Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
February 24, 2002
(This sermon is also available in audio)
Let us start with a brief moment in prayer. I am going to use a very short prayer from Dag Hammarskjold. Most of you in my age range would know who he was. He was the Swedish diplomat who became Secretary General of the United Nations. While Secretary General he was killed in a plane crash in the Old Belgian Congo. But he was a Christian mystic, though nobody knew that during his lifetime. He kept a journal which, after his death, was published, and it is called Markings. It is interesting to read through. It is not all prayers, but there are some prayers in it. This is a prayer from Dag Hammarskjold's Markings.
We are living in a time of major change in the church in North America. Specifically, a major paradigm shift is under way (A paradigm is a way of seeing the whole between two ways of seeing Christianity and what it means to be a Christian.) So significant is this time of transition and change that some observers of the present situation speak of a new reformation. That's a bit grand and overstated, I think, but overstatements can sometimes contain truth. Something of major significance is going on. To name this paradigm shift with the most neutral terms I have been able to think of, the shift is from an earlier paradigm--an earlier way of seeing Christianity--to an emerging paradigm--an emerging way of seeing. The earlier paradigm is a very familiar and widespread way of seeing Christianity that has been dominant for the last few hundred years or so. The emerging paradigm is a way of seeing Christianity that has been visible in seminaries and church-related colleges for about a hundred years, and that, in the last 20 to 30 years, has become a major grass roots movement in mainline denominations. Thus, it is also a time of considerable conflict within the church, as times of change always are.
The great divide is between the mainline denominations on the one hand and our more conservative and fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters on the other hand. But the conflict also exists within the mainline denominations themselves. I think all of the mainline denominations have a vocal minority movement that is protesting the direction that they see the denomination taking; some congregations have this conflict in their own life. So different are these two ways of seeing Christianity that they almost produce two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language. I sometimes think of the story of the church in our time as a tale of two Christianities, and there are several ways of describing the conflict.
One way of describing the conflict is to focus on the Bible. It's a conflict between two ways of seeing the Bible--its origin, authority, and interpretation--whether it's a divine product or a human product. A conflict between a literal, factual way of reading the Bible versus a historical, metaphorical approach to reading the Bible.
It is also a conflict about how to see Christianity in an age of religious pluralism. Is it the only true religion and the only way of salvation? Or is it one of the world's great religions, but alongside of the other religions, one of the ways to be in relationship to God?
One more way of describing the conflict is a conflict between two visions of the Christian life--one that emphasizes believing and one that emphasizes relationship. Within the earlier paradigm or way of seeing the Christian life, believing has been central--believing in God, believing in Jesus, believing in the Bible, believing in Christianity, believing in the creeds, and so forth. Within the emerging paradigm relationship, not believing is central. It is a relationship with God as disclosed in the Christian tradition, but the Christian tradition itself is not the object of belief.
I am going to talk about these two visions of the Christian life--a believing versus a relational understanding--by talking about the meanings of faith. In Part One I am going to speak about the four meanings of faith in the Christian tradition, and in Part Two, some concluding observations about faith.
I turn to Part One: The Four Meanings of Faith, and I begin by underlining an obvious fact: the importance of the notion of faith for Christianity in Christians, especially so for Protestants. The reason it is so central for Protestants is because in the Protestant Reformation one of the central slogans was the phrase, "justification by grace through faith," often shortened to, "justification by faith," or even more simply, "we are saved by faith, and not works." Of course, that's not new with the Reformation. We find this in the New Testament itself, especially in Paul. And so, faith is utterly central to the Christian life. So what does it mean?
I turn now to expositing the four meanings. My central claim in Part One of this talk is that the first of these meanings of faith, which sees faith as belief, has become dominant in the Modern Period and has significantly distorted the meaning of faith and the Christian life. The other three, I will argue, are all relational understandings of faith with rich meanings for our time. As I describe these four meanings, I will in each case use a Latin term initially to show the antiquity of these notions, and then, a short English phrase to name it. I will talk about the opposite of each, for sometimes we see what something means most clearly by seeing it in contrast to its opposite.
