God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering
Chapter 21 The Faith which Outlives Death
We have made an attempt to show the meaning of Christian faith in the new world, by sketching it in terms of faith, hope and love. Because we are thinking creatures we naturally search for meaning and purpose in the life we find ourselves living in this world, and nothing can be meaningful unless we are able to understand it, at least to some degree. The discussion of the nature and relevance of the Christian faith therefore always plays some part in bringing us into encounter with that deepest reality in life we call God.
But writing and reading about the nature of the faith can never take the place of the life of faith itself. As we have said before, Christian faith is essentially to be lived and experienced. There will never be any complete or ultimate form of verbal expression into which it can be translated. Man will never reach the point where he has spoken the last word about it, and indeed no believer ever understands anything like the whole of it. Because man is a creature of history, his experience of faith will inevitably be expressed in words and terms which reflect the character of his time and cultural condition. Because each man is limited in his experience, his expression of his faith will also be limited and piecemeal.
Since faith is a personal experience, it means that it is only the man of faith who can talk about it at all in any real way. At first this may sound somewhat arrogant, but a moment’s reflection soon makes it clear that this is true of all kinds of personal experiences. Only a person who has experienced pain can begin to attempt to describe it, and it is impossible to communicate the experience adequately in words to a person who has never experienced any pain at all. Only a person who has had sight can talk about what it means to be able to see. So with faith, as with pain and sight, words alone are insufficient in themselves to convince the unbeliever about the reality of faith.
There will always be obstacles to faith, which no amount of discussion and explanation can surmount, and there always have been. They can all be described as the demand for more convincing proof, and strangely enough they come from two quite different directions, both of which were already known in the first century. Paul spoke of them when he said, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom." The Jew was a religionist who believed he already possessed a sure sign from God, and he was unwilling to move out in faith from this sign until he received another. He wanted to avoid the life of faith by moving from one sure sign to another, just as the learner-swimmer wants to move through the pool with his hand on one rail after another. There are religionists today who think they already possess a sure sign from God, in an authoritative church or an infallible Bible, and they are unwilling to surrender this security and venture out in faith. The appeal to a certain sign becomes a stumbling-block to faith today as it did for the ancient Jew.
But the Greek demanded a convincing argument, and until he received it, he too refused to make the venture of faith. There are men today who look at Christianity from the outside, read about it, turn it over in their minds, and still stand aloof, waiting for it to be presented as a logical and convincing piece of argument. To them it seems foolish to commit oneself to Christianity, when it is not capable of rational proof. But of course it is just because there is no rational answer to the meaning of life, that man is forced to live by faith. And in doing so, he finds in the end that faith is the very spice of human existence.
In all forms of faith there must be some acts of trust, great or small, but in the Christian faith it is an act of commitment followed by a continuing sense of commitment, which makes the difference between faith and unbelief. As the person who is unwilling to take the plunge into the water will never learn to swim, so the man who holds back from commitment to the Christian heritage cannot hope to learn what it means to live by Christian faith.
The life of faith makes itself manifest in the kind of decision and the quality of action, which the believer makes in all the events of life in which he is involved. Sometimes the first act of commitment is more dramatic than any others which follow, and the believer looks back to it in gratitude as a turning point in his life. But often the origins of the life of faith cannot be clearly discerned and remembered at all, for it has grown out of a long series of decisions and acts of trust. In any case, the life of faith is being daily challenged and tested afresh in the decisions and crises, both great and small, of which normal life consists.
We shall now attempt to describe the life of faith from the inside. It is important to remember that this is a description in the language of faith, and not an attempt to discuss its validity. Although there are certain basic forms which are common to nearly all Christians, such as, "I believe in God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior", no two Christians would describe the experience of the life of faith in exactly the same terms. Not only must the uniqueness of each man be taken into account, but also the diversity of cultural background, personal experience, educational attainment and intellectual level of comprehension.
If God is the deepest reality for human existence, then He must speak to all men, in all their diversity, but the way in which the faith created by His word comes to be expressed by the believer, will vary considerably. Some take the step of faith using a mental conception of God which is more concrete in outline, and even more man-shaped, than some others would find meaningful. Some form a mental image of the Christ of faith which is more imaginative and picturesque than others would allow. One of the reasons why the community of faith has long been known as catholic or universal, is that it must hold together in love and mutual respect all the diversity that our individuality brings to the experience of faith.
