The gospel of Mark shares a story where Jesus interacts with a man who has asked him to heal his son “if he can”. When Jesus challenges him on his faith the man anguishes “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”. (Mark 9:24) This tension describes a crisis to which I think many of us can relate. There may be times in our life in which we are overcome with the mystery and poignancy of life, beauty and love and whole heartedly commit ourselves to the community and system of faith where we encounter celebration of this mystery. But, there are other times when we wonder, as in the children’s fable, “is the emperor wearing any clothes?”
My own crisis of belief plays out in several contexts. When religious and scientific communities frame their explanations in ways that demand skepticism towards the other I think we experience a lose-lose double-bind. When faith communities define rules of inclusion and exclusion and allocate privileges based on those rules, compassion is compromised. Finally, I am skeptical that “belief” makes me a better person than my neighbor. I am fairly good at cognitive dissonance. I engaged these concerns as interesting theoretical and theological discussion for most of my life while being careful not to compromise my self-identity as an insider. But as many of those whom I care about no longer chose to “play the game,” my exploration became more pragmatic, urgent and personal.
In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong warns us that religion fails in two ways. When faith becomes assent to a particular set of propositions, absolutely knowable, then religion becomes particularized, rooted in a given culture and context, reduced to an idol, and too brittle to morph with the progress of history, culture and generations. Idols break. On the other hand, when religious ideas are abstracted, made too theoretical and philosophical, become mythologies, they fail to engage us. We do not invest.
As I have been struggling with a way to think and speak about gospel in a way that engages us here in our 21st century I am very aware of the problem that Dr. Armstrong describes. If the gospel is for the select few, to whom true knowledge has been revealed, it becomes an incredible idolatry, a game board on which a few play out a shared fiction, irrelevant for most of the world. On this game board, like in a movie, we can suspend disbelief for a while, even for a lifetime. On the other hand, if the gospel (incarnation, suffering, redemption, and spirit) becomes just a set of metaphors for attempting to invest meaning in a set of biochemical processes, then why bother. We can share a few moments of wistfulness, how beautiful, how poignant, how self-soothing, but then back to the rat race on whose backs we are just fleas. Paul says it well. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:17-19.
So, what is the gospel I seek? I am inspired by the idea that the human enterprise is the overcoming of suffering, evil and dealth to fully express love, life and beauty. I hope/believe that this human enterprise is both response to and empowered in the gospel. I hope/believe that the dimensions of the Jesus story: incarnation, suffering, resurrection, and spirit are powerful explanations of the embeddedness of gospel in this universe. But, I suspect that I think way too small about all of this. The New Testament writers often talk about gospel as “already, not yet” – a gospel that was real in the past, is becoming real in every moment today, and an anticipated realization of the eschaton – the horizon of the future. A sense of the space/time scale of the universe tells us that we have barely begun our knowing of gospel.
Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:44-46.
I want to hunt gospel (beauty, love, life) with all of you along roads, worlds, and futures unknown. You in?