I begin with the first of these meanings of faith. This is faith as the Latin word, assensus. It's like the English word assent but with a "sus" at the end instead of a "t." That also tells you what the closest English word is. Faith as "assent." This is faith as belief, as believing that something is the case, as believing something to be true. This is faith as giving one's mental assent to a proposition to a claim or a statement. Hence, this is often called a propositional understanding of faith.
It is this meaning that has become the dominant meaning over the last couple of centuries, both within the church and outside of it. But this notion that Christian faith is primarily about assensus, about belief, is recent and primarily Protestant. It is modern, the product of the last 400 years, perhaps especially the last hundred years.
Two developments account for this understanding of faith becoming dominant. The first is the Reformation itself which produced a number of new denominations, each defining itself by what they believed. Calvinists distinguish themselves from Lutherans by coming up with doctrinal statements, confessions, and so forth. The Roman Catholics soon followed, distinguishing themselves by what they believed compared to what Protestants believed.
To illustrate this change, I'm going to refer briefly to a book on the history of liturgy by a scholar named Aidan Kavanagh, and the title of the book is On Liturgical Theology. One of Kavanagh's central claims in that book is that until the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century, the word orthodoxy referred to right worship or correct worship. If you did the worship service in the correct way, that made you orthodox. Only in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries did orthodoxy start meaning right belief and correct belief. Thus, faith began to mean believing the right things.
The second development that accounts for the dominance of faith as assensus in the Modern Period is the Enlightenment--that period of Western cultural history that began in the Seventeenth Century and continues to this day. It is marked by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing. One of the effects of the enlightenment is that Truth became identified with factuality. What is true is that which is factual and what is verifiable factuality. It is worth noting that modern, Western culture is the only culture in human history that has ever identified truth with factuality. The enlightenment also called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible, and, for that matter, of many traditional Christian teachings.
Thus faith, increasingly, was understood as believing--namely, believing things that had become questionable. When the underpinnings of your religion are called into question, you believe them to be true in spite of reasons to think otherwise.
This has also become the dominant meaning of faith or belief in modern popular usage. Belief is typically contrasted to knowing. When, for example, I ask my undergraduates, "What do you think of when I say the word believe?" After stumbling around for a little while, it emerges that there are some things you can know, and other things you can only believe. So that believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out, or believing is what you turn to when there's a conflict between knowledge and what your religion says.
This usage is so dominant that in the Random House Dictionary, the 1966 Edition, this is the first definition of believe. It defines belief as sort of the opposite of knowledge almost, and, then, under the first definition it provides an example: "the belief that the world is flat." So, belief is sort of contrary to knowledge, almost.
Faith as assensus in the Modern Period, is what you need when beliefs and knowledge conflict. Faith is believing in spite of difficulty. To show you how modern this is, for just a moment try to imagine what faith as assensus meant in the Christian Middle Ages. Take, for example, the Genesis stories of creation. In the Christian Middle Ages, you would have taken it for granted that that's the way it happened. You had no reason to think otherwise. You would have taken it for granted that the Christian understanding of reality was true because that was the conventional wisdom at the time. Everybody believed that in a sense. So, faith as assensus was effortless. It didn't require sort of gearing up your minds to believe stuff that had stopped making sense to you.
The opposite of faith as belief or faith as assensus is, of course, doubt, and in stronger form, disbelief. If you have doubts, you don't have much faith within this understanding of faith. If you grow up in a tradition which emphasizes that you are "saved by faith," as I did as a Lutheran, then you also are likely to experience your doubts as sinful, as something that you need to repent for. That was certainly the case for me when I was a teenager. This understanding of faith is very widespread, and so pervasive that it's hard for many people to see that faith could mean anything else. But it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It's not only a distortion, but an enormous distraction to see faith this way. It is not only modern but rather odd when you think about it. As if what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads. As if believing the right things, having correct beliefs, is what God is most looking for, or as if what God is most looking for is people who are willing to believe highly iffy claims to be true. Moreover, when you think about it, believing is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. As I've remarked before, you can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. Faith as believing certain things to be true has very little transformative power.
