Faith and Mystery

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 22, 2006
Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Job 38:1-7, 34-41 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?

Hebrews 5:1-10 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Mark 10:35-45 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I. BEGINNING

Who among us has not wanted questions answered?   Who among us has been incurious about the world or about the reason for certain events?   Who among us would not want to know more?

It is the reason we come to college.   The reason we read books on topics of interest.   The reason we read not only the reporting of the news but also the analysis and commentary.   We like to know how things work.   Part of the thrill of a mystery is in the tension between not knowing something and trying to figure out the solution ourselves.   People take such pride in being able to solve the mystery before the author or director reveals the answer: “Oh! I know who did it! It was the dead guy’s ex-wife.”   Or “That can’t be the murderer–it’s only 10:15!” (This one is particularly applicable to Law & Order).

We are a people who seek knowledge.   The very name of our species is homo sapiens, literally means “wise human” or “knowing human”.   We are creatures who have a desire to know, a desire to understand. A desire for certainty.

II. THE TEXT–JOB’S LONG AWAITED ANSWER

And yet, it seems, there are things we will not know or will not understand. A point made for us with great power in the Book of Job.

You’ll recall, the Lord and Satan contend over whether Job’s faith is the result of his good fortune or something that he will keep in the face of bad fortune.   God allows the Satan to afflict Job with the loss of his crops, his cattle, his family, his health, indeed all that he has.   In all this, Job’s faith does not waiver.   Job does not–as the Satan is convinced he will–curse God to his face.

But throughout his sufferings, Job longs to know.   Job, in his anguish, asks a number of important questions:

Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes.   Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them.

Job longs to know not only why he is suffering, but why the wicked do not seem to.   He is asking questions of justice, what theologians would call “theodicy.”   Job’s friends have answers to his questions–there is a justice that Job cannot see.   He has perhaps committed some offense he does not know.

In the end, God responds to Job’s complaint.   In dramatic fashion:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

The remainder of the chapter and the following chapters is a recitation by God of the wonders of the Creation.   God says, in effect, the universe belongs to me and not to you–it is not meant to be sensible to you.   It cannot be reduced to simple rules that say that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.   God continues: “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.”   Job eventually responds, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …   Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

In the end, God restores Job’s fortunes and more so that he lives a fruitful and fulfilling remainder to his life.

But Job never gets an answer.   God does not explain herself to Job.   There is no promise of a world in which everything works out according to pre-set guarantees and well established rules.

Ultimately, the world is mystery.

III. THE MYTH OF CERTAINTY

We’re not really that comfortable with mystery.   (O sure, we like mysteries, as I said, but we’d never put up with a mystery story that never told us the answer, would we?)   No, rather, we assume that where one line of inquiry failed, another will succeed.

So, of course we are inclined to think that where simplistic philosophies and ancient religious understandings fail, philosophy, learning, or science can give us better insight.   Yes, of course, we reason, it is silly to say that the rains are a sign of reward for the faithful and their crops.   So, we won’t look to the morality of the people to determine when it will rain, we’ll look to science and meteorology.   And yet, the more we learn through science, the more we know how much we do not–or even cannot –know.

Early in the Twentieth Century, a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg made an astonishing pronouncement.   He stated that it was impossible to know both the location and momentum of a subatomic particle with any certainty.   That is, one could know either where the subatomic particle was, or how fast it was going, but not both.   If you knew one, all you could really know about the other was a ‘probability’.   There could be no certainty.   In fact, this became known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.   Einstein was not happy with this and objected loudly by saying famously, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

And yet, the truth of this new kind of physics –quantum physics–has been demonstrated time and time again.   And in ways even much more surprising than Heisenberg would have insisted.   According to Quantum theory, at the very smallest distances, the fabric of space-time is in chaos, changing shape and form.   As much as we or Einstein might have wished, there is a random element to the Universe that cannot be predicted by any means.   There is always going to be an element of the Universe that will remain to us a mystery.

IV. A FAITH OF CERTAINTY

While quantum mechanics has been around only for about 70 years, the human discomfort with uncertainty has been around for a good deal longer.   Much of our wrestling with faith and science has to do with a desire to combat the uncertainties of the world and replace them certainties we can depend on.   Long before Heisenberg told us we couldn’t ever really get a handle on the electron, we longed to get a handle on some kind of certainty.

