Thursday, December 26, 2013

Believing the Unbelievable

Do you really believe all this Christmas stuff?

I remember last Christmas spending time pondering that question from the perspective of the wondrous book and movie, The Life of Pi. "Which is the better story?" was one of the questions faced at the end of the book. "Which story fits better?" The question isn't always the factual reality of a story, as I have said here many times. It is the truth of the story, not the facts. Which is why good fiction- novels and short stories- give us more truth than the facts might.

Well, this year, as we go through this wondrous Christmas season, all the "hard-to-believe" stories have once again touched the hearts and minds of people around the world. Dreams and virgin birth; shepherds and angels; an inn with no room and a baby in a manger. We haven't even officially reached the Wise Men and the guiding star, the slaughter of the innocent children or the flight into Egypt. It is quite a story. It resonates in some deep and even primal manner.

Some of that may have a great deal to do with the childhood connections many of us make with these stories. They take us back to that time that felt simpler and safer for many. They take us into our own childhood myths and foundation stories. We often cling to incredibly complicated traditions and rituals in church and beyond. They become a fortress against the darkness that still surrounds us this time of the year. They are a sturdy wall holding back the inevitable.

But do we really believe all this stuff? Are pastors being dishonest when we speak of these events in the factual, hstoric sense? Do we really believe they happened exactly this way even though scriptural studies (and history) have often shown them to be edited and reworked to get an important point across?

As I was thinking through this the other day a text I received from an old friend came to mind. He reminded me in the text of something I used to talk about when describing what James Fowler called the "Stages of Faith." (Wiki link) Basically, Fowler looks at six stages of the development of "faith" which can be broadly described as what we truly believe and how we believe it. It could be religious faith or national faith, it can often go through developmental changes.

To put it overly simply they look something like this:

Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven). Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.

Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children). During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood). Any conflicts with one's beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.

Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. There is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one's belief.

Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent "truth" that cannot be explained by any particular statement.

Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment."
Stage 6 is rare. We might look to people like Gandhi, perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, the Buddha, Jesus, as meeting this stage. Most people have a hard time reaching stage 5 let alone stage 6.

So for my thinking, I once said to this friend that the best way to understand it is like this: in stages one and two we believe in Santa Claus. Then in stages 5 and 6 we believe in Santa Claus. He reminded me of this the other week after seeing that Christmas "tradition" of "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus."

That is what directed me on this discussion this week. There are many people who need to believe that these stories happened just the way the Bible tells us they happened. There can be no room for human editing or "mythologizing." It's either TRUE or it's FALSE. If it isn't true, well, forget it. That's why many former "fundamentalists will leave the faith altogether when they get a different understanding of Biblical scholarship. If God didn't create the world in six (or seven) literal days in October of 4004 BC, well, then the rest of the book is useless.

If Jesus wasn't born in a manger in (about) 4 BC in Bethlehem in Judea with angels and shepherds and stars and violence all around, then why believe?!

Because it's far more important that that.

It's about life and challenging evil.

It's about the rich being called out and the poor being elevated like mountains and valleys on the Way of our God.

It's about peace and hope and goodwill.

It's about a deep and profound story of grace and forgiveness- two things in great need in our world.

Do I believe? You can be sure I do. There is clearly no room in the Inns of our world for the immigrant or poor. Grace is what we say at a meal, not what we receive or are even willing to give. God is the Great Big Guy in the Sky who affirms our lifestyle and not, as we see throughout Scripture the One challenging us to do it differently, better and with love.

Do I doubt? Of course I do. Not because it's so hard to believe, but because it's so hard to live that way.

Which may be why I most believe. If it were so easy, we wouldn't need God.

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