Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1-14, Luke 8:22-25
Is faith blind? Yes…and no. Genesis tells us that when Abraham heard God command the sacrifice of Isaac, his son, he obeyed. The nineteenth century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard took this story to represent the "leap of faith" that is required of every Christian. In faith, we act without knowing what will come, and with the knowledge that we cannot know what lies ahead. In that sense, faith is blind. We rely on faith, because we cannot see the future. So, living with hope and love is an act of faith, which is largely, if not entirely, blind.
Faith goes beyond belief, as the story from the gospel of Luke illustrates. It was unbelievable that Jesus could quiet the storm, and it remains unbelievable for us today. The disciples lacked faith in Jesus, and so do we. But perhaps that is the point. If the story is taken as a parable, rather than as history, the meaning might be that faith means trusting in God-in-Christ even though there is hardly a rational basis for such trust.
I suspect manyt of us dislike these scripture passages, which is a good reason for reading them. These stories, and many of the passages in the Bible, are so obviously not factual that we are appalled by the way some Christians take these readings literally as God’s will. Yet, as enlightened souls, we ought to hesitate before concluding that our ancestors were misguided in their understanding of God and the world. The Bible has always been beyond belief…
Elie Weisel, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, reminds Christians that Jews find the story of Abraham far less shocking than the story of Jesus Christ. After all, God commands Abraham to kill Isaac but provides an animal as a substitute, whereas the New Testament affirms that God requires the death of his son as a sacrifice for human sins. The claim that sin requires shedding "the blood of a lamb" is unbelievable, when we are referring to animals in the Hebrew scriptures, but the New Testament claim that the "lamb of God takes away the sins of the world" is not only beyond belief but also monstrous. If we took this language literally, we would recoil in horror.
Clearly, faith is not reasonable. Faith is a way of living in a world that is not reasonable.
The Hebrew scriptures tell of a people living precariously among hostile tribes and rising and falling empires. These Israelites begin their story of origin with a pilgrim named Abraham, who migrates to a new land to seek a future for his descendants. Genesis 22 confirms that God will be with him and his descendants (represented by his son, Isaac), if he remains loyal to God. The relationship is conditional, so it is described as a covenant. Abraham obeys God as a way of ensuring that God, as promised, will provide Abraham with land and descendants.
In the first century, however, the New Testament faces the disheartening fact that Abraham’s descendants are an occupied people, who no longer can be certain of worshiping as their covenant with God commands. This seems to mean either that the people have broken the covenant and so God is no longer obliged to protect them, or that God has broken the covenant and abandoned the people of Israel. Astride the horns of this dilemma, the church arises with "good news" that neither of these reasonable but dreadful interpretations of scripture (and the world) are true. Instead, the New Testament proclaims, God has unconditionally forgiven the people of the covenant but also humanity, and is now offering new life to all through faith.
What could be more "beyond belief" than this? Paul argues that salvation is God’s act of grace, which no one can earn by keeping the commandments of scripture. All that anyone – Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free – needs to do is respond to God’s grace with faith, with trust in God’s love as manifested in Jesus.
The gospels make the same claim in story form. Think of the New Testament gospels not as biographies, but as parables. Each is different, but as stories they all tell us that God brings life out of death, that God inspires hope when there is good reason for despair, that God’s love is more powerful than all forms of evil.
Faith is a way of responding to this story. Faith is not a way of understanding, but a way of living. Faith is how we can embrace life despite the power of evil, despite times of despair, despite the knowledge of our certain death.
In this sense faith is a virtue – like love, hope, courage, and humility. None of these nouns have plurals, because they denote a way of being, and only in the past century has faith been given a plural – the word "faiths" when it is used as a synonym for religions. Moreover, virtues all can be expressed as adjectives – loving, hopeful, courageous, humble, faithful – because virtues have to do with the way that we may be. This is not true of nouns like belief, idea, conviction, etc. These words have plurals – beliefs, ideas, convictions – because they refer not to who we are, but to what we have or hold. And for the same reason these words do not take the form of adjectives. It makes no sense to say that someone is belief-ful, but we know at once what it means to say that a person is faithful.
So, when we affirm faith, hope and love, or the other virtues we associate with our true humanity, we are not just talking about the Bible, but about how human beings may be – whether or not they are Christians or Jews or formally religious in any way. Being faithful is a way of living. Hope is not based on a reasonable calculation of what might happen, but a way of trusting in what will be. Love is not simply an emotion, but a way of responding unconditionally to the humanity of others – even others who may be our enemies.
These are human possibilities, but because we experience them as not merely of our own making we have a different way of talking about them. Faith, hope and love, and the other virtues, transcend our understanding and thus our rational sense of reality. Therefore, we talk about them in relation to what we call spiritual, divine or religious. Moreover, we acknowledge that we are capable of such virtues only because of a power in our lives that is beyond us and beyond belief. All those participating in "twelve step" recovery groups are asked to put their trust in a Higher Power, and most of us refer to this source of our true humanity as God. In the church, we celebrate the presence of God in human flesh and in our world through stories and rituals that express and strengthen our commitment to follow in the way of Jesus.
In this sense we might say that faith is not blind at all. Because we are finite, we are blind. Faith is how we are able to embrace life – despite the blindness of our finitude – with courage, hope and love.
In faith, we seek understanding, but understanding is not necessary for faith. In fact, we share our faith with many Christians, who have quite different beliefs about Jesus and God. Moreover, there is more good news in the 21st century. Among Jews, Muslims and people of various religious traditions, some of us are making the astounding discovery that we are united in faith even as we remain divided by our beliefs. Part of the gospel message today, which gives us hope for our time, is that people of diverse religious traditions can live together in peace.
For human virtues, such as faith, hope and love, we give thanks. Alleluia!