The second meaning of faith, which is the first of the understandings that have rich meanings for our time, is the Latin word fidelitas. It's like the English word "fidelity," but with an "as" instead of a "y" at the end. That also is the decisive clue as to what this understanding of faith means. Faith as fidelity. Faith as faithfulness to a relationship. Think of what fidelity means in a human relationship: whether you think of it in the context of a marriage--faith is faithfulness to that relationship; or whether you think of it in the context of parent and children--faith as faithfulness to that relationship to your child. In a religious context, it means faith as faithfulness to God. Faithfulness to our relationship with God has very little to do with beliefs but has to do with something much deeper.
The Bible has some very vivid terms for describing its opposite, so I move to its opposite. One of the most common terms in the Bible for describing the opposite of faith as faithfulness is adultery. When the prophets, and for that matter, Jesus, speak about adultery, most often they're not talking about human sexual behavior. When the prophets or Jesus say this is an adulterous generation, they don't mean that there sure is a lot of spouse swapping going on here. They're talking about unfaithfulness to God. Infidelity is one of the central metaphors in the Bible for speaking of that.
In some ways an even harsher term in the Bible for unfaithfulness to God is idolatry. Idolatry is centering on something other than God. Idolatry is not being faithful to the relationship to God, but being primarily faithful to something else. I turn to the third meaning of faith. The Latin word, this is faith as fiducia. There is no good English equivalent here that I've been able to think of. The closest we get is "fiduciary" which doesn't get us very far, so let me go, instead, to an English phrase. This is faith as trust, and specifically, faith as trusting in God. I suppose, even more specifically, faith as radical trust in God. Once again, this is not very much concerned with beliefs at all. It's not about trusting in beliefs in God, just as fidelity is not about being faithful to beliefs in God. It's about trust in God. We see the meaning of this understanding of faith most clearly, I think, by turning immediately to its opposite.
The opposite of faith as trust is, of course, mistrust. But, even more provocatively, the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. We see this with great clarity in the teachings of Jesus. In a very well known passage in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew's Gospel. It's in Matthew 6, and in Luke, it's Luke 12. It's "Q" material. Therefore, very early in case any of that matters to you. But it's that famous passage in which Jesus says to his hearers:
There's an invitation in those extended metaphors to see reality as characterized by a cosmic generosity, and five times in that passage Jesus also says to those who are listening to him: "Why are you anxious, oh, people of little faith?" Little faith and anxiety go together. It's the opposite of faith as trust.
If you want to know how to measure the amount of faith as trust in your life, you can measure that by the amount of anxiety in your life. I mention that not in order to give you yet one more thing with which to feel guilty about, but I mention that both to make the point I'm making, but also the good news of that that growth in faith as trust, casts out anxiety. Deepening trust in our relationship with God transforms our life by making us less and less anxious. Who wouldn't want the anxiety-free life? Can you imagine how free you would be? How able you would be to be present to what is right in front of your face instead of being distracted, instead of being preoccupied? That's faith as trust.
I turn to the fourth meaning of faith. The Latin word is faith as visio, like the English word "vision" but without the "n" on the end. This is faith as a way of seeing, more specifically, a way of seeing the whole--a way of seeing the whole of what is or simply a way of seeing what is.
I owe the exposition that I'm about to share with you to the 20th Century American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr. In his last book, The Responsible Self, actually published about six months after his unexpectedly early death, Neibuhr speaks of three ways of seeing the whole, the whole of what is. He argues that each way of seeing the whole shapes our response to life and, hence, the title of his book, The Responsible Self. It doesn't mean the dutiful self, but the self which responds. How we will respond to life, again, depends upon how we see the whole. Neibuhr describes three ways of seeing that he thinks are a comprehensive, exhaustive spectrum of the way you can see the whole. Let me now go through each of these three ways of seeing the whole and the response to life that each generates.
