At the end of October, a number of Protestant churches will take some time to remember the Reformation, celebrating Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday of the month. It was on October 31 in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, an act that challenged traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and began the movement known as the Protestant Reformation. The summary of Luther’s thought (which he derived from Paul) which I was taught in seminary is “We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.”
I could spend a long time unpacking that statement (and anyone who wants to unpack it with me is more than welcome to shoot me an email), but more recently I have been pondering the nature of faith. For much of my life, I understood faith as the acceptance of a series of ideas. If I believe the right things about God and Jesus and the Trinity, then I have faith. If I can say the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers, then I have faith. Yet the more I have grown to explore the faith, through seminary and through ministry, the more difficult it becomes to say that I truly understand these ideas.
Other Christians see faith as an acceptance of the literal truth of scripture. If you believe the Bible is historical fact, then you have faith. Unfortunately, this view tends to get mired in trying to defend itself against the findings of natural science, archaeology and astronomy, or simply ignores them because if any part of the Bible is questionable, the whole structure of faith is weakened.
Often we end up treating faith statements as statements of fact, giving them much more certainty than they can have. We want our beliefs to be as firm as the law of gravity rather than as undefined as the fate of Schroedinger’s cat. One of the reasons that many Christian traditions are in decline and that Christianity is in decline as a whole in the United States and Europe is that we have tried to sell the mystery of faith as empirical knowledge. We have lost the ability to admit that we believe in a God that we do not fully understand and cannot prove. Even God refuses to be defined, telling Moses in the book of Exodus that God will be called “I am who I am.”
We have faith in ideas that do not necessarily make sense. Orthodox Christianity believes that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but leaves the how of that relationship open-ended. So many great debates in Christian theology break down into fancy variations of “It is what it is.” Jesus is fully human and fully divine because Jesus has to be fully human and fully divine.
I think the fear for many Christians is that we do not want to be deemed nonsensical in a society that is supposedly shaped by rationality and critical thinking. We want what we believe to make sense and, when those beliefs are challenged or questioned, we blame the questioner for being unable to see what is plain truth.
So as we approach Reformation Sunday, I suggest that we Christians continue to need to reform (I’ll let representatives from other faiths speak to their own traditions). Our reformation can continue with the admission that faith does not make sense. We need to stop pretending that our faith story is logical or rational. I may well get some emails on this point because it goes against some pretty long-held views. Yet if we can do this, it might give us the humility to listen to other people’s doubts without judgment and other faiths’ stories without arrogance.
When we stop trying to make faith rational, we can begin to see it from a different perspective. Faith is not rational, but it is beautiful. Faith is not an instruction manual for life but a way of being in the world. The stories of the faith are like walking into an art museum and looking at paintings from many, different periods. Some might be obvious representations of fruit and flowers. Some might be complicated swirls of color and texture. Some might be absurd pictures of images that cannot exist in reality. Yet they are all representations of the artists’ vision and each of them can help us think about how we perceive the world around us.
The vision shared in the story of Jesus is a hopeful one where love is greater than hatred and hope is greater than fear. It is a challenging vision where the poor are lifted up, the last will be first and the first will be last. It is an absurd vision where enemies are loved, power is found in weakness and life is found in death. The next step in our reformation may begin when we stop trying to defend a rational faith and instead embrace and live out and find life in this beautiful vision.