Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg

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How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?

The call of God is always for us to live with noble purpose, with love as our highest motivation.

Faith: A Journey of Trust

Written By Marcus Borg

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill our minds with your peace and our hearts with your love. In your name of Christ, our body and our blood, our life and our nourishment. Amen.

In the 12th chapter of Genesis [is the story] about Abraham being called by God to leave his homeland on a journey to a land that he did not know. And the text also contains a promise to Abraham that Abraham will be the father of a great nation and have many descendants. Descendants as numerous as the sands of the seashore and the stars of the sky. And of course, Abraham is one of the most central figures of our tradition. In a very important sense, he is our ancestor. He is the first historical figure mentioned in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. He is the father of the Jewish people, and thus, the father of the three great Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We are all children of Abraham and heirs of Abraham, and the promise of the text has thus been fulfilled. Abraham’s descendants are as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.

There are two primary characteristics of Abraham in the Bible that I want to highlight in this sermon. Abraham was a person of faith who set out on a journey in response to the call, the prompting of the voice of God. These are the central images of my sermon today. A journey image of the Christian life and the role of faith in that life…. Today, I want to focus your attention on what Abraham’s journey was like as a forte, a prototype of the journey of all of us.

So, I turn to a journey image of the Christian life and what that might mean for us. Let me begin by noting that it’s very different from the image of the Christian life with which I grew up. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and I’m deeply grateful for my Lutheran heritage. But one of the consequences of that Lutheran upbringing is that I thought that being a Christian was primarily about believing. About believing in the Bible, believing in Jesus, believing in God, believing in the truth of the Christian tradition. Among the reasons that I thought it was about believing was because of the primacy given to faith in the Lutheran tradition, which I understood to mean belief. And it’s also because I grew up in the modern world, as all of us did, where many traditional Christian beliefs have been called into question by modern knowledge. Thus, I thought that the Christian life was about believing in a variety of things that didn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s what faith was all about. I think that’s true not just for people who grew up as Lutherans, but for much of modern Christianity. Moreover, it isn’t just that it was about believing, but it was about believing now for the sake of salvation later, for the sake of Heaven later.

I now see the Christian life very differently. I now see it as a journey, with journey being understood as a comprehensive metaphor or image for what the Christian life is like and most centrally about. This journey image is a very rich metaphor, and I invite you for a few minutes to think with me about some of the resonances of speaking of it as a journey. To be on a journey is to be in movement. Moving from place to place, there is change in such a life. A journey is a process that involves our whole being. It involves our feet as well as our minds and our heads. A journey involves following a path or a way. To be on a journey is not to be involved in aimless wandering, though there may be times when it feels like that; people have gone on this journey before that we are called to, and there is a trail, a path, a way. The journey image suggests that the Christian life is more like following a path than it is about believing things with our minds.

A journey also involves a leaving, a departing, a setting out. It involves leaving home. To go back to the Abraham story, Abraham was called to leave his homeland for a land that he did not know. Why did Abraham leave? Why was he willing to do that? Well, the texts in Genesis don’t tell us the answer to that. And so, I’m going to follow an ancient rabbinic mode of interpretation and speculate when the text doesn’t give us the information.

Again, I invite you to imagine with me the reasons why Abraham might have left this familiar place to begin on a journey that led he did not know where. What made him willing to leave? What was his life like that he was willing to listen to this voice that called him to go? Some possibilities [are that his] old life had become dull. One ordinary day after another. The same old, same old. That feeling of measuring our life out in coffee spoons that T.S. Eliot speaks about.

Or perhaps his old life stank. Perhaps there was something rotten in Denmark, in his own life or in the life of his society, and it smelled. Not that it was just dull, but Abraham felt like he was caught perhaps in a cesspool. Or perhaps his old life was oppressive, constrained, hemmed in. Perhaps it was filled with unnecessary social misery. Perhaps he felt so hemmed in that sometimes he couldn’t even breathe. Or perhaps his old life was filled with yearning, with an ache for something more. Yearning for another land, another way of being. That feeling of perhaps being full, but still hungry.