The first thing to be said is this. Even though the believer has been consciously looking for something to satisfy his longings, and searching for some purpose in life, his embracing of the Christian faith does not mean that at last he has found what he is looking for, so much as the strange conviction that he has himself been found. Like the men of old to whom the Bible bears witness, such as Moses and Jeremiah, Peter and Andrew, who found themselves unexpectedly called, so the Christian is one who has found himself challenged by the community of faith and the Gospel it proclaims. The challenge has come to him as the very Word of God.
This Word may have come in any of many ways. There is usually nothing very dramatic about it. It is a Word which is heard in the inner ear, and at first the Christian may have tried to evade it. But the Word of God has an insistence about it that does not let men go readily. Yet on the other hand the Word does not trespass on a man’s own integrity. It does not take away from man the power of choice. God does not manifest Himself in all His strength, and, by showing up man in all his weakness, force him into submission. Rather it is a case of man, in spite of all his strength, being encountered by God in His weakness. The ancient prophet Elijah made a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of God and looked for God in the tornado, the earthquake and the fire. But the Word of God came to him in the weakness of a ‘still small voice’.
And the voice said "What are you doing here, Elijah ?" That illustrates the second point. The Word of God that comes to men through the Christian heritage calls them to decision. The particular act which may initiate the life of faith and obedience is only the first of a whole series, for the Christian life is one which is consciously lived in obedience. A Christian is one who is very much aware of the fact that he is not his own master, if indeed he ever has been. Now he knows himself as a servant. He is not here in this world to please himself, to achieve his own ambitions, or to plan his own way ahead. He is here to serve and it is in service that he finds his freedom.
It is the life of obedience which gives meaning and direction to his life. He is no longer meandering blindly along. And because he now has a purpose, he finds a new Zest in living and a new power to make progress on the way and to get things done. It is not the kind of obedience, however, which takes from him the need to think and make decisions, as it would be, perhaps, if he had become enslaved to a fellowman. Although he has given himself in obedience, there is the need to cultivate the attentive ear to hear the word of direction. In the Christian heritage, there are guidelines which help him in discerning the word of God, but there is no foolproof method of being absolutely sure. In faith, and in a certain amount of tension, he must learn steadily to grow more sensitive to the leading that he expects.
But what is the source of this Word? To whom has he committed himself in obedience? The Christian does not know. It is only in the language of faith that he can answer. The Christian believes that He who spoke to Moses and the prophets, and whose very Word became flesh in the man Jesus, is the One who addresses him and calls him to obedience. If the Christian is asked to prove or demonstrate the validity of his belief, he cannot do so. He recognizes that though there may have been a particular factor in the life of the church, or in the Bible, or in some rational argument which carried a lot of weight with him, none of these proves anything in the end. Nevertheless, the fact that the call to obedience rests upon faith alone, does not take away from the Christian the sense of reality he has found in the life of daily obedience.
The life of obedience is usually felt to be one involving a personal relationship. The Christian usually speaks in personal terms about God, the source of the Word by which he has been addressed and which he seeks to obey, but he freely confesses that the reality pointed to by this word is quite beyond his knowledge and comprehension. What gives him confidence in his conviction is not any esoteric knowledge of the mysterious God which has been revealed to him, but the testimony of the Bible and of the community of faith to the great company of people who in their own day believed they heard the Word of the same God and sought to obey.
But though God, as the deepest reality of the universe, remains beyond man’s grasp, the Christian has a tangible point of reference. The God whose Word he hears and seeks to obey, is the God who spoke through the human scene in a way which culminated in the advent of the man Jesus. The Christian sees in the man Jesus the clearest representation of God. Yet even the man Jesus is not tangible for the believer, and never has been, for it was only subsequent to the earthly life of Jesus, that Christian faith was focussed upon the risen Jesus as the Christ of faith.
In directing attention to the Christ of faith, the community of faith has traditionally spoken in terms of Incarnation, the Word of God become flesh. Paul described Christ as one who "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." We have already seen earlier how the advent of Jesus Christ became the culminating point of Israel’s concern with the historical human scene. The affirmation that the Word of God has finally become man calls upon man to accept his own humanity and to abandon all mythological pretensions to be an immortal god. For the God of Israel Himself has done just this. He has emptied Himself of all mythological divinity and become man. In this act, humanity is raised to a new dignity and honor, and its full potential comes to realization.
