November 27, 2008

Faith is Impossible without Uncertainty

I come from a religious tradition where members, as a matter of habit rather than prescription, repeat like a mantra these words: I know the church is true. The degree to which the words are repeated reflects both the greatest strength and weakness of the church, and it is a phrase I have never used.

Here’s why:

  1. I don’t understand what people mean by it—after all, it contains three complex words (know, church and true) that should be defined in their context.
  2. Once the phrase is uttered, its speaker seems compelled to seek evidence supporting the view, forcing each new life experience to fit within the presumed truth’s framework.
  3. Truth (the noun form of the adjective true) is often more complicated than a human can comprehend.
  4. Most of all, defining a belief as true is disingenuous and undermines the value of faith.
Do we understand that faith has far more to do with doubt as doubt’s opposite? A prerequisite to everything we hold dear—choice and free will among them—is uncertainty. Yet, here we are, full of answers (answers searching for the right applications). We assure one another that we know this and we know that and cheapen the exhilaration that accompanies a leap of faith.

The Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, spent a lifetime trying to understand and live principals of faith, but claimed he never accomplished the latter task. He understood that to be what he called a knight of faith, one had to be infinitely resigned to God’s will despite a lack of perfect knowledge.

By giving each of us a unique path, with only general instructions and no detailed roadmap, God demands a difficult task, but I’m convinced that He understands our struggle and occasionally whispers to us out of life's white noise. Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine went through a painful divorce, and wanting to relay a message of hope to him, I wrote a letter that included the following.
Why do we love our children? Is it because they spring from the womb with Olympic medals on their chests, Harvard diplomas in their hands, and the chiseled good looks of Venus or Adonis? Obviously not, for children are born with indiscrete faces and no means of survival beyond an instinct for growth. So we love our children despite their weaknesses. Or do we?

Let me tell you a secret. When Matthew was born, Lori and I looked at each other and in one spontaneous voice whispered, “He looks like Jabba the Hut!” With his pressed face, frog-like legs, and catfish-skin belly, he really looked like a Star Wars’ character. Yet this endeared him to us even more.

The fact is we love our children, not despite their weaknesses, but because they are weak. We love them because they start from square one, yet they possess a divine heritage and a craving to learn that draws them to horizons beyond our sight. If getting there is half the fun, much of salvation’s joy must be in watching our children prepare for it and joining them in that miraculous journey.

Now, consider this question: Why does God love us? Is it because we’re each His equal? Certainly not, for none of us even approach His stature. Perhaps God loves us because we too begin at square one, yet we possess a great promise and the potential to be like Him.

During the inexplicable moments when I feel God’s presence most vividly, a picture enters my mind. I see a smiling Father kneeling on the floor along one side of a spacious room. His arms are spread wide and He entreats me to take awkward, first steps toward Him.

And when I stumble (as I am prone to do) gaining His forgiveness is invariably easier than forgiving myself. Occasionally, I’d rather remain on the floor to pout and be punished with thoughts of my enormous stupidity. But He tells me to put away the excess baggage, to rise up and attempt again, to take a few more steps—though awkward they may be—toward Him.
When Christ spoke of the power contained in a particle of faith, could it be that He wasn’t pointing to the mustard seed at all, but the treasure-filled sea of uncertainty surrounding it? That’s what I like to believe, because by embracing uncertainty and admitting that we don’t know, we take the first step toward true learning.

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