A Deeper Sense of “Faith”

Increasingly, I am convinced the opposite of “faith” is not “doubt,” but “fear.” This is because the deepest level of “faith” is not “belief,” but “trust;” and the opposite of “trust/faith” is “fear/anxiety.”

Instead of faith’s opposite, doubt is a part of the journey of faith. Skepticism is, or should be, embraced as how we grow, not how we “gain or lose,” our faith. Long ago, I came to dearly love Frederick Buechner’s definition of “doubt”…

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
From “Wishful Thinking.”)

This has always been how I’ve seen the connection of faith and doubt. Doubts keep our faith awake and moving. They keep it from calcifying into fundamentalism. They push us to know more, do more, be more. This kind of faith is like Jesus coming down the mountain, instead of building the “ Transfiguration Shrine” that Peter wants him to.

This kind of faith doesn’t attempt to literalize or concretize spiritual experiences which are, at their heart, always ephemeral. (And must be!)

My overall sense is that my own tradition (Mainline Protestantism) has done a much better job of reminding its adherents that doubt is a part of our faith journey.

I was a very young man when I first understood this. And I am grateful to my own youth minister, Ben Marshall, for both being a calm, non-anxious leader, but also for inviting us kids to always unpack our doubts, our fears, and our skepticism. We were never once shamed, dismissed, or shunned for questioning the Bible, or any facet of the Christian religion.

But throughout my adult life I’ve encountered many folks who were. For many who grew up in evangelical/fundamentalists traditions, if they even so much as *slightly* “doubted” or questioned the “logical propositions” they were told to believe, they were shunned, shunted aside, or worse even cast out of Christian fellowship.

In these more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, “doubt” was the *worst* thing a “believer” could ever have.

This next part may feel controversial to some, but it’s how I see things.

Most of the debate I hear between “Atheists” and “Believers” seems to take place at this level…the level of debating “belief in logical propositions about God.” There’s a lot of “proof-texting” that seems to go back and forth. There’s a GREAT DEAL of assuming that:

Faith=Belief in factual or logical propositions about God.”

Many churches websites feature a “What We Believe” page. And many times, this is where you can find these “logical propositions about God” spelled out. And, many times, it’s assumed that any “real” Christian will believe these things literally.

From my chair, I see a lot of “Atheists” attempting to undercut these types of factual or literal claims about God. I see a lot of “Evangelicals” defending them; often twisting themselves into theological pretzels —dancing on the heads of some very small pins— to defend their “beliefs.”

Secularly, there are similar debates over “facts” happening everywhere, of course.

Right now, all over social media, there are raging debates over the truth claims made by Donald Trump.
Right now, there are *still* debates about vaccines and the science of pandemic medicine.
(I have a near-neighbor with a “Kennedy for President” sign up. 🙁 )
And last night, we watched a chilling documentary about Alex Jones and the horrific way he lied for decades about the massacre of children at Sandy Hook. Even during his trial, even as he repeatedly apologized in court, Jones continued to publicly lie about the situation on his internet show!!

His lies helped keep alive the conspiratorial virus started by Trump’s “Birthirism,” and later led to the kooky views about Hillary Clinton eating babies in non-existent pizzeria basements.

Folks, we’re in the midst of a full-on “war” about facts in our nation. And it’s not over yet.

What I’m suggesting here is that beneath all of this back and forth about “logical propositions,” there is entirely different level of “faith” that is not primarily dependent on this debate at all; that does not “stand or fall” on its outcome.

And that is to see something different than what I said above:

Faith” = “Trust, Assurance, Confidence…or Hope.”

Faith at this level isn’t nearly as concerned with the literal truth or falsity of logical propositions, or even with our “gut emotional feeling,” but instead with developing a deep-level trust in the presence of God.

As Marcus Borg so well puts it, “Faith is trusting that the reality of reality is gracious.”

