love my neighbors? Besides, I don’t know how to love my neighbors or whether I am doing it at any given point in time,” – beyond following a set of “rules for loving” that often seem to be too little or just slightly off. Furthermore, life seems to be generally completely antagonistic to loving – every single person is inescapably caught up in structures/systems beyond their control which perpetuate un-love. So how can I say that I love my neighbor, and will keep loving them when I know this is not strictly and completely true or possible?
(Also, saying “I love my neighbor, therefore I love God” kinda feels like reducing God to an intellectual abstraction or some kind of cosmic explanation more than anything because it seems to imply that God is contained in my neighbor….or something…….)
I doesn’t make sense to me that having the correct set of beliefs about God/any sort of cosmic explanation would be the end-all of whatever it is that Christianity is all about. (See your post “Belief is a Something” – I liked it a lot.) But if I take it that belief is not the end-all important thing, and I take it that love/actions can’t be the substance of Christians’ relationship with God (because it is not possible for me to love as much as I ought, and because Christians don’t even love a lot more than other people) it seems that there really isn’t anything left in the substance of such relationship.
I feel like a lot of people are like “You do what you can, just keep having faith” which frankly is also confusing because faith seems just like love to me – I never seem to know what it’s really like, beyond the experiential level, or whether I’m doing it or not.
You say you “think things are much better and more hopeful than that.” But if “relationship with God” is as ambiguous as it seems, it doesn’t seem like anything except something rather terrifying and uncomfortable.
If you have any thoughts to share, I would appreciate them……….
Thanks for expanding upon some of your earlier thoughts. Your questions are very good and important ones, I think.
Re: the “ultimate relationship with which we all must deal,” I’m not sure how much I can add to what I said in my comment above. Again, I think it’s vitally important to try to disentangle ourselves from some of the unhelpful ways that the word “relationship” has been and continues to be used. All I mean by the term “personal relationship” is that because love is at the heart of who I understand God to be and how God intends for his creatures to reflect his image to the world, then this involves me in deeply personal ways. Many religious traditions talk about obedience, submission, law, enlightenment… All of these are good and necessary, and all have their place within Christianity, but in my view they are subsumed under the ultimate category which is “love.” And “love” is a personal, relational word. You don’t love “ideas” or “explanations.” You love persons.
You say you don’t know how to love your neighbours or whether you are doing it at any given point. I would push back a bit here. I think you probably do. I think most of us do. Love simply requires seeking what is best for others. That doesn’t mean we always get it right, or we do it perfectly. Of course we don’t, and we never will. What matters, I think, is that we are consistently and persistently leaning in love’s direction. It’s not about “rules for loving.” It’s simply about seeing others and seeking their good. Jesus told a lot of stories to people who wondered what love looked like. Luke 10:25-37 is as good a place as any to start. Yes, we are mired in structures and systems of “un-love.” The same was true in the first century and every century before and since. This is the only context that love has ever been commended or practiced. Again, to say that we fail to love perfectly and consistently is not to say that we cannot seek to participate in and align ourselves with the love of God amidst systems and structures of un-love.
Re: beliefs vs. actions being ultimate, I would simply say that simply because of the nature of our humanity, we will never be able to believe or love as we ought to. There is a sense in which all of life is lived in the hope that the mercy of God will cover all that will never be able to do or think or understand. This is the sense in which I think things are more hopeful. So often, Christians (and others) implicitly or explicitly portray life and faith as an attempt to do or think our way correctly enough to please God. The Christian conviction is that God has come down to us so that we would not have to climb up to him. And that love was what motivated this descent. This doesn’t mean that human beings have no responsibility or nothing to contribute to the story, or that some kind of warm fuzzy grace just envelops any and all no matter what they think or do. But it does mean, at least in my view, that God’s character and God’s actions and God’s disposition toward all that he has made are the source of our hope, not our ability to get everything right all the time, whether with respect to what we think or what we do.
I’m not sure if that adds anything significant to what I’ve said before or not or if you find it persuasive… And I might be wrong, of course, or less right than I would like to think. ☺ But that’s how things look these days from my vantage point.
You made my day with this blog. Maybe this will re-appear in a sermon soon. (I am going to try using “epistemic situation” at Tim Horton’s sometime, somehow!). 😃. I have often thought that some versions of fundamentalism have seriously wrecked Anabaptist thinking. Many American Mennonite preachers bought into that bunch of crap in the 1950s. My friend called it “California baptist republican theology”. After four days of dealing with the flu I am slowing returning to life again. Virleen is doing well so far. Fred
Sent from my iPad >
Thank you kindly.
There’s no more reply buttons left on our thread so I’m forced to continue down here. I hope you don’t mind too much.
I think you added a lot of important things to what you said before. But you keep mentioning, “love is at the heart of ‘relationship with God'”, and I feel stuck with this, because love is a concept which I don’t think I have much of a grip on. I find that I have trouble coming up with any sort of coherent argument as to why this might be the case, so I can only speak from my own experience.
Okay, first, a story: When I was a youngster, I used to wonder how you knew that you loved someone. Like, seriously; this used to keep me awake at night. I knew that I loved my parents and my siblings, but I didn’t know how I knew; I used to wonder what “I love you” really meant, because I didn’t feel the same way every time I said it, and I certainly didn’t feel warm happy feelings toward them all of the time. I was puzzled by the transience of my own feelings,and even more by the conviction I had that I did love them, which didn’t seem to have any real reason at all.
Enter person who says “Love ISN’T about FEELINGS – don’t you know ANYTHING?” End story.
I don’t really know what to do with the dichotomy that seems to exist between “love” as a concept of action and “love” as a concept of feeling or conviction, as in “God loves you”. I have always assumed this to mean more than: “God thinks it’s a good idea, as some sort of principle, to be always (trying?) to work for your good.” Correct me if I’m wrong, although it seems like a rather bleak proposition.
It seems like a lot of Christians think that love being actions makes everything clear and uncomplicated. This frustrates me. People aren’t robots, and neither, as far as I know, is God. God seems to have quite a lot of feelings to me, and seems to be very affected by them (e.g. the OT). You say “God has come down to us so that we would not have to climb up to him. And….love was what motivated this descent.” To me this seems to imply that love can’t be some sort of intellectual abstraction like “Seeking other’s good is just what God wants” because it doesn’t seem like God could be motivated by any sort of intellectual abstraction. I’m not saying that this is what you implied in your comment, and I don’t think it is, but I am trying to understand how to understand love as actions without feeling like Christianity is a soulless exercise in doing “the right things”. You said that “So often, Christians (and others) implicitly or explicitly portray life and faith as an attempt to do or think our way correctly enough to please God.” This is my experience as well, and I do not think it is right. But I cannot figure out what other point “being a Christian” has if not for that, and what it even really means to be a christian in such a context.
You say you think I probably do know how to love, and that what matters is that we are consistently and persistently leaning in love’s direction. Partially, this seems true. If I take any action I do at any given point in time, I can say “Okay, I feel like maybe I was doing something loving there” or “Oh, wow, not.” People always say, serve God (which namely means “love your neighbor”?) where you’re at. But does nobody ever wonder how they got there? (Okay, disclaimer: I probably only say that because I am 17 and have therefore had to make basically zero life-altering decisions.) I can understand the part about “leaning in love’s direction.” What gets me is the “consistently and persistently” bit.
