Almost a decade ago I taught a course entitled “Responding to the New Atheism” at Christian Theological Seminary. A number of best-selling books had come out, written by atheists who blamed terrorism on faith and who didn’t hesitate to say how utterly deluded people of faith like me must be to believe the hogwash they thought we believed.
This week’s readings remind me of one book in particular, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004]. Mostly I find the book exasperating, but it makes some points that are quite sobering. So this reflection amounts to a bit of an answer to some of Harris’s criticisms. When I talk with atheists and agnostics, they, like Harris, tell me that what I mean by “faith” has nothing to do with the Bible, and they tell me that I could never get away with preaching on this. But I did preach a version of this reflection to a Lutheran congregation, and I apparently got away with it.
According to Harris, faith is believing a bunch of ideas for no good reason except that they’re found in a book that’s been said by somebody or other to come directly from God. And since there’s no good reason for that belief either, it’s belief for no good reason at all, “mere motivated credulity” (65). And I have to say that, if that’s what faith is, Harris is right. We need to get over it. Sure, it can be the faith of very loving people. But it’s also the faith of fanatical terrorists—and I’m not talking about just Muslims. Our country is full of Christians who are willing to kill whole populations in the name of Christian values.
That may be what faith means for way too many people: belief for no good reason at all. But I don’t think it has much to do with what the Bible says about faith. For Paul, for the writer of Hebrews, and, by the way, for Martin Luther, the only kind of faith worth talking about is the faith of Abraham. Paul and Luther especially loved to quote our first lesson for today: Abraham believed God; and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
For Abraham, the way his story is told, faith did involve believing, or better, trusting. It involved believing, trusting, the Word of God. It involved believing in, trusting, the God who came to him in that Word. But it certainly did NOT involve blindly believing a bunch of ideas found in a holy book.
You never would have heard Abraham say, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” He didn’t have a Bible, not even a part of the Bible. Who knows if he could even read? The Word of God came to him in a vision, not a book. Maybe it was an altered state. Maybe it was a really vivid imagination. But there was no Bible, no Church Council or Pope, no Creed, no Catechism, not even a local minister. There was only a Word that came to him as an engaging presence. This was not a bunch of ideas found in a holy book. It wasn’t even a bunch of ideas, period, though it hinted at some. It raised more questions than answers. For Abraham it was an engaging, uncontainable presence that claimed him with a vivid, promising sense of direction he couldn’t afford to ignore.
And so Abraham believed, he trusted whomever or whatever this uncontainable, promising presence was. He never thought to ask if it was really there. He knew he had been claimed by something-or-other beyond his control that wouldn’t leave him alone. The only question he asked was, “Is it really promising? Is this stubborn sense of direction worth following?” And he decided to trust it enough to keep traveling, waiting to see what else might unfold.
And I hope you noticed that he did not trust blindly. When that Word came to him, his first response was to challenge it. “God, you tell me that I and Sarah and our descendants will be a blessing for all the families of the earth. But Sarah and I are having trouble producing those descendants. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s your fault. ‘You have given me no offspring’.” He kept believing only because he still couldn’t afford to ignore this vivid, promising sense of direction, this Word that came to him in spite of his misgivings. It gave him a good-enough reason to keep traveling. But he never stopped questioning.
In fact, as the story goes, the very next time God made a promise to Abraham, Abraham had the nerve to laugh in God’s face (17:17). And the time after that, God actually sought some moral guidance from Abraham, and Abraham had the nerve to offer some (18:25): “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” God said, almost reluctantly, “Well, I guess so.” At least that’s how the story goes.
Now I have to admit I don’t think God needs moral advice, not if God is really God. When I read a story like this, with Abraham talking God into being more just, I have to assume that Abraham is actually talking himself into a more consistent vision of God. (Or it could be the writer who’s working things out, or several writers or storytellers having a debate, as rabbis often did.) He’s met an uncontainable, promising presence, but his culture shapes how he perceives it, so he’s got some sorting out to do. And he does that by addressing the God he perceives, hoping some new perceptions might emerge. And so they do.
There’s only one episode where it seems that Abraham didn’t challenge God, and it’s the story that, if you’ll forgive the expression, ought to scare the bejeezus out of all of us. I’m talking of course about when Abraham heard God telling him to offer his son Isaac as a “burnt offering.” You and I wouldn’t hesitate to call Child Protective Services if we heard anybody even considering such a thing today, but Abraham didn’t raise any objections. That seems out of character.
I have a hunch about this story, though. We’re told that God was testing Abraham, but I wonder just who was testing whom. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” That’s what Abraham expected of God, and he was not afraid to lecture God about it. The way the story unfolds, Abraham never actually agrees to go along with this. To God all he says is, “Here I am.” He told his men that he and Isaac would both return after they’d made the sacrifice. He told Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice. It sounds like Abraham didn’t believe God would make him go through with this. So that makes me wonder if Abraham hadn’t decided to play a game of chicken with God, or at least his vision of God.
That’s my hunch. And if the hunch is right, it seems Abraham won. He made God blink first, or so it seemed to him. Instead of objecting to what he’d heard from God, he went through the motions of obeying until he heard God raise the objection. To him it seemed that he forced the God he had heard to admit that there are some things the judge of all the earth could not command, after all.
Abraham believed God. He trusted whoever or whatever this uncontainable, promising presence was. He decided to trust it enough to keep traveling, waiting to see what else might unfold. But his trust didn’t keep him from arguing with God, even lecturing God, every step of the way. He did not believe blindly.