And so it is that those expressions of religion that have promoted the most certainty have always been so attractive.   Those rigid, unbending expressions of faith that give the believer a never-wavering guide to their conduct and to interpret the world around them.   There is nothing beyond the explanatory power of such belief systems–so they will tell you.

Because if there is one thing that Fundamentalism has, it’s certainty.   In the Christian context, Fundamentalism arose in an effort to provide certainty and stability in Christian faith in the face of challenge from Liberal Protestantism.   In the 19th Century, the developing fields of Biblical Criticism and Biblical Archaeology brought many traditional beliefs and concepts into question.   From 1912 to 1914, twelve anonymously written volumes called The Fundamentals were published. [1] “Fundamentalism” was the name given to this emerging brand of Christianity that insisted at first that certain key concepts, and then almost everything, be taken without question.   In this brand of Christian faith, the absolute literal inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture is the basis of a certainty that it provides for the believer nervous about a chaotic and difficult to understand world.   This certainty gives the believer something to hold on to.

And that kind of certainty is certainly something that is desired.   In a recent essay in Time, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

Complete calm comes from coplete certainty.   In today’s unnerving, globalizing, sometimes terrifying world, such religious certainty is a balm more in demand than ever. [2]

Sullivan writes of the kind of serene calm that was visible on the face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad when he visited the United Nations and spoke of everything from denying the Holocaust to eagerly awaiting Armageddon and the final victory of God.   He notes that this kind of serenity through certainty is on the rise.   That it is a response to a dangerous and unsettling world, but one that leads us down increasing spirals of fundamentalism as one kind of certainty encounters another:

“The evil terrorists of al-Qaeda invoke God as the sanction for their mass murder.   And many beleaguered Americans respond by invoking God’s certainty. And the cycle intensifies into something close to a religious war.” [3]

Sullivan notes that this leads us into some very, very dangerous territory:

How, after all, can you engage in a rational dialogue with a man like Ahmadinejad, who believes that Armageddon is near and that it is his duty to accelerate it?   How can Israel negotiate with people who are certain their instructions come from heaven and so decree that Israel must not exist in Muslim lands? Equally, of course, how can one negotiate with fundamentalist Jews who claim that the West Bank is theirs forever by Biblical mandate?   Or with Fundamentalist Christians who believe that Israel’s expansion is a biblical necessity rather than a strategic judgment? [4]

On all sides, the uncertainties of the world are producing faiths that are very certain.

V. FAITH AND MYSTERY–MATURE FAITH

Dare I say it–there is something just a little bit immature about such a faith.   That kind of certainty can usually only be seen in people with serious mental issues or college freshmen.   It is often said that people who never doubt their own sanity are usually the crazy ones.   And I’ve said it before, but there are few people who know more than a college freshman–just ask one.

College seniors on the other hand, have by virtue of greater experience and more learning, discovered that they actually know a good deal less than they originally thought.   A growing maturity in our selves leads us to understand the limits of our own knowledge.   And we proceed into the world with some better appreciation for what it is we know and what it is we do not and cannot.

Fundamentalism, of any variety, is a bit like the politics of an entering freshman–it imagines that it knows more than it does.   It relies on a certainty that a more mature version of itself will eschew in favor of something else.

On the left, many react to this brand of faith by going in the opposite direction, by turning to the relativism of post-modernism or the certain skepticism of militant secularism. In his article, rather than argue for a distancing from fundamentalism by a reliance on secularism, Sullivan makes an impassioned plea for a faith that can heal these wounds in our world.   A faith that embraces the understanding that God is beyond our categories and cannot be comprehended by our language, our definitions, our creeds.   In short, a faith that embraces mystery.

A. Mystery

Mystery is at the heart of Christian faith –indeed all faith.   The Gospel of Mark presents for us a Jesus whose very messiahship is a secret–a mystery.   St. Paul speaks of the mystery of Christian faith– a mystery that can only be revealed by God, it cannot be fully comprehended by people.   “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; … For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face….” (1 Cor. 13: 9, 12)   It is a reminder that we here are limited, we are creatures.   We cannot fully know the mind of God, we cannot claim absolute certainty, all we can claim–indeed all Paul really ever claimed–was faith.

