Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Substance and Evidence of Faith

On Sunday I was privileged to read at the 40th wedding anniversary celebration of some close friends. It was as perfect a liturgy of its type as I have ever seen: every word chosen carefully, every movement. It was held in a 14th century leper chapel, austerely beautiful, serene in its private garden setting—an oasis amid the clamour of East Oxford. I will never forget the sight of my friends framed in the gothic west doorway, when they had walked back up the aisle after the blessing and turned to face the congregation.
As so often happens when reading aloud, the passage opened up in front of me, radiant with light:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Wherefore seeing we are also compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 11:1 and 12:1-2).
This is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament, but I had never before consciously noticed the paradoxes implicit in the language. Faith is substance and evidence of things not seen—faith that is beyond all imagination, beyond everything we know, and in terms of everyday senses, beyond seeing. This turns the everyday notions of substance and evidence on their heads. Substance and evidence are not the tangibles offered in a court of law for evidence (and examples from law are frequent in the writings of Paul); it is precisely the intangible nature of faith that makes it both substance and evidence.
Then Paul (or the writer using Paul's name) says Therefore—you can almost hear his joyous laughter as he says or writes this paradoxical word. We have encountered this therefore elsewhere, at the 'bottom' of the paradoxical chiasmus of Phil 2:5-11: '...but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore...'
This is not the therefore that is translated into Latin as ergo, QED. This is a therefore that is as open-ended as faith itself, better translated, perhaps, as 'on account of this'—in other words, there is no guarantee to Jesus as to what will happen after he is obedient unto death, but it is on account of the totality of his self-emptying of his self-conscious construct of self that he is exalted, and his Godliness manifest. It is also, as I have written elsewhere, a signal for the movement of our self-conscious minds into liminality to the far event-horizon, where faith becomes the only way forward. For us, it is a recapitulation of the chiasmus of Philippians, the same self-emptying, the same letting-go of all claims except the claim of letting-go, which is faith—and of course it is impossible to claim faith, possible only to open oneself to it.
The use of therefore in the passage from Hebrews is just as audacious as that in Philippians. It implicitly claims that faith, in which our material eyes see nothing, is the only way for true seeing, and the writer assumes that his readers/hearers understand this knowing by unknowing; they already have been instructed in what faith is. It's one of those passages where a confident assertion saves a lot of petty wrangling. He doesn't try to persuade: he simply moves forward, the text itself making the giant leap of faith. 
And with that claim that is no claim he makes faith joyous instead of fearful; for those who have faith, who see truly, now know that 'we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses'—so there is no reason to be downhearted, or anxious about running forward into what we do not know, but to race ever deeper into it and into our integrity, our shared nature with God which nothing can shake, not even the shame of what in the world's eyes is humiliation and pain.
And in this is our exaltation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post, Maggie. I'm going to let it soak in a little and I'll read it again in the morning. But you are right - the Kingdom of God cannot be shaken.



9:39 pm, September 06, 2013  
Blogger happy pearl said...

Never thought of it that way. Thank you!

7:09 am, September 11, 2013  

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