Is Faith a Wager? There is a widely popular notion among some Christians that faith involves a kind of wager. As far as I can tell from the study I have done, this is a very modern notion. Condensed to its most explicit form, the wager approach to faith asserts that the claims of orthodox Christian theology are either the ultimate expression of truth or they are utter nonsense. For example, C.S. Lewis agrues that Jesus of Nazareth was either God incarnate, as orthodox Christian theology claims, or he was an utter madman who should not be taken seriously in anyway by clear thinking persons. Approached in this way, Christian faith is a matter of taking up the wager that the first of these options is true. The problem with this wager approach to faith is not the conclusion advocated, which, after all, is a religious world view of great venerability and of significant guidance for many persons. The problem is, it cuts away all middle ground of spiritual experience and understanding. It radically eliminates any sense of, and opportunity for, spiritual processes other than the one that responds to the idea of the wager. It ignores the naturally meandering path of spiritual exploration that is richly rewarding for many persons, and, with the engine of logic, builds a high speed monorail directly to the end of the theological line. Can it truly be that the Christian path is well served by the great simplification of this wager? Do the roots of faith really lie in the instinct for gambling? Can we really buy a substantial home for the longing of the soul with the thin coin of this dualistic logic?
Let us ask, would this approach to faith have made sense to Saint Paul, or the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, or Saint Augustine, or Saint Francis, or Saint Teresa? Would it come anywhere near encompassing the experience of Meister Eckart, or Brother Lawrence, or George Fox and John Woolman? I cannot dispel the sense that something is distinctly absent from this wager approach to faith.
This wager approach to faith springs from a mind schooled in logical analysis and wanting, above all else, for the rational functions of the mind to remain in control. Is this why the popularity of the faith wager has become so wide spread. We are children of the modern world and have been schooled to increasingly value high levels of rationality and logical analysis. In a comfortable way we recognize the wager as an approach to faith that relies on the exercise of these skills; skills, I might add, that get especially high approval ratings from the male side of the house. The fact that the notion of faith as a wager should be so widely acceptable among Christians is an indication of how far modern, secular consciousness has replaced the ancient sense of sacred living. No longer do most persons feel their lives as embedded in Creation, and Creation as deeply expressive of the Divine. No longer do most persons understand themselves as being fully enclosed in a larger than personal life, and find in self-forgetfulness an enhanced sense of being truly alive. When we wager we have in mind to make a deal. We have the feeling of being an independent agent. We consider the options, calculate the risks, and weigh up the benefits. The mind invaded by the spirit of wagering stands alone. It breaks the sense of being within the circle of sacred Creation, the sense of participation in a great mystery, and considers everything from the point of view individuality and personal advantage. My caution on this, however, rises from a sense that the wager approach to faith has fueled the growth of an individualistic spirituality, a spirituality focused primarily on personal security and fulfillment. It has promoted a mindset that can ignore the experience of Creation as spiritually significant, and is predisposed to seeing the human-earth relationship only in terms of human advantage. I suggest there is a another kind of faith, an older and closer to the heart kind of faith. It cannot be commanded up at will and there is really nothing we can do to obtain it. It is not the product of reasoning, nor does it flourish in an atmosphere of analysis, argument and persuasion. It is no more likely to be found in the seminary and pulpit than in the workshop, kitchen or field. The only thing we can do is to prepare ourselves to receive it. It comes as a gift, as an indwelling presence that needs no logical apparatus to validate its authenticity. It is a presence that flows into our life from a source beyond our will. It is a presence that engages the heart and opens the door to unreserved participation. Faith as a wager steps up to the window and says; “I wish to bet my full belief on the theological horse in the race for security.” Faith as participation simply leaps into the saddle, accepts insecurity as the human lot, and rides the gift-horse deep into the life of Creation. William Sloan Coffin observes that faith “is not a matter of belief in the unproveable, but of trust without reservation.” How does trust emerge into such fullness? What is the faith behind faith that nourishes such trust? Faith Behind Faith: Steps to an Ecology of Practice Within the panorama of human cultures and behind the particularities of each culture’s story of faith, there is another story, another level of deep faith, a background context of energy and relationship that animates human experience and nourishes creativity. I have a sense of this faith behind faith as a kind of primal energy of the spirit, and as a kind of incandescence of the soul. It is the energy and creative orientation of this deep background faith that is the funding source of culture, and that enables us, within our cultures, to create our particular stories of faith. This faith behind faith is a gift, not a mental construction or a theological exercise. It is a gift given not only at the human level. It is given into earth process as whole, and, most notably into earth’s biotic processes. It manifests in every form of life, and at every level of functioning as an unquenchable urge to flourish. We can think of it, as did Teilhard de Chardin, as “the zest for life.” It is as simple as that. It is also the profoundest of mysteries. It underwrites the scripts of culture in which various images, metaphors, symbolic systems, and story lines become amplifiers of faith.