Again, if you’re still reading, thanks. I can see that people don’t usually decide to burden you with such long and confusing comments (I dunno…..I spent a decent amount of time on this but it still feels sort of like incoherent gibberish…..)
Don’t worry about the long comments — it’s helpful for me to get a bit more perspective on where you’re coming from. It’s not incoherent gibberish at all. I doubt many of us were this reflective and coherent at 17. I certainly wasn’t. 🙂
I’m not sure what else I can say re: the primacy and recognizability of love. I am convinced that it is not either love as an action or love as a feeling but some combination of both (whether we are talking about God’s love for us or, in a more limited sense, our love for God). The life of faith involves as whole people (which is why we are commanded to love the God with all of who we are—heart, soul, mind, strength). It also involves as whole fallen and finite people, which means that we will never get it entirely right this side of eternity.
Perhaps an easier way to get at some of your difficulties here would be to ask you a few questions:
1. What would it take to help you get a better “grip” on the nature of love? What would convince you that it was real or ultimate or worth pursuing?
2. Are there other areas of your life where you feel you do have the certainty that is required for you to act?
Thanks, Ryan. I wrote it pretty late at night , so I was hoping that it wouldn’t look absolutely terrible in the morning. It’s good to know at least somebody didn’t think so. 🙂
Thanks for asking your questions; I like them. To be honest I’m quite surprised you haven’t been like “what the heck, Lily – get a life” which is the vibe I get from most people by the time I have asked more than, like, 4 questions. (I have a life. Really. This just seems to happen along with it… 🙂 But I don’t know whether I can answer your questions because they are basically the same ones I have been trying to answer to myself for a couple of years or more.
The last question is easier, so I’ll start there. “Are there other areas of your life where you feel you do have the certainty that is required for you to act?” Other areas than what? I’m not really sure what you mean here. Do you mean other than “how to love”? I’ve always been taught that love is the essence of God, or something, and that therefore loving concerns our whole lives. How then can I have any area of life totally and completely separate from it? (To quote: “Where can I flee from your presence?” (So irritatingly present, this God… 🙂 ) Anyway, I think that’s probably why it bothers me so much to be confused about what love is – because it feels like, I dunno – God having a major identity crisis or something. 😦
Re: 1: “What would it take to help you get a better “grip” on the nature of love?”
I don’t really know. Saying “this is what would help me ‘get a better grip on the nature of love'” feels like saying “This is what I hope love is like.” And to say “This is what I hope love is like,” feels like begging the question. It feels like, instead of expecting a real answer, I just asked “What is love” in order to have someone say, “Well, what do YOU think?” so I could give some lengthy explanation of my views about it. Which actually I don’t think really exist, so I can’t give an explanation of them, even if you would like…..
Now for the complicated bit:
“What would convince you that it was real or ultimate or worth pursuing?”
I’m not really sure where to start. Maybe with this: I’m not sure the “problem” is that love isn’t real to me. As per the story, I think I discovered that love exists a long time ago, and I still feel pretty sure of this, even if I’m not really sure what love is or what it means to love. I think a more accurate question is, “What would convince me that the God who is love is real of ultimate or worth pursuing?”
So, yeah, I think that is actually the real question. Here’s my answer:
I would be convinced that God who is love is real or ultimate or worth pursuing if I didn’t feel like what I have experienced to be true in life (or what I have experienced to NOT be true in life) felt so constricted by a lot of the ways Christians describe God and love or, more often, imply it to be.
I say this at the risk of sounding as if I am saying “if something doesn’t match my experiences, it’s obviously wrong.” I get that we can’t understand everything through the lens of ourselves; really, I do (or at least, I like to think that I do…) I get that new ways of understanding things can be uncomfortable. But when those ways of understanding things keep on feeling uncomfortable or wrong or like not something you can live with, I’m not sure that the right response is just to be like, “I just feel like they’re wrong because I’m human.” You said, “Whatever else casting my lot with this God means, it necessarily involves the deepest parts of who I am, what I value, what I hope for, what moves and breaks me, what inspires and exalts me.” I think that should be true, but sometimes it does not seem like church thinks it’s true. Sometimes it seems like “who I am, what I value, what I hope for, what moves and breaks me, what inspires and exalts me” is supposed to be exactly and completely the same – like, homogeneous – for all Christians. And/or that “who I am, what I value, what I hope for, what moves and breaks me, what inspires and exalts me” gets completely obscured by a bunch of “oughts”, like, “Who cares who you are, what you value, what you hope for, what moves and breaks you, what inspires and exalts you? You’re freakin’ human.”
You already said it wasn’t about “rules for loving”. What is it about, then? What is Christianity about? What I feel like is this: What I think I know of how to love seems, I dunno……I guess different than how many other Christians seem to think they are supposed to love. It seems like often they think they as Christians are supposed to be, like, super-loving people and do all these important things like, I dunno, give lots of money to help people or be missionaries or help stop political conflict, or, I guess, just be super nice people that get loving right more often than other people. (Those are kind of dumb examples……seriously I’m cringing right now. But hopefully you know what I mean?) The ways I know how to love seem, like, smaller. They don’t seem any different from the ways most all humans know how to love. So I feel like maybe I’m missing something. But when I take everything I have heard about love in church to be true, I feel betrayed.
The only reason I asked about certainty in “other areas of your life” is because I am convinced that to be human is to live and to think and to act without the certainty we would prefer. This is as true in human relationships as it is in our relationship with God. It is true in the realm of vocation. It is true in parenting. It is true pretty much across the board, in my experience. And it’s certainly true when it comes to the big metaphysical questions that have always haunted human beings—questions about meaning, goodness, truth, justice… I spent some of my younger years chasing certainty and eventually just came to realize that it was never coming. This is the epistemic situation that God (or nature, if you prefer) has placed us in. To be human is to make choices in the absence of certitude.
The reason I asked about what it would take to help you get a better “grip” on love is similar to the first. I don’t think comprehensive knowledge or experience is in any way necessary to live the life of love of God and neighbour that is at the heart of Christian faith. In my view, God asks us to be faithful to what we know in the present. My twenty-year-old self didn’t know everything that my nearly forty year old self knows. I was called to love and life according to what I knew then, according to the faith I had then, not the knowledge and faith I have now, nor the knowledge or faith I will have in twenty years, if I make it that long. ☺ So, love in small ways. Love the people that are in your path. Try to be patient, kind, selfless, gentle… Try to do what is best for others… Don’t worry about the rules or the ways that the church often holds up as exemplary. The church isn’t always right. Heck, we’ve even been known to misrepresent God on occasion! ☺
I think your last few paragraphs really get at the heart of the matter. Why bother pursuing this God at all? Especially if the people who represent him seem to expect all of his followers to look and sound the (boring) same? I get this. Really, I do. I would start by simply saying that the behaviour of the church is never a good enough reason to set Jesus aside. Jesus always asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” I hear a lot of people who say that they have no use for God because of the church and its demands, inconsistencies, rules, errors, etc. All of this is true. But to be frank, sometimes it seems like a convenient excuse. Of course the church is going to get some things wrong. This never absolves us of the responsibility to pursue God, truth, goodness, love ourselves.
