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Faith and Doubt on a Friday During Lent

tom-clancy-look-2

William James wrote that “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”

Many religious people, be they Christians, Jews, Moslems or others equate their faith in what cannot be seen or proven to be a certainty. But faith, even as understood by someone like the Apostle Paul was something that was not provable in this life. In fact Paul is bold enough to proclaim that if Christians are not correct concerning their faith in the risen Christ that they are to be pitied among men.

Faith in something, even God is not proof. In fact faith can never be asserted to be fact until the final consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Creation and Fall Temptation, Two Biblical Studies wisely noted that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Bonhoeffer’s words show a wisdom often lacking in young theologians. No matter how firmly we believe the words of Scripture or the Creeds they are at their heart statements of faith, not fact. They may be true, and I believe them to be. That being said we cannot prove them  and simply making circular arguments about their truth does not make them true. Thus I always find that I am amazed when I see some Christians insist that what they believe is “absolute truth” even when they have no “proof” of its truth outside of their statements of faith. Such is the trap of circular logic. Bonhoeffer quite correctly noted that “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

I have learned to appreciate the struggle of faith. I believe, but I seek understanding. That being said I know that whatever I know, I only know in part, as Paul said I see “through a glass darkly,” but one day I shall see “face to face.”

Those that equate faith with certitude do so at their own peril, and often are willing to sacrifice others to ensure that their belief remains unquestioned.

The great American Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologies, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with doubt. There is nothing wrong with struggle. In fact it is shown in the lives of those that we consider “saints” throughout both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Faith without doubt and faith without struggle is not faith, it is idolatry. Bonhoeffer expressed this well when he said “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

In fact absolute certitude masquerading as faith in the life of the faithful often leads to great violence and evil. One only has to look at what happened on September 11th 2001 to see the results of such violent certitude.

As for me I have faith, but at the same time I doubt. Sometimes doubts outweigh faith and at other times faith outweighs doubt. That being said I find comfort in the scriptures where Paul honestly and openly writes of his conflicts and doubts. Henri Nouwen had it right when he said:

“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

That is the real fact of the matter. It is something that Christians more interested in truth rather than protecting their social position have believed for decades have died to proclaim.

None of us, no matter how learned we are, or how certain we believe, really know much about God. And that my friends is certain.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Martin Luther and My Theological Formation: An Old Catholic Priest talks about Luther’s Influence on his Life

The Luther Rose: When they stand under the Cross Christian Hearts turn to Roses

“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” Martin Luther

When a young Priest and Theology Professor at the University of  Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg it changed the course of Western as well as Church history.  He also changed mine.

Martin Luther was the first of a series of theologians that helped make me what I am now. When my Church History professor Dr. Doyle Young and Systematic Theology professor Dr. David Kirkpatrick introduced me to Luther’s writings and his “Theology of the Cross it was earth shaking.  It was his Theology of the Cross brought me to an incarnational understanding of the Christian faith because it is only through the Cross that we come to know God in a truly Christian sense of understanding.  For Luther the Cross was central to understanding the humanity’s relationship to the Trinity, and stands against Calvin whose understanding of God’s will and predestination from before time began tends minimize the Cross, for Calvin it is a mechanism but for Luther it is the most profound and personal revelation of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnational and Trinitarian found in the Theology of the Cross also opened for me essential nature of the Eucharist to the Christian faith and which helping bring me to a catholic understanding of the faith.

The relational aspects of the Theology of the Cross were personalized in the Three Solas; Sola fides by faith alone, Sola Gratia by grace alone and Sola Scriptura by scripture alone. These became the hallmarks of the Reformation and without getting into the weeds to dissect all the ramifications for the Church and the world impact the way that many Christians practice and express their faith to the current day.

The Catholic in me tends to discount Sola Scriptura because Luther himself was such an imperfect practitioner of this. I find that the Anglican and Old Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is a more Biblical way of understanding what we can understand of God as well as in bearing witness of the self revelation of God in Christ in our world than is Sola Scriptura.

The Reformation which began when Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Schlosskirche broke the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe brought about many changes. It was the watershed moment when western church unity was fractured forever. As the years passed this increasingly fractured and diverse church in the west and helped end the primacy of the Church over the State.  The Reformation was also essential to the future Enlightenment as educational institutions, philosophers, historians and scientists gained the freedom to operate free from the all pervasive reach of the Church.