The faith behind faith is not looking for allegiance. It is looking for expression. It is not the song, but the signal, the pulsing energy that animates. It is both before and after words. It is the illusive, yet most intimate breath of things that draws us up into warp of life, out into the weave of the world, and gives us a way of working for the good of all, even if we must go through the worst of times. Whatever the choices that are likely to made and then lived out over the next several decades, there can be no doubt that we and our descendants are in for a journey of re-adaptation that will test the resilience of our faith. As a resource for this journey, I offer the following outline. Steps to an Ecology of Practice
There are four steps to an ecology practice that can usefully brought into focus with regard to the faith behind faith: (1) the metabolic step, (2) the metaphysical step, (3) the social step, and (4) ecological identity step. 1. The Metabolic Step. The metabolic aspect of the faith maintenance is rarely considered. But it is critical. The cells in brain tissue are nourished in exactly the same way as the cells in muscle tissue. Everyone understands that muscle tissue cannot function normally if it is inadequately nourished. The brain, likewise, cannot function efficiently if the cells of its tissue are lacking a full compliment of critically essential nutrients. The brain is the seat of consciousness in general and thought processes in particular, factors that are central to the operation of faith in our lives. Yet, almost no attention is given to brain nutrition by the scholars of faith. The same observation can be made with regard to the endocrine system - the seat of emotional response and balance. Emotional response, emotional balance - or the lack thereof - are important factors in the functioning of faith. The neurological and endocrine systems in particular, and the whole body in general, is the context - the metabolic context - in which the experience of faith emerges, and through which we develop and extend our spiritual life. This is not a startling insight. Our metabolic situation is the only house we have. Nutritional shortfall and metabolic inefficiency directly impacts our ability to function in all ways, including the spiritual. The emergence and sustaining of primal faith - the faith behind faith - is, in part, a matter of nutritional intake and metabolic efficiency. The fact that neurological and endocrine processes are subject to considerable variation due to genetic and environmental factors, makes it all the more important that attention to nutrition and metabolic efficiency be a front-line step in the ecology of faith. Appropriate nutrition underwrites the zest for life, supports the energy of primal faith, and helps us live up to George Fox’s injunction: “walk cheerfully over the earth.” 2. The Metaphysical Step. The thorniest metaphysical problem in the whole of human experience - the problem that gnaws deep into the marrow of faith and raises the temptation of fatalism - is the problem of evil. Much theological ink has been poured into this problem, but it is not a theological solution that is required. On the contrary, as George Fox discovered, an experiential solution is needed to release the paralyzing hold of this problem. For Fox it was experiencing the “ocean of light” overflowing the “ocean of darkness” that accomplished this release. Within the structure of human perception and mental functioning there is an unremitting dualism that forever foils our great desire for unity. We know without a doubt the goodness of many things, but, at the same time, evil has a pattern of recurrence that keeps us on the metaphysical rack. The structure of human knowledge and the processes of moral reasoning are constituted in such a way that a comparative element is always at work in the way we come to know and understand things. But we can take a further step and observe that this comparative dynamic has a particular and noticeable substructure. In the dance of opposites, the positive always sets the stage and leads the motion of the performance. As bad as things are, or may become, the negative aspect always emerges and takes shape against a positive background. (The only alternative to this is to imagine the universe, the earth and life itselfas a canvas of pervasive evil against which good things unaccountably arise.) So even in our dark moments, even when we are shadowed by a sense of absence, we have this insight to rely on: Absence can be known only within an overarching and surrounding sense of presence. This realization does not magically remove the experience of anguish or exempt us from any moral task with respect to evil, and it may not be helpful at all for some folks. But it is the experiential moment of understanding to which many struggling souls have come. It is a perspective that allows us to begin charting a new way of coping with whatever range of difficulties our situations and our personal predispostions hold in store for us. It is, if not a complete resolution, at least a resting place for the metaphysical problem of evil, a resting place that allows the faith behind faith to catch a better stride for the journey. 