Having said that, I would also say that churches that fail to honour the diversity of human beings, that fail to address the (different) questions that individual people bring, etc., and try to ram everyone through the same grid of what a “good Christian” looks like, are failing those who come to them in search of God. This saddens me. I think that churches have to become safe places for people to bring all of who they are, what they long for, their hopes, fears, etc. A church that focuses mainly on rules rather than consistently pointing people to Jesus is usually a church that is governed by fear, in my view. And as 1 John 4 reminds us, there is “no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear.”
One of your final questions was, “What is Christianity about?” I could repeat the words of Jesus again (love God, love neighbour), but I’ll try something different. Maybe we can get at the answer in a bit of a roundabout way. Why not ask yourself a simple question: What is a human life is for? What kind of a human being do I admire? And then look at the person of Jesus—life, teaching, death, resurrection. Look at his emphasis upon peacemaking, love (of friends and enemies), mercy, compassion, justice, simplicity… Look at him forgiving, even with his dying breath. Does this man and his way resonate with the deepest parts of who you are? Can you trust this One with the parts that don’t (yet) resonate? Can you accept that he might have the ability to lead you into things that you don’t yet understand? If not, then walk away. If so, then trust, and follow.
For me, Christianity is nothing more or less than accepting that God in Christ is reconciling the world (including me!) to himself, and that I am called to place my life in his hands, to follow his example as best I can, to trust him for the times when I will inevitably get it wrong.
Seems that when faith, is something learned from the time your born, then this “learned faith” requires a transition to a more personal & living faith. For the faith, then to sustain & nurture a person for the rest of their days…Thanks for sharing your thoughts, questions & challenges Peter
Well said, Peter. Thanks.
“..this “learned faith” requires a transition to a more personal & living faith.” Brilliant!
Thanks for making a Monumental observation that’s rarely if ever discussed or even contemplated, Peter. Church pews were once packed with transition-less people who had no clue whatsoever as to why their “faith” was more or less lifeless, and how could they? there was no one there to explain to them the difference.
Hmmmm……wow that was a lot of thoughts…….
The first two paragraphs made a bit of sense. But the rest felt mostly like what I have been hearing quite literally my whole life. So I feel rather as if I do not know what to say.
You say, “Jesus always asks, ‘And what about you? Who do you say that I am?'” You say, “Does this man and his way resonate with the deepest parts of who you are? Can you trust this One with the parts that don’t (yet) resonate? Can you accept that he might have the ability to lead you into things that you don’t yet understand?”
You ask these questions. Everyone asks these questions. But you talk about not-knowing, about uncertainty. What if the answers are, I do not know? What about that one thing about searching your heart and being silent somewhere in the bible? I do not think God would like it if we say we know what we do not know.
Well, I’m sorry for giving you a lot of thoughts and asking a lot of questions that sound like everything else you’ve been hearing for your whole life. I’ve tried to address your questions and concerns as thoroughly as I could. I’ve tried make the point that faith, while not severed completely from knowledge (and other important human longings), always takes place in the absence of the certainty we would prefer, and that this is true for all worldviews. Apparently, I’ve not made it well enough.
My last comment seems to have ticked you off, and I’m sorry for that. I didn’t realize it would do so. I didn’t mean “wow, that was a lot of thoughts” as in “wow, that was a lot of thoughts, that’s bad” but rather, “wow, that was a lot of thoughts and I can’t really think about them all right now so I don’t feel like I have a lot more to add to the conversation”. Yes, you have been very generous in addressing the questions I asked; thanks for that. And as for not making your “point” well enough…well, all I can say is, I wasn’t trying to blame you for that. It seems like a hard point for anyone to make.
Oh no, not ticked off in the slightest. Not at all. Tone, apparently, doesn’t alway come through as I intend in writing. Who woulda thunk? Sorry for giving that impression.
It is a hard point to make, but I also think a vitally necessary and under appreciated one. When it comes to the really big questions, we’re all operating in the realm of faith not certainty, regardless of whether we are convinced in the Christian God or another god or no gods at all.
Oh, ok. That’s good.
“When it comes to the really big questions, we’re all operating in the realm of faith not certainty, regardless of whether we are convinced in the Christian God or another god or no gods at all.”
Why not just say, screw faith, ‘cos I know what I hope for?
Well, I would say because knowing what you hope for requires and is an act of faith.
No interference here at all. Only to say that hope I believe is faith-based. Optimism is when we figure it out ourselves and think it may work. We can have hope when we aren’t at all optimistic.
Hmmmm….never heard that before.
But hope doesn’t seem like an act to me at all. I don’t have to do it, it just happens. Besides, how does hope require faith?
I have a lot of hopes, but I don’t think I have a lot of faith when I look at how other people imply that faith is.
Unless you also have some weird definition of faith I’ve never heard before either….
How does hope require faith? Well, do you have 100% certainty in the substance of your hopes? Can you prove that they point to anything real or true, or that they should matter to you and others? If not, then you’re in the realm of faith. I don’t think there’s anything weird or terribly unique about this understanding of faith.
(I’m assuming, of course, that we’re talking about “hope” in a substantive sense here, not just a kind of vague wish for pleasant experiences and sensations in life. By “substantive,” I simply mean acknowledging that “hope” is the kind of thing that actually guides and motivates our behaviour. Everyone lives, implicitly or explicitly, according to both how they think the world is [empirical observation] and how they think it will be or ought to be [which takes us into the realm of ethics and metaphysics and faith that goes beyond the merely observable]. In that sense, all hope requires faith.)
You say, “Well, do you have 100% certainty in the substance of your hopes? Can you prove that they point to anything real or true, or that they should matter to you….” No, of course I can’t; that’s why they’re hopes, and not expectations. But I don’t see how this implies that hope requires faith. Faith in what? That hoping has some sort of meaning? That hopes are substantive, that we should be hoping them? People hope without having faith in that, so I’m not terribly convinced.
I’m not sure how much I can add to what I said in the second paragraph of my previous comment. I suppose I would say “yes” to each of your “faith in what?” responses. Yes, that hope has meaning. Yes, that hope is substantive (and not just a projection of our fantasies). Yes, that we ought to hope in them. If, as I said above, the hopes that we have about life, God, meaning, etc. are the things that motivate our behaviour in the world, to whatever degree, then we are exercising faith.
I’m not convinced that people do have this kind of hope without faith. I don’t see how it’s possible. Perhaps you can explain to me how it is.
Hmm, I dunno…maybe you’re right. I don’t think I can explain it to you – I guess I just assumed that people can hope without having faith in what they are hoping for, because that’s the way it has always seemed to me. I will have to think about it….
In any case, it seems like the “faith” we are discussing now is not the same kind of “faith” that people often talk about in church – which is more the kind I was talking about when I said “Why not just say, screw faith, ‘cos I know what I hope for,”. I don’t know if this is making/will make sense to you, but what I think I mean is this: People say things like “the Christian faith” or “confessions of faith” or “people of different faiths” and they sound….I dunno…..like faith is just a thing you use to divide up the world so it makes some sort of sense, good or bad – and the more you learn about faith, the more sense the world makes. Which doesn’t seem at all related to hope (hope of the substantive, deep individual kind – not our personal fantasies or those of our culture(s)). I don’t know why; it just….doesn’t. I’m curious; does it to you?
