A sermon by Joan Richards delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 22, 2012
14 And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them.
15 And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him.
16 And he asked the scribes, What question ye with them?
17 And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit;
18 And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.
19 He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me.
20 And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming.
21 And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child.
22 And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.
23 Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
24 And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
25 When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him.
26 And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead.
27 But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.
— Mark 9: 14-27, King James version of the Bible
As I struggled to come up with a title for this sermon, I hit upon “Non Credo?” because of its ties to the Unitarian notion of ourselves as a creedless religion. But that’s about as much Latin as I want to cope with at the moment. “Credo” is usually translated “I believe” which is an English phrase with a different history than does Credo, and therefore a different meaning. I’m going to start there. My word for today is “believe.”
The origin of the English word is the same as that of the German word “beliebt,” which means “beloved.” In the early modern period to say “I believe in God” would be to say “I love God” in much the same way that for me to say “I believe in my son” still means “I love my son.” But in the year 2012, these two phrases tend to be understood very differently. Even as people recognize “I believe in my son” as a statement about my deepest personal commitments, they tend to hear “I believe in God” as some kind of affirmation that God exists; if the statement carries overtones of personal commitment, they most likely entail some kind of stubborn insistence on existence despite all evidence.
This is because in the year 2012 “believe” is a word that has lost its heart. It is most often set in contrast to knowing—we believe things we do not know—and has lost its love. As a result, in our world, statements of belief are most often attributed to other people and contain strong overtones of falsehood, as in “They believe the earth is flat.” There is nothing clear or explicit as different meanings bounce around in this word, though. And that can be very confusing to all of us, who both think and communicate with our words. So today I want to think about “believing” with love.
I want to start with the passage Keith so valiantly read for us just now. This is, I find, a complicated story. The pleas of the man whose child is so very ill appears as just another distraction in a larger narrative in which Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his coming death, even as they are squabbling amongst themselves and not listening to what he is saying. What makes the passage stand out is the interaction between Jesus and the child’s father. First there is Jesus’s statement: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” and the father’s tearful, wrenching reply: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
The response to this plea is, for me, a very interesting one, because whatever the crowd—or Mark—might have seen, Jesus did not effect any miraculous intervention in this case. The narrative of violent thrashing followed by unconsciousness and then normalcy is a basically accurate description of the major phases of a grand mal seizure. This is something the father of the child, who had observed many such seizures, undoubtedly knew. What the father would have seen that was different, is the way Jesus responded to the affected child: the warmth with which “Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.” As I read this passage, this warm interaction was Jesus’s response to the father’s desperate cry. By showing the grieving father the truth of love Jesus was opening the way for the father to “believe,” that is to find in himself the ways of love.
I self-consciously took this reading from the King James version of the Bible, which appeared in 1611 because at that time “belief” was still love saturated. When the father prays “help thou mine unbelief” he is not talking about doubt. He is rather asking for help against the despair, bitterness, sadness which threaten to close him off from his love of the truth of his world and his life with his son. An echo of his call rings through our first hymn: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour—for the facing of this hour.”
There is no question in my mind that “believing” in this sense is essential to all of us as we journey through our world. At one time or another all of us find ourselves faced with situations that have completely overwhelmed our sense of wholeness and well-being, and left us crying out for help. At one time or another we have all found ourselves faced with enormous disappointments: debilitating illnesses, sick or dying children, devastating job losses, crumbling marriages, horrible disillusionments. And as we move through these troubles the challenge for all of us is the same as that of the struggling father in Mark’s gospel—to find ways to remain fully open to the world even as it deeply disappoints, to allow the truth of love to open us to the love of truth, that is to “believe.”
It is tempting for me to end right here, because this is really my message, but if I did so we would get to coffee hour too soon. So I will instead notice one of the problems that lurks in my loving interpretation of belief. The King James version of the Bible comes to us from the beginning of the seventeenth century, and one of the casualties of the intervening years has been the loving openness of their “believing.” The word has nonetheless remained central to a great deal of our religious thinking and speech, but it now often lurks only as a false friend. It has lost its enfolding, loving roots. In our modern world to say “I believe” only rarely means “I hold dear” “I honor” “I love.”
