Standing in Faithful Tension

Sean Patrick Sanford

For most of my adult life I have held strong opinions. An enthusiasm for vocalizing my perspective and then defend it as though it were a matter of life or death has, too often, been among the most notable aspects of my personality. When I was younger, although scrupulously committed to the idea of justice, I was absolutely dogmatic that anyone whose view differed significantly from my own was either naïve, ignorant or wicked.  It is with a mixture of amusement and remorse that I look back to that time when a sense of certainty, overwhelming confidence, and rhetorical gymnastics enabled me to hold forth on nearly everything.

I was reminded of this when I read last week’s blog post. In recent years I find myself increasingly moving toward a place of quiet, a consequence of experiences that reveal, sometimes painfully, that there are few easy answers (a revelation it may have taken me longer to accept than others who more quickly see the gray).

What I find fascinating is that while many people recognize that life rarely presents easy answers, most of the voices that fill our airwaves, universities, capitals, and, too often, churches, are marked by ideological rigidity, philosophical myopia, and theological absolutism. If these are our thinkers, leaders, and moral authorities, is it any wonder that we feel culturally divided or that our civic discourse has degraded? Rather than commend those who recognize uncertainty and respond with modesty and compassion, acknowledging doubt in one’s position is often considered a sign of weakness.

Perhaps the most damning rejoinder to those seeking an escape from dogmatism is the charge of relativism. But there is a substantive difference between asserting that there is no truth and attempting a posture of humility in the face of doubt. Nonetheless, the accusation is hurled with ubiquity.

To speak with tongues of faith and to believe as I do does not necessitate that I insist on the inerrancy of what I am saying. I say this as someone who, even in my most irreligious moments, has never doubted the existence of God or the value of faith community. Even so, my faith in God and Church is precisely that – faith. To speak of it as fact has also always felt somewhat silly.

Last week’s blog post rightly juxtaposes the absurdity of applying mathematics to Scripture in order to know the mind of God with the faithful response of the monks of Tiberhine. Yet their witness should not be seen as emphasizing the “radical otherness” of God; the understanding that no words can “adequately capture or explain the transcendent” is not a denial of God’s presence in our world. Rather, it is precisely the fact that they lived in response to the Incarnation that we name them as ideal examples of Christian discipleship. Faced with the limitations of human knowing, they found meaning by creating lives modeled on that of Jesus.

Hubris, selfishness, and apathy are greater obstacles to faithfulness than any theological question, nagging doubt, or temptation. The way of discipleship is filled with challenges, but it promises a life filled with meaning, and however imperfect, a community marked by love and support. Wisdom, as Aeschylus wrote, comes to us through the “awful grace of God.” In my experience it is awful only because it repeatedly calls us back to the difficult path and asks we undertake our journey with gratitude and joy. It is unfortunate that so many followers of Christ find their co-religionists filled with criticism but lacking a sense of wonder.

The quiet to which I feel drawn in recent years is the result of standing in the tension, attempting to be faithful in the midst of not knowing all the answers.  Most of us do not have a vocation to live in a monastery, but like the good monks we work and pray inspired by the love of a God who is simultaneously too big for words and who was revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By seeking justice, we “mind the gap” between the wounds of this world and the glories of God’s peaceable Kingdom. In attempting to do so, we are confronted with questions and in their midst we look to Christ. He is the source our identity as Christians. We can speak of faithjustice not because we insist upon knowing the fullness of faith (we don’t), nor how to achieve the Kingdom (we can’t) but because when confronted with suffering we are called to respond as He did, with love and compassion, in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the abused and neglected. And because He did, so must we.

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5 Responses to Standing in Faithful Tension

  1. Kathryn Maleney says:

    The journey from questioning to certainty to humble understanding that the love of God holds us, and that we don’t hold (and brandish) God is so well expressed here. Thanks for this. I found your story echoed very much my own experience. Working at an inner city workcamp program in Philadelphia, after a few years of certainty and the zeal to whack the comfortable came discomfort in my own pride and hypocrisy. That discomfort was grace which gave me the chance to find and make peace in that same setting for many years. — And along the way came children, now almost grown. I’ve found no other experience to be as grace-filled and humbling as having children. Keeping a sense of humor seems to help too! ;-)

  2. Alan Benne says:

    Recently I have seen the life/faith/human journey as developmental much like all other forms of discovery and growth. Holding tension is a natural reality that often we pretend to escape. As Sean described, our society creates the illusion that nothing is in tension and everything is black and white. It is a way of thinking that fuels a (mostly) well-intended, free-market fighting for our attention to the best product. Unfortunately, it is also characteristic of addictive thinking which limits our freedom to know ourselves and God. Similar to Sean, I have sat with many tensions lately. My error is often that I still want to judge, criticize, and pick the “right” way because it is easier. While there is no innate flaw in that goal, it not always developmentally appropriate. Right now in my life, finding the “right way” distracts me from where I might be called and how God is moving in my life. I am astounded lately by my experience that I can not be attuned to Christ in my life if I do not take time to be in tune with my own heart- with who I am over what I am doing.
    +1

  3. Dayna Pizzigoni says:

    Recently I have seen the life/faith/human journey as developmental much like all other forms of discovery and growth. Holding tension is a natural reality that often we pretend to escape. As Sean described, our society creates the illusion that nothing is in tension and everything is black and white. It is a way of thinking that fuels a (mostly) well-intended, free-market fighting for our attention to the best product. Unfortunately, it is also characteristic of addictive thinking which limits our freedom to know ourselves and God. Similar to Sean, I have sat with many tensions lately. My error is often that I still want to judge, criticize, and pick the “right” way because it is easier. While there is no innate flaw in that goal, it not always developmentally appropriate. Right now in my life, finding the “right way” distracts me from where I might be called and how God is moving in my life. I am astounded lately by my experience that I can not be attuned to Christ in my life if I do not take time to be in tune with my own heart- with who I am over what I am doing.

    We need every kind of person and every kind of way of being. We need to hold tension faithfully so that we are open to the whole and therefore can more readily find our part. As Pentecost approaches, we remember that people can speak many languages and all be heard. The question is, “How am I called to speak or listen at this stage in my development as a person, a disciple, a child of God?”

  4. seansanford says:

    Thanks Rocky. It can feel like there’s a fine line between wisdom and apathy. I know I struggle with it too, but as MLK and Gandhi both taught, peace is not the lack of action but learning to pursue justice while struggling to avoid the violence(s) too often implicit in activism. My friend Grace Conte once shared the following Merton quote with me:

    “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist …most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

    To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.

    The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

    Makes a lot of sense, no?

    - Sean (quote taken from _Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander_)

  5. Like many people, for a very long time I felt the need to vigorously defend my own religious convictions and positions both inside and outside the institutional church. As I began to let go, it seemed like I might be crushed under the weight of my own perceived cowardice for not taking a stand. Today, those days of wondering, ‘is now the time to stand-and-be-counted?’ are almost all but a memory. I feel much more at peace because I realize that God knows where my heart is. And I’m good with that :-)

    Thanks for sharing.

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