Faith – Sun Oct 6, 2019
Part of my recent holiday in Croatia included a bike and boat tour in and around the Dalmatian Islands. Along the way, when time and conditions allowed for it, our captain would anchor in one of the bays so we could swim. I haven’t often swum in an ocean in such a way… just jumping off the back of a boat in the middle of the ocean. It was a wonderful way to cool down and enjoy a hot day, especially after hours of hard cycling. With no beach… no touching the bottom, being able to actually swim was essential. And it involved some work, because one had to keep afloat by treading water. Upright… vertical in the water… your legs have to work hard to keep you from going under. But in the salt water of the ocean, if you lay back and let your head rest in the waves, the water will actually hold you. You can change body position and just rest. You can stop working hard to stay afloat, and just let the water hold you, without doing anything at all.
In our Gospel passage today, the disciples cry to Jesus: “Increase our faith!” The implication is that they don’t think their current amount of faith is adequate. They want more. More faith. I wonder what they think it means to have more faith? What would it look like to have more faith? What would be different with increased faith? Given that Jesus’ response seems to indicate that the disciples’ request is not the right one, it seems worthwhile to consider why that might be… what do we mean by faith?
Through modern times, “faith” came to be mostly about “belief.” Faith as intellectual assent to propositional truth. Faith is taken to be more or less equivalent to our belief in a whole litany of doctrines, expressed through questions like: Do you believe in God? Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Do you believe in creation or evolution? Faith or science? (As thought they are strict dichotomies.) Do you believe Jesus died for your sins? As our modern confidence in our knowledge increased, and we questioned the historical reality of these things and so much of our sacred story, people of faith have struggled to find ways to reconcile faith with belief. This struggle is one of the major themes in 21st century theological reflection. Perhaps the easiest and therefore most popular responses has been to simply reject the beliefs altogether, along with the communities, institutions and rituals that go with them. Others find ways of simply living with the paradox. Another fascinating response is basically to pretend – to pretend to believe things you don’t.
In a talk last year, Brian McLaren described this as a constituent part of the logic of authoritarianism in our world. It is a logic that requires shallow certainty to give us a feeling of control, rather than the feeling of humility and belonging of understanding and entering into the logos of creation – the very being of God. Authoritarianism uses the threat of social punishment to reinforce conformity. A crucial tactic of authoritarians is to require you to pretend you are certain about things you do not actually believe or understand. McLaren contrasts this with the waves that keep crashing upon the shore without ever needing us to make certain statements about their physics. The waves just keep coming, regardless of our belief about them or not, and invite us into their movement and life.
I once had a parent speak with me because she was concerned about her faith. This mom was struggling because her son had died tragically… accidentally. The circumstances of her son’s death were such that there was nobody to blame and no particularly good or satisfying explanation. It was an accident that could only have been prevented, maybe, had her active, young adult son, stayed out to the mountains he, and the whole family, loved. And so even a couple of years after his death, this loving mom struggled with her faith. I don’t know if she ever specifically prayed “increase my faith!” but her concern and her desire was something close to it.
The thing was, she continued not only to attend church, but to fulfill her various ministry responsibilities. “Increase my faith!” she cried, metaphorically and maybe literally. And I wondered… given one of the worst possible circumstances anyone could face, why on earth she would still show up for her altar guild duty? Or participate in that committee? Or bother with church or God at all?!? This woman had suffered a terrible loss, but it was abundantly clear that it wasn’t her faith that was lost. She had faith that “could say to [a] tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey.” She just didn’t know that, because it didn’t feel as it once had. Her faith was different than she had previously known, though it had never really occurred to her to leave it behind. She just imagined that faith should somehow feel different than it did now. That she should be somehow more stoic, or more happy, or more confident in her faith. She didn’t notice that her day-to-day living, her continuing on being the loving and reliable Christian she’d always been, meant she had more than enough faith.
“Increase our faith!” the disciples cry. And Jesus responds in a way that implies it is not the right request. Faith is not a commodity that can be bought and sold. Faith isn’t distributed in measurable units, like apples or cars or good feelings. Faith isn’t given as a reward for good behaviour or taken away as a punishment for bad. Faith isn’t about looking calm and together while your legs are working hard underneath to keep you above water. Faith isn’t about how hard we work at it, or how we feel about it. Faith isn’t about us, at all.
Faith, rather, is lying back in the ocean and letting the water hold you up, keeping you afloat, while you do nothing at all. Faith is like “step[ping] out onto air you can not see” or “taking a step when it looks like there’s no where to go.” (Working Preacher podcast) Faith is about who God is, not in a measurable quantity of… something… anything. And so maybe the point is just to have faith… and to know we have it… and to simply live with confidence in God. Maybe the point is to float, cradled in the arms of the ocean, and enjoy the warm sun on your face.