On a whim, I did a search for the word “certain” or “certainty” in Scripture.   I came up with 656 results.   Many of them were found in phrases like “They came to a certain town…” The overwhelming majority of the remaining references turned out to be the footnotes of the text that read: “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”   It made me laugh.   How is it possible for us to place such certainty in a text we cannot even fully understand?   So many people forget that our Bibles were not written in English, and that behind the certainty of the English translations lies a riddle.   Even our very scriptures are still on many levels a mystery to us.

But mystery is more than just faith that we limited, finite human beings are left with.   It is the kind of faith we should be striving after.

The 18th Century German playwright Gotthold Lessing said, “If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this–the pure Truth is for You alone.” [5]

B. Humility

Mr. Lessing was right– the path of humility is the path of the faithful.   It is a path that Fundamentalism and religions of certainty do not tread.   Rather, they are not on moving any path at all–they stay where they are erecting idols of their certainty, and celebrating their triumph over others who lack it.

The prophet Micah writes : “He has told you O mortal what is good.   And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”   It is the oft-overlooked piece of the familiar passage from Micah that we should walk humbly with our God.   Some interpreters translate ‘walk humbly’ with ‘walk attentively’–but the message is the same– listen to God in humility rather than rely on our own self-fashioned certainties.   It is in humility that we truly understand God, not in certainty.

It is a lesson that Jesus teaches us over and over again.   In the Gospel lesson we read for tonight, we encounter the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking to be placed at the right and left hands of Jesus in the Kingdom of God.   Jesus answers them as he answers the disciples throughout Mark: true power is in relinquishing power, true glory is in suffering, true leadership is in serving.   True love is in letting go and in self-sacrifice.   True messiahship is in the Cross.

VI. END

And real faith requires trust, not certainty.

Many of you, perhaps, have experienced that teambuilding exercise that is often done at some camp or couples counseling or things like that.   Two people stand one in front of the other and face the same direction.   The person in the front is told to fall backwards into the arms of the person standing behind.   The game doesn’t work if they’re facing one another.   When they’re facing one another, the one who falls can see the person who is supposed to catch them.   They can see whether the other is there, whether the other is reaching out to catch them.   They can have certainty before they start to fall.   The game, rather, requires not certainty, but faith.   You remember that the person is standing behind you.   You might hear, but you lack absolute certainty, and so you have to trust.

And that is what faith is.   Faith is not merely belief.   Faith is trust.   And trust always requires the possibility of doubt, else it is not real. There’s no real trust when there is no risk.   You don’t have to trust in the massive bridge of steel and stone the way you do in an old rickety rope bridge.   One requires a whole lot more faith than the other. A religion built around an infallible, inerrant (and we assume perfectly translated) scripture requires little trust.   A faith that forces us to consider the human agency in scripture, the challenge of science, and the mystery of where God is in the midst of it–requires faith.

God wants us to approach him with faith, with humility, that we might approach one another with service and love.

We spoke last week of how faith required one to let go–to let go of possessions, to let go of preconceptions, to let go of one another.   It requires us to let go of our need for certainty and asks us to embrace the mystery.   To recognize with humility that we are not to be the bearers of perfect understanding of the Truth. We are to be the bearers of the love of God for one another.

There will be many things that we will not know.   Many things that we cannot know.   Whether it is the location and momentum of a subatomic particle, or whether it is the answers for why the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.   There will be much of our lives that remains a mystery.

But, on reflection, there is one thing that we can be sure of: that God loves us, as we are.   And this love that God has demonstrated to us so decisively in Jesus Christ, is the love that gives us the courage to resist anxiety and fear –in spite of the vast unknown and in spite of great uncertainty.   It gives us the strength to let go of our worries and doubts and grudges, and to forgive one another our faults.

And it gives us the grace to trust and to have faith, to let go of our need for certainty, to open our arms wide and embrace the mystery of faith.


Notes

[1] Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, Touchstone: New York (1964), at 103.
[2Andrew Sullivan, “When Not Seeing is Believing”, Time, October 9, 2006, at 58
[3]   Id., at 59.
[4]   Id.
[5]   Id, at 60.