Sunday, January 24, 2010

Faith's Twin - #2 -Edited version


O God of miracles and multiplications ... (at your invitation) we dare to measure ourselves not by our fears or failures or frailties, however large they seem, but by our hope and faith and love, however small they may be. (So) we pray that by your grace we (in) our boldness will become miracles of leaven in the lump of this world. Multiply our courage that we may be a source of life and justice and peace for those we carry in our hearts and on our consciences. Multiply our faith in you that all our struggles, all our joys will be steps taken toward what it means to be human, to be sisters and brothers, and to be yours.

Excerpted slightly edited from My Heart in My Mouth: Prayers for Our Lives


In my last post, I stated my conviction that courage is an indispensable twin of any authentic faith. Shorn of courage, faith is pretentious, irrelevant, self-serving and produces conformity. Of course, thank God, there are many exceptions of persons, churches and institutions to that condition but in my view, not enough. The consequences are corrosive to society, state and church.

How did we, as persons and a people, get to this state of affairs? I want to share a way of understanding it. In my study at Yale Divinity School the seminal theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, was most influential. Doctor Niebuhr had three convictions regarding our situation. Let’s examine each of them in turn beginning with this post and following up in 2 subsequent posts because I believe each of them speak to the contention that courage is necessarily the twin of faith.

"The first is the conviction that self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking, and perhaps especially in theology and ethics ... and (we) can hope to (avoid) this error... in (our) effort to state Christian ideas in confessional terms only ... “ Quote taken from The Meaning of Revelation

Begin, then, with self-defense, or defensiveness. Most of us as individuals, and/or as members of groups, have a knee jerk reaction to any problem or crisis. It’s to blame someone else for it and deny any responsibility of our own. Such defensiveness is cowardly, hypocritical, destructive and all too common. It has cut a trail of ruptured relationships, violence, discrimination, exploitation and oppression through human history. Its consequences are accelerated by such modern technology as cable TV, the Internet, cell phones until it has become a political, social, marketing art form. Defensiveness is prevalent in interactions from Main Street to Wall Street to halls of Congress, from living rooms, bedrooms, meeting rooms to many church sanctuaries and lecture halls.

Defensiveness causes dysfunction, disables trust, and paralyzes relationships in families, neighborhoods and society. It fuels partisan conflicts that breaks down the legislative process. It generates stereotypical social class sniping, subtle racial discrimination and unethical, dangerous distortions of scentific warnings of global warming. It breeds hucksters of fear and hate whose lies smear whoever the targeted "guilty" parties happen to be. Perhaps not surprisingly, the blamed party is often God as in "Why did God let this happen to me, to us, to whomever?" Is that what authentic faith does or is? Emphatically not!

Friends, it takes the twins of courage and faith to resist the perversity of that kind of defensiveness and blaming. It takes faithful courage to admit our own responsibility for our part in the mistakes that hurt others, responsibility for our own small and large personal betrayals of such espoused beliefs as "doing to others what we would have them do to us" in our relationships in family, neighborhood, work place, town, city, state. It takes courage to strive to be honest rather than hypocritically charming, to listen thoughtfully rather than accuse automatically, to give due credit rather than false blame. It takes careful attention to be trustworthy rather than popular or seductive because without trust, love is a charade. That's what it means to state our ideas in "confessional terms only" and not in absolute, dogmatic, inerrant terms. That's what gutsy faith rather than gooey faith is about.

It takes courage to live out the faith which summons us, even in hard times, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love and pray for our enemies, to not be afraid or act out of fear, to help the homeless, tend the sick, welcome the stranger, free the oppressed rather than claim they caused their own plight. It is cowardly and wrong to blame others for our personal or societal or economic problems or to step aside and insist that others should make things better for us. It takes courage to let our faith take us boldly but humbly into the arena of human struggle for justice and peace, mercy and compassion. It takes courage to live with integrity, which is the opposite of hypocrisy, the trait which Jesus most harshly judged. It takes courage to actually step out on the promises of faith rather than distorting faith into some feel-good security blanket of defensiveness.

If this seems too abstract, let me refer to something columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times a few weeks ago, which, by the way, racks high on the list of the most slandered and blamed newspapers in the country. Friedman identifies several reasons why we as a country seem unable to forge good solutions to our problems. Among the reasons are the negative affect of money in politics made worse by the recent, the Supreme Court decision removing all restrictions on corporate campaign funding; cable TV culture which segregates people into their own political echo chambers; the Internet which, can open the way for new voices, but often provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mobs that attack anyone not of their specific orthodoxy.

