A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Faith From The Heart

In one of my favorite Paul stories, Paul is in Athens and takes some personal time to walk around the city and observe. And he’s rather impressed at what he sees. Clearly the people are very religious. They have altars built in honor of many different gods. But he is particularly intrigued by one altar which states simply, “To an unknown God”. Later, he points this altar out to the people and says, “The unknown God you refer to here, that’s the true God, the God of all. But don’t think you can confine this God by your little altar. This God will blow all your preconceptions to pieces. You can’t contain God (Acts 17:22-31).
We are so like the Athenians. We are also a highly religious people and we have altars built to all different forms of God as well. We have altars built to worship an angry, vengeful God. We have altars for God the shepherd. We have altars for a God committed to social justice. We have altars for God the judge. And on and on. We also have an altar for an unknown God. Up until recently, it’s probably been our most neglected altar, all grown over with time and neglect. But it’s there and always has been. This altar doesn’t contain God either, it simply points in a truer direction than all the rest.
Religion is a two-edged sword. The goal of religion is good. The goal is simply to bring us closer to and expose us to truth. And this does happen. When religion works as it should, we do see aspects of God more clearly. The problem with religion, however, is that it tends to get stuck in its images and has a hard time moving beyond them when truth beckons. In the book, “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity”, scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne writes, “Theology has long known that our images of God are inadequate to the infinite richness of his nature; that human concepts of God are ultimately idols to be broken in the face of the greater reality.”
Religion is our spiritual institution. It’s where we put our idols for safe keeping. Idols may obscure truth, but at least they‘re tangible and in that sense, real. In contrast, the unknown God is anything but. At the same time we long for truth. We yearn for it. But we are unable to hold it without attempting to pin it down with words. We wrestle with this tension every day, because we want to be able to grab hold of essence and dissect it with understanding, but when we try, truth hardens into an idolatry devoid of life.
Maybe what we need is a spiritual shift from head to heart. I came across an interesting commentary on faith in “The Heart of Christianity” by theologian Marcus Borg. Borg points out that for most of us faith has become primarily a set of beliefs and thus a matter of the head. Faith and belief have become almost synonymous. He writes, “Faith means believing in spite of difficulties, believing even when you have reasons to think otherwise. It means believing ‘iffy’ things to be true.”
Idols thrive on beliefs. Which God do you believe in, do you relate to? God as love, God as judge? Faith as belief also means doubt or disbelief become sins.
Quoting again, “That Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads--as if ‘believing the right things’ is what God is most looking for, as if having ‘correct beliefs’ is what will save us….Moreover, when you think about it, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
Fortunately, Borg goes on to describe three other Biblical ways to understand the word, “faith”. The first is to experience faith as trust. Recall to mind the familiar gospel passage which reminds us that if God feeds the birds of the field and clothes the lilies of the field, God will surely provide for us (Luke 12). Here, the opposite of faith is worry, is anxiety.
Second, faith as fidelity or loyalty, faithfulness. We are faithful, not to beliefs about God, but to God. Many times throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are accused of being unfaithful, adulterous in their relationship with God. Most often, this is because of idolatry.
Third, faith as a way of seeing. Really, this one is a measure of how well we live in faith as trust and faithfulness. This gets at our world view. Do we tend to view the whole picture of life with a good deal of pessimism and anxiety? Or do we chose to trust God to such an extent and put our allegiance so behind God, that instead we are able to view life as “life-giving and nourishing”? This is a tough one!
Faith as belief tends toward something rigid, uncompromising. Faith as belief will be very uncomfortable with an altar for an unknown God, because what can be known about such a God?! However, faith as trust, faith as faithfulness, faith as vision - none of these require a rigid belief system. They allow God the freedom to be God. They allow us the freedom to seek out truth, wherever that may lead us. For all the good Christianity has accomplished, I do believe it has often also tried to shut off access to a lot of avenues to truth. Every religion is guilty of this.
In this same passage from Acts, Paul says, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us (26-27).” God has engineered all of life to point towards God. We are created to search for God. And God is never far from any of us.
I’ve come across this story before, but I read it again in Borg’s book and was struck again by the profound truth it reveals. He writes, “Several years ago I was told a story about a three-year old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in her family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of the parents bringing a new baby boy home from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents a bit uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.
“So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door and raced to the intercom listening station. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God--I’ve almost forgotten.”
I don’t know if this story is factually true or not. But I do believe it to be true in the most important sense. And I believe this because it fits with my beliefs about God. I believe we are born with an intimate connection to God and that God maintains this connection our entire life even while we allow life to interfere and feel this connection less often as we age. Paul reminds us that God is “never far from each one of us.”
Continuing with verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” And for fun, let just add John 14:17 to the mix too, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
So we are simultaneously within God. All of God’s created world, however large this world may prove to be, we are all contained within the body of God. And we are all indwelled with the Spirit of God as well. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of an image that begins to help us get our minds around this truth. This God is so far beyond our ability to understand and yet I feel so completely at peace placing my trust and allegiance in this God.
Last summer, when my daughter was seven, she wrote a book called, “Our World”. This is what she said, “The world is a place for love and kindness. A place for peace. A star is a place for gas. A place for fire too. God is a place for love and joy! We are a place for our heart! And the world is a place for us!
I was struck at the idea of God as a place, a place that is present wherever there is love and joy, and ourselves as a place for our hearts. Becca’s picture for God was a lot of hearts. Her picture of people is a body with a heart inside. We are that place in which God can dwell. And the world is the place for us to live and demonstrate God’s love through kindness and peace. I love the way she put the pieces together. Her mind is still largely free of so many of the beliefs which govern and limit our grown-up imaginations.
But no matter the level of our ability to apprehend, no matter how unknown God will always be in our lives, still God is there. The truth will seek us out. We are contained within the body of God and within us God’s spirit dwells. Our response need only be belief, trust, faithfulness and a gracious vision of life that owes it’s all to God’s presence. Keep the faith.

Forgot to mention that this is by Lynn.  I just posted it because she is away from her computer right now.  Sorry for any confusion!


Charlene said...

This post is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. And I don't even call myself a "Christian", because I don't believe in any of the doctrines or views of God I was taught in my "church of origin", nor am I comfortable "worshiping" or practicing any of those sacraments in any of those ways. But this, what you've said right here, this is the experience of "god", or "goddess", or "nature", that I get when I go outside and lie down in the grass and look up at the sky.

Lynn Schlosser said...

Thanks Charlene. I have several friends backpedaling from the Christian label. I've considered it myself. God is so beyond our understanding, it's no wonder we attempt to pin her/him down with words, but the joke seems to be on us as our imaginations end up shackled. Still, I believe God comes near in unexpected, scary, quiet and comforting ways.