Faith: a Lens that Brings God into Focus
A sermon based on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 3, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I remember hearing a story back in the 1980s that Ronald Reagan did not realize that he needed glasses until he was 13. He lived all the way up to adolescence with a fuzzy world. He was nearsighted so most everything existed as blur until one day for fun he tried on his mother’s glasses. I looked the story up on line and I learned that it was only when he tried those glasses on that, as Ronald Reagan put it, he “discovered the gloriously sharply outlined world.” 1.
As a kid and a teen I had excellent vision, so I had no way to relate to how President Reagan felt as youth, I remember thinking it was odd he did not notice the distortions. Then I went to law school and wore my eyes out reading day and night, plus, well as fate would have it . . . I got . . . older. Shortly after law school I flew out to Las Vegas to interview with the federal court I ended up clerking with, and my first night in that town I realized all the lights were fuzzy. So I looked through a friend’s pair of glasses and I rediscovered – to use the words of Ronald Reagan– the “gloriously sharply outlined world” that I had slowly lost with all that legal reading . . . and I suppose aging helped too. I soon got glasses and wear them more each year.
Before we got our glasses, the young Ronald Reagan and thirty year old me could not focus on a good part of the creation. The world of course was there, we just needed lenses to bring it into better focus and experience it. I bring up the issue of President Reagan and me needing lens to see because our reading today emphasizes faith, which is how we see the Creator – God– in creation. I had that epiphany about faith on my vacation in Seattle; and I wrote more details in some notes to cobble together this sermon when I got back.
Faith is talked a lot about in Christianity. The talk can make some of us uneasy because it is often equated with blind belief. Some of the details of my epiphany, which I hope to flesh out more in a few moments, might not be ideas you ALL agree with. So I want to state up front that in this church noone is expected to check their brain at the door, or need to agree with me either.
The epiphany was – simply put– that faith can be understood to be the very opposite of blind belief. It is in fact the lenses by which we discover a much more “gloriously sharply outlined [God].” God’s always there, always here, it’s just that faith gives us the lenses we need to better bring God into focus, and better see and experience the Sacred in our lives. While we certainly do not need the lens of faith for the existence of God to occur, we tend to need faith to bring God into better focus.
I call this lens-to-better-see-God idea an epiphany because, as I said, faith is often said to require blind belief, or belief without proof. In fact Webster’s Dictionary even lists a definition of the word “faith” as the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” I have heard religious people, many of them sincere and thoughtful argue THAT belief without proof idea. But I have always personally found it troubling to understand faith that way one reason is because I have yet to meet anyone who does not claim some sort of proofs to back up theological beliefs. This is true even if their proof is the oft heard “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” That is an assertion of proof. They consider the Bible THE proof.
My brain tends to test and reason proofs, even challenge them if they do not seem logical or just. Jesus modeled that sort of testing and challenging. 2 Many of the times that I have religious people assert we need to believe without proof seem to be the times the proof they rely on is challenged with logic or evidence. “Blind belief” is often used to shield theologies from challenges. Modern American theologian Marcus Borg noted such an understanding of faith
is what you turn to when knowledge runs out. Even more strongly faith is what you need when beliefs and knowledge run out. (Heart, p 29)
I am not opposed to folks turning to or relying on blind belief. My concern is when it is asserted as the only way to explain an understanding in logic and evidenced based discussions about God. Modern western thinkers hone in on empirical proof. It is part and parcel of how we think. So it’s pretty rare to find a belief that people do not claim some sort of proof for. Even if it is non-scientific proof, westerners point to evidence and logic to explain things. When evidence or logic is challenged some in religious discussions lean in on the idea of true faith not needing evidence. Which is fine for their theology, but it is not really a logical response in logic based discussion . . . which modern people tend to have.
So we often encounter religious folks first seeking safe haven in proof, then reverting to blind belief to avoid challenges. When that occurs I am not claiming they do not have a valid view or lens to see God. What I am claiming is that in discussions based on logic that’s not going to cut it. And actually faith in God does not need to be based on blind beliefs. It can be, but it need not be. We do not need to check our brains at the door of the church or when we open the Bible.
I have heard Christians promoting blind belief by pointing to Hebrews 11:1, which states “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The claim is that verse is proof we do not need proof. There is two-fold irony in such efforts. One is they are pointing to a proof text to prove they need no proof. The other is that text refers to “evidence of things not seen.” Things not seen is not the same as no evidence, or even iffy evidence. We do not see air, but we can trust it is there. We have –if you will– faith that it exists. Why? Because evidence validates it–we are alive and breathing is one easy example of proof.
