Faith does not consist in believing something wonderful . . .

A teaching of Jesus' that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks is from Luke (17:5-6) in which Jesus replies to his disciples' request to "Increase our faith!"by saying"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."

Discovering what this teaching might be gesturing towards relies upon us creatively engaging with the text and one of my own lifelong guides in modeling this engagement has been Tolstoy. As some of you know, I habitually carry in my bag a by now very worn copy of his "Gospel in Brief".  Here is how he presents this saying from Luke. By the way Tolstoy uses a birch rather than a mustard seed simply to make the teaching more accessible to his initial, Russian, audience.

"Then the disciples said to Jesus : "Increase in us our faith. Tell us that which will make us more strongly believe in the life of the spirit, that we may not regret the life of the flesh, which must be given up wholly for the life of the spirit. For reward, you yourself say there is none."

And in answer to this, Jesus said to them : "If you had such a faith as the faith that from a birch seed there springs up a great tree ; if, also, you believed that in you there is the germ, the only germ, of the spirit whence springs up the true life, you would not ask me to increase in you your faith.

"Faith does not consist in believing something wonderful, but faith consists in understanding one's position, and wherein lies salvation. If you understand your position, you will not expect rewards, but will believe in that which is entrusted to you."

Firstly, I think it is important to note that Tolstoy thinks Jesus was gesturing towards faith as being something other than "believing in something wonderful." I find this an amenable idea because I am very keen to stop us doing old-style metaphysics - something which our rationalist Enlightenment tradition really loved and thrived upon. Tolstoy's words resonate with my attempt to help us see that in this church community our religion, our particular expression of what it means to follow in Jesus' footsteps (and this can be done without necessarily adopting the label Christian) - that our religion really ought to move confidently towards becoming a way of 'being-in-the-world' and not a 'theory-about-the-world.'

This idea clearly resonates with Tolstoy's expression of what he then say he thinks faith should in the first place be, namely, "understanding one's position." He expands upon by saying this is believing in that which is intrusted to us.

In other words he is saying he thinks Jesus was encouraging us to work with the materials and responsibilities we actually have to hand which have been entrusted to us in our own contexts.  There's nothing particularly wonderful here - no great metaphysics or theology - there's simply a call to understand our local church's position which is summed up in our covenant:

'In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus the members of this congregation unites for the worship of God and the service of humanity.'

Some of you will, immediately, be quite happy with this but I am aware there might be a few who are thinking, hmmm, is this really for me? So let me expand a little on this.

Firstly, we are entrusted with the responsibility to cultivate a love of truth. This is simply to say, as I put it in the order of service each week (borrowed from my friend and mentor, the philosopher Victor Nuovo) that we must cultivate "a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it." (NB This is not capital 'T' truth nor is it about truth-ownership). Consequently, we need to keep looking everywhere and to listen carefully, taking seriously all those things which strike us as being genuine knowledge and to keep a reasonably open mind about those other things we are not sure about.  We must, of course, do this in all areas of human endeavour from the obviously spiritual to the scientific. As St Paul in 1 Thessalonians said: "test everything; hold fast to what is good" (5:20-21). From time to time, of course, this means we can let go of what we find not to be good.

Secondly, we have been entrusted with the responsibility to live in the spirit of Jesus. But please, oh please recall 'the spirit of Jesus' is not the same as the 'beliefs of Jesus'. Remember I think our way forward is to interpret our tradition in non-metaphysical ways. We act in the spirit of Jesus by taking care to read and reflect deeply particularly upon the Gospels. This doesn't mean slavishly believing every word in them is of equal worth and to be promulgated (not even Jesus') but it is to take seriously that the "gestalt" (i.e. overall shape of an entity's complete form) of the Gospel and Jesus' life is a trustworthy model to emulate. Remember such a disciplined practice (a constant, life-long meditation on the gospels) is not designed to make us 'little Jesuses' or even Christians, but in this church and under my ministry at least, it is understood as a way to help us to become more fulfilled expressions of our own unique possibilities as existent beings - to have life and have it abundantly.

Thirdly, we have been entrusted with the responsibility to worship God. At first sight this one seems rather more problematic especially since I know very few of us who attend this church believe in God (or the gods) in the way our forebears did, i.e. as a personal being (or beings) who created our world and who intervene(s) in it in some way. If you accept certain definitions about God (which I don't) some of us could even be called atheists. That would include me, as you know. But, as I have recently been saying, the language of 'worshipping God' or the gods is the only language we have been entrusted with which can invoke the sacred, creative, divine and holy space that the gods or God used to inhabit. This space, this astonishing clearing in our world that allows us to build, dwell and think, is what captivates and drives me as a religious person and which offers us the kind of succour and sense of belonging and meaning that we used to find in God. I passionately feel that in this clearing we find, not the kingdom of Heaven but, instead, the possibility of a republic of Heaven. Consequently, I have no qualms about the responsibility we as a church have, and I as this church's minister has, to engage in the "worship of God".  The 'worship of God' seems essential to me in a way 'belief in God' seems to diminish in importance by the week.

And lastly we have been entrusted with the responsibility to engage in the service of humankind. Clearly in what this service consists is shaped by how we go on to live a life in the light of the foregoing. At this point I could go on in two ways. One would be to look at how this plays out in your personal life as an individual. But you can do that yourselves and you will, I am sure, feed your reflections on that back into the life of this still developing community. The second way is to look at our collective expression of how we serve humankind.

I realise, because we are a congregation that is structurally open to a wide variety of religious and spiritual outplayings of our covenant, we have not always been very good at obviously acting together. We tend to prefer to leave here and as empowered individuals to take our social action into other organisations such as political parties and other voluntary charitable work.

But ten years as your minister has led me to see something else that you really should be aware of namely our buildings and the position of minister both of which you support with your time and money.

The hall and church is used to provide a place for all kinds of community activities. Of course they are used for the more obviously churchy things such as child dedications, weddings and funerals but its use is way more extensive than this. Here are just a few:

There is a forty year old drama school which has its home here - the MacKenzie School of Speech and Drama. Literally thousands of people have benefited by having this place week after week and much joy, entertainment and personal maturation has been enabled. There are dance clubs - in the past ballroom and tea dances but today Scottish dance and Tango. Friendship, love and passion has flourished here and this love and passion will have had many good effects in the world. There will be some bad matches, of course! but I'd bet they've mostly been good. Young mothers and fathers come here for the bumps and babies group and here people have found great support and friendship. There are Yoga classes, Buddhist meditation groups, general music making, there are the weekly conversations we have and the dozens of other meetings ranging from the political through to general community meetings - such as the Residents' Association.  All of these things are a very tangible expression of our responsibility to serve humankind.

Then there is the role of the minister - every minister will have their specialties and Frank certainly served well and widely and I have built on his work and those who preceded him back to 1904. But today, in me, your support enables me to teach courses at the Woolf Institute which foster better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims, it enables me to be a chaplain to both the University of Cambridge and to the Cambridgshire Constabulary and to play other roles in various community projects and activities. It means that a real live liberal voice is out there in a small, but effective way, in our society. The role of minister serves humankind and it is because of your contributions that this is possible.

So, to conclude, Tolstoy thought that Jesus was gesturing towards the idea that faith (our faith) does not consist in believing something wonderful (i.e. in metaphysical theories *about* the world) but understanding one's position and believing in what has been entrusted to us - in our case our covenant (i.e. it is about how we *are* in the world). In this very practical non-metaphysical expression of what it is to follow Jesus lies our faith - in it we may have confidence and I recommend it to you.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the Tolstoy recommendation, much appreciated.