Anyway, a note: I don’t really know why I said “Why not just say, screw faith, ‘cos I know what I hope for,” at that point in the conversation, besides that: a) I wanted to, and b) it seemed like a good idea at the time. 🙂 Sorry.
I feel like there’s something more I should say about what I think about faith that would be more clear, but whenever I think about faith and hope and “making sense of the world” (which is quite a lot, I guess) I find that I can’t articulate anything, that I’m always tempted to become an “angry teenager vent[ing] [her] rage at the stupidity and injustice of the whole world that doesn’t think like [her] or do what [she] wants,” https://ryandueck.com/2013/04/08/why-do-i-have-faith/ .Or else that other thing you posted: https://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/advent-moving-beyond-waiting/. I don’t have “a compelling counter-vision of reality”, as you say (although do I ever? Probably not….. Never mind). So….I dunno. I guess just bear with me, if you will.
Here’s the thing: Even if, or rather especially if, hope implies faith, then why would I care about faith? If having “christian” faith implies certain hopes, and I already hope those things, (or want to hope them) then…why bother with faith at all? My said-for-no-apparent-reason comment has a point after all. Or something.
I’m not sure whether there’s a point to me saying this, but: I’m frustrated with faith because everyone seems to imply that it’s supposed to make sense of the world. I don’t really know what the point of church is but in my experience, the point of it is to endlessly discuss the same existential questions so we can figure out how we’re supposed to live in the world, how to make sense of the world. People talk about “struggling with faith” or “stuff about faith that doesn’t make sense to them”, etc., and I always feel so….I dunno….enstranged, or something, because all I wanna say is “Buddy, why can’t we just struggle with reality first? I haven’t even come to terms with the way things Are yet, and how to live in that.”
I feel like this is the place where you say, “But faith affects how we live in the world.” I don’t know what to say to this except “Oh. That’s confusing,” or “But not as much as reality does!” If that doesn’t seem like a very solid argument to you, well, it doesn’t to me either.
One more thought: I’m not trying to get off the topic of the post (although are we still on the topic? I dunno….) but I feel like this is relevant to my point: you said in your most recent post that “Suffering is a gaping, festering, wound at the heart of human existence. It indicts our pasts, haunts our presents, and threatens our futures. It is the question, the fact that any official story must wrestle with and fight and struggle against.” I would also argue that hope is another fact that any official story must wrestle with, must account for. (Like you said, why are there hopes at all? Since they cause us so much grief.) These seem to be the two things that must be accepted (/accounted for?) in life. But the doctrines of Christianity – i.e., the faith(s) I am supposed to have – seem too remote to help me do that.
I’ll try to respond to your comments as well as I can. To keep things straight, I’ve cut and pasted the specific portion that I’m addressing.
Do people use the word “faith” in unhelpful ways? Sure they do. Does that mean that they’re right? Not necessarily. I’m talking about “faith” less in the caricatured versions that abound out there, or the ways in which “faith” is often used as a synonym for “religious tradition x” than in the epistemological sense of what we’re actually doing when we think about the world.
Well, again, I would say that if you “already hope for things” that are outside the realm of empirical confirmation or disconfirmation, then you already have faith, whether you claim to care about it or not.
You talk about “faith” and “reality” as if they were two utterly separate things. I have tried to argue throughout this thread that they are not. Every human being alive on the planet has faith in something. To live, to hope, to commit to ethical ideals or to embrace the possibility of meaning in life—all of this requires faith.
But let’s try a different approach here. I’m wondering why “hope” is an acceptable word for you but “faith” isn’t. Is it purely because of how the word “faith” has been used in not-very-helpful ways in your experience (“faith is just a thing you use to divide up the world”)? Or is it because “hope” is a more passive word while “faith” requires acknowledging that commitment and risk are part of living and thinking in the world?
In my experience, people are fine with talking about “hope” because it’s kind of vague and all-encompassing and requires very little of them. “Faith,” on the other hand, demands things of us. It requires that we be honest about our hopes and our fears, about the connections between the ways that we live and think about the world, and the assumptions that lie (often unacknowledged) beneath them. “Faith” makes explicit what “hope” is sometimes content to leave implicit and fuzzily defined.
Discussing existential questions… Trying to figure out how to live in the world. These seem like decent enough “points” to me. I wouldn’t say this is the sum total of the “point” of the church, but even if it was, these are pretty important things, aren’t they?
I agree. An understanding of suffering and a justification for hope – these are crucial aspects of every worldview, Christian or otherwise. I find the Christian narrative to these compelling—certainly more than the alternatives on offer (as I expanded upon in the post you referred to above). But if you don’t, then of course you are perfectly free to embrace the alternative that you feel makes better sense of suffering and offers better rationale for the hopes you have inside you, that seems less remote and more helpful.
Sorry this is so late. I’ve been very busy, so I didn’t have time to respond.
Re: “You talk about “faith” and “reality” as if they were two utterly separate things. I have tried to argue throughout this thread that they are not. Every human being alive on the planet has faith in something. To live, to hope, to commit to ethical ideals or to embrace the possibility of meaning in life—all of this requires faith.”
I sort of see what you’re saying here – that every person alive has faiths and is living in the reality of having those faiths. Although I would probably not put it that way, I can see how someone might want to say that faith and reality are not two utterly separate things. I’m sorry if it seemed like the main point of my argument was arguing against that point.
But I’m not really sure what that kind of faith has to do with anything we were discussing. You say, “I’m talking about “faith” less in the caricatured versions that abound out there, or the ways in which “faith” is often used as a synonym for “religious tradition x” than in the epistemological sense of what we’re actually doing when we think about the world.” I don’t want to sound annoyed or cynical but frankly this sounds pretty vague. “…the epistemological sense of what we’re actually doing when we think about the world.” So faith is just like, how we habitually think about the world (/reality)?
You ask me why “hope” is an acceptable word to me while “faith” isn’t, if it is because hope is pleasantly noncommittal while faith is risky, dangerous. Actually, I would say that in my experience it seems the opposite. “Faith” has always seemed like a pretty comfortable thing to have. Because people who have “faith” always seem to believe that in the end something will be okay. To “…be honest about our hopes and our fears, about the connections between the ways that we live and think about the world, and the assumptions that lie (often unacknowledged) beneath them,” doesn’t seem to be very dangerous or emotionally risky in the context of “faith”, because whatever struggles people might have with their faith and its ideas, I would posit that they still think something is going to be okay. Or else they find a new faith. Whereas hoping something does not imply that you think it’s going to be okay, that you think anything is going to be okay. So to actually voice your hopes, to feel them deeply, to not live as if you don’t hope them, seems much more risky to me.
Which, actually, I guess is the reason why I ever wrote in the first place. Your original post seemed to be saying “Straight lines don’t make everything okay like we would like to think. But I still think something is ultimately going to be okay.” (A bit simplistic, I know, but it seems to me that this is basically what things come down to.) I wrote because I was left thinking, as I am often left thinking “But….Why do you think that?”
In conclusion: If faith entails “knowing” or even just strongly “thinking” that in the end things will be okay, for what they were, and that thinking this somehow makes our messy world easier to live with, then I don’t really know what to do with it. Sure, I guess I want that as much as the next person, but wanting it and believing it are two separate things.