Whatever his reasons, the journey image suggests for us that the Christian life involves leaving an old way of being. And for us Christians, that journey had a direction, and essential biblical stories and themes of scripture powerfully suggest what that direction is. If we take the Exodus story as an indicator of that journey, it’s a journey that leads from bondage to liberation. Or if we take the Jewish experience of exile in Babylon as the paradigm for the journey’s story, it is a journey that leads from exile and alienation to return and homecoming. A journey that leads from seeing ourselves as being of little or no account to seeing ourselves as the beloved of God. Or to use the sight and light metaphors that run through our scripture, a journey that leads from blindness to sight. From being in the dark to being in the light. Or a journey that leads from convention to compassion. From living our lives in accord with conventional values to living our lives in accord with the central biblical value of compassion and justice.

All of this is where our journey leads. And the central quality of Abraham’s journey and of our own journey is that it involves faith. Abraham in that great 11th chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament is one of the heros of faith; in fact more verses in that chapter are spent speaking about Abraham as a hero of faith than about anybody else. Abraham is not only a person who goes on a journey, but a person of faith. That’s the second thing I wanted to speak about in this sermon. What is faith? How are we to understand it?

Let me begin with a quick little parenthetical remark about the etymology or origin of the Hebrew word for faith. The Hebrew word for faith in the Old Testament is emoonah. What makes that word interesting is that it’s the sound that a baby donkey makes when it is calling for its mother. To appreciate that, you have to say emoonah so it sounds like that. If you want to hear the meaning of emoonah, you need to say it like braying. I sometimes think to myself, if you say it soft, it’s almost like braying. The point being that faith in the Hebrew Bible is like a baby donkey calling out or crying for its mother. There’s something kind of wonderful about that. There is an element…I don’t know if you want to say of desperation in it or not, but there certainly is an element of confidence also that the cry will be heard.

What I really want to emphasize in this section of the sermon are four meanings that faith has come to have in the Christian tradition. The first of these four is, I am convinced, a modern distortion, even as it is probably the most common meaning on the popular level. The other three are ancient and traditional and wonderfully complementary. You can have them all, but let me begin with the modern distortion.

The modern distortion of faith is the one I think I learned growing up around the middle of this century. Faith as believing. Faith as believing the doctrines of the Christian tradition, faith as believing that there is a God, faith as believing that Jesus is divine, faith as believing that Jesus died for your sins, faith as believing that…and then fill it with almost anything. Faith as believing certain statements to be true.

There are a number of reasons why I say that’s a modern distortion. First of all, try to imagine what faith was like before the Enlightenment, that great period of Western history that began in the 17th or 18th centuries. Prior to the Enlightenment, in Christian culture of the Reformation or the Middle Ages and so forth, nobody had any trouble believing that the Bible came from God, that the Genesis stories of creation were true, that Jesus walked on the water and so forth. It didn’t take faith to believe any of that, that was simply part of the taken-for-granted understandings of people living in western Christendom. It’s only when those things started to be questioned that suddenly faith came to mean believing what otherwise doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. And faith came to mean what Bishop Robinson called some 35 years ago, believing 49 impossible things before breakfast.

Now, I don’t want simply to knock that, because for many people, that’s been a way of holding on to the meaningfulness of the Christian tradition when it seems to have been radically questioned. But I also want to say that faith as believing the right things is not only a modern distortion, but in many ways it is absolutely impotent in our lives. You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. Faith as believing, that is believing with our head, is really pretty impotent. So let me turn to the three more ancient and authentic meanings of faith.

In each case, I’m going to speak about the meaning of the word faith, but also about its opposite, because I think that sometimes we get clarity about the meaning of a word by considering what its opposite is. With the first meaning of faith I spoke about, the opposite of faith as belief is, of course, doubt or disbelief. I can recall as an adolescent finding my embryonic doubts that were moving toward disbelief. I thought they were sinful because I thought it was the opposite of what God wanted from me and so forth.

