Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
January 10, 2010
THE MEANING OF FAITH TODAY
Texts: Luke 2:39-40, 52; 3:21-22
Today we dedicated a child, Harper, and next Sunday we begin our 8th grade discipleship class preparing them for baptism. Two important moments in our life of faith together. Originally I had planned to offer a sermon in the form of a letter to my daughter and son, but I will first write them more personally. Then I hope later to offer you such a letter. Instead, I will give a sermon on the meaning of faith – especially Christian faith. It is a foundational kind of word I’d want both them and you to have.
In his newest book The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox says that the Spirit of God in our day is causing an upheaval that is “shaking and renewing” Christianity. “Faith rather than beliefs,” he writes, “is once again becoming its defining quality.”1
I think he is right. And we at Myers Park Baptist Church, as a “non-creedal” church, are primed to respond to this movement of God’s Spirit.
Let’s begin with the word “faith.” It is a tricky word. Often people think of faith in terms of beliefs, doctrines: I believe this or I believe that. Historical creeds are set up this way. Some ask, “How many of these things do I have to believe in order to be a Christian?” A friend of Harvey Cox described himself to Cox as “a practicing Christian, not always a believing one.”2 I would say it this way: “I’m not a creedal Christian; I’m a practicing Christian, or try to be.” Believing is still important to me, but in a particular sense of the word. I’ll try to explain.
In the New Testament the word for faith is first a verb, “to believe.” And it is more a believing in than a believing that: a believing in God, in Christ, something personal and relational. To use words that Karen Armstrong likes to use, faith is a form of trust, confidence, loyalty, engagement.3 It is more a following of Jesus than a set of things we believe about Jesus.
Even the early Latin word from which we get the word “creed,” credo, which means “I believe” comes from the word cor do, which is closer to “I give my heart to.”
In the Bible faith is far more trust, loyalty, confidence, engagement than a set of system of beliefs.
The great Hebrew “credo” is an affirmation called the “Shema”:
Hear O Israel, Shema Y’Israel
the Lord is our God, Adonai Eloheinu
the Lord is one, Adonai Echad.
And then come the words Jesus called the first and greatest commandment:
Faith in the Hebrew scripture was a form of loving God, of “hearing and doing” in response to God, and of “cleaving” to God – which was the language of marriage.
Christian faith is a way of living life and of loving God and neighbor with Jesus at the center of that way. He is our path to God, with God, into God – which is the central meaning of our baptismal confession of faith: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Is he the only way, the only true path to God, with God, into God? I hope not. If I had been born in China or India or Japan, I might well be a Buddhist or Hindu. Are there other “saving” ways “true ways”? I surely hope so. Think of the millions today, and in former times, who, have had no access to Jesus as the way, or for whom the version of Jesus they were taught has been so distorted or contaminated that saying no to this Jesus was not saying no to the real Christ. Another way of saying it is that the Christ-Presence has been with humanity forever in all the ways God could make the Christ-Presence known.
We can only answer for ourselves, for our Christian path, and be generous in our estimation of other paths, as generous as we would hope others would be of ours. Mother Teresa once said, “I love all religions. I am in love with my own.”
In the way of Jesus, the love of God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the love of neighbor as ourselves is our central spiritual practice. Every church should have this as a central part of their mission: The increase in the love of God and neighbor.
But before, beneath this greatest of commandments is an experience. And this experience is God’s love for us as God’s own Beloved. This was the heart of Jesus’ experience of God. At his baptism the Spirit came upon him and God’s voice said, “You are my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
To our 8th graders beginning their preparation for baptism I would say: I hope you have heard and experienced these words as God’s word to you: “You are my daughter, my son, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased, in you I take delight.” And I pray you will experience it in increasing ways as you walk toward your own Jordan, your own baptism.
And I hope for us all here today that we are growing in our awareness and experience of our Belovedness.
So now I want to talk about growth in faith. What does it mean, can it mean? In our texts for today we have pictures of Jesus growing in all kinds of ways. He did not spring from Mary’s womb singing: “Ta Da! I and the Father are one / I am Yahweh’s son!”
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and God’s favor (charis, grace) was upon him.... And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in divine and human favor (charis, grace).
Jesus grew in God’s grace, grew in gracious relationship with others, grew in his experience of his Belovedness, grew in the experience of God’s pleasure in him.
