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These days, you hear a lot about traditional values. It seems that everybody wishes we were living in another time, an earlier time. A time when things were somehow better than they are here at the end of the twentieth century. You see it everywhere in our culture, from the faded nostalgia of the interior decorating schemes proffered by women's magazines to the sudden popularity of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, from the wave of longing for common purpose we witnessed during the observances of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War to the unexpected emergence of Gregorian chant as a musical fad. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these things as mere fad. People long for the past because the present is one tough place in which to live. We need advice and wise counsel from our elders, people who come to us from a time before we thought every problem could be solved in half an hour, like they are on TV. A time before we assumed that we could always have more and more and more. One thing we know about the past is that life was hard then. Now, as the suspicion grows among us that life is going to be hard again ~ and that not for a short time ~ we need the strength our traditions give us.
We think of them as having been better than we are. We think of their faith as having been stronger, as having been a more important part of national life in days gone by than faith is now. People of faith feel marginalized today, in this era that calls itself post-Christian. Each of us has at least one friend to whom our religious faith just doesn't make much sense, most of us have quite a few such friends. No wonder we wish for the unanimity of an earlier age. The age we live in can be an uncertain and lonely place.
One nation under God, we say when we pledge allegiance to the American flag. We've been saying the pledge that way for so long that we forget that it didn't originally have the words "Under God" in it. They weren't added until the l950's. We look back to the august figures of our colonial past, and impute to them all the virtues we wish we had. But there are many points of similarity between them and us. Do you know what the largest religious group in our population was during the colonial period? Presbyterian? Anglican, maybe? Congregationalist? It was none of these. The largest percentage group of Americans in those days was the unchurched. People with no religious affiliation at all.
It's a mistake to try and make the people of the past over in the image of the way we wish we were. Scepticism and doubt are not twentieth century ailments they are old. As old as humankind itself. Long before the time of Jesus, the psalmist could write "The fool says in his heart, there is no God." Apparently there were people when this psalm was written who did not believe there was a God. That was a long time ago. We tend to associate unbelief with modernity, and to think that everybody was religious and observant in the old days. We do that especially when we are discouraged about the way things are now. But, apparently, that wasn't the case.
I welcome the news that unbelief goes way back. So many people think religion is what you do if you're too dumb to do science or history, and that once you know about the Big Bang, there's no further reason to explore the possibility of God. But I have never thought that my faith was primarily an intellectual, factfinding enterprise. I have never thought that knowledge was the enemy of faith. For me, faith has been made of other things: of decision about how I want to live my life, of awareness that there is a reality larger than the one I and my fellow humans have created, of keen respect for the power of love and equal respect for the frightening power of hate.
How can you believe if you don't know anything about God? For we know so very little about God. We are so limited, equipped to know so little. But we can do what we can do. We can learn what we can learn. You explore the spirit of God the same way you explore the spirit of another person. You spend time in God's presence, you examine your own heart and mind with respect to God. You watch the world for signs of the spirit. You read what people in the past have felt and thought about it, and talk to people in the present who are also seeking. You sit quietly in meditation and wee what comes up. Being able physically to see or hear God wouldn't actually help all that much, anyway. A person's spirit is largely hidden from others as well. We do not know one another well except after long acquaintance and shared history. The disciples, who ate and talked and walked with Jesus every day, were forever getting it wrong about who he was, but they all ended up thinking he was the messiah eventually. So it wasn't something they learned, the way you learn multiplication tables. It was something into which they allowed themselves to grow.
Philip is a case in point; Philip and his friend Thomas, too, the man we call "Doubting Thomas," as if we were not ourselves wracked with uncertainty and doubt half the time. "Have I been with you so long," Jesus says in a voice full of wonder, "and yet you do not know me?" Not just Philip and Thomas, but all the disciples, at one time or another, side by side with Jesus for months on end, walking and talking together day after day, they don't really seem to have done all that much better than we do when it came to faith and fidelity to faith. We sometimes envy them their advantage. Surely there would be no doubt in my heart if I could have seen him, heard his voice. But a lot of people saw and heard a lot of Jesus without becoming believers. Enough so that it was possible to put him to death without causing too much of a ruckus. Life just kind of went on, for many people, more or less unchanged. And his closest friends, the men who saw him every day, did not linger long when the soldiers came.
So it has always been difficult to have faith. Even for people like Philip and Thomas, whom we now revere as saints. It has always involved some work. It's not just us people have always found it hard to believe. The world has always tugged at our sleeves and whispered its cynical discouragements in our ears. Life has always taught things other than faith in a God who holds its disappointments in a loving and powerful hand. From the beginning, people have had to decide whether or not they choose to walk along the road with that God or by themselves.
Nothing could be more useless than for people of faith to turn their backs on the present age and try to live in an earlier one. History moves only forward, and human beings live in history. God contains all of human history, and each era provides its own ways of drawing closer to God.
Our task is to find the way for our age, not that of another. If we are faithful and attentive, it cannot be that we will not know God in our way, in our day. For after all, why would God wish to hide from the children for whom so much has been spent?
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