I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.Deuteronomy 30:19
If you can’t find the book you want to read, you must write it yourself. This blog consists of notes for the book I want to read, and I would want others to read, especially my sons and friends of understanding and good will. It demands concentration, and I hope it leaves a durable trace.
This could become self-indulgent, but the intent is to set forth an account of faith in God, and of faithfulness toward those who may eventually find and read it. The working title, An Owl Among Ruins, suggests judgment upon two things: our civilization as it now is, ruinous, and upon the writer. The owl is a sagacious animal, and predaceous. He sees with great acuity, he takes his prey alive, and he spits the bones onto the desert floor.
Matters are serious. If we don’t take them seriously, we will have foregone the meaningful life; we will have annihilated ourselves before starting.
The Nature of Faith
The Owl longs to speak with theologically literate others. Literacy and numeracy are supposedly the most basic elements of education. It would be more accurate to say they are only preparations for an education. Here we posit a third thing, more basic: faith, italicized here as foreign words are, because it is a wholly outlandish thing.
Faith is neither a product of mind nor a force of nature. It is more like a gift, or even an assault, from outside the visible horizon, disproportionate in its impact. We cannot construct faith for ourselves, nor find it by some personal theodyssey. Unlike Odysseus’ assailants, the names of ours are Love, Mercy, and Freedom—all fierce enough in their ways.
Already we find ourselves touching on the subject of language as we use it inside the horizon of our contingent lives. As all agree, it has no power to describe God. But even inside our horizon, language does more than describe things; it has constitutive power. We don’t say the believer accepts this or that teaching as so; we say he or she is a Catholic, a Protestant, or whatever may be the case. Faith thrives in the absence of evidence, even in the absence of knowledge of those tenets.
Skeptics have their patronizing explanations for faith: the fear of death, the need to turn one’s doubts and anxieties over to a beneficent authority; the desire to have one’s decisions and actions taken in hand by some outside authority. Another explanation given for ir is the supposed happiness one gains by adopting a socially approved set of morals and the embrace of the a certain society.
All these are misunderstandings. If we listen to people who actually receive the faith, we find their usual reaction is neither relief from anxiety nor self-satisfaction but shame and humiliation; remorse for a regrettable past, or simply astonishment: “How could I have been so stupid for so long?”
A wise preacher I knew, an alcoholic, said his attachment to alcohol kept him in a cave, even though he knew it was a matter of life and death to get out. He would stand at the door, trying to build up courage to go in search of God. The saying, “Seek, and ye shall find” was on his mind, until he gave up and turned back inside. Then he saw that Jesus had been there all the time, waiting.
Everyone knows the sayings, Know thyself, and The unexamined life is not worth living. If one has a life to examine, or a self to know, one must already have been touched by the living God.
• • •
By a quirk of fate, I got a seminary education (M.Div., 1971). As it happened, after graduation I scarcely entered a Church until October 13, 1985—note the passage of fourteen years—when my wife and I attended a service of dedication for needlepoint kneelers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ventura.
We seldom failed a Sunday after that. There came the day when we heard a Lenten homily by the Rev. Canon Keith deBerry. He said, “Here it is: the Love that made the world; the Love that made you; the One who knows you better than you know yourself. Do you want it, or not?” Then he taught us a prayer for whoever wanted to use it, simply asking for the gift of faith. No one need stand or raise a hand. Those who had no need could pray for the others who had. He promised that as we left he would ask each of us whether we had made the prayer, and to each who said yes he would give a copy of the Gospel of John. As we left, Judy and I were each surprised to hear the other say Yes. For years afterward, we scarcely missed a Sunday Mass.
As John Wesley described his experience in Aldersgate Street: “My heart was strangely warmed.” I felt flushed and sweaty, and I received words that in themselves are not very remarkable: “You don’t need a perfect father; you have a perfect Father in Heaven.” The sense is plain enough, but knowing who spoke them to me is the point of the thing. Jesus Christ was dead and now he is alive; How he got that way is not important.
Growing up, I attended Church with my family from early childhood on. I thought I had received the faith. I went to a Lutheran parochial school for first and second grades.
When it came to belief, I put Bible stories in a hierarchy, from more plausible to less. It is relatively easy to believe there was really a battle of Jericho, though maybe it took more than trumpets to make the walls fall. It is harder to imagine the Creation as described in Genesis, and harder still to think God could make mud come alive by breathing on it. There are commentaries to explain how a great wind could push the waters of the Red Sea with such force that a crowd could march across dry shod. And so on. The last and hardest to believe is Jesus’ rising from the dead. That is held in reserve for overachievers; the final step in completing one’s Christian faith.
No! For without Christ’s Resurrection the other stories are not even theology; only bogus cosmology or archaeology. None of them is anything worth without Jesus Christ’s own demonstration of His life in the faith of His creature. That is the first step, the sine qua non. Every line in the New Testament was written in Resurrection faith. Every image there is a Resurrection appearance, and so is every encounter at the Communion rail.
As Jaroslav Pelikan famously said, “If there is Resurrection, nothing else matters. If there is not Resurrection, nothing else matters.”
May the blessings of Easter be with you, now and forever. Amen.