But growing in faith means more. It involves mind, heart and will. Thinking, feeling, doing.
So there is an intellectual dimension of faith. As my mind grows, as I learn and experience more about life, so my faith, my theology must grow so that it encompasses all I know. In the first century they took in the sky with a naked eye. Today we take it in through a Hubble telescope. Our ideas of God have to change. As someone has quipped, “It doesn’t take a great mind to become a Christian, but it takes all the mind you’ve got!”
But theology must include our not-knowing as well. Growth in knowledge of God is not a simple progression. There is an important component in Christian theology, as well as in other spiritual traditions, of a not-knowing about God. It is part of what we acknowledge when we speak of God as Mystery or as transcendent.
Some theologians and mystics speak of two spiritual paths which are part of the one true path. One is the Via Positiva, the Positive Path, sometimes called the kataphatic path. (Think of the English word “emphatic.” Kataphatic means with images, appearances.) This is the path that uses all the images, words, ideas, experiences we have which help us know about God. Our words, images, experiences, ideas are windows open to the Divine.
But there is also the Via Negativa, the Negative Path, which does not mean negative in the ordinary since of, well, negative, or bad. It means the path of not-knowing. We let go of words, pictures, ideas, experiences. These are no longer adequate. We face what we do not know, or what we no longer can experience. This path is sometimes called the apophactic path. (Without images or appearances.) It goes without thought, images, words. It goes silent, it goes without sight, beyond beliefs. Sometimes we choose this path. Sometimes the path comes upon us and we have no other way, not now.
Some mystics have called this the Dark Night of the Soul, or the Cloud of Unknowing. The hope is, ours and God’s, that we come through this period able to know, see, believe in a deeper and truer way.
The poet John Keats called this “Negative Capability,” which he described as:
...where [someone] ... is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”4
I’ve gone through such Dark Nights. Perhaps you have too. Our experience and our hope is we emerge with a deeper, somewhat changed, faith, and with a deeper love of God and neighbor. It is a way of “going dark,” to see and learn what we need to see and learn there. Wendell Berry wrote a poem, “To Know the Dark”:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.5
But faith is more than intellectual. It involves the heart, the emotions, and something deeper than emotions. Jonathan Edwards called them “religious affections.” Things like Awe, Thanksgiving, Praise, Confession, Humility, Joy. We deepen these affections as we grow spiritually in a spiritual community.
Sometimes, as Pascal advised, we act “as if” we believe until we can believe again.
One more image about growth in faith. Benedictine David Stendle-Rast says that growth in faith is not like adding to an accumulation of beliefs. So for example last year you believed in the Apostles’ Creed and this year you’ve added the Nicene Creed. Or last year you believed in the Holy Spirit, and this year you believe in the Virgin Birth too.
Rather, he says, it is the ability to make the gesture of faith, live the life of faith, under increasing difficult or complex circumstances. He gave the illustration of faith as a hike up a mountain. You begin along easy paths and rolling hills. The sun is shining, your backpack feels relatively light. The path is well marked and easy to see. But then the path gets steeper; it is harder to see. The underbrush catches your shoes and pants. The trees overhead block out the sun. the backpack feels much heavier than when you began. But you keep going. This is faith.
You round a bend and come upon an open vista, the sun is shining, the view is breath-taking. You sit and rest. But you are not yet at the top, so you keep going, the way gets even steeper, you grow nervous about the path, then you see a blaze marker and relax. You keep on keeping on until you reach the summit. The 3600 vista is amazing. You’ve made it. It was all worth it.
In I Corinthians Paul described journey of faith with these words:
And in II Timothy, near the end of his life he wrote:
How do we begin? I forget who said it first, but I love it. The first step of faith in Christ is this: “We give as much of ourselves as we can to as much of Christ as we know!” Then the adventure begins: knowing more and more of ourselves to give, knowing more and more of Christ to give ourselves to.
Here is his promise: as we follow him, he walks with us, lives in us, grows in us. It is the joy and challenge of discipleship. It is the meaning of the Iona hymn we love to sing. “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” Will you?
1 Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2009), p. 223.
2 Ibid., p. 16.
3 Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), pp. 87 ff.
4 John Keats, “Letter to George and Georgiana Keats,” 21 December, 1817.
5 Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark,” Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), p. 107.