In the beginning when he walked up to the Schlosskirche to post his theses Luther intended nothing more than reforming and curtailing abuses in the Catholic Church and how the Church saw grace, faith and scripture.  Instead he changed the course of history in ways that most modern people, especially conservative Christians fail to comprehend today.  If they did they would not be embracing such heresy as the Dominion movement and it’s Seven MountainsTheology.

I did a lot of study on the Lutheran Reformation in and after seminary. In 1996 while stationed in Germany as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain had the privilege of organizing a series of Reformation tours to Wittenberg, Worms and Heidelberg.  We went to Wittenberg on Reformation day where we attended the Reformationstag service at the Schlosskirche.   I led a walking tour of the town that day.  One of the parishioners from the chapel asked me if I had been toWittenberg before because I seemed like I knew every place in the town.  I had to tell her that I had not been there in person but because of my study had imagined it so many times that I knew every place by heart.  When we went to Worms where Luther on trial before Charles V was told to recant his writings it as the same, except that in Worms the town hall where the Imperial Diet met was destroyed long ago.  However a stone in the pavement marks the spot where Luther concluding his defense before the Emperor Charles V and the assembled Princes and prelates with these immortal words:

“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” It is legend that Luther said the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”  These words were probably only added later by someone else to make the story more interesting as they do not appear in the council notes.  Not that Luther would have objected.  The film version is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0tk_EvWXQQ&feature=player_embedded

Likewise Luther’s debate with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburgcolloquy regarding points of doctrine was significant for me. It was held that they might unify their separate reform movements. They agreed on all points except the Eucharist where Luther enunciated a very catholic understanding of the “Real Presence.”  Zwingli argued it to be a symbolic memorial though he conceded that it might have some spiritual component.   Luther would not budge and to each of Zwingli’s arguments pulled back the tablecloth to reveal the words “This is my body, this is my blood” which he had carved on the table.  They departed without achieving unity, something that has plagued Protestants to this day and when Zwingli was killed in battle when leading the militia from Zurich to fight the approaching Catholic Army.  When Luther heard about the Zwingli’s death he commented Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’ [Matt. 26:52]. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule.” (Table Talk #1451) When I visitedMarburg with my friend Gottfried in 1997 I stood in the room where the men met and standing at that table I imagined Luther arguing with Zwingli.

Martin Luther helped begin the journey to the Priest that I am now. Others similar to Luther, the Catholic theologian and reformer in his own right Father Hans Kung who was able to do what Luther couldn’t do, make a case for Luther’s theology as part of catholic theology.  Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has brought Luther’s theology to the modern world and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who showed me an example of how to live out the incarnational message of theTheology of the Cross in a world gone mad.  Kung’s book On Being a Christian, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and The Crucified God have being influential in my theological formation. Bonhoeffer’s contribution was how that theology is important in standing up to oppression in all forms, his writings including The Cost o Discipleship, Ethics Creation Fall and Temptation, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison.  All of these men helped me in my transition following seminary to a moderate Anglo-Catholic to an Old Catholic faith that places a high place to Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and Reason in interpreting and living out the faith.

Of course there are others that have influenced me, the early Church Fathers, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Henri Nouwen, Father Andrew Greely  and Bernard Häring to name but a few.  But even so I have always had a special place in my heart for Luther even with all of his flaws which were many.  Luther was earthy, spoke his mind often in a direct and coarse way and had no problem with having fun or good beer.  I relate to him a lot and am in his debt because he helped me become who I am today.

Peace

Padre Steve+


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Let’s Share a Pint for Auld Lang Syne: Padre Steve Remembers 2010

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Second verse of Auld Lang Syne

Happy New Year from Padre Steve

In his book A Tale of two Cities Charles Dickens wrote “that it was the best of times and the worst of times” and I think that for many people the year 2010 matched that description quite well. I know for me it has been a year marked by the recovery of faith and personal achievement muddled with failure and loss, life and death, opportunity and disappointment.  It has been a year of personal growth but not without pain, it has been a year where I began to feel joy again but also the pain of loss with the passing of my dad.  It was a year of transition as I left the church that I had served for 14 years as a Priest and a change of duty assignments with a promotion.  It has been better than the past few years but not without its difficulties. It has been the best of times and the worst of times.

