I have posted here about the foundations of being disciples of Jesus: Who is Jesus and what did he teach? What is it to be a disciple of Jesus? What is love? What is humility? This might seem to be a careful avoidance of issues, of what has been called “radical discipleship” (a term now used too broadly to carry the specific implications it had three or four decades ago), or anything that might be political or controversial except now and then.
There is a generational reason for this preference for foundations, or at least for wanting to know the foundations are in place before building further. The personal reason is a fear of turmoil. I am not crazy or even particularly neurotic, and I think there’s plenty of this sort of fear around, enough for many of us to share in. For whatever reasons, and there are plenty of reasons to pick from, many of us learned early on that the world is a scary place, that little is needed to tip our existence into chaos, and that it’s best not to bank too much on our future.
A side note: How can we possibly believe such a thing, we who have maintained our prosperity since before I was born (1952) and who hide behind the strongest military organization in the history of humankind? So perhaps “learned” here does not indicate any reasonable connection to the truth, even post-9/11. It is, rather, a pattern of faulty thought we have learned. True, it might all fall apart tomorrow, but go plant a tree (in the manner of Luther) or buy some green bananas.
Of course, part of being human is to fight against such thoughts, and one of the ways to do that is to think, instead, about the foundations. That might be a good definition of faith.
But many people say that those foundations exist only as what people of faith have constructed in their minds to distract them from those thoughts of chaos. That is, in my opinion, a bunch of hooey, for a couple reasons.
First, faith, that building of foundations, is what everyone does. It is neither reserved for stupid people nor successfully avoided by smart people — those people, for instance, who have been co-opting the honorable name of skeptics for themselves for the last two or three decades. We believe certain things are true about the universe we live in, and we operate in accord with those beliefs. Faith is like what I balance on my nose: when I lose my glasses, I don’t start thinking or asserting that I have never worn glasses. The issue is, rather, where I put them the last time I had control of them.
A second reason for dismissing as hooey the dismissal of faith is that faith is not denial. It can be denial, like the “faith” of a Christian I knew who was sure that there would never be a nuclear war because God would never allow that sort of thing to happen. I didn’t point out to him that the war he had fought in had ended nuclearly or that “God would never allow that sort of thing to happen” was pretty much what, toward the end of that same war, some German people said to each other after the tide had turned and armies were rolling across Europe to meet at Berlin. If faith were ordinarily denial of that sort, people of faith would not be able to think or speak clearly about danger, would be of no use in a crisis, and would have an uninformed answer to every possible question. That some of us are like that does not define faith for the rest of us.
So if we’re not thus whistling past the graveyard or singing “la-la-la” with fingers in ears when something disagreeable is trying to get our attention, we need courage, not lies. Pardon the multiple layers of male-centrism in the following quotation, but it does say it vigorously: “If a man can’t begin with the worst and face the facts, he will not make much of a preacher. He will float around on a cloud and mouth sweet nothings which make him a joke to anybody with red blood.”
This is not the rushing into a burning building kind of courage. It is, rather, the courage to retreat from the limelight, to act on the belief that a great big task is accomplished piece by piece, and to be willing to wait. It is the courage to say that knowing that the foundations are in place and knowing what they are is important. It is the courage in preaching, for instance, to set aside being clever in order to pick up the tools with which we build slow but sturdy (I’m thinking of 2 Corinthians 10–12 here). It is the courage to honor one’s own desire for a God’s-eye understanding before going into battle (here I have Luke 14:28-32 in mind).
One result of this slower courage is that we avoid a issues-centered mindset, which would make it harder to sustain “discipleship,” to listen, to move on to the next thing in such a way as to see continuity with the old thing, to respect different callings, or to have depth in thinking. I sound like the old curmudgeon here and for good reasons: other than the obvious one, some of us ended the Vietnam War and then had to figure out what else to do. And the answers to that question were often out-of-sync with what we had been and had been doing. That’s a broad-brushed critique, and I don’t know enough to be able to make it more convincing, but perhaps someone will relate.
But really, if we are tending to the foundation — that is, if we are listening to Jesus — we are not avoiding the “political,” the “controversial,” and certainly not the “divisive.” Rather, we are already in the thick of all that. When I hear Christians want to avoid those sorts of things, especially “being divisive,” I laugh or cry, wondering how they manage to read the Gospels. Jesus was quite open about being as divisive as … well, as divisive as judgment day. He was and he is, certainly more than we like.
I remember hearing about something that happened in the early or mid 1960s with Bishop Kennedy of whatever Methodist (later United Methodist) conference included Anaheim. He was slated to preach in a church outside his conference that he had never been to and that was likely to be segregated. He was traveling with another bishop, who was African-American. They went to the church door, were not recognized, and were politely turned away. Some white churches would have a man posted at each door on Sunday mornings to enforce their racial exclusivity. The two bishops just as politely left.
- “If a man can’t begin with the worst”: Gerald H. Kennedy quoted by George W. Cornell in “Bishop Kennedy Has Tough Job,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal April 23, 1960, p. 4.