Believe what? That there are angels? That Jesus died on the Cross for our sins? That all the miracles in the Bible actually happened? That the tribulation is coming? That abortion is a mortal sin? That marriage must be a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman? That only men shall be ordained into the ministry? That God somehow anoints the beliefs or agendas of one person or group over those of another? That our particular understanding of our faith excludes all other understandings, especially those we don’t understand?
We all are constantly confronted with the choice of what to believe, and how. Do we believe literally all that the Bible says? And, what does “Literal” mean? Literalism presents us with many challenges and contradictions that are impossible to resolve; so, do we instead believe the scriptures through viewing them as metaphor and allegory? Do we ignore the passages that we see as outmoded, focusing on those that seem more relevant? Or, should we go even farther, perhaps picking and choosing what seems nice from the smorgasbord of other beliefs, traditions, and wisdom that we encounter everywhere in today’s world?
I love what the Author of Hebrews has to say about all of this in this morning’s reading. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” So, it seems plain that there has never been a single voice deciding what is or is not to be believed as part of our faith. The Author of Hebrews is acknowledging that the prophets don’t all agree with each other, often speaking in ways that seem contradictory, or at least are hard to reconcile with other sacred writings, especially when taken literally. And this is in fact deliberate; since the goal of the prophets was to disrupt conventional wisdom and accepted practice, the very purpose of their words was to challenge our understanding.
Every author of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible see and portray God’s word in different ways, and then there are the 73 books in the Catholic Bible, and the 81 books in the Ethiopian Bible. So, not only is there disagreement between various scriptures within our Protestant Bible, but disagreement between various branches of Christianity as to what scriptures are part of the Bible at all – not to mention the tens of thousands of variations found within the most ancient scriptural texts we have at our disposal. There is no single “right” Bible, and never has been. So, how can there be a single “right” reading of scripture? Therefore, there is no single universal scriptural standard by which we can judge what is “right” to believe, or not.
But that’s OK, because belief is not about believing the right thing! We will not be condemned to hell for believing the wrong thing. Belief is not a certainty that there is a perfect, eternal and unchanging truth upon which all knowledge and all reality depend. (In fact, that belief is a teaching of ancient Greek philosophy, not Judaism.)
God is eternal, but is God unchanging? Not in this universe – a universe that is an expression of its Creator, a universe that is constantly changing and growing. In fact, the more we learn about God’s universe, the more we discover, through things like quantum mechanics and subatomic physics, or astronomy and biology, this unpredictability pervades all of God’s Creation. Science and Faith both agree that it is impossible to know anything at all with absolute certainty.
There are no absolutes in this Universe, it is all relative. What we believe about the world is based on the knowledge we currently have, but we are constantly learning more. The very idea that God is still speaking is based upon this fact: that since the World around us is constantly changing and evolving; then God must also be changing and evolving, since God is present within all of Creation. Therefore, since God loves us, God must be intent on ensuring that we can walk with God on our mutual journey into the future. This, then, requires communication with God and new revelations of the nature of God and of God’s love for us – all the time. God is still speaking.
So in this light, Belief is a verb, not a noun. It’s a process, not a state, not a goal.
Belief can also be imagined as a journey: the movement along a path from one place to another, a voyage of discovery as we walk with God towards the future. And, we see this movement, like any movement, as relative to where we’ve been. We know where we’ve been – we don’t know – yet – where we’ll end up. Nothing, after all, is absolutely certain – we can’t measure the road ahead of us, only the road we’ve already travelled, because that is the only road we actually know.
Therefore, our journey is WITH God, not TO God. We believe in a God who is here, now – not elsewhere or else-when. We believe in a God who lives; a God who moves; a God who may have a goal in mind for us, but does not know how we will get there, since that decision is up to us, not to God, and the path to achieving that goal is certainly uncertain. It is our journey, and the inherent unpredictability of the universe is our undeniable evidence that God has placed the very nature and course of that journey in our hands. Our path through life is not predetermined. The future begins now. The future relies upon the choices we make, now.
So, what is belief? There are no absolutes to believe in. There’s no certainty to believe in. The only constant is change.
…I messed with you a bit on that. Actually, there are two absolutes.
Jesus says in Matthew 22 “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” which we call “The Great Commandment” – repeating the same words found in Deuteronomy 6. Jesus then adds “Love your neighbor as yourself” – the “Second Great Commandment”. He then says – most importantly – “The rest of the law and all the teachings of the prophets hang upon these two commandments.”
What is important here is how Jesus (and many other modern and ancient voices) order these things: the law and the prophets – which the ancient Jews understood to mean ALL of what we now know as the Judeo-Christian Tradition – is subservient to the two Great Commandments.
In other words: Love is not subject to the Law, the Law is subject to Love. Which immediately makes it clear that we cannot put obstacles in the way of those seeking to love. As Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” We are not to put obstacles in front of the faith of others, nor are we to seek to control or determine who or what they can love, or what they are to believe.
And so, judging another’s faith, or beliefs, or practices, based on conformance to some law, or based upon our interpretation or understanding of the laws in the Bible is simply wrong. Yes, even if we think they’re seriously whacked. (And those same people no doubt believe us to be seriously whacked, too.) Our judgment reduces the world and our faith to a simple black or white; yes or no; a judgment of whether you’re in, or out. Jesus answers this tendency that we all have very simply, in Matthew 7:1, saying: “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.”
In his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis made these same points when he said:
“…there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. … Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.”
The Holy Father is saying that we are to believe in others, believe that God is working in and through them, just as we believe that God works in and through us; even though they do not see or express their relationship with God in the same way as we do our own.
This point was brought home just a few days ago, when we learned that the Pope had a private audience with Kim Davis, that Kentucky Court Clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage certificates; because to her, this meant she was endorsing what she sees as the sin of gay marriage.
When news of this “Papal audience” first came out in the news, many folks I know in the ministry, and many voices for Progressive Christianity or Social Justice, roundly condemned the Pope for doing this, for such a violation, for endorsing or at least condoning her sin. He’s showing his true stripes they said. He’s still leading a repressive, misogynistic church they said. He’s no different than the rest of them, they said! Given the Vatican’s recent statement as to the real nature of that meeting, such hysteria is now rightly seen as foolish and overblown.
Why do people say such things about those who believe differently than they do? Do they believe that God is with others as well, or not?
While I disagree with him on many issues, I believe Pope is serious and right in his determination to share the love of God with everyone. He is convinced that God’s presence and love will manifest in everyone, no matter who they are, because God loves them and God believes in them. The Holy Spirit within them cannot be kept at bay forever. It will always manifest in some way, eventually.
And, it is through such Belief that miracles happen. Hearts are changed. Broken Spirits, Minds and Bodies are healed. Relationships are created, or restored. And, with each of these miracles, the promise of the Kingdom of God becomes a bit more tangible to all who walk alongside us here in God’s world.
And frankly, if we cannot believe in each other, then can we believe in anything at all? Even the Love God has for us?
So believe, and don’t worry – God is with you.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, October 4, 2015
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
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!)