This might be the moment to admit that when I am not in this pulpit, which is most of the time, I study the history of science. This may explain why, if I had to pick a single moment that marked the beginning of the end of this loving meaning of “believing” I would place it with Newton at the end of that seventeenth century. Newton is now generally known for developing a theory of universal gravitation, not for changing the notion of what it means to “believe.” But the two developments were very closely joined. I want to use the Hymn we just sang, Hymn 273, as an entrée into Newton’s world. As I do so, please remember, that when I and our hymn writers, speak of God, we are speaking not of a being, who does or does not exist, but rather of what is ultimate in our world and experience.
Now, Hymn 273 takes a rather different approach to this ultimate reality that we are calling “God” than does Hymn 115, “God of Grace and God of Glory.” The difference is that until its very last line, this hymn does not talk to God; it does not pray to God; instead it describes God.
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise
I frankly love this hymn. I hear it and sing it as an outpouring of praise and love by someone who is wholly embedded in a Newtonian universe. In the hands of the hymn writer the adjectives that describe God: “immortal,” “invisible” “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” come together into a wonderfully soaring image of “goodness and love.” Less generally noticed is that these same adjectives may equally be applied to the infinite, absolute space that in a Newtonian world houses all of us, our solar system, and the stars beyond. Like the God of this hymn, Newtonian space is “immortal,” “invisible,” “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” And, what is more, Newtonian space is like God, in being ever-present to us in all of our lives, every moment on this earth.
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”
These connections between God and the universe we live in were so universally recognized and celebrated in nineteenth century England that they were all but unconscious to this hymn writer. They were so striking to Newton that in he actually equated the two: “God is eternal and infinite” he wrote in the Principia. “He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere he constitutes duration and space.” (Isaac Newton, Principia.) And about twenty years later, he said the same thing a bit differently when he said that space was essentially God’s brain, the “sensorium” by which God “perceives all things by his immediate presence to them in all space, wherever they are, without the intervention of assistance of any organ or medium whatsoever.” (Samuel Clarke’s first reply in G. W. Leibniz and Samuel Clarke Correspondence, edited with an introduction by Roger Ariew, (Hackett Publishig Company: Indianapolis, 2000) p. 5.)
Now, in this Hymn and so many others (I think, for example, of the “Blue Boat Home” from the Teal Hymnal) the conflation of God with the space we live in forms a wonderfully sustaining image. Its importance to me for the moment, though, is the way that it has acted on our ideas of knowing and believing. Because the power of Newtonian space lies not only in that it has the attributes of God; the other trick is that Newtonian space is the space we all learned about in high school geometry. In the Newtonian world God may be “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” but he is not hid from our knowing minds. This means that the place of loving belief in this Newtonian world is all of a sudden very unclear: we can know God and his world through mathematics.
A major mouth piece for this Newtonian view of the world was John Locke. It is still possible to find the “belief of truth” shining in bits of Locke’s effort to present Newtonian knowing. “He that would seriously set upon the search for truth ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it,” he wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. And, in a letter to a friend: “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.” (Quoted in Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Belief and History (University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, Virginia, 1977) 83.)
What is striking in these statements is not the centrality of love in Locke’s understanding of what it is to search out truth; that was a commonplace in his religiously saturated world. What is striking is that as Locke is reaching for the truth in these loving terms he does not use the word “believe.” He does not say “To believe is the principal part of human perfection” but rather “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection.” This signals a change in the way Locke uses the word “believe.” It places him at the forefront of a change that would glorify the God who opened our minds to the certain knowledge of mathematics, even as it relegated “believing,” to the category of the uncertain or unknown.
When Newton and Locke wrenched belief from its loving roots and moved it into the bloodless category of uncertain knowledge he effectively ended its religious career. However, that is not the way these things work; words cannot be so neatly redefined; their histories remain in their hearts and echo through our minds. In the case of “Belief” and “believing,” the words have remained central to religion, even as these words have lost their loving hearts. One response to the confusions this has caused, has been an effort to remove belief from the heart of religion, that is to find a religion without creed.
There may be a neatness to this solution, but the world is not neat. When, on the NPR segment called “This I Believe,” an eighth-grader proudly proclaimed his refusal to believe anything, I cringed. I cannot turn back the clock to the days when everyone knew that that “believing” meant loving, honoring, holding dear. But even today, I know that when life becomes overwhelming, it is the truth of love and the love of truth that can carry me through. In other words, even today, I know that I need to believe.
Bibliographical Note: For more on the complex evolution of the meaning of belief see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Belief and History (University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, Virginia, 1977) and/or Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press: Princeton, N. J. , 1979).