Friday, August 13, 2010

Helping Our Unbelief

Heb. 11:1-16[1]
It seems to me that we live in a world that trains us to be “unbelievers.” Everything from shopping to listening to the news to financial planning conspires to make us skeptics. The familiar warning, caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” could be translated into just about every aspect of our lives. “Wary” seems to be the standard operating procedure if you want to survive. Even when it comes to seemingly simple activities such as networking with friends over the internet, you have to essentially withhold trust from anybody you don’t know, because it seems like everybody out there is trying to take you for a ride! Given this reality of (post-) modern living, it would seem that “unbelief” is the wisest approach to take.
Even those of us who call ourselves Christians and who make a practice of attending to matters of faith in our daily lives tend to approach our faith to all intents and purposes as functional agnostics. If we’re honest with ourselves and each other we have to admit that within our faith there are great helpings of unbelief. You may find this shocking, but I’m not sure that we’re all that different from believers of every age and time. Even the first Christians struggled with faith. Even the people who followed Jesus, who walked with him and talked with him and ate with him and learned with him, struggled with faith.
It would seem that the “Hebrews” to whom our lesson today was addressed were not all that different from us when it comes to faith. Like “believing unbelievers” throughout the ages, it would seem that they struggled with the fact that faith is incredibly ambiguous. It deals with “things hoped for” and “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). In the midst of some fairly intense difficulties of their own, it would seem that they found themselves up against the hard reality that faith is something inward, subjective, mystical and mysterious; it is something impossible to wrap your hands around and get a firm grip.[2] As a result, like many of us, it would seem that they found that the life of faith leaves you feeling like you’re hanging in mid-air at the end of a rope and you have no idea what that rope is attached to![3]
And yet, the apostle to the Hebrews insists that there is something more to faith than just a subjective feeling of trust. He calls it “the substance of things hoped for.”[4] And in case anybody out there wanted to dispute the “substantial” nature of faith, he provides them with a summation of some of the greatest acts of faith in the history of the people of God. Through the stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Rahab, the apostle to the Hebrews demonstrates the nature of faith. But he does so not with an abstract metaphysical treatise, but with a lengthy rehearsal of very tangible actions that faith inspired in the lives of the great witnesses who have gone before: setting out on a journey, bearing a son, hiding a baby, enduring suffering and imprisonment and even death. The conclusion he impresses upon the doubters of his day and ours is that faith takes place at the intersection of “what is not seen” and very tangible, concrete, visible actions in real life.[5]
Because of the inherent difficulties surrounding faith, we should not be surprised that it doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It is something you have to cultivate; and yet, how do you cultivate something as elusive as faith? The place to start is to realize that we are all always in every aspect of our faith in the constant position of praying “I believe, help my unbelief.” The place to begin is to admit that we do not believe—at least not always![6]
But I think beyond that the apostle to the Hebrews gives us a clue when he recounts the faith of those who have gone before. In a very real sense, the only way to cultivate faith is to take the risk of plunging in to the life of faith. We cultivate faith when we recite the prayers and confessions of faith and sing the hymns, when we encourage and support the community of faith, and when we give ourselves away in service to others.[7]
You might say that it sounds like a vicious circle: the only way to learn faith is to have faith. But how do you cultivate what you don’t have? I don’t think it’s really that cut and dried. I think that what the exemplars of faith in our lesson show us is that, like many aspects of life, faith is a matter of learning by doing. In other words, we all have to strike out on faith without really knowing where we’re going, or whether we even have faith. But in the process of doing those things that faith would have us do, we discover despite our unbelief the seeds of faith growing in our hearts.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/8/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:156, where he says, “Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen,’ of things whose truth lies in God alone. Hence the believer who builds his life on such things has God alone and nothing else as his support and basis.” Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 15 where he says, “To have a religious sense of life is to long with a restless heart for a reality beyond reality.”
[3] Barth, Dogmatics 2.1:159, says that the life of faith involves a feeling of as if we are “suspended and hanging without ground under our feet.” From this perspective, it’s no wonder that for many of us our lives are a matter of “the flight from faith.”
[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreter’s Bible XII:131; he says that the term hypostasis or “substance” “points us to a reality that does not owe its existence to human awareness.”
[5] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 113, where he says that faith as an inward reality sings “We shall overcome,” while faith as an outward reality marches on Selma!
[6] Cf. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 323.
[7] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 325: “Faith in God is only possible when we live by faith.”

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