The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
We heard a portion today of the magnificent epic in the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which the unknown author rapturously sings of the forbearers of all of us who live by faith. As in most of these appeals to the past, the author’s purpose is to infuse present readers with the courage to live as worthy descendants of those who have gone before. It appears that the original recipients of this letter, having seen that their newly forming Christian faith was putting them at risk, had begun to hedge their bets a bit. The searing issue over which the author holds a steady hand is the necessity of faithfulness: to remain loyal when promises seem not to be kept means we must learn to live by faith.
But what if the one that appears not to keep the promise made is God? This, you see, is the crisis behind this letter, and it can be a crisis for us. The new and better life we hoped for, this Christian life free from the fear of death and guilt, this spiritual life no longer bound by rage or grief, some of which we tasted in the early days of surrendered belief, seems never to come to full term. The new growth of joy and peace in us seems, as the summer of our years bears down, never to bear fruit, and in our fall appears a dry stock. We had dared to believe that this optimism and energy were signs of the presence of God in us. Now, we are not so sure. Now, we find no way to silence the voices that snicker that we are on our own, scouting our own untracked and inconclusive way through the cosmos. As we look back on our early confidence, we see only ignorance. We feel we were not faithful, only gullible. We opt to drop it.
This Letter to the Hebrews, you see, is about us. James Wind, Director of the Alban Institute, says that in our day, “even those who understand themselves to be religious live functionally atheistic lives. … Our lives buzz and move without reference to the sacred.” He was speaking of the loss of that great frame of meaning that ordered the life of more credulous people. We, in our more advanced day, consult a meteorologist, not a minister, if we are concerned about the weather, an ophthalmologist, not a pastor, if we are concerned about our vision, a psychiatrist, not a priest, if we are concerned about our dreams–or perhaps we simply increase our dose of Nyquil. I say it more harshly than Dr. Wind. We do not simply inhabit functionally atheistic lives, as if that were no more than an environment through which we move. We ARE functional atheists. We have earned that distinction, another one of our accomplishments above and against our nature, through great effort, by refusing to be terrorized by taboos, by carefully studying what worked and what didn’t, by investing with narrowly focused eyes where we received a greater return, by learning to suppress intuition in favor of speculation.
We have been on this track since humanity came of age in the 18th century. We were finally moving out from under the tyrannous control of the Church, escaping its obscurantist dogma and its unaccountable inquisition. With the establishment of scientific reason, nothing could ever again block free inquiry. Anyone who wished to take on that discipline, in that era of the dawn of human rights, could receive the rewards. Those rewards were great, and the freedom and dignity promised to us in Christ took on a new meaning. This cost us, of course, respect for the supernatural claims of religion–and included in those claims bartered away were religion’s supernatural consolations.
Many of those consolations were inextricably woven together with an understanding of how God is present in our life. God was understood to provide both protection and purpose, even to the point of intervening on our behalf and of receiving us at the end of life. In fact, the relationship that Abraham and God have is presented as the paradigm of faith. God will be Abraham’s shield; God will give him descendants and land to receive as an inheritance. Few of us could claim to be so sure.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in a section we did not hear this morning, gives a succinct summary of faith. “Without faith,” he says, “it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Faith has these basic components: to believe that God exists–the conviction of things not seen–and to believe that God rewards those who seek that divine presence–the assurance of things hoped for. Two quick reactions are possible for us: we will either agree that we believe exactly in this way and demonstrate our faith by crushing all questions, or we will be startled to find ourselves hesitating and pulling back, unsure that God exists, and definitely not convinced that our spiritual longing culminates in a personal reward. For the remainder of this sermon I will examine and comment on these two strands.
There is no question, with the rise of the fundamentalist reactions to modernity, that faith as defiance has appeal. In fact, in some circles it seems that the more implausible the propositions to which we proclaim our consent, the more heroic our faith. Whatever the evidence, we reckon it as righteousness to take on an unyielding stance. It is not surprising that this brutal tightening of our spirit will explode into violence. Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God, on the rise of fundamentalism in our century, speaks of a kind of spiritual myopia, by which the refreshment of the spirit promised in all the Abrahamic religions is demanded as present material and political satisfaction, which the true believer is even called by God to impose on others. Suicide bombings and assassinations follow naturally, divinely authorized.
However, the tyranny is in the stance, not the content. The issue is not simply what is believed, but how. So-called liberal positions can be no less crushing—a single standard intolerantly imposed and by which everyone is judged. Jesus warns about laborers eager to rip up an entire sown field in order to make sure they remove the weeds. True believers at whatever end of the spectrum want God, rather than ultimately securing the outcome, to immediately endorse their position and bless their crusade.
This seems, frankly, to ignore the heart of the passage of the Letter to the Hebrews. The author makes the point that to live by faith is to live as strangers and sojourners, as wanderers and explorers who do not settle down. To live by faith is to live beyond security, even the security of always being right. Faith will give our life hope, but not if we insist that the promise must be fulfilled in a single way that we will not surrender. Perhaps what is called for is a shift of emphasis: if faith is believing that God rewards those who seek him, the more defiant true believers could learn to rest in the search rather than the reward. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out that none of these who lived by faith received what was promised. They saw the fulfillment from afar and greeted it and died without its possession.
How different that would make the life of the true believers! To live knowing that the desire at our core, whether for a conservative purity and order or for a liberal freedom and tolerance, whatever our vision of security, can only be greeted from afar, though faith assures us of something we hope for. To live knowing all of us die on the journey towards the fulfilled promise of our vision. To live knowing none of us who live by faith enter into possession, because possession is the end of faith, though faith is the conviction of things not seen. To live knowing that we are changing ourselves into the likeness of our hopes. Such a life will change a true believer.
