A guiding principle of my faith is that in Jesus Christ God has overcome all that might separate us from God. To paraphrase theologian Karl Barth, Jesus Christ is God’s “yes” to a humanity that has said “no” to God. Of course, this “yes” was “in the beginning with God,” as the Gospel of John tells us. This “yes” was part of God’s eternal design. The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, echoes the thought, saying of the Divine Invitation that no one can resist. “We can come to God dressed for dancing, or be carried on a stretcher to God’s ward.”
All this is to say that as I see it the work of our faith is not to earn our salvation, but rather, to awaken to it. The power of a trusting belief is its capacity to awaken us to a grace that is given. We are blessed when we trust because trust gives us courage, hope, and vitality. It liberates us from the pressures of self and ties us to a living God. I do not believe that belief saves our souls or that sufficient belief earns us God’s forgiveness for the sins, which God relentlessly tracks.
Nonetheless, in sometimes overt and sometimes subtle ways I see evidence that my view may be in the minority. I recently presided at a funeral for a man whose adult son was a born-again Christian. As he eulogized his father he gave thanks for the bits of his father’s story that pointed to the possibility of a faith that would earn him a spot in heaven, and he implored the small congregation of family members to believe so that they might be saved as well. I couldn’t help but wonder how his family members heard his message. Did they feel that in his desire for them to come to faith (his faith) he had overlooked the goodness and beauty that was right there already within them? Did he fail to see them as God sees them because he was too busy trying to save them? Did they feel judged by him? If so, I expect that ironically his efforts to evangelize them will have the opposite effect, in addition to increasing the distance between them and him.
There is a part of me that subscribes to a primitive religion as well. It is a part that believes that God must be pleased and placated, and that this is the role of my faith. It is a part that I am better and better at resisting. As I mentioned, I believe that primitive religion is fairly pervasive. We may be unaware of its influence on us, or we may even fully embrace it, thinking that it is not primitive at all. But, it is based on a power dynamic that doesn’t allow for a true exchange of love between us and God. God has all the power and when that is the case for us, “the only natural response is fear, denial, hiding, or seeking to manipulate the situation.” (Richard Rohr) Primitive faith is an attempt to manipulate God into accepting us. There is no capacity for equality or mutuality, which means there is no enduring love.
Rohr continues, “The only way for this pattern to change is for God, from God’s side, to shift the power equation and come to us in a vulnerable position. Jesus is the living icon of this power-shift: God becoming powerless in Jesus. God took the initiative to overcome our fear and hesitation. Jesus, the self-exposure of God, made honest, intimate relationship between God and humans imaginable! Seeing God in the form of a small baby radically illustrates this shift in power.”
This is not an easy concept to let sink in, especially since it may seem so contradictory to what we’ve been taught. As I meditated on these words I imaged my faith to be an infant. I imagined holding it with love and care. I felt the urge to treat it tenderly and delicately. I imagined that it was I who was holding God in my hands because that is how God had given Godself to me. It was something of a reversal for me. Normally, I imagine God holding us. Strange as the experience was, it also gently struck me as a touch of grace. It felt like a sacred moment to hold God and to think that that is what God wants of me, and of us all.
In the end, primitive faith is boring. It is empty work and likely to inspire very few to follow Christ. As lent approaches we are once again invited to examine not just the degree of our faith, but its quality as well. How much we believe and how fervently we attend to our faith is directly related to the kind of God in whom we believe. Lent is an opportunity to find the sleeping areas of our faith and to nudge them into the wakefulness of a new and different day. It is time to dare change and growth that are rooted in a more generous version of God than most of us are prone to perceive. Why not give it a try?