What is Faith?

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14), Year C

(Track 2)

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:1-6

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Nearly four thousand years ago, in a desert far away our father Abraham was awestruck by the stars. It was not their faint glimmer that caught his eye but their sheer multitude; that staggering number he was just beginning to comprehend. I wonder if this was the first time he had seen the stars. Surely in his many decades as a wanderer in the desert he had looked to the night sky for quiet beauty and a moment of wonder; but this moment, when he is called to look up and count them, he sees them for the first time. As he looks into the cosmos at the flickering lights he witnesses the past, present, and future simultaneously. Right above his head is a fleeting glimpse of omnipotence, the history of creation and the promise of a brighter future. He struggles to capture it in his mind, but at the very least, he can grasp the constellation of meaning. Abraham falls silent, he knows what is to come, he has faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1-2]. This definition of faith given to us by the author of Hebrews is up there with “for God so loved the world” as far as Christian merchandising goes. You can have it on bumper stickers, coffee mugs, hats, t-shirts. In an age of increasing secularism, economic injustice, and disillusionment with organized religion nothing quite says “I’m totally secure in my beliefs” like a statement about believing without seeing silk-screened on a t-shirt from a far-east sweatshop. At least it truly broadcasts “where your treasure lies, so shall your heart lie”…The assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen is one of the most well-known phrases in the Bible. It is also one of the most misunderstood. It stands as a warning against grabbing phrases out of context. If we simply read the phrase flatly it seems that the author of Hebrews is saying that faith is a stop-gap when we run out of logic. Or perhaps faith is primarily wishful thinking, when on hard times we can comfort ourselves with visions of pearly gates and streets of gold. Does the author intend for us to understand faith as escapism from reality; a firm denial of what we witness as a cold, uncaring world?

Regardless of what the author of Hebrews intended, his definition has been interpreted as “faith is belief even in the face of no or contrary evidence”, a clasping of the ears to shut out any contradiction. We have been taught for generations by preachers, teachers, scientists, and thinkers that faith is something in contrast to logic, or to fill the gap in logic. Don’t be misled into thinking that only skeptics have caused this confusion, far from it! This was a collaborative mistake between skeptics and Christians looking for easy answers and comforting words.

Take Pascal’s wager, posited from a man who wanted to preserve Christian faith when the West was beginning to question God, he argued that belief in God was the only logical thing to do. In brief, believing in God carries far less risk than not believing. If one believes in God and God exists, they will go to heaven. If one does not believe in God and God exists, then they will be condemned to hell. If God does not exist, then it won’t matter either way. Even though this probability set was meant to inspire faith it does precisely the opposite. By reducing faith to a wager, he shows that he does not understand what faith is, and supports the idea that faith is only a logical stop-gap. David Hume, famously a skeptic, had a much better idea about what faith really is by recognizing that logic is, fundamentally grounded on faith. Hume famously argued that observation of the past does not prove that the same event will occur again, it simply strengthens our belief that it might happen again. Hume, though he did not believe in organized religion, recognized that faith is not in opposition to logic, but that logic in fact depends on faith in certain ultimately unprovable principles. 

This misunderstanding of what faith is has wriggled its way into our cultural consciousness, to a point that most who call themselves faithful don’t even know what it really means. A few years ago a pair of sociologists interviewed hundreds of young people about what their religious beliefs were, and what they believed faith was. They were able to boil down the tenants of this faith into five principles:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Would you say that this is a fairly accurate description of Christianity? The great majority of the interviewed were self-identified as Christian. No this is not Christianity, the sociologists dubbed this widely-practiced religion as “ Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism”. Now before we judge these young people let’s take an honest reflection of ourselves. How many of us have in our day-to-day life, struggle to make the best for ourself and only worry about God when we are in trouble? Life is tough and the work of philosophizing is for those who have the leisure to worry about precise definitions. We would be hard-pressed to find anyone among us who have not fallen into the simplistic and comforting worldview of Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism. Though it is simple and comforting, when we think of God only as our cosmic buddy, or a distant parent we can call when we are short on cash or need advice but would rather avoid, or our “fire insurance policy” we have no faith, only empty creeds.

The real tragedy is not that we somehow risk our immortal souls by not having real faith, but that we deprive ourselves of the most important relationship in all of existence: righteousness. The author of Hebrews chooses Abraham as his example of true faith. He’s not alone in this choice; various authors in the Old Testament, Jesus, Paul, and countless others point to Abraham as the pinnacle of faith. If you read Abraham’s story in Genesis, it’s quite perplexing. Many have argued that Abraham is the pinnacle of faith because he was blindly obedient to God. Going wherever God told him, being willing to sacrifice his son, winning wars, and just “taking God’s word for it” whenever God made a declaration. Only that can’t be right, Abraham argues with God all the time! Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of Abraham bargaining with God to try and save Sodom [Genesis 18]. Today’s reading is a conversation Abraham has with God because Abraham is worried God won’t follow through on His promise to give him an heir. The other classic argument is that Abraham is the pinnacle “man of faith” because he is supremely moral. “He follows God’s law even before Moses wrote it down”.  This argument is also made by someone who has clearly never spent any time with Abraham. In his adventures Abraham lies about his marriage to Sarah to con a wealthy Egyptian [Genesis 12], has illegitimate children and banishes his mistress into the wilderness [Genesis 21], leads a pillage of a city [Genesis 14], and is willing to murder his own son [Genesis 22]. No, Abraham is not faithful because he is the pinnacle of morality, his faith comes from elsewhere. He is faithful because he is assured in his hope, and is convinced by what he has not yet seen.

Abraham’s faith is not a blind following of God’s command, nor a stringent adherence to morality, Abraham’s faith comes from hope, and through hope, is made righteous. Abraham hopes for an heir, which in his time and culture meant a meaningful existence. Or as the author of Hebrews put it, this man who was “as good as dead” without an heir believed in something greater. When God called upon him, he trusted that something good was going to be made out of his life, that through a partnership with God, they could accomplish wondrous things on the earth. Faith is not a checklist of “I believe” statements, Faith is the conviction that goodness permeates the world, even when it is unseen and covered by sin. Faith is walking with God, being a partner with God in restoring creation. Faith is Loving God, conversing with God, even arguing with God all with the singular goal of healing the earth. Faith is living like Abraham as a stranger in this world because it has fallen from God, yet living in it still with the hope that the Kingdom of God will be fully established on the earth. Abraham is counted as righteous, that is, in a right and loving relationship with God, because he believes in the work that God is doing in the world.

When God calls Abraham to look at the stars above, his silence is the greatest statement of faith in the whole Bible. No more words need to be said. The light from those stars comes from suns billions of miles away that died millennia ago. Their vigil is no more eternal than one man standing in the desert without an heir. Abraham knows that he will not live to see a perfectly restored world, at the same time he believes that the world is worth restoring. He is filled with hope, and through hope, he has true faith.

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