To turn now to the other three, the first of these three has a Latin name. I’m going to use the Latin name both to suggest the antiquity of the notion, but also because I think it’s a way of understanding what faith means in this case. The first of these last three is faith as fiducia. We get the word fiduciary from it, and this is basically faith as trust. Faith as radical trust in God, which can go with great uncertainty about beliefs and so forth. The opposite of faith as trust is not doubt. The opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. You can measure the amount of faith as trust in your life by the amount of anxiety you have in your life. I mention that not as another way of giving you one other thing to beat yourself up with, but to suggest that perfect faith as trust casts out anxiety. Think of how wonderful it would be to live your life without anxiety. The journey of faith which leads to greater trust can cast anxiety out and free us from that self- preoccupying force of anxiety.

The second of the ancient and authentic meanings of faith is fidelitos in Latin. The English, of course, is fidelity. Faith as fidelity to a relationship. Fidelity to the relationship with God, this is a faith as faithfulness. Again, it has very little to do with what we believe with our heads; it’s faithfulness to that relationship. And the opposite of faith as fidelity is not, once again, doubt, of course. It is, to say the obvious, infidelity. Unfaithfulness. In the biblical tradition, this frequently [was referred to] as adultery. When the prophets rail against adultery, they’re not talking about sexual behavior. They’re using a sexual metaphor as a way of talking about unfaithfulness to God. And yet another word for infidelity in the biblical tradition is idolatry. Namely, to be faithful to something else rather than being faithful to God.

The third and final of these more ancient and authentic ways of understanding faith (I don’t have a Latin word here.) is faith as a way of seeing, and, in particular, faith as a way of seeing the whole. The whole of that in which we live and move and have our being. I’m going to exposit this briefly in language that we owe to the great American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr, who points out that there are three different attitudes we can take towards the whole—three different ways we can see the whole.

One way we can see the whole of what is, is as hostile toward us, threatening towards us in severe form. Of course, this is paranoia. But there are much milder forms of this; indeed popular-level Christianity might even see things this way. [This view perceives]God as the one who is going to get us unless we offer the right sacrifice or have the right beliefs or whatever. But even apart from a religious context, if you see reality as threatening or hostile, and it’s easy to see it that way—the bottom line is, it is going to get us all; we’re all going to die—but if you see it that way, then your response is likely to be one of self-protection in various ways. Trying to find security against the devouring power which will consume us all.

A second way one can see the whole is as indifferent toward human existence and as indifferent toward us. This is the understanding that emerges within the modern world view where what is is seen as a meaningless collocation of atoms and interactions with each other. If one sees reality as indifferent to us, again the appropriate and most likely response is to try to build systems of security that will give us some meaning in the face of this radical insecurity. But again, the attention focuses upon the self and its well-being.

The third and final way that Neibuhr says we can see reality is to see the whole as gracious, as nourishing, as supportive of life, to see reality as that which has given existence, brought us into existence, nourishes us. There is nothing Pollyannish about this. This attitude is still very much aware that the flower fades, the grass withers, that we all die. But to see reality as supportive, gracious and nourishing creates the possibility of responding to life in a posture of trust and gratitude. And we’re back to faith as trust.

Faith is thus about setting out on a journey like Abraham’s in a posture of trust and seeking to be faithful to that relationship that we are called into. We are invited to make that journey, that journey of faith, in which we learn to trust our relationship to God and learn to be faithful to that relationship, and learn to see in a new way. We will be led in that journey into an evermore wondrous and compassionate understanding of our lives with God. Indeed, if this is not what life is about, namely, growth and wonder and compassion, then I don’t know what life is about.

The story of Abraham leads us to that marvelous question asked by the contemporary poet Mary Oliver. The question is, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? Are we going to remain in the world of the dull, the repetitive, the same old, same old, or are we, like Abraham, going to respond to that voice that invites us to leave our old way of being and enter a life beyond convention and beyond our domestications of reality? The voice speaks of promise to us. “I will show you a better way, a better country.”

Copyright © 1999 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.