Anyway, that’s the way things seem to me….
No apology necessary. Life happens 🙂
Again, this is precisely the point. I’m trying to point out that faith is already embedded in the habits and the language that we use as we think about and live in the world. I’m trying to move beyond some of the unhealthy and unhelpful (in my view, at least) ways that the word “faith” is used in popular discourse. All of us have faith and exercise faith daily. The only difference is the object of our faith. This may or may not have a great deal to do with the original point of the post, but I think it is very relevant to the points that you have brought up in subsequent comments.
Re: the “risk” and “comforts” associated with faith, hope, etc. I was simply articulating sentiments that I see out there. To say, “I hope for x” often seems to be a way of saying, “It sure would be great if x happened, but I’ll mostly just live my life as I see fit and we’ll see what happens.” To say, “I have faith in x” is often no different. But at its best, it should be to say, “I am convinced (not certain) that x is a hope to base a life on, and I will commit to living my life according the practices that have always been associated with this hope.”
Some people, particularly those us of who live in the Western world downstream of the Enlightenment, think that the word “faith” refers primarily, if not exclusively, to the cognitive content in our heads. Faith is “a bunch of stuff I believe or intellectually assent to in my head.” This is far short of anything resembling a biblical conception of faith, which involved whole people, not just brains assenting to doctrines or beliefs. So, for the Christian, faith is a life lived according to the teachings of Jesus (i.e., teachings about forgiveness, reconciliation, peacemaking, loving enemies, suffering, redemption, etc) because we believe that it is this kind of life that is in alignment with the hopes for the future that we have. This doesn’t mean that we have some magical insight into the nature of truth, or that we are certain about everything we believe and do in the world. It means we are convinced. And that we are living according to these convictions.
Which sounds to me like pretty similar to what you said here:
Maybe, in the end, it is all about how we define our terms.
“Maybe, in the end, it is all about how we define our terms.”
Probably. Too many words……. 🙂
Re: faith being more than the ‘stuff’ in our heads: I would agree. Just to be clear, because of…..words. But actually, I sort of feel like you keep trying to convince me of this fact, even though I’m already pretty convinced. I’m just not sure what faith is if it’s not “stuff in our heads.” It sounds like you’re saying, “Faith means making how we live our life match up with our hopes and convictions.” To which I would say, “To do that perfectly, or even well, sounds impossible.” It seems to me Most people live basically the same kind of life as any one else with their opportunities – it’s only the reasons (or lack thereof) they do so that change. Okay, so maybe not impossible…just rather unlikely.
“But at its best, [faith] should be to say, ‘I am convinced (not certain) that x is a hope to base a life on, and I will commit to living my life according the practices that have always been associated with this hope.'”
Seems like a pretty good definition of faith to me. But I ask you then: That the heck is the point of “commiting to be a Christian”, or what does being a “committed Christian” mean?
It’s probably all about the words again. But here’s my take on things:
There are hopes I have – or desires, you might say – that affect how I live in the world, even though I never thought one day, “I am committing to live in ways in accordance with this hope.” And it seems to me that this is true for most people. It seems to me that if a person has any real hopes – not just vague wishes for “stuff that would be great if it happened” – those hopes always affect how that person lives in the world in some way, even if it is small.
So people are like “I’m a christian now! I’m different!” and I’m like “Mehhh….I don’t really buy it.”
To me it always seems that the people who look most like what I hope Jesus might be a little bit like aren’t actually the ones who go around thinking/talking of themselves as Christians and purposefully trying to align their every action with some set of rules or practices that are associated with their hopes. Rather, I have always thought that the people who look most Christian-like, when I hold it up against what I have been taught, are people who say or hint or imply that they are only Christians because they can’t escape their hopes in “forgiveness, reconciliation, peacemaking, loving enemies, suffering, redemption, etc”, or the way those hopes affect their lives. Maybe that’s pretty unorthodox, but it’s what I see.
You might be like, “Is there a point to this? Just love God and your neighbor…” But people seem to be so concerned with labels. God knows I am… 🙂
If I’m bothering you, you should tell me…..
You’re not bothering me at all… But I’m not sure what else I can say that I haven’t already said. I’ve tried to be clear about what I think faith is (and isn’t). I’ve tried to articulate my conviction that all of us live by faith, whatever that faith might happen to be in (and whether we acknowledge it or not). I’ve tried to be clear that I don’t think our lives will ever perfectly reflect our hopes for ourselves and the future, but that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’m honestly not sure what more I can say.
I will say this: You ask, what the heck is the point of being a Christian? There are many things that could be said in response, but you seem to offer a decent enough answer yourself in your comment:
Sounds good like a pretty good definition of a “Christian” to me.
I’m heading out of town to speak at a weekend retreat, so I’ll have to bow out of the conversation until Monday at the earliest.
You say, “I’m not sure what else I can say that I haven’t already said.” I’ve asked you a lot of questions about what faith is and what it isn’t, I think to the point of repeating myself, (sorry) and I’m not sure there’s anything more I can say (or should say!) either. Perhaps this conversation has passed the point of no return in terms of circular topics.
But I also think that maybe I’ve asked the wrong questions, or at least ones that aren’t as right as I thought. You say, “I’ve tried to be clear about what I think faith is (and isn’t).” You have, pretty much. I can understand what you’ve said about what faith is and isn’t. But I don’t think that what faith is, as an idea, as a concept, is really the heart of the matter.
Here’s what I do think: The only reason I asked all these questions about what faith is is because I don’t think I know if I have enough faith. Faith in whatever it actually is God expects people to have faith in, I mean…..(Ouch. That makes me sound like I have a pretty lousy understanding of Christianity. Jesus said faith as small as a mustard seed, I know…..)
I could say more about why I don’t know if I have enough faith, but I think that as my reasons are probably very similar to a lot of other people’s reasons, that would be pointless. (Besides, we’ve basically come full circle to what I wrote in the first comment…..so I would be repeating myself…..again……….:/) So I’ll just leave you with the question: how do you know if you have enough faith? What does “having enough faith” look like? If you’re still thinking, “I already answered that!” then, well, I really don’t have anything more to say…….
Good question. The short answer is pretty easy: I don’t. At least not if “know” is taken to mean, “I am 100% certain” or “I can provide evidence” or whatever.
The longer answer, of course, turns even more on the terms we use and what we mean by them. Particularly the word “faith.” We’ve talked a lot on this thread about how faith, in the biblical understanding of the term at least, points to a far bigger and deeper reality than what the term is often taken to mean in twenty-first century popular discourse. We often seem to assume that faith language refers to the “stuff in my head that I a have cognitively accepted but that I cannot prove” category of our brains.
I would prefer something more along the lines of, “that which I have committed myself to, body, mind, and soul.” I have committed myself to the way of Jesus because I am convinced/persuaded that this is the best way to live and act in the world, and that the hope Jesus offers beyond this world represents the fulfillment of the deepest longings that I have. But I am not certain that my faith in Christ is strong enough, big enough, deep enough or reliable enough for anything. I know people whose faith is far more admirable than my own. They understand and articulate their beliefs more clearly, their behaviour is more closely aligned with their professed convictions, their faith seems to affect them in the deepest parts of who they are, making them hope-filled, joyful, resilient people. If I stack my faith (again, in the biggest sense of the word) up against theirs, it falls far short, in my estimation.
