Sermon: Knowledge and Faith


sistine-chapel-ceiling-creation-of-adam-1510I’ve been pondering how faith operates in and through us – both positively and negatively.

For a positive example, I look to our own congregation: We saw faith at work last night in our Annual Meeting – a time of remembering, visioning and deciding; sharing our knowledge, and evaluating the effectiveness of the wealth, wisdom and work we’ve expended in the past year. It was a time of counting up the resources available to us and deciding how to best utilize them to accomplish the mission and goals we believe are a part of our journey into the future.

That meeting, just like this worship service, and the many other things we do – either individually or jointly – are all positive, beneficial, things – or at least we see them as such. And, we see them as expressions of our faith.

Inhofe
Senator Jim Inhofe

On the other hand, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe frequently quotes the Bible to “prove as he says, that “…The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful, they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.” This is the perspective he works-from in his new post as chair of the Senate’s Committee on the Environment and Public Works: a placement of faith ahead of Science, to the exclusion of science in fact. Is this also Faith?  If so, is it a beneficial application of faith?

It seems to me that we need to understand what Faith is, since what it is is central to who we are as Christians, and therefore critical in our discernment and pursuit of God’s Call upon our lives.

I’ll start by observing that Faith determines how we see ourselves, who (and what) we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end and the end of Creation, to be. Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world. It lays out a path for us to follow into the future. Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves. It helps us appreciate and return God’s fierce and unrelenting love for us; and enables us to wonder and rejoice in the vastness and glory of God’s Creation. Faith enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.   Also, and this will be the main stream of my thoughts this morning: without Faith, we cannot Love; and without Faith, knowledge cannot be fruitful.

We often say things like “I have faith in God” or “I have faith in Evolution” or “This (or that) strengthened my faith” or, “I lost (or I found) my Faith.” And yet, even though we talk a lot about what to have faith in; or, how to find faith; or, how to use our faith, we never define what it is. It’s assumed we already know. I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.

The question of what Faith is is central to our reading from Paul this morning. The believers in Corinth are asking Paul a number of questions, hoping to benefit from his knowledge.

Now, we are certainly called to explore and expand the boundaries of our faith, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be people of faith. So, increasing their knowledge by asking questions of Paul is admirable, and worthwhile. In fact, our scripture reading from Deuteronomy makes it clear that God is always raising up new teachers and prophets to provide guidance in living our faith, always finding new voices to help us grow and live our faith.

But, Paul begins his response to their question about food sacrificed to idols by saying “…’all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.

Knowledge creates the illusion of greater faith; a puffed up appearance without substance.  We cannot build our faith solely through the acquisition of new knowledge.  So, maybe Senator Inhofe is right – Faith trumps knowledge; but is that what Paul is really saying?

The Corinthians were part of a culture that valued intellect and learning, yet Paul is telling them (and us) that knowledge is not a substitute for faith, it cannot transform us into the faith-filled people we desire to be. Having knowledge should not mislead us into thinking we have faith. And further, as Paul puts it, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.”  Claiming we know means we really don’t know.

But, what is faith then?

Paul begins his answer by saying “…when you sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Paul refuses to eat meat sacrificed to idols out of concern for his “family”, meaning his fellow believers. He does not act on his knowledge that food sacrificed to idols is OK, because he is concerned for those whom he loves. Faith can be expanded through the acquisition of knowledge, but Paul is warning us that without love for “the other” guiding it, that expansion is merely a puffing up, achieving an inflated sense of the greatness of our own faith because of the knowledge we possess.

With Love to guide our faith, we do not lay claim to knowledge, because we know that knowledge has no value apart from faith. Knowledge and love must work together for faith to be meaningful and fruitful. Knowledge without love can only bring harm and oppression.

After all, what are the two great commandments? …

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
… and …
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

… They are notKnow the Lord your God…” or “Know your neighbor…”!!!

Paul is careful to make it clear that the Gospel begins and ends with Love – not knowledge. Knowledge is finite; love is infinite. Knowledge can be possessed, and can therefore be controlled or even corrupted; but true love requires freedom and therefore is above corruption. Knowledge is a tool; Love is a way of living. In fact, love is at the heart of what the earliest Christians termed “The Way” – the walk of faith that Jesus’ teachings set before us. We now use a different term to refer to the same thing – we call it “the Christian Faith.” Our Faith is not a possession or a goal, but a journey.

