As progressive people we often shy away from words that either reminds us of a religious past we would just as well like to forget or because the meanings of these words might be committing us to a belief system we don’t fully endorse. Words like God, holiness, faith, grace, prayer, salvation, atonement, sacrifice, theology and the real stumbling block, sin. It is true that many religious traditions use these words in ways that many of us disagree with theologically; prayer is often associated with a supplication to a higher power, sacrifice reminds us of the Christian faith in salvation through Jesus and grace in its the Christian meaning is an unbidden gift from God. But I contend that we do ourselves a disservice to avoid this rich language. The language of reverence is ours to use as well in ways that better fit our own understandings of the universe. Indeed, each of these words is used richly throughout literature from the Bible to Walt Whitman.
I am very careful in how I use these words with you. Many have noticed, for instance, that I rarely use the word God in my preaching. Mostly, I do this to avoid confusion, realizing full well that there are at least as many understandings of God as there are people in the room, but also because I am not sure what that God entails. My own definition is rooted in nature and human relationships. To unpack all of that as I am trying to convey a deeper message seems more trouble than it is worth. This doesn’t mean the word has no value, only that its value is greater than the words I have to express it.
Grace is a word I use often. My blog is titled “Facing Grace”. By grace I mean those opportunities and gifts we are presented with that help us to change our outlook on the world and make us better people. I don’t require a God to believe in grace, just the possibility that what comes our way may have more meaning than we might normally give it. I have met people, for instance, that give me insight in some unique way to a problem I am facing. I need a direction, and a direction appears. As the Jedi master once said “A solution will present itself”. That is grace.
Faith is another such word. I realize that some of us are more than a little uncomfortable with faith. It suggests “blind faith”, a complete surrender to something we are required to believe in. That is not how I use this word. For me, faith is that assurance that what we hold to be good and right and true is, in almost every instance, good and right and true. I have faith in the general goodwill of people to care for one another. I have faith that science and modern medicine will continually improve our lives. I have faith in democracy. Having faith doesn’t mean we have to stop being concerned or stop working towards these ends. Now, more than ever, we need to work towards preserving our democracy. What it does mean is that I have an assurance that there is a high probability that what I have faith in will in fact prevail.
Yours in Grace and Grit, John