Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. The Spirit God has given us is no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise. Therefore, don’t be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord…but with the strength that comes from God, bear your share of hardship which the Gospel entails.” 2 Timothy 1, 6-8, 13-14
The apostles said to Jesus: “Increase our faith.” Luke 17, 5-10
Today’s readings are about faith, quite specifically religious faith. That’s something in today’s world that has fallen out of fashion. Surveys conducted by contemporary social scientists indicate that Religious illiteracy among those claiming to be Christian is on the rise. Moreover, in recent years we have seen a small band of high-profile intellectuals fired with a mission to launch an aggressive campaign against organised religion. At the forefront have been Sam Harris, the prominent American philosopher and neuroscientist, English journalist and social critic, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and Stephen Hawking, English cosmologist and mathematician. Despite their intellectual brilliance, they have done their best to discredit religion as spurious, empty and redundant. Yet, there is evidence of a marked increase in people searching for a satisfying spirituality and a will to believe that corresponds to “something out there”.
In an interview published back in 1989 in the magazine The Wittenburg Door, surgeon/storyteller, Richard Selzer wrote: “My entire life has been one long search for faith. I haven’t found it. I don’t believe in God. Having said that…I want you to know that I love the idea of God. I love piety. Without it, you lead a life unmoored, in a state of isolation. You are a tiny speck in a vast universe. I’m jealous frankly. I feel I’ve missed out on the greatest thing that can happen to a person - faith in God. It must be wonderful.” (The Wittenburg Door, “Have Modern Doctors Lost Their Souls? July-August 1989, p. 27)
The English novelist, Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker prize began his 2008 book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is both a memoir of his life and a reflection on death, with the words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” His story traces his journey from being an atheist to an agnostic, and points to his will to believe that corresponds to his desire for “something or someone out there.”
More than a century ago, William James, a prominent philosopher and psychologist and brother of the great American novelist, Henry James, delivered the Gifford Lectures (1901-2) on natural theology at the University of Edinburgh. The transcripts of those lectures were collected into a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James concluded that the natural world, mystical experience, poetry and story were all windows into a truth beyond measuring. Talking specifically about religious faith, he stated: “A man’s religion (sic) is the deepest and wisest thing in his life”
Even the great physicist and thinker, Albert Einstein wrestled with belief in God. He once stated that “Cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research” and famously said that chaos and randomness are not part of nature, that “God does not play dice.”
When I look at today’s gospel reading and hear the disciples request to Jesus: “Increase our faith”, I find myself wondering what exactly it was that they were asking for. Were they asking for a clear explanation of what was expected of them as disciples? Did they want a summary statement of what belief in God was all about? Were they asking for some feeling of assurance that God was close to them? In responding to them, Jesus did not give a clear, satisfying answer. Instead, using yet another semitic exaggeration he criticised them for the fact that they wanted something for themselves and reminded them that, as his disciples, their role was to serve others, often without being thanked.
For me, the key to understanding what today’s readings say about faith is to be found in the first two readings from Habakkuk and Timothy. There have been times when I have been given the message that faith is a collection of doctrines or things to believe or even rules to be kept. In reality, our faith is something that has been entrusted to each of us in a very personal way. Something given to us in trust makes demands of us in the way we live each day. Our faith is not something we take for granted, put away in a corner of our lives and check from time to time to see if it has been diluted or eroded. It is something that is living and meant to be kept alive. And that’s not always easy. It is something that engages us, not just in an intellectual way, but in the depths of our emotions. At times it can call from us a level of courage that we didn’t think we had. At other times, it can embarrass us in front of others. Yet Paul, in his letter to Timothy, reminds us that “the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1, 7). And then he proceeds to add that believing in the Gospel also means that challenges and hardships will come our way. The first reading assures us that faith also restores and sharpens our vision and gives us hope, as we see God restoring vision to Habakkuk himself: “Write down clearly on tablets what I reveal to you, so that it can be read at a glance. Put it in writing, because it is not yet time for it to come true. But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true” (Habakkuk 2, 2-3).
Our faith is really alive and active when we come to appreciate that we depend fully on the providence and graciousness of God. That realisation keeps us focused and truly humble. Maybe we can learn something about both the ordinariness and inspiration of faith in action from a young man’s letter of application to a university college:
“I’m not a great student, nor am I a leader. You could say that I am incredibly average, because I really work hard for the results I get…Over the last three summer holidays, I have been a volunteer at a camp for children with cancer. At first, I was terrified that I would say something stupid or do something that would add to their pain. Yet, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed working with these kids. I have been even more surprised at everything I have learned from them about life and death, about coping with illness and disappointment, about what is really important and good. I would like to pursue a degree in education and psychology so that I might try to give boys and girls like these something of what they have given me.”
People like this young man do a lot to inspire and enliven my faith.