“Crisis of faith.” So often, these words are used to describe the process in which someone begins to ask questions, to make probing inquiries, about the doctrines and the traditions handed down to them.
To emerge from a crisis of faith, then, is to reach some level of comfortable affirmation that what we said we believed all along was, in fact, true. That the questions and even the doubts that vexed us during that brief period of spiritual struggle were not ultimately a threat to our certainty. That we can return to the way things were, before our convictions were unsettled by this unwelcome crisis.
But as I sit here on a Sunday morning, attempting to process the news of two mass shootings in less than twenty-four hours, trying to come to terms with the sin-scarred brokenness of our world, our culture, and even our churches, as I try to reckon with the seemingly inescapable horrors of nationalism and racism and resentment and hatred that threaten not just to dominate the news cycle but rather to dominate our discourse completely, I can’t help but think that this widely accepted definition of what makes a “Crisis of Faith” is too small. It doesn’t do justice to what faith can be, or what faith must be, in order to be worthy of the name.
In his recent book The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godchild, Stanley Hauerwas, with reference to Lewis Carroll, challenges “the implication that what it means to be a Christian is to believe twenty-six impossible things before breakfast.” Rather, Hauerwas argues, faith is a virtue, and like all virtues, it must be practiced in order to be effected and in order to be effective. That is, faith must be active, persistently and concretely active, to be real. Such an understanding of faith resonates with the lectionary readings for this week, at the same time provoking deeper consideration of what a real crisis of faith, the kind of crisis that actually challenges us and actually changes us, might look like.
In these passages, we are reminded of what happens when our rhetoric about faith, our false illusions about faith, or even our empty performances of faith are confronted with the real thing, a biblical faith rooted in the promises of God and shaped by the commands of God, a faith that pushes us out into dangerous waters where the nature of our belief will be about more than theoretical speculation or pious performance. To engage faith in the way that the Bible demands will provoke something of a crisis if we’re paying attention, as we wrestle with the shape of our faith, the limitations of our faith, and the implications of putting our faith in the wrong things.
When Isaiah writes to the people of Judah, comparing them to Sodom and Gomorrah, denouncing their festivals, rejecting their sacrifices, and calling them to account for their empty rehearsals of religious devotion, he is speaking to a nation on the verge of collapse, a nation whose patterns of idolatry and pride and disdain for the vulnerable are corroding them from within. He is speaking to a people who have ignored or forgotten the words of the Psalmist, that “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save,” a people who have put their faith in all the wrong things, ranging from their military might to their priestly rituals, and who are about to see just how empty such faith can be.
Such faith will not save this people when their enemies come calling. Such faith will not save us, either, when our world seems on the verge of being swallowed up by all sorts of antichrist pretenders to the throne. The faith that we have put in our national identity, our chosen political candidates, or our massive arsenals will be of little use when we come face to face with real evil, the kind of evil manifest in either targeted acts of mass violence or in the equivocations and the prevarications that follow.
The denunciation of Judah’s religious festivals in this passage should convict us as well. If we are the type of Christians who use God’s name to sanction our agendas and to validate our plans, while ignoring the clear call to be a people shaped by that God’s call and that God’s commands. When we name God as the architect of our national heritage or our communal traditions, but neglect the very matters that God demands we attend to—justice, hospitality, care for the vulnerable—we are merely engaging in the hollow kinds of performances that God, through Isaiah, condemns. These performances cost us nothing. They allow us to hide behind the name of God without allowing the Word of God to shape us, and God has little time for the so-called worship that results. Such rituals, and the institutions that support them, are doomed to fall in the days to come, as the crises of collapse and exile expose these realities for what they are.
The life of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples is both simpler, and harder, than that which Judah practiced in the days of Isaiah. Like us, Jesus’ earliest followers lived in a world where the Kingdom of God was forcefully advancing, and where at every turn the violent threatened to bear that kingdom away. How difficult, then, must it have been to believe that it was the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom to that little flock. But Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples to believe that in their minds, as if it were a nice, but absurd, proposition around which they could construct their personal, religious identity. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is challenging his followers to put their belief into practice in a straightforward way. He instructs them to sell their possessions so that they can give generously to the poor, and to live in anticipation of the consummation of the Kingdom in everything they do.
This is a faith that pushes adherents far beyond the safety of religious performance and transforms our lives where it most counts. It is a saving faith because it is an active faith. It costs something to believe what Jesus is saying here, not just in the monetary sense—although the generosity he describes here does involve the giving of alms—but in a much deeper way as well. A faith that costs us something, a faith that is more than just believing in propositions, baptizing our agendas in God-language, or engaging in public displays of piety, might not be easy. Such faith might test us. Such faith should challenge us. But in a world full of crises, a world full of violent people and horrific actions, a world that invites us to abandon our identities and to trade in our hope on a daily basis, such costly faith will prove to be necessary for the people of God.
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