The first way you can see the whole is to see it as hostile and threatening. Of course the extreme form of this is paranoia. But you don't have to be clinically paranoid to see the whole this way. The bottom line is none of us gets out of here alive. It will get us all, and not just us as individuals, but everybody we love. We are also told that five billion years from now the sun itself will burn out and when it burns out it will explode and most of the solar system, perhaps all of the solar system and certainly the Earth, will be incinerated. The bottom line is that we and everything that is are destined for oblivion.
If you see life as hostile and threatening, how are you going to respond to life? Well, you're going to respond in a very self-protective way. You will try to do what you can to protect those whom you love from this hostile and threatening world and this hostile and threatening universe in which we live. Very interestingly, Neibuhr, as a Christian theologian, points out that this is the most common and widespread way Christianity basically sees the whole. And God is the one who is going to get us unless we believe the right things, offer the right sacrifices or whatever it is that you need to do to try to propitiate the devouring fire that will otherwise consume you.
Think of forms of Christianity that are very familiar to us. You've got to believe a certain way or you risk ultimate damnation, and you'll get left behind when the Rapture happens. Apocalyptic Christianity is a classic example of seeing the whole as hostile and threatening and God as the One who will rescue a few but destroy everybody else. This is the violent God, the killer God. So, that is the first way you can see the whole, and it exists in both secular and religious form.
The second way you can see the whole is as indifferent to us. It's not "out to get us" in particular. It simply is, and it's vastly indifferent to human life. It may be full of wonder, but ultimately the cosmos is indifferent to us. This is probably the most common secular way of seeing the whole that's emerged in the last 300 years in Western Culture--that vision of the universe as ultimately made up of the space time world of matter and energy, where swirling masses of atoms are interacting with each other. It's brought us forth, but it's basically indifferent to human ends.
If you see the whole this way, how will you respond to life? Probably in not quite as threatened a fashion as the first way of responding to life, but you're likely to respond to life by enjoying what you can while you're here and building up at least modest systems of security in the face of an indifferent universe--taking the precautions that any prudent person would take-- financial security, gated communities, etc.
Thirdly you can see the whole as life-giving and nourishing, as bringing us forth in a quite spectacular way. It really is remarkable that we are here. Not only as life-giving, but also as nourishing. The theological word for this is to see the whole as gracious. This is the view that Neibuhr is advocating.
Neibuhr is not being a naïve optimist when he speaks about seeing the whole as life-giving, nourishing and gracious. He knows about the Holocaust. He knows about all the brutal and horrible things we are capable of doing to each other. He knows about all the random accidents and premature terminal illnesses that happen to people. But his case is that it makes an enormous difference how we see this reality within which we live. Faith, according to Neibuhr, is seeing the whole as gracious, perhaps in ways that we can't even understand.
The response that seeing the whole as gracious generates is very different from the first two responses. It frees us from anxiety. It is this way of seeing that Jesus is inviting in those passages I quoted. It can free us from self-preoccupation and the concern with the security of the self. It can lead to what one scholar has called "the self-forgetfulness of faith" and all of the freedom that goes with that including, the freedom to love and to be compassionate. It leads to a willingness to spend and be spent (I love the use of both the active and passive voice there.) for the sake of an over-arching vision. It leads to the kind of life that we see in Jesus, in the Buddha and in the saints known and unknown. Not just the famous saints, but those local saints that nobody ever hears about beyond their own communities. It leads to that kind of life described by St. Paul with the word freedom, joy, peace and love.
