“Faith Is The Assurance Of Things Hoped For: The Conviction Of Things Not Seen.”
Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach Maine, August 11, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Leander S Harding
One of the great biblical questions is – “When the Lord returns will he find faith on the earth?” The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to a congregation composed mostly of Jewish Christians. The old faith, Judaism is on the list of religions officially tolerated by the Empire. The new religion Christianity has made them the target of a vicious imperial persecution and some are going back to the old faith. This letter, which among other things explains the issue of faith, urges the persecuted Christians to keep the Faith.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” In our contemporary parlance faith is belief in something for which there is not overwhelming empirical evidence. Faith for many contemporary people is an inferior form of knowledge. There are things that you can know for a fact and then there are beliefs. With regard to facts, say the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, we must all agree. This is the realm of public truth. Beliefs belong to the private world. Perhaps there is a God, perhaps not. Believe what you will as long as you don’t insist on your belief as public truth.
This is the worldview of modernity. It is characterized by an overconfidence in scientific knowledge and a complete loss of confidence in the spiritual and moral traditions which gave rise to the scientific method in the first place. Postmodernism is characterized by an even more thoroughgoing pessimism about what can be known with confidence. Even the correlation between scientific knowledge and an objective reality out there beyond human invention is questioned. This creates a spiritual and moral ethos and mood that oscillates between aimless emptiness and nihilistic despair and waves of enthusiasm for the latest and most exotic spiritualities which look suspiciously like crude and ancient superstitions in thin disguise.
We are not in this country being persecuted yet for our faith but there is a kind of persecution that exists as the culture minimizes and marginalizes the historic Christian Faith, making foundational truths about who God is and what he is like and what he has done for us and for our sake into things on the same level with belief in astrology or the virtues of rabbits feet.
Since the beginning of the 20th century the Christian church, particularly in its Protestant form, has tried to accommodate itself to this worldview which makes of faith an inferior form of knowledge, by soft-pedaling its essential truth claims, that Jesus Christ is the unique and the eternal son of God and represents the creator’s decisive intervention into human affairs, that his sacrifice of love on the cross is a saving death, that he rose from the grave and has opened the way to eternal life, that by the gift of the Holy Spirit this life can begin to grow in us even now.
We must simply resist the idea that faith is an inferior form of knowledge, and taking our cue from the great scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, point out that faith is involved in all knowing whatsoever. The scientific method depends on the faith that the universe is a rational universe and that the human mind can grasp that rational order. These are beliefs that come from the Bible and are not shared by the religions of the East. All knowing involves trust and faith to some degree. Rather than faith being an inferior form of knowing – rather than it being believing versus knowing – faith is an element in all knowledge. To know anything we must trust someone or something outside of ourselves. St. Augustine said it very well many centuries ago, “I believe in order to understand.”
Traditionally Christian theology has divided faith into two interdependent parts. There is the credo part of faith – the creedal – doctrinal aspect. I believe in God, the Father Almighty and in His Son Jesus Christ. Faith has content and truth claims and with regard to the divinity of Christ, His saving death, His resurrection from the dead, these are not claims of private belief, true for me but not for you, but claims of public truth. The resurrection is the most plausible explanation for the change that came over the apostles and for their motivation to change the world with their teaching and preaching. All other explanations are implausible as history. The truths of the Christian faith are up to scrutiny and challenge. They do not need to be protected by a voluntary self exile to the world of private opinion.
Faith also has the aspect of trust. Jesus says that the devils believe in Him but do not trust and obey. To live the life of faith is to trust in the reality of God, and the love of God, in the care and providence of God.
Trust and belief are dynamic. As we trust in God, lean on God, we find him trustworthy and find reason to have a growing confidence and growing faith.
Faith also has this aspect – it is both something we do and it is a gift from God. God through the Holy Spirit draws us to himself.
If you have been reading the daily readings in the Book of Common Prayer this week, you have heard the story of the man who comes to Jesus beseeching healing for his son. No one else has been able to help them. Is it possible? Jesus says, “with faith all things are possible.” The man cries out, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” That is a good prayer. We can all say that prayer; we can all pray that we will grow in trust and confidence in the promises of God and in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. Things such as the love, care and providence of God which are unseen except to the eyes of faith. When two scientists disagree about a scientific theory they don’t say, “you have your truth and I have mine.” They put truth to the test. Christian truth claims are robust enough to stand that kind of challenge. Scientists prove their theories through experiment. Christian truth is confirmed as well through the experiment of trust, prayer, study and service. Trusting in God, obeying by God’s grace, following in the footsteps of Jesus – the reality of the invisible Christ becomes visible.
Faith was the great motto of the Protestant Reformation. We are saved – we are made whole – we are healed – and made right with God not by our own devices but by faith – belief and trust in the unmerited love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and by letting him so take over our lives that he becomes visible in us. May this be so. Amen