Faith does more than simply give us an identity and mission. Our faith takes the hope given to us by those who came before, and enables us to live with it active and present our lives. Our faith then impels us to pass it on to future generations. Faith binds us together in a longitudinal sense, across time – past, present, and future. It also binds us in a horizontal sense, with all those here in the present who also believe; and it binds us in a vertical sense, with God.

All of this is made possible through Love – not knowledge. It is possible to live a life full of Christian virtue without ever knowing or hearing anything about the Gospel. However, it is not possible to be a person of faith without employing Love in our application of the knowledge we have.

To be fair, knowledge and faith both begin from the same place. They both start with something that is invisible to the naked eye, approachable only through the functioning of the human mind.

For instance, through one form of knowledge – science – we see the invisible in many ways. Telescopes help us see the universe as it was back in time. Computers and written records help us to record myriads of observations and then find patterns that would otherwise be hidden, patterns that tell us of gravity, or global warming, or economic trends. Our knowledge of these patterns can then be exploited to guide or enhance our future decision-making and actions.

Knowledge is a useful tool, one we cannot ignore (even though some try). Knowledge often helps us see clearly where seeing was not possible before.

And Faith is no different: like knowledge, Faith finds meaning in the unseen. And it also begins from an invisible place, a place that cannot be directly observed, a place that can only be inferred through its effects upon other things. Those of us who are people of Faith call that place “God.”

Just like knowledge, Faith employs various tools to help us better understand the mystery of that which is invisible. These tools include the reading of scripture; prayer; service; and researching and reflecting upon our faith tradition, and upon the writings and teachings of others. We look within ourselves and listen carefully to the unspoken thoughts, feelings and currents we find there. We observe the world around us; and, through our faith, find purpose and meaning and hope in it.

Like knowledge, Faith finds patterns that can be discerned only by beginning with things that are normally invisible to us. And yet, Faith differs from knowledge in one crucial aspect. Knowledge is about finding patterns and exploiting them to our advantage. It’s about control and power: Faith has nothing to do with control or power (at least, not our own power). Faith is about Love.

Knowledge is about the How and the Where and the When of things. It is not about the Why of things. Faith is about the greater purpose, meaning and direction of existence as a whole, as well as our individual existence.

Usually, when folks dismiss the value of Faith, it is because they believe that knowledge alone is sufficient. This saddens me, because they are not seeing the value or action of Faith in their lives, even though it is there. They are confusing Fact with Truth…  (Senator Inhofe, on the other hand, is confusing Truth with Fact.)

Knowledge tells us what is, and often how it came to be.

Faith tells us why, and that Creation itself – meaning us, and all we know – is an expression of God’s nature as a God of Love.

Knowledge tells us how the world works, and how to deal with it.

Faith tells us why life is worth living.

Knowledge helps us identify all the wavelengths of light that are to be found in a rainbow, and how they got there.

Faith tells us the Rainbow is beautiful, and how it is a reflection of God’s love for us.

Knowledge helps us understand and exploit the World around us.

Faith helps us find hope within it.

Knowledge tells us what we are, and what they are; and how we differ.

Faith tells us who we are, and who they are – and that we are all creatures of God.

So, Knowledge is a necessary tool in the exercise of our Faith. An uninformed faith is a dangerous thing – rootless, not grounded, weak and easy to misdirect or to undermine; and just as likely, if not more likely, to cause as much harm as Knowledge without Faith will cause.  Senator Inhofe’s rejection of knowledge is seen by some as a stance of faith. However, it is a faith that is not grounded in reality. And, it rejects the need for us to LOVE and care for God’s Creation, as God commanded us to do from the very beginning.  Such stands leave us with no basis from which to build God’s Kingdom here on earth, as Jesus called us to do. Without knowledge and without love, faith cannot connect with reality, and cannot change the world for the better.  In fact, it may well change the world for the worse.

Faith helps us understand the Nature, Word and Plan of God. Knowledge helps us understand the world in which we live and how it came to be.  Knowledge, seen through the lens of God’s love, enables us to act in Faith, which is where Senator Inhofe’s stance fails.  (And doubly so, since he uses his “Faith” and position actively discourage any inquiry at all into the matter of Global Warming.)

If we reject the importance of Knowledge and Love, working together to make our Faith operative and real, then all the knowledge we possess will be no more substantial than the wind. We would be oblivious to the spirit of God moving around us and in us, like the very air we breathe, constantly seeking to inspire us and fill us with God’s Love.

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, February 1, 2015; (4th Sunday after Epiphany).

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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