Four rocks that impede the growth of faith in American soil
Sowing seeds in rocky territory
Last week I offered a post about how to till the soil of American life for faith. I argued that we don’t have fertile ground to plant soil, and that we need numinous experiences to move out of what is immediately apparent to imagine something more. But I also thought that it wasn’t just a matter of tilling the soil, but removing rocks from the soil.
Before I go on, I want to share that this agricultural image for faith comes directly from Jesus, when he tells the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:3-9:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
This is a parable about parables in fact, but it translates to faith, too. Jesus is spreading the seed of faith through stories called parables. Parables are illustrative and imaginative, but their meaning is not always readily apparent (and their meaning today is often debated). Jesus was telling this story to say that the parables rest well with people with softened hearts. What I am considering today is not only how to till hard soil, but remove rocks from it that may impede growth. It’s not enough to till the soil, we must move impediments to faith from it.
I didn’t expect so much to happen in the last week that made the rocks in our proverbial soil so apparent, but it was quite apparent we have work to do.
Four rocks in the soil of our faith:
1. The politicization of faith
Last week was the Democratic National Convention, and my favorite religion reporter, suggested it was one of the most religion-filled conventions in recent history. And the RNC this week has its own share of religion as well (except it seemed like their messiah is Trump himself). Trump recently Tweeted “Happy Sunday! We WANT God!” To be honest, I don’t know exactly what he means by that, but it’s clear he is appealing to a religious community for support, and the Democrats are no different. To political parties, God is a prop to advance their cause. And even though I believe sometimes our political machines can advance God’s cause, I think they do so incidentally, or as a result of the good people in them, but I hardly think they are a primary tool for advancing the Gospel. And I especially don’t think they soften the soil. At worst, they deepen our divides, heighten our cynicism, and toughen our soil. God and our faith can’t be tools of our political parties, especially if we are interested in planting seeds of faith that move us from the immediately apparent, the immediately material, into something more.
The risk with the politicization of our faith is that is just becomes an accessory, an augmentation. It’s not transformative, it’s just additional. And using faith in a cosmetic way is not unique to politics, we see it expressed in social groups and certain parts of the United States and literally on bumper stickers on cars. When faith is a badge you wear for credibility, I think it’s easy to dismiss.
2. Christian hypocrisy
Also this week was the downfall and resignation of the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell is the son of his evangelical father of the same name and has been a figurehead for conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity. He was widely seen as a key ally to Trump (which speaks to the first rock I named). Falwell fell from grace after vacation photos of him surfaced that were at the very least bizarre. He took a leave of absence after he posted that photo. But he got into more hot water when he acknowledged that his wife had an affair with another man; but what’s worse was that Falwell himself had an affair with that man, in an unusual sexual arrangement. By Monday night, Falwell had resigned from his post at Liberty. The issue here is less Falwell calling wine “black water,” or the affair—although both are problematic in their own right (especially because in the position of power Falwell is, consent for that arrangement is dubious at best—prayers up for both his wife and his business associate), but rather that Falwell made his reputation on fundamentalist sexual purity. That culture itself traumatizes, sexualizes, and objectives young people, especially girls; but it’s even worse when it’s apparent that the only reason Falwell cared about those matters is for political gain. His blatant hypocrisy toughens the soil for seeds of faith. Hypocritical evangelicals hurt evangelism.
I’m not suggesting that Christians need to be perfect in order to till the soil for faith, but their insistence on being perfect is the issue. Grace forms our character. As such, we needn’t come up with a list of rules in order to keep people holy. Those rules smell of rot when it’s clear that their proponents are liars and hypocrites.
3. Faith as beliefs and not character
Someone asked me “does Falwell even believe in God?” My answer was sure. But belief itself is tenuously connected to character and to faith, even. James makes this point in chapter two of his epistle: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
If we reduce our faith to “tenets,” we further implant in what Charles Taylor (as summarized by James K.A. Smith) calls the “immanent frame.” Our faith only happens within us and within our minds. It simply becomes an intellectual, or even sentimental, part of our lives. It lacks material consequence (which is why Jerry Falwell, Jr. can believe in God without it affecting his character), but it also has no transcendence. It doesn’t exceed us, so we don’t love our neighbors, and it certainly doesn’t become transcendent, and so we don’t love God, and in turn, we don’t realize God loves us. We create a loveless faith when we reduce to “doctrine.”
Love and grace form our characters, not rules, not beliefs. Our faith is best expressed when it’s enacted. The Bible is best used when it is done. We need to physically express our faith: in service, in worship, in hospitality. That is, we seed the territory with our faith. It is those things that form our character, not our perfect doctrine or legalistic piety.
4. Truth as a matter of data or a matter of opinion
The way we know things or come to an understanding is another rock in the soil. I’m going to be too brief on the subject here, I acknowledge, but I want to describe two ways that we make conclusions about our reality.
The first one is coming to conclusions about reality by observing it, recording it, measuring it. Those conclusions are still philosophically oriented, but we allow our philosophical conclusions to be informed by what appears to be true. I don’t think this is a bad way to come to conclusions, but it is incomplete. I think that using evidence for our understanding is important, and allowing our faith to guide our ultimate conclusions is essential. It’s why we want to fight climate change or prevent the transmission of covid-19. We want to keep people alive (philosophy), and we observed nature to draw that conclusion (data).
Unfortunately, faith is not a matter of data, ultimately. I do believe that faith and community are good for physical and emotional health, so I guess you could make faith a matter of data. But that would be like saying sex is good because it helps your heart-rate (or because it results in reproduction). Kissing is good because it moisturizes your lips. It kind of misses the point of the experience itself. But there’s more to faith than the experience of it.
The other side of seeing truth as data, is merely seeing it as experience itself. As what feels good. Discerning truth strictly based on our experiences has limitations. For those whose experiences are ignored in the search of the truth, I believe that elevating their experiences really matters. But we can’t reduce the truth or faith to or experiences alone (just as we can’t reduce it to “data”). Experiences by themselves are as tenuous as data for faith development.
Perhaps the biggest problem with both of these frames of thinking is that they reduce knowledge and wisdom to “truth,” and faith is not a matter of truth, it’s a matter of revelation. There is a new way of knowing things that’s beyond our experiences and beyond the data—even if both of those things point to it. God shows us the truth in ways beyond our experiences and data. And the mystery for that happening can’t quite be explained, in my opinion. It is almost like an instinct. It’s revealed uniquely in creation and in community. It’s revealed in ways that are transcendent you might say. It’s a little magical. It’s a little mysterious. Perhaps the thing that we need to remove from the soil, the rock so to speak, is our certainty about what we know and see. Maybe we will allow God’s revelation to express itself. Wonder, doubt, uncertainty might be things that till the soil for something as curious as faith.
There’s hope after all of this
I believe that trying to restore the world to a place where the ground was more fertile for seeds of faith is a fraught exercise. We can’t go backward, only forward. My hope is that you can also identify some rocks that are in our soil and imagine what new ground for faith we can generate together. Let’s be filled with the Spirit. I believe you are the best thing we’ve got to till this soil. May your heart be soft and mind be open to what God wants to do.