Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith is Not Optional

The most pernicious things ever done to the concept of faith have been done by playwrights and screenwriters. And it starts with that beloved children's classic “Peter Pan.” If you remember, it is established in the play that when a child ceases to believe in fairies, one of those magical creatures dies. And apparently it works both ways. When Tinkerbell drinks some poison meant for Peter, Pan breaks the 4th wall and asks the kids in the theater to clap if they believe in fairies. I clapped like crazy when I watched the televised play starring Mary Martin back in the 60s. And that's how the damage was done. The idea was implanted in millions of impressionable minds that (a) the existence of an object of faith was dependent on the faith of its supporters and (b) faith was believing in something that you knew really didn't exist.

Show Biz's other pernicious idea on this subject is that faith is an internal quality that does not need an object. To Hollywood, having faith is akin to having courage or integrity. Just have faith, a character is often told. I have never heard a character retort “In what?” But that's what any intelligent person would say. Faith is the same as trust and any trust you have has to be invested in a person or thing. But not everything will do as the object of faith. We all realize that it is unwise to go around trusting in everyone and everything. Con men live off of people who are way too trusting. You should only have faith in someone or something trustworthy.

Whenever a screenwriter wakes up to the fact that faith is a “transitive” thing and needs an object, they make that object oneself. “Have faith in yourself,” is the single most common life lesson taught by children's books, movies and TV shows. And while this might be a good thing to teach a specific child with no self-confidence, and while it might resonate greatly in the creative community where you need to trust your instincts to get your book published or script filmed or movie made, most of the problems in the world are not caused by people who don't believe in themselves. Most are caused by people with little or no self-doubt, despite red flags everywhere saying they should.

In its most innocuous form, this misplaced trust in oneself manifests itself in the people who go on American Idol with no talent and no clue that they have no talent. At its worst, you get a failed landscape painter and ex-corporal who turns a failed coup into a book deal and a political career that enables him to exterminate 6 million Jews, 7 million other undesirables and plunge the earth into World War 2. It would have been better had Hitler not believed in himself. “Believe in yourself and follow your dream” is great advice if you are Steven Spielberg or Thomas Edison but not if you are Ted Bundy or Pol Pot. Much better to believe in something objectively worth your faith.

All of this informs the way we modern folk read Hebrews 11:1, which in the NET Bible reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” The cynic sees this as wishful thinking and imagination. The skeptic takes it as an admission that we believe in things because we want to. But the writer of Hebrews is not defining faith, just describing it. Faith is trusting in someone or something. For the Christian, faith is trusting in God. We cannot see him but like the wind, we experience the effects of his actions. And our experience leads us to trust him more. Because we experience his love, we trust his promises found in the Bible and are confident that he will do what he says. And since what he promises are good things, they become our hopes, the same way that being promised a specific present for Christmas makes you not only hope for it but be sure that your mom or dad or grandparents will deliver.

All our relationships and joint endeavors are based on promises. Those promises are either explicit, as in marriage vows or in a building contract, or implicit, as on a date when the unspoken promise is that your date will be focused on treating you well, as opposed to, say, harming you. We trust people all the time to do their jobs to make sure our electricity is there, to make sure our cell phones work, to make sure police officers, firefighters, and EMTs are on duty when we need them. It is implied that when you buy something from a merchant that it works and is not stolen. These are not things you think about, unless these implied promises are broken. And in many cases the law does assume and enforce certain implied promises, through things like the lemon law.

It is an implied promise that the news you watch, hear or read is accurate. This last promise may not always be made in good faith. If you go to a website or cable news channel with a strongly partisan viewpoint, you should be aware that the news is likely to be spun in such a way to back up the opinions of the people presenting the news. Before I post things on the internet, I usually check them out first, by Googling the fact, or going to Snopes or Politifact to see if there are any problems with it. What I especially like about or is that they do the research and they get precise. What a politician said or what a Facebook post asserted may not be completely true or completely false. The source may have left out an inconvenient detail or statistic or nuance in order to make the assertion stronger than it has a right to be. Thus it may be only Mostly True or Half True or Mostly False. The stuff that's egregiously wrong gets from Politifact the rating Pants on Fire. I wish there was a similar website that corrects the frequent and erroneous assertions about religion that circulate as memes throughout the internet. A lot of people evidently still believe that Jesus never existed, or that everything from his birth to his resurrection were taken from older pagan gods or that the church caused the Dark Ages. There are websites that correct these (even going to Wikipedia would undo most of these assumptions) but they are not well known and they don't usually rate things, true, false or in-between. My point is that what you think you know is also a matter of trust. If you trust the wrong sources, you might be badly misinformed.

Because of this reliance on other authorities, even science is a matter of faith. That is, unless they are willing to redo all previous experiments in their field or re-examine all the collected evidence, scientists who are building on the work of others are trusting that their predecessors got it right. They must have faith in the methodology, accuracy and honesty of those who went before them. And scientists being human, that is not always a good assumption to make. Just the other day, I was reading a blog by a neuroscientist who felt that the folks who made a landmark study some time ago retract it because of the mounting evidence that they were wrong. It wasn't their honesty that was in doubt but the thoroughness of their methodology. But it calls into question all subsequent research along those lines and the writer felt that a public repudiation of the earlier study by its authors was called for. Scientists being human, I wouldn't hold my breath till that took place.

