On Faith and Flexibility

Reading time: 15 minutes

This is a follow-up to my last post, Worthy from the Start.  Given that I have more or less disclosed my view that I no longer believe we are each born into a state of sin, I think it is important for me to pick up where I left off in my earlier post, Deconstruction & Reconstruction, and at least address my thoughts on faith and what I believe it requires of us.  (To those in the group whose mouths may be agape with incredulity because Egads! She doesn’t believe in original sin! I’ll try to set out my thoughts on that issue in a future post.)

Just so we are clear, I am not at all suggesting to have the final word on anything I share on this blog.  I am quite content to say that I don’t know everything.  At the same time, I recognize that I feel strongly enough about the things I share here to write about them.  (God help me.)  My hope is that others who take the time to peak into my little space on the web are engaged, challenged, and encouraged.  I do sincerely believe that we are called to live far better lives than what many of us are living today and it is that belief that motivates me to write what I write and to share it with you.  Some of us think that our lives would be way better if we added more tumeric to our diets (and I don’t necessarily dispute that), and then there are others like me who believe that there is infinitely more to better living.  However, regardless of what you believe, the surprises come when you look back on your life one day and find that the things you once considered to be the “right way” weren’t right at all, not by a long shot.* Just ask the people who used to think that drinking radioactive water was good for human health.**

But, returning to the subject at hand, each and every one of us is on a spiritual journey and, you know what, not every one of us will follow the same path.  I think there are many of us in the Christian tradition who are trying to find our way to the narrow gate that Jesus speaks of in the gospel of Matthew (7:13-14) and think that we know what this gate looks like.  (Growing up, I always imagined a super narrow road that could only fit the thinnest, most miserable looking people.)  But I’d like to think that when Jesus talked about the narrow gate and said that the way leading to life would be difficult, He not only meant that following His way of life would not be easy because it is such a departure from the status quo, but also that entering by the narrow gate means being up to the difficult and uneasy task of letting go of long-held, but maybe myopic, ideas about God and faith and life so that we can see Jesus Himself clearly.  Remember that Jesus came into this world completely defying every expectation, every idea that the Jews had about the Messiah.  The many who entered the broad gate in His day included those who refused to let go of their own ideas about the Messiah’s place in society and what he was meant to accomplish because they couldn’t keep an open mind and, as a result, they completely missed out on Jesus.  It would be the height of hubris to say that we could never make the same mistake about the beliefs we hold dear today.

I’d also like to remind my readers that the Bible is an open invitation to wrestle with God and to find faith in the tension–in the tension that exists between the Bible and external forces such as science and culture, and also the tension that exists within the Bible itself.  I think that there are many of us in the Church who, if we are honest with ourselves, find that we are doing more than our fair share of theological gymnastics to make the Bible say what we want it to say in order to defend its integrity as a whole or the integrity of our precious doctrines because we can’t live with the tension.  The tension makes us uneasy, it rattles what we may believe to be truth, it demands that we question what we know–all of which pulls us in a direction outside of our comfort zone and in a direction we may fear is far and away from God. Some of us have even been able to numb ourselves from the tension to the point where we’ve become experts at backing off from fully engaging with Scripture and wrestling with God about the things that perplex us, and so we go back to the things that don’t rattle our spiritual sensibilities.

But then I think of Peter walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee while the winds were blowing hard and the waves were thrashing about*** as Jesus told him to “Come” and can’t help but be convinced that God invites us to find faith–to see Jesus–in the midst of the tension, in the middle of the things that cause us the greatest discomfort. For a moment Peter could walk on water despite the rough conditions and it was only when he looked around him and he became afraid of what he saw that he began to sink. I think this happens for many of us when we are faced with scientific discoveries that clash with what we’ve been taught, cultural realities that deviate from Biblical norms, and criticisms regarding the Bible or established doctrines. Some of us have become pretty good polemicists and argue our way out of the tension so that we can find ourselves back on solid ground, and maybe even endorse interpretations that border on the irrational to make the square peg fit the round hole; and then there are others who are like Peter and just don’t know how else to deal but to be afraid. In my view, neither response leads to a dynamic or resilient faith.

Matthew goes on to tell us that when Peter began to sink, Jesus reached out and caught him and told him he had little faith. All my life I was taught that this story meant that we need to believe in the power of Jesus when our lives are going sideways and that when we don’t believe and start to sink, it means that our faith is weak. But maybe more than this, this story means that Jesus’ invitation to “Come” involves being willing to step onto the rough waters and to see the wind and the waves as they are. To accept what is and not to dismiss or to fear the new, the different, the terrifying, or the unknown. We don’t have to agree with the wind and the waves, but we are invited to find Jesus in the midst of it. Maybe it’s because faith doesn’t come from fighting our way out of the storm or by being afraid of it.  Maybe faith is born and grows because of it.