This is why the author of the Letter says God is not ashamed to be called their God–a startling phrase! Those who live by faith do not narrow their vision to make bitter demands on what is at hand, because that is effectively to deny what is beyond. To set out grimly to fix the world all too often is to forget God. The functional atheism of the true believer is rooted here: action without discernment. We might change many things in our life if we paused to wonder whether or not what we do in God’s name is something of which God might be ashamed. To seek God and to know that all rewards are in God’s hands is to honor God. Of such believers, God is not ashamed.
The second strand is the strand of the true disbeliever, the despairing agnostic, the one unsure of God and skeptical of God’s rewards. The functional atheism at work here is clear. We live and move and have our being in systems built without the assumptions of the supernatural categories that were taken for granted when Christianity was being formed, and that still essentially oppose the dogmatic antiscientific tyrannies into which the Church evolved.
Many theologians of the century that just ended struggled to articulate faith in consideration of the honest doubts of our culture. Tillich, for example, was clear that God certainly does not “exist,” if by existence we mean that God is an object among other objects, a being among other beings, but simply the biggest of all. Jewish theologians were not the only ones to look at the Holocaust and proclaim the death of God. Clearly some understanding of God was exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Clearly the God we Christians proclaimed and praised was powerless to stop that atrocity, neither rescuing by miracle nor intercepting by moral clarity in the hearts of the Christians involved, and the latter remains far more troubling. What God and what conviction had we been relying on and affirming that failed so bitterly?
In the deepest sense, then, we no longer have an enduring city in Christendom. We must return to what was promised in Jesus the Christ and try to hear it anew. We must look at a table set with bread and wine, at a cross, at an empty tomb, and we must try to see again what is really there. Supernatural claims are no longer viable. We must look to see if they are even necessary. What is left for us to affirm, if the great intervening God of Biblical myths does not exist? If we are convinced those stories are stories, what do we proclaim?
The hardest thing in the world to do is to see what it really here. And what is really here is never what is permanent. So as far back as we can see, human beings have reached out a hand to steady themselves and affirmed that their hand was taken securely by the grasp of God, whom we defined as one, enduring, and sure. Yet we have no proof. Oddly, the greatest reinforcement of our faith possible is to learn patience with our terror, to learn, also here, how to see. What we observe then, if we look at our life, is that we step forward daily, sustained by what we do not understand, that we are mysteriously cared for.
I have often found Ken Wilber’s work helpful. In a recent book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, he writes about the reestablishment of religious claims. The modern flattening worldview, that allows no spiritual depth or height, is deadly. In its bid for human freedom and dignity, it dismissed religion as faulty science and vicious politics. Wilber is clear that in our age, the more dangerous blindspot is not in religion, but in science. However, given the overwhelming triumph of scientific method in the last centuries, religion must find new ways to articulate what it offers.
Wilber points out that science has claimed religion has no data, only stories. However, the spiritual traditions of all the major faiths carry a range of data in areas that science has refused to engage. The answer is simple, and it is utterly compatible with the scientific approach. If you want to gather the data, if you want to test the claims, you must follow the method. That is certainly true of science: you must engage the hypothesis, set up the experiment, chart the results. Wilber’s point is that this is also true of religion. If you want to test the claims of faithful people through the centuries, you must follow their injunctions, make your own observations, and compare your observations with those proclaimed by the saints. The functional atheism of the true disbeliever is to want to be convinced without personal investment, to tacitly demand that God invade from the outside, as in the stories.
Wilber’s interests are in meditation and enlightenment. He insists something is known in those practices that cannot be denied and that does not need supernatural myths to prop it up, although those myths point to it. That Presence has always been, and it holds us all in life. Even if meditation is not our concern, we have other injunctions to follow in Christianity: to care for the poor and needy, to forgive, to remain alert, to pray, and to place ourselves in God’s hands. “Sell what you have,” Jesus says in Luke, “and give alms”—but only if you want to inherit eternal life. Then observe if service and simplicity and sobriety change your life for the better. If they do, then we have gathered data we can compare with what those who lived by faith claimed. The list of our forbearers in faith becomes, then, not a list of the inimitable friends of God, but a review of our partners and fellow pilgrims on the journey into God. We will understand how truly it is God’s good pleasure to give us everything.
One final comment. We heard that God reckoned Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness at the end of the first lesson. The Hebrew text is more ambiguous. It says “HE reckoned it to HIM as righteousness.” What if the original meaning is that it was Abraham who reckoned the promise God made to him as evidence of God’s righteousness? What if the point is that Abraham learned God’s righteousness in the assurance of faithful mutual commitment? What if Abraham understood that this is righteousness: our willingness to remain together on our journey and to work out together what we hope for?
This, it seems to me, is more truly our genuine anguish and our longing, the gap which faith must close: not that we are distant from God and need God to justify us, but that in this age we must find ways to affirm the reality and presence of God. We wait for the manifestation of God that we can reckon as proof of God’s righteousness in our own age. Wilber suggests that waiting is not enough; if we practice the principles, if we follow the injunctions, we will know. But even our waiting and our willingness to take on the disciplines of faith is proof that we discern from afar and rest in the assurance of something we hope for. Every time we place ourselves at the disposal of reconciliation and compassion, we show that we already live by faith, and that we greet the city whose architect and builder is God, our Eternal Source, Only-Begotten Word, and Life-giving Spirit, whom we praise this day and always.