Saturday, November 17, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Sure and Certain Hope


Faith and hope are often mentioned together as if they are different facets of the same gem, but I think they are more different than that. 

Faith, it seems to me, is the assertion of what we believe to be true on the basis of evidence and reason.  Our creeds, for instance, are statements of faith about who we Christians understand God to be.  They were worked out through reasoned (if not always reasonable) debate grounded in a thorough examination of scripture and the oral traditions of the first generations of believers.  In our own day, what we describe as our faith is the set of beliefs that define denomination, tradition, or local congregation that have been painfully hashed out over some period of time.  

Religious faith is certainly not the only kind of faith.  Faith is also found in the political, scientific, and economic worlds.  Faith in the big bang, faith in evolution, faith in free enterprise, faith in a political ideology.  Each article of faith is based on a reasoned examination of the evidence.  That doesn’t necessarily make it right.  Even based on reason and evidence it can still be wrong.  Reason can be corrupted and evidence misleading.  What has been known to be true about things in the past is often shown to be untrue by new knowledge and new evidence.   Nevertheless, statements of faith assert truths on which individual lives and entire societies are built.  

Faith must be flexible if it is to endure, but any substantial changes to it must be carefully worked out with diligence over time.  That’s because challenges to statements of faith are necessary to their continued legitimacy as truths on which lives can be built, and they must be met by close examination to determine their own legitimacy and consequences.  The old dialectic thinkers were not wrong about that, and scripture suggests that God is engaged in a constant dialectic of his own with us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4.12)  The living word of God is not trapped in the text of a book, but through that text it can and does leap into new places with new understandings. 

Hope is different.  There is something anxious about hope.  Hope is an anxious expectation that something better will come along.  Hope is anxious because it has little or no evidence to support it, and what evidence it does have can be to the contrary.  I am reminded of the lines waiting for the buses in front of the church I served in New York City.  They were populated by people hoping their bus would come on time.  Did it ever?  Sometimes, but not often.  “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, rests and expatiates in a life to come.”  So said Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Man.”

We hope for sunshine tomorrow in spite of forecasts of rain.  We hope our team wins in spite of its losing record.  We hope for fulfillment in new relationships that the old ones seldom met.  We hope we win the lottery or finally get a pony for Christmas.  We hope for all kinds of things in anxious expectation that his time it might work out, and sometimes it does.  Maybe by chance, maybe in answer to prayer, and maybe what we hope for is more predictable than we thought.  It’s hard to tell.  The New York buses turn out to be fairly reliable. 

But there is a different kind of hope.  It is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.
(Edward Mote)

It’s a ridiculous kind of hope because it is founded on the relatively flimsy evidence of the resurrection; flimsy because such a one time in all of history never to be replicated by anyone else event was attested to by witnesses of dubious qualification, none with academic credentials.  It is a hope that defies everything we currently know about the cycles of life and death.  Moreover, Christians in each generation have been firm in their sure and certain hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign and symbol of their own resurrection under conditions unknown and never yet reported on - near death experiences notwithstanding.  For all of that, it is, at least in orthodox Christianity, a non-anxious hope, despite its shortcomings of evidence.

The bus may be late.  It may rain tomorrow.  My team may lose.  The lottery will go to someone else.  My pony may never come.  My best friend may betray and abandon me.  But my hope in God through Christ for my own resurrection is sure and certain.  And we wonder why some people think Christians are deluded fools.  Well, as Paul said, if our hope is not true we really are crazy, but it is true and we know it. 

1 comment:

Dianna Woolley said...

Good grampa - sit, stay! xoxo