I preached a sermon a few weeks ago about Christianity coming down to three basic experiences: awe, wonder and love. All three of those things are unseen senses. They can be based on observed things but they manifest themself inside us. We do not literally see, but rather feel awe and wonder. Yet we trust– have faith– they are there because evidence validates it. We experience the emotion of awe. We experience the excitement of wonder. Likewise we do not see love, but we trust it is there because evidence validates it– we have care for the well being of others and know there are those who care for our well being too . . . including God.
Unseen evidence IS evidence. Our faith does serve as evidence of those things not seen. But it is not blind belief. And I am not just quibbling and parsing phrases, I truly cannot not think of any modern Christian who does not base belief in the existence of God upon some thing or things. Some assert that God is proven in things like Sacred texts. Some assert God is proven in things like the experiential realities of awe, wonder and love. God is palpable by the means of many, many things which can and do serve as proofs. Some seen. Some unseen.
We can quibble about whether we think this or that thing is proof of God or not, but there is no rational argument that people who have faith in God do not derive it from things that evidence God to them. That’s a part of their lens, their spectacles that bring God into focus.
Not too long ago I tried on those first glasses I got back in 1988. Oooof. They no longer work for me. You might say, through them I rediscovered the fuzzy, blurry world. Over time I have had to get new lens for my physical eyes to best see the “gloriously sharply outlined world.” The glasses that I am wearing this morning have progressive lens. They allow me to see near and far as look up and down from my notes.
I like that the theological lens I see God through are also called progressive. When I first went to church as teen, however, I tried on the lens of fundamentalism. Those lenses actually helped me see and experience God. But my experiences and vision of God out grew that set of lens. I found that I experienced God better without them and I left the church, until twenty years later when I tried on the theologically progressive lenses that I found in a UCC church. Those lenses have brought into focus God in so many ways for me . . . ways I only dreamed of, and ways I did not even imagine.
I know that the prescription progressive lenses I have in my glasses might not help others with poor vision see better. But my clearer vision can benefit others. I can see better to read, write and deliver sermons, to take photographs, to drive better. I can focus to describe and point out things I see. When I preach and teach I also know that the progressive theological lenses that help me experience God better might not be the best lens for everyone. But my clearer vision of God I do hope benefits others. I can see to describe God and point her out better, note something in focus for others to see.
It can sometimes surprised folks that Christian faith need not be blind belief. It can surprise folks to hear a church and a pastor urge folks to not check their brains at the door and to question and challenge what troubles them about God, religion, Christianity and the Bible. Sticking with this lens metaphor, we should challenge lens that make us uncomfortable, that do not focus better on God. We should seek lenses that help us best focus on God. Because faith, far from being blind is the lens by which can discover a much more gloriously sharply outlined God. God’s always there, always here. It’s just that faith gives us the lenses we need to better see and experience God. While we certainly do not need the lens of faith for the existence of God to occur, we tend to need them to bring God into better focus.
Churches should help as many people as practical to find the lens that is best for them to focus in on God. In the words of the banner outside, “where ever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.” A part of that welcome is helping the gathered best experience God, in a way that is safe and respectful for all of us.
See, faith need not be about having blind beliefs. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg, sets out four primary meanings of faith in the Bible none of them is about blind belief. Boiled down the four Biblical meanings of faith that Dr. Borg sets out are (1) radical trust in God; (2) loyalty to God; (3) visualizing God through the metaphor of traditions; and (4) having the foundational affirmations that God is real, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God; and the Bible contains our foundational story. In other words, we can understand Jesus’ Way consists of trust, loyalty, affirming God exists and that Jesus reveals God. And to make it even simpler Dr. Borg describes that Christian faith leads to Jesus’ Way of living which leads us “to love God and to love that which God loves.” (41).
All of that’s the basic Christian framework found in the Bible – and none of it requires blind belief. See faith can be the very opposite of blind belief. Faith can be the lens by which we discover a much more gloriously sharply outlined God through evidence seen and unseen ALL of which leads to awe and wonder and love, which is God.
1. How myopia shaped the attitudes of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, https://www.ophthalmologytimes.com/modern-medicine-cases/how-myopia-shaped-attitudes-theodore-roosevelt-and-ronald-reagan?page=0,2
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