In addition, I want to encourage you to trust that saying “I don’t know” from time to time and having questions (some even flat-out crazy) is not equivalent to lacking faith.  I’m referring to Matthew a lot here, but in his gospel Jesus invites us to ask and to seek (7:7).  We don’t ask and seek when we already know, so I think that God is totally okay with us not having the answers to all of life’s questions, even if we have had the Bible in its current form now for over 1,600 years.  (And even that is assuming that the Bible was intended to be read like an answer book, which I no longer believe to be the case, but that’s a subject for another day and a totally different post.)  I think that in order to engage with Scripture and to wrestle with God we need to–we must–ask questions. Question everything, even what you believe about God.

What’s more, there truly is no reason for us to stick with a particular theology that is internally inconsistent or doesn’t make sense just so we can have an answer to a question.   We stunt the development of our faith, take away from the adventure of our human experience, and, more importantly, inhibit our ability to have a thriving, exciting, and transformative relationship with the Divine when we settle for an answer simply because it came from the mouth of someone standing on a pulpit or, yes, even because “the Bible told us so“.  I always find it striking how many of us believe what we believe just because it’s what we’ve been taught to believe or because the Pastor said so, and how fearful we are of venturing outside the accepted teachings and practices of our tradition, no matter what it may be. We need to stop being afraid to think for ourselves. The integrity of your own faith in God is far more important than keeping the group together. (What does it say about us as a group when the people inside it conform for the sake of conforming?) We were not made lemmings to follow each other over a cliff. Jesus refers to us as His sheep and sheep follow their shepherd.

I think that there are times when it is appropriate to appeal to mystery because it makes sense to do so, and other times when we have enough Scriptural and other information, including information from our own experience, to allow us to make up our own minds and arrive at an answer.  At the same time, we do a serious disservice to progress (because there is still progress to be had) when we settle for an answer without ever being open to the possibility that there may be more.

Over 400 years ago, the Church labelled Galileo Galilei a heretic, put him on trial, and then placed him on house arrest for the remainder of his life because he challenged the prevailing view that the earth was the centre of the universe–a view, by the way, that the Church staunchly believed was supported by a number of Biblical texts.**** Well, it turned out that Galileo was right and the earth isn’t the centre of the universe.  Hmm, go figure.  The Church was wrong.  But it adapted and moved on, and for good reason.  Alternative facts are not a thing.  So let me reassure you:  there’s nothing wrong with adapting, to changing, to evolving, to moving on from what might be our “original position” on things, especially when that position leads to the oppression, suffering, disrespect or belittling of people–the very object of God’s greatest affections and desire. I don’t think there’s any getting away from the fact that faith needs a measure of flexibility and openness to survive, to flourish, to develop resilience, to move mountains. Rigidity and narrow-mindedness are straight jackets that keep faith small, restricted, and fragile.

Finally, if Galileo’s story teaches us anything, I think it is that we have to respect the voices out there who challenge the prevailing views, to listen to them closely, and not be so quick to dismiss ideas that may make us uneasy or that challenge long-held beliefs that have become as precious to us as the One Ring was for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  These voices, oftentimes relegated to the periphery, are essential to the faith.  Faith needs discourse and engagement, not reticence and censorship. Many of these voices come from people who have a deep love for God, Jesus, the Church, and the larger community.  We make utter fools of ourselves when we cannot abide by the wise instruction of James to be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19).

So maybe try cracking the door of your heart and mind open every now and then.  You might be surprised to find a way more loving God than you could have ever imagined on the other side.

Religious certainty does not mean assurance without risk or doubt; it does not mean a fortress mentality and a strategy, but a life in ultimate relaxation, in confidence that the truth of God will establish itself even without massive human help. – Hans Kung

*In the book of Proverbs, Solomon actually counsels that “there is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (14:12).

**Eben Beyers was a wealthy industrialist living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who was one of the many in his day who believed that radioactive water was good for you.  Look him up on Google.  His death from exposure to radium inspired this headline on the Wall Street Journal: “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off“. Yikes!

***Matthew, Chapter 14, verses 22 to 33.

****Support for the view that the earth was the centre of the universe was drawn from verses in the Old Testament books of Joshua, 1 Chronicles, Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes.

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