Thus in the life of obedient faith, the Christian fastens his attention upon the Christ of faith as the focal point of the whole Christian heritage. The man Jesus at one and the same time shows us the full potential in man, and brings us into encounter with God, the deepest reality for our existence. And at the center of the Christ faith is the basic symbol of Christianity, the cross. The community of faith has rightly never forgotten that Jesus was crucified, and has been convinced that this was no accident. The man Jesus would not have become the Christ of faith, if he had not been crucified, or at least taken death upon Himself in some similar way.
The Christian has found in the cross the key to the problem of the tragic element of evil which comes to light in man’s inhumanity to man, war, oppression, hatred, greed and famine. Man’s attempt to save himself from the tragedy of life only serves to accentuate the problem, for it largely arose in the first place from man’s self-concern, self-will and self-centeredness. In fact it is not in man to save himself. The cross shows, however, that by surrendering himself, he can be used to save others. "He saved others; he cannot save himself", was the Word of God which came from the very mouths of mockers.
The conviction that the key to the renewal of the human situation is to be found in the surrender of the self, the surrender of personal hopes and ambitions, and the obedient commitment of oneself to live in love for the needs of others, is not something which man has in fact found out by himself. Man has been led to it by the developing heritage. The way was already being prepared by God when He called to selfless obedience men of Israel such as Moses, Elijah, Hosea and Jeremiah. It became more clearly defined in the words of the unknown prophet of Israel, who outlined the role of the true servant of YHWH as one who took suffering upon himself voluntarily:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities . . .
he was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth . . .
he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people . . .
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth . . .
he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
The Christian sees this role of selfless suffering brought to a consummation in the crucifixion of Jesus. Because he finds there the key to the element of tragedy in human existence, the cross becomes the chief point of encounter with God, and from it he hears the challenge of Jesus as the very Word of God, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me". The symbol of the cross holds up before the Christian the choice before him in the decisions to be made in each new day of life. Is he to turn sorrowfully away because he has rich possessions, high hopes of his own and secret ambitions? Or is he to surrender all these pretensions and aspirations for himself either in this mortal life or beyond death?
To take up the cross means to prepare oneself to die, to die completely. This is the path which Jesus chose and which he trod voluntarily. His death on the cross has often been gravely transvestied by well-meaning Christians when they imagined that he faced the cross with the secret knowledge that less than thirty-six hours later he would be alive again and ready to ascend into heaven. This makes a mockery of the cross. Jesus was ready to die, really to die. This is the kind of cross to which he calls his followers.
He who is ready to surrender his hopes, ambitions, and life itself, for the love of God and his fellowmen, no longer fears death and the end of human existence, for that self-centered concern which wants to cling on to life beyond its appointed span, and seeks to bring it back again in some supernatural realm, has already died. The Christian is still keenly aware of the tragedy of human life, and the limitations in which his mortality involves him, but death no longer holds any fears for him. Christian faith takes the sting out of death, and makes even death subservient to the cause of life and the renewal of mankind.
There is one final point. It can be mentioned only at the end, and even then in some ways it should only be whispered, lest it be regarded as a kind of reward for those who shoulder the cross. When this happens, the real significance of the cross tends to be lost sight of. The Christian is called to the way of the cross not for any self-gain either in this life or beyond death, but simply and solely out of the love of God and one’s fellows.
But there is no keeping of this point secret, for though it is full of mystery it has been the chief source of joy and wonder in Christian experience. It took the first disciples, we are told, completely by surprise. Jesus was dead. Yet they found him more alive than ever. They spoke of it in terms of resurrection and they rejoiced. They were given the courage to shoulder their own crosses and become witnesses or martyrs, and new life rose within them. It was the life of Christ. Paul put it in a nutshell, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
The Christian who commits himself to Christ as Lord, and voluntarily takes upon himself the way of the cross, also knows something of the unexpected joy of the resurrection. He finds that though he has put an end (as he thought) to the personal ambitions which appeared to make life interesting, to his surprise there is welling up within him a new source of life. It brings to him a stronger faith, a clearer hope, a more vibrant love. Life takes on for him a new quality, a quality that justifies the name eternal. In submitting himself to the life of obedience, in seeking to be used as an instrument in the renewal of the world, in shouldering the cross of Christ his Lord, the Christian shares in the life of that faith which genuinely outlives death. There is much that he does not understand. He has no sure knowledge of the eternal verities, but he holds them by faith, and looks in faith to the God whose Word of life he has heard in the man Jesus and he says:
Good Lord, teach us to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.