Library shelves, blogs, and magazines overflow with books, posts, and essays grappling with the relationship between faith and science.
A few famous scientists like Richard Dawkins insist that scientific truth demonstrates that faith is nothing more than superstitious, often destructive thinking. Put simply, if science is true, religion is false.
Some Christians defend the truth of their faith by expending loads of energy looking for chinks in the armor of evolutionary theory and fighting school boards for the right to include creation in biology classes. In short, since faith is true, it must be taught as fact.
Both approaches miss the mark, because they misconstrue the nature of faith.
Faith is not rocket science. It is no sort of science at all. The point of faith is not to be true in the sense of taking an accurate snapshot of the natural world.
Instead, faith might better be understood if we use the word faithfulness. I am faithful to my wife, to my children, to my friends, and to the people of this diocese. My actions are shaped by my commitment to stay true to these relationships. Faith is not so much something we think as it is something we do: staying true.
Christian faith is about staying true to God in Christ. Faith is about relationship. We see this in today’s Gospel precisely because the Pharisees are giving Jesus every reason to be untrue.
Phony Death Threats and Real Sacrifice
The Pharisees tell Jesus to flee. Herod is out to kill him, they say. (Luke 13:31-35) Heard without benefit of the Gospel’s broader context, the Pharisees’ words sound like a friendly tip, a helpful warning. And yet, we know that the Pharisees bear a deep, abiding grudge against Jesus.
Conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees had been escalating. After a particularly heated exchange, the Pharisees set their minds on undoing Jesus once and for all. Luke tells us, “The Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” (Luke 11:53-54)
In other words, Jesus could never take what the Pharisees said at face value. Everything they said to him was designed to trip him up. And that is just what they were doing with their apparently friendly warning.
To make the case even more solid, consider what Luke actually says about Herod’s intentions in contrast to what the Pharisees tell Jesus. While the Pharisees insist that Herod means to kill him, Luke has already made it clear that Herod wants to see Jesus in the hope that he will perform some kind of miracle. (Luke 9:9) In other words, the Pharisees are lying.
They raise the phony alarm about Herod’s intended violence with the aim of persuading Jesus to save his own skin at the expense of his relationship with God and all his followers. If they could get Jesus to turn tail and run, they could discredit him with his followers precisely because he had been untrue. A prophet’s words cannot be true if the prophet is untrue to the God who sent him.
Of course, Jesus sees right through their scheming, puts them in their place, and keeps his face firmly pointed toward Jerusalem. It is no small irony that the Pharisees threaten Jesus with death when in fact Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die.
The threat of political assassination pales by comparison to what Jesus presses on to embrace. The whole weight of the world’s violence, hatred, indifference, suffering, misery, and sorrow will pin him to a cross.
Faith keeps Jesus moving forward even in the face of certain torture and death. When we look closely at why Jesus perseveres, we see that faith is deeper than Creeds and Commandments, theological propositions and moral codes.
Jesus is not obeying a divine drill sergeant’s order. Neither is he being a man of principle. He is staying true to the relationships that matter most to him. He refuses to betray his Father, and he refuses to abandon us.
To see more clearly what I mean, let’s step back to get some context from the Old Testament. That is where God first clarifies his relationship with us, and he does it in the form of covenants. One in particular is very helpful to us as we reflect on the nature of faith: the covenant of the pieces.
The Covenant of the Pieces
God made two covenants with Abram. The second covenant instituted the practice of circumcision as the mark of devotion to God. Today we’re going to talk about the first covenant, often called the covenant of the pieces. It takes a form common among ancient people: a covenant between a powerful lord and a weak vassal. But it also takes a crucial twist on the form itself. Let’s take a look at the story and explain.
God promises the childless Abram a vast multitude of descendants. Since Abram is old, he cannot provide descendants for himself. Only God can provide what he desires. Abram is like the vassal and God like the lord.
Abram’s part of the deal is fidelity to God. Faithfulness to his lord. In the ancient lord-vassal covenants, there was a ghastly “or else” clause. And at this point in the story it looks as if we’re about to get it.
Vassals were instructed to seal the deal with their lord by cutting up animals and placing the pieces into parallel lines. The lord then instructed the vassal to walk between the lines of carnage.
Looking to the left and to the right at the scattered bits of slaughtered animals, the vassal was reinforcing for himself and admitting to the lord and all observers that these crudely hacked pieces symbolized his own fate at the lord’s hands should he dare to be unfaithful to the covenant that he was making. In other words, breaking the covenant results in a cruel death for the vassal.
Now comes the decisive turn.
Abram falls asleep and dreams that a fiery pot passes through the mangled carcasses. The pot, you see, represents God. God has turned the vassal-lord treaty on its head.
God has taken the ultimate, unconditional responsibility for maintaining his relationship with Abram. His relationship with you and me.
God does not promise to die if he breaks the covenant. Instead, he promises to die to repair the relationship even when we have broken it.
And this brings us back to Jesus and what he has to teach us about faith.
The Pharisees have seriously misjudged Jesus. They assume that in the face of death he will do whatever it takes to save himself. That’s just what the religious leaders, a Roman soldier, and the cynical criminal hanging by his side say to Jesus as he hangs on the cross on Golgotha: “Save yourself.” (Luke 24:35, 37, 39)
But Jesus has already confronted death and chosen to surrender to it. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus shows us why he surrenders to death and defines for us the very essence of faith. He asks the Father to remove this cup from him, saying, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
It is not wrong to hear Jesus’ words as an expression of obedience. However, our notion of obedience fails to capture what is really going on here. We are quick to think of obedience as following a command.
Try thinking of this prayerful exchange as an expression of faith. And in this case we see that faith is first and foremost faithfulness or fidelity.
Jesus loves the Father and will do whatever it takes to stay true to their relationship with each other. Even death on a cross. The Father loves us and will do whatever it takes to stay true to his relationship with us. Even losing his Son to an agonizing death on a cross.
Faith, you see, begins with God’s faithfulness to us through Jesus Christ. God stays true to us no matter what, and it is his faithfulness that saves us. Our faith is a response to God’s faithfulness to us.
Believing the Nicene Creed (as I do) is not the foundation of faith. Neither is accepting the Bible as the Word of God (as I do) the essence of faith. These follow from something that may seem a little vaguer but that is nevertheless more fundamental. In fact, it is at the very heart of the matter.
Faith is our desire to stay true to Jesus in every moment of our ordinary life. Note that I said our desire to stay true. Jesus died for us precisely because of our inability to act on this desire with perfect consistency.
We want to forgive insults and slights whether or not we receive an apology, and sometimes we do.
We want to make the sorrow and suffering of others so personal that they motivate us like our own need to breathe, and sometimes we do.
In other words, our faith is not most fundamentally a list of intellectual propositions. It is our often stumbling and fumbling attempt to stay true to the one who is always true to us.
What keeps us moving forward is the one truth to which we can cling. It is not the strength of our faith that saves us. Jesus’ faithfulness towards us saves us even when our faithfulness has lots of room to grow.