Wrestling With the Bible: Belief Is Seriously Overrated

Pentwater, Michigan. Photo 2007 Barbara Falconer Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

As I made plans for my mother’s memorial mass at the tiny St. Vincent Catholic Churchin Pentwater, Michigan, last summer, I asked my brothers and my mother’s grandchildren if they’d like to participate in the service.

There were the Prayers of the Faithful to be read, as well as two passages from scripture, and the bread and the wine to be carried to the altar.

My nephew, an evangelical, jumped at the chance to read from Romans. My son and daughter, who grew up in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakland and are now an agnostic (an apatheist to be more precise) and a beginner Buddhist respectively, agreed to take on Isaiah and the Prayers of the Faithful.

But my brothers and some of the grandchildren were uneasy at the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of people to read from a document they didn’t believe in. One granddaughter thought she might be able to read a passage, but only if it didn’t mention God.

Exasperated, I sent out an email. “It’s not necessary to ‘believe’ the scriptures!” I declared. “‘Belief’ is seriously overrated!”

Between my nephew and my own children, I had enough readers to fill all the reading slots, so I offered the two “non-believer” granddaughters the wordless roles of carrying the bread and wine to the altar. They accepted happily.

Peter reading from Isaiah at his grandmother's memorial mass. Photo 2011 Barbara Falconer Newhall

What I didn’t tell my nieces was that, to my mind, while the offering of the bread and wine doesn’t involve words of assent to – belief in – any kind of doctrine, the act does reflect another kind of belief, the faith and trust kind. It is the bringing of a hopeful heart to that which is. (Or as Christians would put it, to God.)

Next Sunday’s gospel is the much-quoted John 3:14-21. The first part goes down easily enough for most people. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That verse has a nice universalist ring to it: God loves the world. But for some, the verses that follow blast a judgmental, exclusionary message:

“ . . . those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

I want to argue that my “unbelieving” nieces are not unbelieving at all. They are full of trust and love and light. They showed up for their grandmother. They carried the bread and the wine to the altar of a tradition they neither understood nor subscribed to. As I see it, they did all this with a great deal of hope. Their deeds were “done in God” – whether they thought of it that way or not.

To qualify for God’s love, to enjoy a full and loving life, do we have to sign on the dotted line that we “believe in the name of the only Son of God”?  I don’t think so.

What John 3:14-21 is saying to me is that we must trust – believe – that we live in a loving universe. That, in turn, enables us to do our deeds in goodness.

Otherwise we are in a dark place indeed.

LECTIONARY, Fourth Sunday in Lent:

http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Lent/BLent4_RCL.html

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

My mother several months before she died. Photo 2010 BF Newhall

“Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”   – John 3:14-21

 

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© 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Barbara Falconer Newhall. and www.GodsBigBlog.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog's author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Barbara Falconer Newhall and www.GodBigBlog.com with appropriate and specifc direction to the original content. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA. The Psalms are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Material originally published and copyrighted by the Oakland Tribune is posted here by permission. WordPress theme adapted from Thematic Theme Framework