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August 1, 2012

A Faith for Hard Times

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My friend, pastor of a Progressive Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri, posts his sermons on U-Tube. One of his viewers recently criticized him for preaching a faith ill suited for “hard times.” (Here is the sermon: “Saying What No One Wants to Hear” The criticism set me to pondering the phrase—“a faith for hard times.” It seemed timely criticism, since the country, indeed the world, for several years has been experiencing a severe economic downturn. Many have lost jobs and homes in the crisis. In addition, the past few years we have experienced thousands killed in natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes) and shocking mass murders (i.e., the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Trade Towers, Columbine, the shooting at Aurora, Colorado, etc.).

     The critic was obviously from a traditional Christian faith community, and he could not imagine that any faith apart from his own “orthodoxy” would be able to offer solace and comfort in difficult times. Here is a bit of his criticism of the sermon:

With your theology, please do not refer to yourself as a Christian. You are best described as a Unitarian Universalist, but even this is a stretch. You have no faith for hard times . . . but you have discarded the teachings of the orthodox church . . . .”

     The critic overlooked the fact that all who affirm religious faith find ways to accommodate their faith to “hard times.” That is as true for Christians as it is for Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and for the thousands of other belief systems that currently exist or have existed previously.

     Christians who affirm a Trinitarian faith, such as the critic in this case, should come to terms with the fact that neither Jesus nor his earliest followers were Trinitarian. The Trinity, as a dogma of the church, was a political necessity for Christianity in the fourth century. It had become more philosophical through the years, and in order to protect itself from a charge of polytheism (belief in many gods) theologians argued that “God” is actually comprised of three distinct divine figures (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) but they are nevertheless One. This church dogma does not work for those who find unconvincing the theologians’ appeal to “a divine mystery.”

     There is ample evidence that every religion has a faith for hard times. For example in Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) the ancient Israelite confession was “Hear Oh Israel the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4). God was particularly jealous: "You shall have no other Gods before me” (Deut 5:7). And the Psalms are filled with songs attesting that Hebrew faith was a faith for hard times. Here is an excerpt from a lament psalm:

O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me; many are saying of me there is no help for him in God.

But thou, O Lord are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill (Psalm 3:1-3).

Here are a few lines of a votive stele from Egypt (New Kingdom, 1550-1070 B.C.):

You are Ammun, Lord of the silent, who comes at the voice of the poor; when I call to you in my distress, you come to rescue me, to give breath to him who is wretched, to rescue me from bondage (Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature).

People of faith—of whatever faith, find ways to make their faith work in hard times. Nevertheless, hard times do take a toll on faith—as will both education and aging. We change, and so does what we think we know—and so does our religious faith. No one’s experience is the same and no one’s faith is static, however much the true believer wants to believe it is.

     But I do wonder: is it even essential that one believe in God to have a faith that endures in hard times? Will a non-mythical faith, having humanity as its essential core, still help one overcome the tragic crises of life?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:51am

Charlie, I continue to hang around the revival tent looking under the flaps, and to try to figure out what is being said. Kind of hard for an out-of-balance former accountant to keep up with you theologians and philosophers but I never feel it's a waste of my time. I used to hang around a Christian church Bible Study (free donuts was a side benefit). I was actually bold enough a few years ago to suggest that their God and a Muslim's Allah were one in the same--just one single creator being viewed from a different perspective. I lost that debate very quickly needless to say. I also lost a debate refuting that their hatred of Baal worship (and Al Gore) were good reasons to let our planet go to ruination of our own making. On the other side, these guys are Progressive enough that they continue to welcome me back and I truly love them all. Really they aren't the problem with Christianity. Your You-Tube minister has been mentioned in that group and not in the most flattering times. But none of them would be the person who criticized Pastor Ray's sermon. I'm not astute enough to understand the "Faith for Hard Times" criticism -- I cannot connect any dots there and I didn't really follow your rebuttal all that well either.

I'm most interested in your closing paragraph where you wonder: " it even essential that one believe in God to have a faith that endures in hard times? Will a non-mythical faith, having humanity as its essential core, still help one overcome the tragic crises of life?" Sort of the Abou Ben Adhem kind of belief, yes?" My Grandpa Brown was one of those who an older cousin characterized him with "still waters run deep." Grandma Brown berated him until his dying day (1935 after a milk truck accident). Her Pentecostal minister was sending my Grandfather's soul to hell during his eulogy at the Church until my Aunt Bess stood up and finished his sermon for him; and she wrestled back Grandpa's soul right there in front of everybody. It now rests in as peaceful a place as anyone's today. True story.

Last, I continue to read and hear comments by "Christians" about the extent to someone else is a "Christian." This passing out of grade cards to other humans of faith seems so fundamentally non-scriptural that a five-year old Sunday School kid would pick up on the fallacy of it. Oh, and I got an interesting faith grade card myself of late -- from someone who believes "once a Christian always a Christian." So, I'm covered. If St. Peter ever asks me at the gate what Church I attended, I'll know which one to mention. Ah, that doesn't make sense either -- St. Peter would know I'm lying and then I'd really be in trouble.
Ken (and Joy) Brown, Springfield, MO
Posted by Ken and Joy Brown on 8/1/2012 at 10:01pm

Delightful stories Ken—as always. Readers may not know that Ken is a prolific writer with his own blog:
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 8/2/2012 at 10:41am

Dr. Hedrick, this is my non-theistic answer to your questions, though my crises were health-related... I had renal cell carcinoma (stage two) about eleven years ago. My only question was “What can I do?” I did what was needed and beat it. Three years ago almost to the day I was diagnosed with diabetes, liver problems and a few other things (metabolic disorder). I asked “What can I do?” I lost 100 pounds – and all the problems, along with the meds. Had I the “total trust,” pistis, in gods or God, I think I’d be dead, since I would be relying on the supernatural to heal me instead of belief in myself, trust in the doctors and, in the second example, the focus to get into shape as I push sixty. Yes! Having humanity as the essential core was more than enough to overcome my crises in life. It is all there is, in my world, my “garden.” And, that is more than enough for me!
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 8/1/2012 at 3:18pm
Thanks Dennis,
I hope everyone read your last two sentences carefully. You answered my question more eloquently than I asked it!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 8/2/2012 at 10:17am

Hi Charlie:
Good post. Granted that what works for one person will not work for everyone, have you read "How to Be an Adult in Faith and Spirituality" by David Richo and (specifically for Christian fundamentalists) "The Reason-Driven Life" by Robert Price? I found both of these books helpful in developing my own worldview.
Posted by Lee Penya on 8/1/2012 at 2:31pm
I have not read the books you mention; sadly my reading tends to be rather esoteric things connected to my research. Would you be willing to sketch out the essentials of your world view in one or two brief paragraphs?

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 8/3/2012 at 8:35am

I don't think that a faith in the sort of God expressed in supernatural theism is necessary at all since persons of Buddhist and Confucian faiths have never expressed belief in a supernatural theism and not many of us in the academic end of Christianity or Judaism have held such a view during the past two centuries. As Kierkegaard said, "Prayer does not change the one to whom we pray, it changes the one who prays." So we pray but we do not "pray for" things. Our spiritual strength is rooted in community and a passion for the virtues inherent in the spiritual life, not in an imaginary friend who does favors for us from above the clouds.

Roger Ray, D.Min.
Posted by Roger Ray on 8/1/2012 at 11:48am