Everyday in almost everything we do, we are dependent on others and must trust what they do. I got a nasty registry problem on my computer and the tech support guy said that I should stay off of You Tube. I was surprised because everyone uses that site. Precisely, he said, and anyone can upload any video with God knows what kind of viruses attached. Even legitimate websites can unknowingly harbor viruses. That's sobering. Right now on my blog, in lieu of re-commenting on the Psalms, which we are going through for the second time in the Bible Challenge, I have been seeking out and linking to various sung and musical versions of each psalm. The place I find most of them is You Tube. I just make sure I run my virus and registry cleanup software often.

So the question is not “Should I have faith?” because having to trust people and things is unavoidable. Rather the question we must ask is “who or what should I trust?” As Christians, we trust God. A lot of people have trouble with that and on various grounds.

Some people have trouble putting their faith in God because they had a bad experience with a church or with a specific person at a church. The problem with this is that they are confusing God with human beings, albeit humans who supposedly work for or represent God. It would be akin to giving up on medicine because you had a bad time with your doctor's receptionist or nurse. Most of us would ignore them or talk to them about how they made us feel or talk to the doctor about them. In a worse case scenario, you could switch doctors. In the same way, there are so many churches and clergy out there that you can find one that is sensitive to your needs. The idea of dropping God just because you don't like one church or one person is like giving up driving a car because of a bad experience at the DMV.

That said, it behooves us as Christians to remember that we represent Jesus to others. He told us not to judge other lest we be judged. He told us to forgive folks seventy times seven. He told us to leave our gift at the altar and first get reconciled to our brother or sister if we have an unresolved problem with them. It may not be rational but people can reject Christ because you, a follower, act in a less than Christlike manner toward them.

Some people don't trust in God because they have read a lot of biased and erroneous things about religion in general or Christianity in particular. If you can articulate your politics you can articulate your faith. I usually would not defend religion as a whole but defend my personal relationship with God. But make sure you really listen and understand just what the person's reason is for rejecting God. If it is a matter of erroneous facts or logic, be prepared to respectfully but firmly deal with that. There are tons of books on Christian apologetics that will help you deal with 99% of the questions people have. And if they bring up something you had not heard or considered before, admit that you don't know absolutely everything but tell them you will research it and get back to them. Just admitting that you don't have everything nailed down might impress them with your intellectual honesty and openness.

When I listen to people speak of their doubts, I often find an emotional reason behind it. They may say that they have a problem with the reliability of the Bible but you catch that their real problem is that they had a pastor or a parent who used the Bible to intellectually bludgeon them into doing things they didn't want to or to keep them from doing things they wanted to. Perhaps someone used the Bible wrongly to justify their personal opinions or behavior. When someone comes out of a rigid fundamentalist environment, they often discover that not everything they were told about the Bible or their faith was so. If their faith was like a chain, with each belief a link, then smashing just one link breaks the whole chain and their entire faith is shattered. We need to be sympathetic and gentle with such people, pointing out that what is really essential to our faith is Jesus: who he is, what he did and does for us and what our response should be. It is all about putting our trust in him and not in everything anyone ever said about him. Keep the discussion on Jesus and you won't have to deal with a lot of the red herrings skeptics can bring up.

Still, our information about Jesus comes from the Bible. Get to know it well so you can help people who have genuine questions and doubts. On my iPhone I have the Logos Bible app which gives me access to a lot of good Bibles, Bible dictionaries and reference works. One is Hard Sayings of the Bible which deals with the passages most people have questions about. The app is free and I highly recommend it.

Just as important as the contents of our faith is our experience of it. Most people are not shopping for a new intellectual system so much as someone or something to rely on in the everyday struggles of life. You as a Christian can't help them if your faith in God is mostly lodged in the logic centers of your brain and not displayed by how you approach people and life. When people turn to Jesus it is for strength and comfort and guidance usually. When they come to you to learn about Jesus because you are his follower, do you have examples of times when Jesus supplied you with those things or something else you needed? If so, that's what people want to hear. They want to know that they can trust Jesus to help them as he helped you.

Criminals detect BS a mile away. So I have to be honest when I minister to the inmates at the jail. When they realize that my faith in God is genuine, then they are encouraged to trust him. And I am, in turn, encouraged by their faith and oddly enough, by my own recalling of times when God helped me and those around me. We tend to let such things fade in our memories. It is important to remember the many times when God spoke to us, comforted us, guided us, provided for us and protected us. Not only will that kindle the faith of others, it will rekindle our faith as well.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” But once we have seen God deliver on what we hoped for in the past, it makes faith in him and his goodness easier. And once we see someone acting on faith, we can in a sense see what is otherwise invisible. Jesus makes the unseen God visible. Our trusting him in our daily life makes faith visible to seekers and skeptics.

Faith is not optional. We all have to trust people and things and the implied promises that underlie all human relationships and interactions. And we have to trust physics and the nature of creation. And because creation is way more trustworthy than people, some folks think that trustworthiness is wholly transferable to science. But science is, once again, a human endeavor and subject to our limits and foibles. It is our attempt to describe reality but is not the same as reality. It is as trustworthy and as untrustworthy as the human beings who do the science. As is religion, I might add. It is our attempt to describe the spiritual world. But just as we should not confuse science with reality, we should not confuse religion with God. It is God who gives reality its reliability. So what we ultimately need to do is form a relationship with him. A relationship based, as all relationships should be, on trust.

You can't trust every plane to take off safely but you can trust gravity to always keep you from flying off this spinning planet into space. And you can trust the God who created gravity and planets and space and the laws that govern them. You can trust him to guide you where he wants you to go and to provide for your needs along the way and to bring you safely home to him. 

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