This gets me to this story about “Doubting Thomas.” (John 20)

Again, lets remember this story starts on Easter Day. That night.
The Disciples appear to be in shock. They are confused. Their spiritual/emotional teeth have been kicked in by the Roman Execution of Jesus, and a fear of marauding collaborators who are potentially out to harm them too.

The Gospel literally uses the word fear to describe them.

“The doors were locked, for fear of Jews.”

“The Jews,” here —and this is important— are not clearly all Jews in Israel (they are all Jews too!). But “the Jews” here clearly refers to some folks who want to show their loyalty to the Roman Empire by turning in associates of Jesus.

But the point is not who they are afraid of, though.
The point is that they are afraid.
And their fear is the opposite of faith.
This is the moment when they are most “faith-empty.”

The story goes that Jesus comes and stands among them. Note that he apparently has some kind of non-normal body that can walk through locked doors. The text doesn’t seem to worry about this, and we should either…because, (and I can never emphasize this enough…) the point of the story of not logical, factual, literal, consistency.

Jesus breathes on them. Jesus, give them the Holy Spirit, and wishes them peace.

Thomas isn’t there. It’s not explained why.
It doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s an introvert.
Maybe he couldn’t take being with the group.

But he comes back and hears of their miraculous encounter. But instead of taking their word for it, he tells them that he won’t believe unless he can see for himself.

And then…a week passes!

Don’t rush past this. Thomas has to endure the Spirit-filled joy of the other ten for a week…all the while insisting that he be given what they got. He’s not asking for more than them, or special treatment. He just wants to see as they have seen.

He gets his wish. Jesus pops a back in the room a week later, and allows Thomas to see his weirdly physical/non-physical body. And that’s why Thomas’ doubt fall away.

But its the final line of this story that, imho, is the most important. Because I always imagine Jesus ends this story by addressing US. Jesus’ last line can’t be addressed to anybody still in the room, because they’ve all seen the physical-him.

Instead, Jesus breaks the “fourth wall” of the Gospel drama, and turns to all of us readers over the past two thousand years, and says:

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

Do you see it?
He can’t be speaking to any other character. (They DID see him…) But we —unlike the ten, and now Thomas— we must be the audience, because we are never going to get a physical glimpse at this weird post-resurrection body of Jesus. We live in a time when all that’s available to us is the still, small voice of God.
The whisper of the Spirit.


We can argue about “facts.” (And we most certainly will…)
We can argue about “beliefs.” (And we’ll do that too…)

But can we find —through the grace of God— some sense of bedrock trust beneath all of this?
Because this trust is the heart of what Jesus calls “blessed.”

Can we believe —all evidence to the contrary— that “the reality of reality is gracious?”
Because this reality is also the heart of what Jesus calls “blessed.”

The most “blessed” form of faith is below the level of human doubt and anxiety.

None of us have it all the time.
Few of us have it most of the time.

One paradoxical dynamic I see? The more we are trapped by a “faith” that driven by logical propositions about God, the less of this bedrock trust we humans seem to have. This is why some of the fundamentalists/evangelicals you know seem to be deeply distrustful and incredibly fearful (Literally: “full of fear”) because their propostition-driven-faith has never led them to this deeper place.

But pursuing faith-as-trust, by finding it (or, perhaps better, allowing it to find us…) we live out the deepest calling God has for us.

This kind of faith is outside the level of logical propositions about God.
It’s beyond the reach of human evil, and even past the event-horizon of human logic; outside of our sense of history, space, and time.
This level and form of faith a kind of foolish-seeming trust in God.

We often say that “believers” are “faithful.” But pull those words apart and recall their deeper meaning.

Those who have “faith” the way Jesus is describing here are “faith-FULL.” They are full of a specific kind of faith…a trust, hope, and assurance… that is not dependent on the logical mind, or the emotional heart.

It’s Buechner’s “ants in the pants” kind of faith,” that somehow still finds trust in God, even though we live in a world where it hard to trust anything at all these days.

This is the heart of what Jesus means when he says….

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

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