Thus, faith as visio is seeing reality as gracious, and its opposite, unfaith, is seeing reality as hostile and threatening. Even if that hostility and threatening character is couched in Christian terms, it is still unfaith, in the sense of faith as seeing the whole as gracious.
three understandings of faith are all relational understandings. They
have very little to do with beliefs. Christians over the centuries have
believed in an extraordinary variety of things. Beliefs are quite relative.
What really matters is faith as faithfulness to the relationship with
God--faith as a deepening trust in God, flowing out of that deepening
relationship. Faith as a way of seeing the whole that shapes our relationship
to what is.
The first, to use William James' most generic term for God or the sacred or the spirit, is that there is a more, or in more conventional language, God is real. The Bible and all of the enduring religions of the world unambiguously affirm that there is a stupendous magnificent wondrous more. The question of assensus is: Do I affirm that? Do I believe that? Do I think that that's the way it is? I want to note that I'm not talking about a particular way of thinking about God when I ask, "Do I affirm this"?
For me, the most adequate way of thinking about God is thinking about God as a non-material layer or level of reality that's all around us, as well as within us, not God as a person out there. If that's not a problem for you, there's no reason you can't think of God as a person-like being out there. But, that's not necessarily what the word means. So I'm not talking about a particular way of believing in God, but that foundational root affirmation, there is a more.
The second element that I would say is central to Christian faith is the utter centrality of Jesus. Being Christian--as distinct from being Jewish or Muslim--means seeing Jesus as the decisive disclosure of God, and of what a life full of God looks like. That's who Jesus is for us as Christians. The Trinity is Christianity's classy way of affirming the utter centrality of Jesus, but I don't mean to say that believing in the Trinity is essential for Christian faith. I know many Unitarians who are Christians, and do not believe in the Trinity. We can say that Jesus is for us as Christians the decisive disclosure of God, without needing to say that he's the only one or the only adequate one.
Hear a very brief story about Krister Stendahl. Krister Stendahl is the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, a superb New Testament scholar, a former bishop of the Church of Sweden. He's around 80 years old, I think, and one of those magnificent human beings. I heard a lecture that he gave last year in Cambridge. It was on "Why I Love the Bible." A wonderfully simple topic. You get to talk more simply when you get older. It's wonderful. In the course of talking, he commented that we can say that Jesus is utterly decisive for us without needing to put down other religions. And the way he put it was this: "We can sing our love songs to Jesus with wild abandon without needing to tell dirty stories about other religions."
Thirdly, being Christian means a commitment to the Bible as our foundation and identity document, and again, it doesn't mean a commitment to a particular way of seeing the Bible as infallible or inerrant. But it does mean a commitment to the Bible as our foundation document--our identity document that's constitutive of Christian identity. And Christian faith means to affirm all of this deeply but loosely, to avoid our perennial human tendency toward excessive certitude and excessive precision. Whenever Christian faith is identified with believing particular doctrines phrased in precise ways, something has gone wrong. We are to affirm this deeply but loosely.
So, faith involves assent to this way of seeing things. That is, Christian faith in particular means assenting to this way of seeing things. Thus, this meaning of faith as assensus is very close to faith as visio. Ideally, it is assent as something we freely give, as something drawn forth from us, because we have been captivated by a persuasive and compelling vision. Not assent as the effortful fulfilling of a requirement as in you must believe x, y, and z in order to be saved. That is really faith as a work, as a requirement, as an effort. Instead of being saved by faith, instead of works, faith becomes the great work when it is seen as a requirement. Again, faith as assensus is ideally something drawn forth from us.
There is one more thing to be said about faith as assensus and the role of assensus in the Christian life. When I look back on my life, I realize that I have spent a very large part of it working on faith as assensus--namely, working on coming up with a way of seeing Christianity that makes persuasive and compelling sense to me. Out of that I draw the realization and the generalization that we cannot give our hearts to something that our mind rejects. I seriously doubt that it's possible.