It has been the same for many people that I know, friends and family have had similar experiences this year and for many of them 2010 has been exceptionally painful and fraught with tragedy, suffering and great loss.  Having shared these times with friends I know that there is little that can be said except to sit quietly with them.  Having experienced such times since returning from Iraq I know that it was the people that were there for me that didn’t have the answers that were the most helpful.

2010 was difficult for many around the world due to war, economic crisis and natural disasters.  Close to home over 700 American and other NATO troops were killed fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the war there will certainly continue with casualties likely to rise as the intensity of combat increases. For those that return with injuries that affect them in body, soul and spirit the war does not go away simply because they have returned home.  The past for those of us that have experienced war tends to always remain in the present and cloud our vision of the future.

The English poet Thomas Hood penned this poignant verse which I think encompasses what many have gone through in 2010 but with the hope that 2011 will be kinder to all of us.

And ye, who have met with Adversity’s blast,
And been bow’d to the earth by its fury;
To whom the Twelve Months, that have recently pass’d
Were as harsh as a prejudiced jury –
Still, fill to the Future! and join in our chime,
The regrets of remembrance to cozen,
And having obtained a New Trial of Time,
Shout in hopes of a kindlier dozen.

The passing of the Old Year and beginning of the New Year always is a time of reflection for me looking back as well as looking forward. For those that have experienced a loss in the past year the time can be filled with pain because the hole left in our lives by the loss is not filled. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Creation Fall and Temptation” something that means much to me and which I often paraphrase when conducting the funeral or memorial service for a young person.  It is a quote born of wisdom and which recognizes the loss and holds it dear.

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

The marking of the New Year and remembrance of the old with our friends and families is important, something that binds us together in ways that are both personal and spiritual.  While for many the coming of the New Year is marked by drunken revelry I think that it is best spent quietly with friends and family if at all possible.  I remember New Year’s Eve of 2008 in Iraq when I celebrated it quietly with Father Jose Bautista after returning from my two week journey to the Syrian Border. We celebrated quietly watching movies and drinking non-alcoholic beer, they only kind that we were allowed to drink.

I found then that the New Year is a time to be human as God intends us to be living in the real world because it is God that wants us to, caring for each other and not avoiding life, but living in its joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, love and loss.  As Bonhoeffer wrote: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

To live in the moment with those that we love in the real world and to know that God loves the real world, both the good and the bad, not our idea of an ideal human, but real people just as they are. God loves this real world not an ideal world of our imaginations, but the real world. This world and humanity that we are often tempted to shrink back from with pain and hostility is the real world.  It is imperfect and often unjust, but it is the world that we are called to live in that is for God the ground of unfathomable love.

2010 was a difficult year and for me the best of times and the worst of times but it is what it is and maybe 2011 while certain to have its share of sorrow will be better for all of us.  I think some of what I feel can be summed up in the song Happy New Year by Abba.  The song is somewhat melancholy but it is real.

No more champagne and the fireworks are through

Here we are me and you feeling lost and feeling blue

It’s the end of the party and the morning seems so grey

So unlike yesterday now’s the time for us to say…

Happy new year, Happy new year May we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Sometimes I see how the brave new world arrives

And I see how it thrives in the ashes of our lives

Oh yes, man is a fool and he thinks he’ll be okay

Dragging on, feet of clay never knowing he’s astray

Keeps on going anyway…

Happy New Year, Happy New Year may we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Seems to me now that the dreams we had before

Are all dead, nothing more than confetti on the floor

It’s the end of a decade in another ten years time

Who can say what we’ll find what lies waiting down the line

In the end of eighty-nine…

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Abba Happy New Year Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcLMH8pwusw

As I look to the New Year and remember the old I do pray that 2011 will be better for everyone those here are home and those in harm’s way in combat zones.  As someone once said:  “Here’s a toast to the future, A toast to the past, and a toast to our friends, far and near. May the future be pleasant; The past a bright dream; May our friends remain faithful and dear.”


Peace

Padre Steve+

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