Which leads to a final question about your question itself. What does the “enough” refer to? Enough faith for what? Salvation? Sanity? Pleasing God? Avoiding hell? Living a good life? The word “enough” implies evaluation of some kind behind it. I’m just curious what you had in mind.
At the end of the day, my hope is based far less on the quality of my own faith in Christ than it is upon the faith and the faithfulness of Christ. As I’ve said many times on this blog, as Christians our hope is always finally that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. In my view, whatever faith I am able to muster up this side of eternity is only ever a participation in this faithfulness, a response of love to God’s activity, never a way of earning my way to him.
Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots.
Re: “The longer answer, of course, turns even more on the terms we use and what we mean by them…I would prefer something more along the lines of, ‘that which I have committed myself to, body, mind, and soul.’”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you think that having this understanding of faith makes it easier to actually have faith or know if you are having faith. One point I am, or was, trying to make is that I don’t think it does, because this understanding of faith is still just an idea, a concept. Saying, “faith means committed my living to X” does not automatically mean that one has committed their living to X, any more than saying “faith means cognitively accepting X which I can’t prove” means that I have cognitively accepted X.
Re: “In my view, whatever faith I am able to muster up this side of eternity is only ever a participation in this faithfulness, a response of love to God’s activity, never a way of earning my way to him.”
Well, I guess there’s the problem right there. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think my response to “God’s activity” is always ‘loving’. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure any sane person could or should do otherwise, a lot of the time examining everything in existence – all of which owes its existence to God, I suppose – leads to, *ahem* – some rather ugly or at least unorthodox responses…ummmm, I wonder if “WTF if going on, God?!” is sometimes alright? (Sorry…maybe I should take that out, but I think it’s important.) What about when the only way to respond in any way that seems to affirm God’s existence (or whatever else about God) is to, well, shout?
And I don’t even really mean that I think God should just make everything all better. I’m simply pointing out that I find it hard to believe that any loving God, or any God that we reflect, would expect or require that we have faith in him that always maintains some semblance of, I dunno, pious trust or thankfulness, even if there is anger. But this is what seems to be implied, directly or indirectly, in many Christian’s statements about faith.
I’m not angry at God. At least not in particular (oh…that makes it sound like I’m always angry, which isn’t true either). But sometimes I think that to ever be angry at anything has no point if this God does not exist, and it seems somehow silly or misguided or wrong for “what people say faith should look like” to not allow for that.
You ask: What does the “enough” refer to? Enough faith for what? Salvation? Sanity? Pleasing God? Avoiding hell? Living a good life? The word “enough” implies evaluation of some kind behind it.”
I don’t know. I didn’t really have anything specifically in mind when I wrote it. Probably a combination of most of the above.
But maybe I can put it another way. You said in the original post, “Our paths will be smooth and straight for we will no longer be able to get in the way of the One we have always been stretching and stumbling crookedly towards.” I guess I would say, “enough” faith to that we think we are moving in that direction.
“Avoiding hell…” I’m not fundamentalist (well, if I’m anything,) and neither is my church, by any means, so I guess “avoiding hell” has never really been the top of my list of reasons
to have “enough” faith. But I ask you: why do you (and other people) think that God isn’t going to send us all to hell? We can be pretty awful.
No, I wouldn’t put it that way. It’s not that I think this understanding makes it easier to have faith at all. If anything, it’s harder. Making “faith” = “ideas about God in my head” is quite a bit easier than the whole life venture we’ve been talking about. So, again, I don’t think that it’s “just an idea, a concept.” I’ve said on numerous occasions in this thread, that faith is a way of life. It involves actions—generosity, forgiveness, hospitality, mercy, compassion, peace, justice, patience, kindness…. On and on the list goes. And, again, these are not “rules” or anything like that. They are the lived out implications of convictions I have about God and the world, and out of my commitments to live according to these convictions.
Not entirely sure what you’re getting at here. As I’ve said before in this thread, to say one is committed to something does not in any way entail mastery or perfection of said commitments. It simply means that they have committed to orienting their life (beliefs and actions) in a particular direction.
Sure. Perfectly legitimate response. Scripture is full of examples of people voicing their WTF to God.
I agree. Many Christians/churches seem to have this expectation that we should have this relentlessly cheerful outlook on the world, and forever be congratulating God on the awesomeness of his world. I am not one of these people. I think that there is quite obviously a bit more ambiguity and darkness involved in life and faith than that.
Again, I agree. The basic point of my masters thesis was that many of the current popular forms of atheism exhibit an anger and a level of protest that is irrational, and one that their own assumptions about the world would seem to disallow. There is no shortage of moralistic anger in our culture at God, but little awareness that the very criteria that God is being evaluated by is heavily dependent upon some kind of overarching, binding moral principles that seem difficult, if not impossible, to extract from a consistent materialistic worldview.
I believe the king of the earth will, in the end, do what is just. I am content to leave it at that.
“So, again, I don’t think that it’s “just an idea, a concept.”
You’re misunderstanding me here, I think. I’m definitely not saying that what faith actually is – a way of living in the world – is an idea. I’m NOT saying that having faith is having an idea. I’m saying that whether I hold ‘understanding X’ of faith or whether I hold ‘understanding Y’ of faith, both X and Y are still just ideas I have about what faith is. And holding those ideas does not actually constitute having faith. That’s why I said, “Saying, “faith means committed my living to X” does not automatically mean that one has committed their living to X, any more than saying “faith means cognitively accepting X which I can’t prove” means that I have cognitively accepted X.”
Not sure if that makes any more sense than before…it’s probably not even relevant. But that’s what I meant.
“I believe the king of the earth will, in the end, do what is just. I am content to leave it at that.”
Um. What-.I mean- God thinks that sending people to “eternal torment” is just?!
The only reason I said “Why do you think God isn’t going to send us all to hell,” is because you said, “faith is never a way of earning my way to him.” If there’s no way to earn your way to God, what’s to stop him from being horrible, “justly” or not? Why do you hope in “the faithfulness of Christ”? Besides, if that’s the way you feel about it, there’s no point to anything. Not to loving,or to orienting ourselves to certain hopes, or even to getting angry. I think there’s no basis for getting angry with a God who isn’t reflected in us.
I asked, “how do you know if you have enough faith to know that you are moving toward God?” You said, to paraphrase: “the short answer is, I don’t’, and the long answer is – stuff, but basically, I don’t.” I could ask you, then, “what’s the point of even trying,” but I suspect that the answer would basically come down to, “because I want to.” Because of one’s hopes. One’s longings. And, it seems like a pretty good answer to me, actually. But what about when we don’t really want to? I’m pretty tired of hoping for these things, wrestling with these things.