For my second observation about faith I want to return to the words of believe and believing. I have already emphasized that this is the dominant meaning of faith in the Modern Period. Now I want to emphasize something that will sound like it is running counter to that though it really isn't. Namely, I want to emphasize that the pre-Modern meaning of the words believe and believing are very different from what these words have come to mean in our times. If we can recover this pre-Modern sense of believing, then we will see that faith, in fact, is believing. I'm going to do this in two steps by talking about the word credo for a couple of minutes and then the word believe for a couple of minutes.
The word credo is a Latin word. We translate it into English as "I believe." Credo is also the word from which we get the word "creed." Credo is the first word of the creeds, in fact. Now, the meaning of the Latin word credo, and this is also true for the meaning of the Greek equivalent, is not I give my mental assent to the following statements. The meaning of the Latin word credo is "I give my heart to." So, when we say the creeds, we are saying, "I give my heart to God." Which God? The maker of Heaven and Earth. I give my heart to Jesus Christ. And who is that, the one whom we tell stories about as born of a virgin and suffered under Pontius Pilate and so forth? Credo means giving one's heart to God and entering into a relationship of personal allegiance, not to the statements, but to the one about whom these statements are made.
Now I turn to the English word believe. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who died about two years ago in his 90s, was a brilliant scholar of religion who taught for many years at Harvard and wrote many fine books. They are, unfortunately, harder to understand than one might wish because they could have changed the church. One of those books is called Faith and Belief, and in that book he makes a fascinating and utterly compelling argument that until roughly the 1600s, the English word believe meant: "to hold dear;" "to prize," "to love;" "to give one's loyalty to;" "to give one's self to;" "to commit one's self." Then, in the 17th century with the beginning of the enlightenment, the meaning of the word believe increasingly shifted. No longer was the object of the verb a person, but the object of the verb now became a statement. Believe came to mean what I described in the first meaning of faith, assensus, believing things that have become questionable.
To prove his point, he said when you read Shakespeare and Chaucer, substitute the word "love" for "believe" and you will find it almost always works. Smith points out that the English word believe comes from the middle English word spelled a couple of different ways: one way it's spelled is beleve like the English word believe but without the i. It also is sometimes spelled belieue without the v but a u instead. (I tell you this so you can show off some time if you want to.) The meaning of the English word or the middle English word beleve or belieue is "to belove." So, until the 17th century, what you believed is what you beloved. It's a relational term once again.
In short, the original meanings of the English words believe and believing are relational. They do not mean agreeing to accept dubious or problematic propositions to be true. They don't even mean believing divinely revealed propositions to be true.
To relate this to the four meanings of faith that I described earlier in Part One, originally the word believing covered all of these meanings. It was synonymous with faith in all of the senses I've described. Thus, in the Modern Period we have suffered an extraordinary reduction in the meaning of believing. We have reduced it and turned it into propositional believing, believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true.
I'm going to lead into my conclusion by mentioning one of the half dozen most interesting books that I've read in the last two years. It's a book by the German Lutheran feminist theologian, Dorothee Solle. She's written many wonderful books. (I think she's in her 70s now and retired, but still writing.) This book, which was published about a year ago, bears the title The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. That's a wonderful combination because too often people think of mystics as sort of not involved in this world, as apolitical and so forth. Her case is that mysticism and resistance oftentimes go together. In any case, near the beginning of that book she makes two very simple statements. The first is that the Christian gospel is about God's love for us. By the way, she says that Protestants are pretty good about talking about God's love for us. The second statement is about our response to the gospel, and our response to the gospel is our love for God. She says we haven't been so good about talking about this. How do we love God? Well, it's an interesting question.
On a very practical level (and I realize this could be another lecture) how do we love God? How do we do this? It's very simple in some ways: by paying attention to the relationship with God, by being faithful to that relationship (and that means practice, practice) and by loving that which God loves--which is not only the neighbor, but ultimately the whole of creation. To connect Dorothee Solle's observation to our topic, I would argue this is the central meaning of faith: faith is our love for God given the pre-Modern (and I would say authentic meaning) of believing--what you believe is what you belove. The Christian life is about beloving God. Faith is about beloving God.