Sam Harris might be right to say that today most of us have forgotten this restless, questioning side of faith. But that’s how the Bible presents faith in this passage that Paul, Luther, and countless others consider a defining moment. And it’s not the only passage. Think of Jacob, wrestling God to a stalemate and insisting “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). After that wrestling match God called him “Israel,” which means “God-wrestler.” Think of Moses, refusing to cut any private deals with God that would leave his people behind (Exodus 32:10-14). Think of all the Psalms that call God practically every name in the book, insisting that God had better live up to God’s promises. Think of the Canaanite woman, praised for her faith, who by arguing convinces Jesus that he has to be as kind to her as to any of his own people (Matthew 15:21-28). In the Bible itself, nobody says, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Maybe we shouldn’t either.
We heard another sketch of faith in our second lesson from Hebrews. It’s not really a definition, just a sketch. And this is the passage that really provokes Harris’s scorn. Faith, our translation reads, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” To Harris, it sounds as though a warm fuzzy feeling is all you need in order to believe whatever you want.
“Let’s see how this works,” he says (64): “I feel a certain, rather thrilling “conviction” that Nicole Kidman is in love with me. As we have never met, my feeling is my only evidence of her infatuation. I reason thus: my feelings suggest that Nicole and I must have a special, even metaphysical, connection—otherwise how could I have this feeling in the first place? I decide to set up camp outside her house to make the necessary introductions.”
Obviously, a warm fuzzy feeling is no good reason to believe anything. It makes faith indistinguishable from the delusions of a pathetic stalker. And I don’t blame Harris for heaping scorn on the idea. But our translators did a lousy job here. The word they translate as “assurance” does not really mean a feeling. Almost everywhere else it’s translated as “being” or “existence” or “presence.” Faith springs up in the presence of things hoped for—a promising presence, an uncontainable, promising presence.
We meet an uncontainable, promising presence in our lives, and though we may question it, we trust it enough to keep traveling, waiting to see what else might unfold. That’s the faith of Abraham, and it’s also the faith of Hebrews. Too bad our translators did such a lousy job. And too bad Harris never consulted a good study Bible or a commentary. Faith is not a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s trusting an uncontainable, promising presence that won’t leave us alone.
Martin Luther agreed. “Faith,” said Luther, “is not what some people think it is. … Faith is God’s work in us, … a living, bold trust in God’s grace.” And what else is grace but God’s unconditional, uncontainable promising presence? Even though Luther brought Scripture front and center to the Church’s life, he never thought of faith as believing a bunch of ideas for no good reason except they’re found in the Bible. We trust the Bible, he said, only when it brings us to God’s living Word of welcome, Jesus Christ. If it doesn’t bring us into this uncontainable, promising presence, it doesn’t even count as Scripture. These are Luther’s words:
“All Scripture sets forth Christ …What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod does it” (online here).
What a radical Luther was! Scripture trumps tradition, but Christ, the living Word, God’s uncontainable, promising presence made flesh, trumps even Scripture. (“Christ is Lord of Scripture.” Lectures on Galatians, LW 26:295f.) Faith comes not from a book, but from meeting the source of that book, the uncontainable, promising presence we’ve come to know as God-with-us in Jesus Christ.
That’s faith according to the Bible and according to the people who passed this faith down to us. Harris says this is some academic theologian’s rarified idea of faith. But that’s not true. It’s practically as old as writing itself. And it’s what underlies everything we say about God.
People can cook up arguments for the existence of some abstract being “behind” the Big Bang. Some of them are even worth considering. But faith isn’t waiting on those arguments. The God who creates everything, the one from whom and through whom and in whom all things exist (Romans 11:36), has come nearer to us than we are to ourselves in a living, engaging, promising Word, just as that Word came to Abraham. As we celebrate God-with-us in Jesus Christ, as we take time to praise, to pray, to listen, to eat and drink, we realize we’ve been claimed by something-or-other beyond our control that won’t leave us alone. We catch a glimpse of that living Word at work in us. We barely know how to describe what we’ve glimpsed, but with all our questions we’re willing to be carried along, trusting what we’ve just barely seen. We don’t need proofs, but we’re not trusting blindly.
That’s my answer to Sam Harris for now. But he still has an important challenge to make to us. If that’s what faith has always meant, why don’t more people know about it? Martin Luther faced the same problem. Remember how he said that faith isn’t what people think it is? He was objecting to the same dumbed-down version of faith that Harris wrote about. Too many people would like somebody else to do their questioning for them and then just tell them what to believe. Too many people want to turn to the back of the book to find the answers without knowing how to ask the questions. That’s not the faith of the Bible. But it’s the faith that way too many people settle for, both inside and outside the churches.
Maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe that’s what most people want, and maybe no amount of preaching and teaching will stop them from clinging to pat answers and shutting out anybody who might see things differently. But I’d like to believe we could make at least some headway here. Sometimes I think skeptics like Harris are more like Abraham or Paul or Luther than the Christians who campaign so loudly and self-assuredly for “Christian” values. Maybe, without knowing it, these skeptics are being “called by God”—claimed by something-or-other beyond their control that won’t leave them alone—to provoke the rest of us to speak up and say that’s not what we mean by faith. We’re responding with all our questions to an uncontainable, promising presence, God-with-us in Jesus Christ, and we’ll never be content with blindly believing what we’re told.