Then Friedman concludes, "So what do we do? The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who as them to do the hard things. Otherwise folks, we're in trouble." Italics and bold print mine.

To me, Friedman’s diagnosis is spot on. The “standard answer” (“that we need better leaders”) is defensiveness in its multiple variations. The “real answer” (“that we need better citizens”) is a challenge to courageous faith.

Yes, Friedman's comments carry political implications but are not partisan or defensive. They’re a wake up call for us to stop the blame game in our lives and to assume responsibility for our part in all the led us to whatever ditch we’re in personally and as a society. It is a summon, a rather sacred one, to join the never ending struggle for justice, peace, compassion and take whatever steps we can, and there are many, to live and work to put our faith into action wherever we are, in every way we can. It encourages, even requires us, to stop being defensive and blaming others and claiming we’re innocent, or in other words are empty, victimized, impotent.

Of course, the sacrifice Friedman refers to involves doing is hard things, but fulfilling things. Those things are to make faith real and vital, even joyful, by linking it to courage. They are an opportunity for us to make a difference in our lives, and with our lives.

Think about it with me. Then do whatever you decide to do to make your faith real. Ted

More in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Faith's Indispensable Twin

O gracious and holy One ... deepen our gratitude into openness to new learning, our learning into courageous living, our living into accurate loving of you in each person we meet, each challenge we face, each gift we receive, each disappointment we endure, each sacrifice we make, each joy we experience, each breath that we draw, each chance that we take; through Jesus our Lord and brother. Amen
Excerpted from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions.

Let me get right to it: faith takes courage. The two are inseparable. It might seem that courage doesn't take faith but it does, perhaps not in a typical religious sense but in the sense that there's a purpose in it, a conviction that something, some goal or value or vision, is worth the courage it takes to live by and toward it, no matter what the odds. The point is that is faith, whether we define it as religious or not.

But the rest of the point is that without courage faith is neither religious nor does it matter much. Why? Because, as Adam Gopnik says in an article on Vincent van Gogh in the January 4, 2010 edition of The New Yorker, "Courage (is) the one essential virtue on which all others depend ..." Now, I do not consider faith a virtue as much as it is a process, a quality of life, a way of becoming who we really are if we are to become fully human. But faith does involve characteristics that in some way could be defined as virtues, such as compassion, justice, humility, empathy, forgiveness, truthfulness, all of which take courage to live out, embody, stand for, no matter what the odds.

In his novel, All the Pretty Horses, one of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy, has a young man in tough circumstances put it this way: "That night I thought long and not without despair what must become of me. I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there were not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what ... I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I'd always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always him/(her)self that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily. I knew that courage came with less struggle for some than for others but I believed that anyone who desired it could have it. That desire was the thing itself."

That way of seeing it makes as clear as anything I can say why, to me, faith's indispensable twin
is courage. I hold that to be especially true of religious faith, particularly the Christian faith which is not limited to the church. I believe that our value, our soul, our spirit, is not something we achieve but is something given to each and all of us by our Creator. To live by that constancy takes courage because without courage that faith is shallow, just a vacuous, feel good betrayal of anything that could be meant by compassion, or justice, or empathy, or being fully human. Without courage, faith, religion itself, becomes conformity with a smile and pretty vestments and avoidance of controversy and irrelevant. Okay, enough with this rant.

The thing is, the truth is, that courage is a struggle but anyone can have it if they desire to, if they are willing to risk it, dare to be different, to trust the value he or she has by being in this world and to endure the difficulties and disappointments, and yet the satisfactions, the fulfillments, the fun, the joy of it. In the next post I want to apply my point to some specific issues we are all facing in our society and world.

But let me end by quoting Gopnik who wrote about van Gogh and his relationship to another artist he lived with, Paul Gauguin. Gopnik compared them and their work this way: "When you see a Gauguin, you think, 'This man is living in a dream world.' When you see a van Gogh, you think, 'This dream world is living in a man.'" Put aside Gopnik's choice of the word, "dream" and instead think of "vision," as if a vision of a different reality or dimension of life which faith is about. And then put yourself in Gopnik's comparison. Is your "faith" like living in a dream world of comforting but empty images and practices, primarily concerned with surface appearances, primarily or exclusively a matter of self- promotion and self protection? Or is it about something living in you, a soul, a spirit, a value that requires courage to make real in the world, and for those who share that world with you?

Think about it with me. Ted