Question: What images of God seem real to me?
Answer: I distinguish myself between concepts of God and images of God. The concept of God that seems most real to me is the one that's found in words attributed to Paul in Acts 17:28: God as the One in whom we live and move and have our being. That's a way of thinking about God that affirms that God is right here as well as more than right here. So, the universe is in God even as God is more than the universe.
Our images for God are vitally important because they shape our sense of the character of God--of what God is most passionate about. In my own work, as well as in my own personal devotional life, I am very critical of the image of God as say the law giver and judge because that basically leads to a vision of the Christian life as being about measuring up to God or otherwise God will get us. It becomes a hostile and threatening way of seeing reality. So, the image of God that I juxtapose, or contrast to that, is the image of God as lover who is passionate about compassion and justice. That brings together the individual and the personal, as well as the social, that I think are so important to an understanding of Christianity that is based on the mainstreams of the Bible itself.
I'll point out here that we're all familiar with the notion of God as lover: For God so loved the world. Almost all of us memorized that Bible verse growing up, perhaps. But we most frequently in Christian history have put conditions on that love. You know, God loves us. God loves us maybe even if we don't respond, but if we don't respond, God ultimately will judge us. And I want to say that God's love for us, and not just for us as individuals or for us as a species, but for the whole of creation, is unconditional. I think the best voices in the Christian tradition have known this.
During the Christian Middle Ages the single most popular book of the Bible was the "Song of Songs" (or the "Song of Solomon" as some people call it, or in Roman Catholic circles it is sometimes called "Canticles"). The "Song of Songs" is a marvelous collection of erotic love poetry. If you read it in Hebrew the language is so graphic that it would make almost all of us blush. The things they do! But it's been understood in both the Jewish and Christian traditions as an allegory of the divine human relationship--of the God-Israel relationship, sometimes of the relationship between Christ and the church. I think it's very interesting that that was the single most popular book of the whole Bible amongst Christians in the Middle Ages. The basis for that judgment is that more manuscripts of the "Songs of Songs" have survived than manuscripts of any other book of the Bible.
For me, personally, God is lover. I don't want to go on too long, but I'll mention one more. It's also very important to me to speak of God as Lord. I'm aware that that's a male title, and it's kind of hierarchical sounding, but the reason I need a word like that is because there are other lords in our lives--the lords of culture, the lords of affluence, achievement and appearance. The Lordship of God means that God is Lord or, to use New Testatment language, Jesus is Lord and those other lords aren't. The Lordship of God is really the path of liberation from the other lords that seek to control us. If you put together lover and Lord that's probably where I am personally.
Question: With the new emerging or recovery of the meaning of faith do I see emerging understandings of prayer as well?
Answer: Yes and no. The yes part is that I see a recovery of spirituality happening in mainline denominations and amongst laity in Roman Catholic circles. By spirituality, I mean the recovery of traditional Christian practices which include: conversational prayer, but also include the prayer of internal silence (contemplative prayer) practices like retreats, pilgrimages, etc. It's a very striking feature of mainline denominations in our time, the rebirth of spirituality. I see spirituality as essentially being about our relationship with God. It's not so much new understandings of prayer, but the recovery of something that has always been part of the Christian tradition and that Protestants, in particular, have more or less let go of over the last 300 years. Martin Luther still practiced contemplative prayer.
I believe a couple of factors led to this. Some people started talking about spiritual practices as works. And it's about faith, not works. Failing to realize that spiritual practices are the way we pay attention to the relationship was one factor. The birth of the enlightenment also called these practices into question. What's the good of sitting silently? What's the good of observing the Sabbath when it gets in the way of our growing consumerism and so forth?
We've let go of those practices, but we're recovering them. I think that is part of the paradigm shift that is going on in the church in North America Today.
Copyright 2002 Dr. Marcus Borg
Copyright ©1999-2006 explorefaith.org