I may be giving the impression that I’m indefatigable when it comes to asking questions about faith, but really, I’m tired. I’m tired of asking these questions, tired of hearing other people ask these questions, and tired of hearing the answers. Not because the questions or the answers are bad – not as such – but because they so easily seem to become so far removed from anything even remotely resembling something that would affect a human life. I’ve developed somewhat of a distaste for “church” because it seems to be always the people with the strongest faith speaking, presumably into places where less faith can be found. And I guess I get that; probably is the way it should be. But I sort of resent the idea or implication that faith is something that can be quantified or qualified on something like a scale with a “right” end and a “wrong” end. People are always talking about “growing in faith”, and I really want to ask, “How are you so sure that change in faith is always on an upward trajectory?” And what if it isn’t? And where does “Christ’s faithfulness” fall if we are always having to worry about “growing in faith”? If we ever have to worry about it? If we can never do or think enough to please God, why do Christians always seem to be so worried that they’re not doing enough, or why are they always trying to do more “for God”? They talk endlessly about what God wants for their lives, (and what God wants for other people’s lives) but I, for one, am not so very sure the answer is coming. Why are we always praying and hoping that God would suddenly tell us what we’re doing wrong or what he wants in our particular instance? It seems obvious to me that God’s not all of a sudden going to decide to drop any clearer answers out of the sky. But (I think) neither is the bible or even life clear or unambiguous enough that we can be sure we’re not doing it wrong. Sooooo….it seems like there’s nothing really tangible to try to go off of.
And I don’t really have any more questions about faith than that. That’s basically what it boils down to. (I know I’ve said that at least twice already…….I guess that doesn’t mean I won’t ask anymore questions, it just means that they’ll probably be the same ones. 🙂 So feel free to ignore them. 🙂 Sigh. Sorry.
A thought: I came across this story http://www.vestalreview.net/thegirlwho.html (school homework) several days ago, and, beyond the obvious discrepancies, I keep thinking that this, to me, feels exactly what faith has looked like to me for a long time. Having faith feels to me like being fed, being affected – letting yourself being affected – by a memory of love. Maybe you won’t agree, or maybe you think such an understanding of faith is wrong or sinful or whatever, or maybe this isn’t even making any sense to you, but I think it fits alright with the idea that faith is a way of life. But I also think that this understanding – this way faith looks to me – looks both deeper and wider, and much, much smaller and narrower than any faith I have seen represented by collective “church”. So, I’m not really sure why faith seems that way to me. I can’t help wondering if I missed something.
You said: Does this man and his way resonate with the deepest parts of who you are? Can you trust this One with the parts that don’t (yet) resonate? Can you accept that he might have the ability to lead you into things that you don’t yet understand?
I suppose, yes. Probably. But how can I tell, if what “this One” is isn’t very clear? And is that enough for God (whatever “enough” means, whoever “God” means)?
Well, sure. The same could be said about everything that our ideas are about. Ideas are not (and cannot be) synonymous with the content of the ideas.
Nothing, really. At least not on our end. It’s all down to God’s character, in my view. I’m not sure how “earning your way to God” would change that, even if we were capable of it.
No point to anything? Why would hoping that God’s faithfulness is stronger than my own entail that there was no point to anything? Is there no point in aligning your beliefs and actions (and anger and protest) with what you are convinced is true about the world? If I honestly thought that my faith and my ideas and my actions were what would finally save me—that these were my best hope in the world—then I might well and truly despair.
Well, again, the easiest answer is pretty simple. If you don’t want to, then don’t.
Re: What’s the point of trying? Well, I can only speak for myself, but for me it is because I am convinced that truth, beauty, hope, goodness, justice, redemption, forgiveness, etc. are all real and not just fictions that my clever genes are foisting upon me, and that they have their ultimate origin and destination in God. That’s why I try. Because I want to be a part of that kind of a story. And because the alternative—not trying, not pursuing, not hoping, not believing—doesn’t seem to accomplish a whole lot either.
I know the feeling. I obviously don’t know you personally, so I can’t say what would be appropriate to your specific situation, but if these questions are exhausting you, why not try asking different ones? Why not try looking at faith less as a struggle up the certainty ladder and more like trying on a way of life, regardless of how convinced you happen to be at any given moment about the metaphysics?
Re: your distaste for the church, “growing in faith” and “will of God” language, I would simply say that there are many Christians and churches out there who would be more nuanced in their understanding of the life of faith. If the Christians and the churches in your neck of the woods don’t seem to adequately appreciate and articulate the ambiguities of things, then maybe it would be worth seeking out better voices.
Sounds pretty good to me. It’s a beautiful way of putting things, actually. And it seems to square pretty well with the Christian conviction that God is love, that the world was made and will be remade in love, and that our lives are meant to be a participation in a story of love.
I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him until that day. 2 Timothy 1:12, NKJV
Re: “…if these questions are exhausting you, why not try asking different ones? Why not try looking at faith less as a struggle up the certainty ladder and more like trying on a way of life, regardless of how convinced you happen to be at any given moment about the metaphysics?”
Well, what ones were you thinking I should ask? I’m just curious.
And I’m not sure what I said here that implies that I am looking at faith in God as “a struggle up the certainty ladder. I’m pretty sure I’m not. Is it just because of the questions? I’m not willing to take some sort of view that because faith does not entail certainty (or even conviction) and vice versa, questions or Doubts don’t have any intersection with way of living, with “loving God and neighbor”.
Re: “No point to anything? Why would hoping that God’s faithfulness is stronger than my own entail that there was no point to anything?”
Because, if God is some kind of divine justice-dispenser, as you seem to imply with your comment ‘the king of the earth will do what is just,’ then there is no reasons to hope that God’s faithfulness is stronger than your own, because that faithfulness might not be what you expected. God is God, and I am not, so why wouldn’t I well and truly despair, if there’s no way to “earn your way to him” (as much as I disagree with some of the rules people extrapolate from this phrase), if there’s no way to reach God?
I didn’t have anything too specific in mind—at least nothing beyond the things I’ve said throughout this thread about paying attention to what you love, long for, hope for, etc, in addition to what you can explain. It just seemed like questions you were/are asking are the source of little more than exhaustion, so why not try something different?
I’m all for asking questions, and I’m all for a view of faith and life that acknowledges that doubt and ambiguity are part of the package (I think a tour through my blog archives would provide ample evidence of this). But I’ve also been thinking about and wrestling with some of these questions for long enough to know that when it comes to the biggest questions in life, proof and certainty are always off the table (I wrote a post once about that here). I’ve also come to realize that life is about more than asking questions, interrogating the data, God, whatever. It’s also about answering a few questions that are put to me, as well. Questions like: How will you live? What will you pursue? What are you convinced enough of to move toward?
I’m afraid I just don’t understand what you’re saying here. I’m not getting the connections you’re making or how this answers my original question about how hoping in the faithfulness of God leads to the conclusion that there’s no point to anything.
I don’t know if I can be any clearer, but the connections I was making were these: If you are content to leave it at “God is just”, as you said, (and which I am not, really, re, um, Matthew 20 and similar such stories) then I don’t really understand why you think God would be as faithful as you seem to imply he will, or why you think God’s faithfulness would entail him bringing reality to anything that would fulfill human hopes and longings. And if that’s the case, I very well might truly despair. If I went around with the conviction that God was going to “send people to hell”, I don’t think I could do otherwise.
Here goes the obligatory caveat: I’m not saying I don’t think hell can be real; there are ideas about hell other than “a place God sends people”. But you’ll notice I asked you “Why do you think God isn’t going to send us all to hell?” Not “Why aren’t we all going to hell?”
