Do Not Cease from Exploration!
And doubts appall and sorrows still increase;
Lead us through Christ, the true and living Way.
(The Hymnal 1982, 703)
Lately, I have been working with a physical therapist to try to return my aging body to its pre-Covid quarantine self. I, of course, envisioned a bodily return to myself at 25 or 30. “Not so fast,” warned the therapist, “First, we must work on balance.” So, I stand for as long as I can on one foot and then the other. I can do this without falling over until he says, “Now close your eyes.” Then I immediately collapse. I can do it eyes open, but closing my eyes, I lose my focus—I doubt I can do it. Then I don’t do it.
I wonder if this is how Peter feels when he tries to walk on the water. Seeing Jesus walk on the waves, he calls out to Jesus who tells him to come to him. Peter believing, trusting, gets out of the boat and starts to walk. A wind on the water distracts him, he loses his focus, he doubts, and he begins to sink, yelling, “Save me, save me.” Jesus says “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-31)
How human Peter is! He believes, until he doubts. This is not the only time in the gospels that Peter fails to demonstrate belief, but, in the end, perhaps no other apostle did more to spread the Good News.
The necessity of belief in Jesus is a strong thread that flows through the Gospels. The man born blind testifies to everyone that he believes Jesus has healed him (John 9). The friends of the paraplegic are so convinced that Jesus can heal him that they push through the crowds and climb up to the roof to lower him down to Jesus in the certain belief that Jesus will heal him. (Mark 1:1-12; Luke 5:17-36)
The woman with the flow of blood is so convinced that Jesus can heal her that she sneaks up to touch his cloak. Realizing the “power has gone out of him,” Jesus says to the woman, “your faith (belief) has made you well.” (Luke 8:40-55) This Greek phrase, which demonstrates a direct correlation between belief and healing or salvation, appears seven times in the Gospels, and depending on the version may be translated, “your faith (belief) has made you well, saved you, healed you, or made you whole.”
For those of us wondering if our belief is strong as these Biblical folks, there is one story which provides a glimmer of hope. (Mark 9:14-28) Jesus is asked to heal a boy who suffers from a spirit. The father pleads, “if you can, help us.” Jesus replies, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” The boy’s father exclaims, “Lord, I do believe; help me to overcome my unbelief!” At last, a story that recognizes the human experience of doubt, even in believers.
In Greek, there is one word for both faith and belief, pistis, and the reader is at the mercy of translators’ who determine what is on the page. I would suggest that there is a nuanced difference between faith and belief.
Belief is the core tenet of Christianity, the basic story of God’s acting in the world through his son Jesus Christ to set the world on a new path. “I believe,” we say, when we recite the Creeds.
Faith is the reservoir of belief in my soul that responds to Jesus’ call to live a faithful life of service in the world, despite or maybe because of the enormous troubles that beset it. Faith is an action verb, calling us to seek justice, even as we question how the world has gotten into such a mess! It is in the struggle for answers that one finds greater understanding of what one believes. Dostoevsky wrote that his faith was “born of the furnace of doubt.” So too is mine.
The poet T.S. Eliot expressed both deep faith and sincere doubt in his life and his writing. His poem Little Gidding (from The Four Quartets), describes the faith community that gathered around Nicholas Ferrar during the religious upheavals of the 17th century. Dedicated to a communal life of prayer and ministry in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the community was harassed and then violently dispersed by Cromwell in 1646. Was their faith so strong that the community lived without doubt or questions? Or did their trials bring them to greater faith? Eliot writes:
We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Do not cease from exploration! Recognize the doubts that appall and the sorrows that increase, while hanging on to your core belief in the Triune God. Keep this focus, and you won’t collapse in a heap. Your faith will grow rich and vital. Like my PT exercises, it takes practice, but, through testing and questioning, you will know—in a new way—the place where it all began: the mystery of Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth, love and hope.