thinking theology

Living Not Believing

Let’s think about the English word belief. Our word comes from old Germanic meaning dear, esteemed, trust. In Hebrew the word is leha’amin, meaning to commit to or support. In Greek it is pisteou, also suggesting to entrust or support. The way we hear the word in our time is to accept something as unconditional truth or proven fact. It is an odd development in a scientific world where everything can be subjected to scrutiny, where all knowledge is understood to be contingent.

For example, we know that light can be understood to be either a ray or a particle depending on how it is measured. Maybe someday we will understand it in yet another dimension. If you travel to Sudbury, you can see where they capture neutrinos that are almost imaginary in their tinyness. Now there are even smaller particles, previously unknown and unimaginable.

When I was a kid, we had a neighbour who persistently argued that the earth was flat. When the Americans landed on the moon, he insisted it was a hoax. He believed that there was nothing new to learn or to discover. Now we know that nothing is necessarily fixed. Our knowledge is constantly changing and growing. In this world, all facts are just until we learn more.

Indeed, it is impossible to get witnesses to reliably tell the same story. Look at the gospels and the writing of Paul. Distinctly different understandings of who Jesus was, how he lived, and why we remember him. And we all know what happens to family stories, how they are transformed in re-telling. Our understanding of history is equally permeable. Look at insights into World War 2, into the era of colonization, into the twisting of truth that is called “spin.” It is impossible to tell any truth, because everything we know is partial, and subject to amendment.

Thus the Jews would not say the name of God, because to name the Holy One, was to minimize, alter, or distort the truth of the divine existence. So how does this affect faith? Next week, we will refer specifically to Jesus, but I want to remain more general this morning. What would be the difference if we remained seated or knelt for the creed, instead of snapping to attention facing the rising sun.

And we might say:

I support One God.

I entrust myself to One God

I commit myself to One God.

How do changes in posture or language affect what we think and hold dear? Do we have the courage to say that we are still learning about God, about Jesus? Can we envision a Christian faith that is not about the certainty of facts, but of relationship and ongoing experience? Jesus teaches no theology, no dogma. He says, “Follow me.” That is action. He says, “Love each other.” That is relationship.

What if we lifted the idea of wonder and mystery as high as we raised word and truth? How would this change us? These are important questions.

Over my ministry, I have heard many people tell me about the things they don’t believe in. It is rare for someone to tell me how their imaginations and dreams are stimulated by the stories of God. If we want the Way of Jesus to be revitalized and energized, we have to give up the word believe and trade it in for words like hope and trust.

Here is a little Persian story about testing reality. One moonlit night, a goose came to a river. Although the bank was teeming with grubs, she noticed something shining in the water. Without further thought, she dove into the water, but the gleaming body eluded her. The next night, she came again to the pond, but she caught nothing. When she looked up in exasperation, she saw the full moon. “What a foolish goose I am. It was only ever the moon shining on the water.” On the third night, when the moon had begun to wane, the goose came again to the river bank. She noticed something shining near the bank but she thought, “Oh no, you won’t fool me again.” And she began to have a big meal of grubs. With a sigh of relief, the silver trout swam away into the stream, through the band of moon shadow.

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To quote Thomas Moore: to keep our idea of truth alive and humane, it may help to use the word always in the plural. There are many truths. If you happen upon one, it may be comforting. But don’t dwell too long there, or you will miss the next truth, which will be equally important.”

Again he tells this story: Someone once said to Nasrudin, “They say your jokes are full of hidden meanings. Are they?” “No” “Why not?” “Because I have never told the truth in my life, not once; nor will I ever be able to do.” (from Parabola, Winter 2003)

Praise the God of mystery and infinite possibility!

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