I’m sorry, that looks really morbid now that I’ve written it. Or something. Not sure how to get around that……..
You keep saying it’s important to pay attention to what you love, long for, hope for. I do pay attention to what I love/hope for, but that doesn’t make God any clearer. Neither does it make any clearer how to live out those hopes and those loves, or whether they are even right hopes and loves. What if the things I really believe are good or true or even just beautiful, or the things that I “love” are……uh…..wrong, somehow? (“wrong, somehow? Wow, I’m explaining myself so well here….. Besides, if I had reason to believe that they were, I couldn’t just stop thinking that they were good or beautiful or true. You obviously don’t know me personally, as you said, so I’m not expecting you to say. But – you said, “It just seemed like questions you were/are asking are the source of little more than exhaustion, so why not try something different?” and that is why I don’t, I suppose.
Why is “justice” incompatible with “faithfulness,” in your view?
(If the passage in Matthew 20 you’re referring to is the one about the labourers in the vineyard, then I would say that, for me, that story is meant to show that the grace and generosity of God might even trump even justice.)
Whatever the distinction you’re making with these two wordings might be, I’m not sure my answer would change. I am content to leave ultimate judgment, whatever it might look like, in God’s hands. We human beings don’t do so well with judgment. We’re far too eager to throw stones.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, your last paragraph (and many of your comments on this thread) seem to be some variation of, “Why doesn’t God make himself and his expectations/intentions more obvious?” And the short answer, again, is quite easy: I don’t know. I could speculate about things like human freedom and love and how God values these things, about the virtues associated with the pursuit of what we cannot be certain of, etc, but at the end of the day, the answer would be the same. I don’t know.
I do believe that, as God’s image-bearers, we are kind of hard-wired for beauty, goodness, justice, spirituality, etc., and that paying attention to ourselves can be one of the ways that God makes himself known (not the only way, but an important way nonetheless). But of course I can’t prove this to you (or anyone else).
And I know that we are hard-wired for some ugly things, too. How do we tell the difference? Well, that’s a big question, but the general approach I try to take is to simply ask myself how intuition/longing/hope x squares with the story and character of Jesus and the redemptive narrative of the big picture of Scripture. Yes, there are ugly parts of the Bible, but what’s the big picture? This doesn’t mean that I am a flawless interpreter of my own experiences and intuitions. But it does give me something to test myself against.
Why is “justice” incompatible with “faithfulness,” in my view? I don’t know, but actually I’m not sure why God has to be faithful at all, if faith is a way of life.
“At the risk of oversimplifying things, your last paragraph (and many of your comments on this thread) seem to be some variation of, “Why doesn’t God make himself and his expectations/intentions more obvious?” And the short answer, again, is quite easy: I don’t know.” “[Look at]…..the story and character of Jesus and the redemptive narrative of the big picture of Scripture. Yes, there are ugly parts of the Bible, but what’s the big picture?” Well, I could say the same thing you said to “why isn’t God more obvious” – I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something you think is blindingly obvious…..
But, really – if you don’t know, and I don’t know, then it seems the conversation is sort of stalled. But thanks for talking, Ryan. Sorry I kept talking about the same question(s).
Re: the “faithfulness” of God, I’m simply referring to the fidelity or commitment that I believe God has to his creation. The word “faith” and its derivatives can be (and is) understood in many different ways, as this thread has made clear.
I don’t think you’re missing anything “blindingly obvious.” If the biggest questions in life had “blindingly obvious” answers, we wouldn’t see the diversity that we do in the realm of worldviews, religions, ideologies, would we? There are many factors that go into what or where or with whom we finally give our allegiance. Rational explanatory satisfaction is only one of them (and probably not even the most important one, for many).
Thanks for your questions. I’ve enjoyed this conversation.
Ha….So I’m not banned from ever commenting on your blog ever again? (Jk…..um, sort of…) 🙂 😉
One more thing, before I really do stop talking: I’ve noticed you seem to write a good amount on this blog about doubt/atheistical views of the world/people who reject christian God, and how a lot of times, the arguments against God or aspect ‘X’ of faith are full of holes, or how the reasons they don’t believe in God are the same reasons some people do believe in God, or about how people use/misuse “doubt” or “things that are confusing” to avoid conviction or commitment, or how everyone believes in something, so there’s no point saying you don’t, or other such similar things. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, and, actually, I tend to agree with your arguments in such posts, but I’m honestly wondering: do you think that there are always clear reasons to choose to believe in some or another thing? In other words, do you think that the people who have the strongest convictions about God/ life/ faith are just, people who have chosen to “interpret the data” in ways that clearly define the world? Do you think that to think things are just simply ambiguous, not-clear, is always a choice not as valid as “taking a stand”, as choosing to have convictions about things? I’m not trying to imply you shouldn’t think that, I’m really just asking – what do you think? Do you think there’s space or ways to have faith without having much conviction about anything (intellectually)? Or even to live honestly?
Ha! No, no banning here… 🙂
Do I think there are always clear reasons to choose? Well, there is a sense in which to ask the question is to answer it. The choice not to choose is still a choice, right? It’s still a response to the epistemological/existential situation we find ourselves in. “I dunno” writ large is still, in a sense, a worldview, if only to the extent that it represents a decision that nothing finally depends upon committing to this or that specific tradition or belief structure. In my view, to be human is to be a chooser. Full stop. We are all choosing, every day.
Do I think that there is space or ways to have faith without having much conviction? Certainly from the perspective of the great historical religions, this seems unlikely. Whether it’s Buddhism or Islam or Judaism or Christianity or Hinduism or something else, all demand things of their adherents, not least of which would be the dislodging of the self as the sun around which all else orbits. I can’t imagine a serious devotee to any of these traditions adopting something like, “yeah, kinda… I guess” as a basic approach to their faith. There is an element of risk, commitment, and trust involved in each. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous people who’s approach to their religion is pretty tepid. But this would seem to be a deviation from the ideal, to put it mildly. Of course, others would argue that the world would be a far better, safer place if people didn’t take their religions so seriously… So there’s always that. 🙂
I’m not advocating dishonesty or the attempt to paper over intellectual doubts or anything like that. Speaking as a Christian, I think there is plenty of space to acknowledge ambiguity and doubt from the perspective of committed Christianity (I sure hope there is—I’ve spent about eight years blogging about it!). But I think there is also a sense in which living without much conviction is a quintessentially postmodern response to life. “Who can really say?” quite easily becomes “Who really cares?” in my experience. When the ambiguity of life becomes a justification for refusing to think, pursue, wrestle with truth, love, etc, then I think things have gone seriously awry.
(I’m not suggesting any of this is the case for you, to be clear. Indeed, this entire thread would seem to be pretty strong evidence that you care quite deeply about truth, etc. The preceding paragraph was more of a broader reflection upon culture in general.)
Yeah, I suppose so. Your arguments seem pretty solid, as usual.
I guess it just seems like church so easily becomes an exercise in trying to hold onto certainties at all costs – heck, even at the cost of loving, if I may say.
Which is annoying.
(although without those certainties, I guess no one would know how to love truly…thus is the conundrum….)
A church that prioritizes certainty over love is a church that has got its priorities mixed up, in my view.