3. The Social Step. As important as it is to get the metabolic step on track and the metaphysical step into perspective, they are mainly background to the full emergence of primal faith in the social context of our lives. Human associations are the richest and strongest support for the emergence and maintenance of faith. The special place of faith communities is of particular note. Participating in this kind of association is the terra firma of the faith behind faith. This is the step and the context which is the most self evident and familiar to us. There is, however, another dimension of the social that is also important in this regard, but which is often overlooked or ignored. The entire biospheric realm is in every detail, an intensely social phenomenon. There is no place where energies, relationships, reactions and responses are not flowing back and forth, up and down, and crosswise through the weave of the world. From the microbial composition of soils, to the great flocks of migratory birds, from ocean cruising pod of whales to forest tree succession, from the companionship enjoyed between animals and humans to the scout bee communicating through dance like movements to the rest of the hive’s workers where the best nectar harvest of the day will be found. All this, and everything in between reveals the social as a primary expression of life. There is no end and no “outside” to the sociality of earth. Human social order is embedded in and completely dependent on the larger domain of relationships that make up Creation as a whole. The extent to which we are knowledgeable about and take into account human embeddedness in this larger social realm, the greater will be our adaptational integrity and resilience with regard to Creation. The more the scope of these connections are realized in the practical details of our lives, the more our communities will become for us places of embedded relationship, places of rich social experience, places that nourish our little slips of faith into flourishing and sheltering trees. 4. The Ecological Identity Step. In her wonderful book, The Ecology of the Imagination in Childhood, Edith Cobb focuses on the significance of childhood experience in the natural world for cognitive and creative development. A range of experiences are cited, and a common pattern emerges which many will quickly recognize, and others, perhaps, on reflection, will have return to them in remembrance. The pattern goes something like this: At some time before the age of 10 or 12 an experience, or perhaps a series of experiences, with some aspect of earth gives rise to a sense of beauty and mystery, wonder and awe. Such experiences may occur in the closepresence of animals, or when under certain trees in a special place in the woods, or when watching the moon rise and turn a dark lake to silver. Such experiences can come just watching a humming bird at a feeder, or spotting a red tail hawk in a city park, or watching the endless rolling of the ocean. Gazing long into the night sky bright with stars, or out over landscapes either well known and comforting or new and mysteriously beautiful can provide a deeply formative experience. All these experiences, and many others of a similar sort, call up a sense of communion and open a window in the soul. This experience of having the heart and mind go out and enter a part of Creation, and for that part of Creation, in turn, to enter one’s life and become, in effect, a part of one’s identity settles a sense of deep natural connection in the soul. This kind of experience can become a life long source of intuitive understanding. It can provide a deep and on going sense of affinity. It can serve as an aesthetic reference point, a ethical compass, and a guide to moral action. Such experiences open a path of development into ecological consciousness, and ecological identity; they comprise a relationship with the primal; they give rise and standing to the faith behind faith. Although these experiences seem to occur most readily in childhood, they are by no means confined to that period. They can also be cultivated in adulthood. The extent to which these experiences are now being sought out by adults may be judged by the fact that researchers in developmental psychology are now studying, what they call, “ecological conversion.” These four areas of focus and attention do not necessarily complete the steps to an ecology of faith, but they are the matrix from which the faith behind faith develops and is sustained. In this context, it may also be fairly asked what has happened to the theological particularities and the structures of belief that are conventionally associated with religious faith? The answer is, nothing has happened to them. They remain of the same importance as before, depending on our individual orientations. The point of this exploration is not to replace the particularity of one faith orientation with another, but to help generate a recognition of the deep background context that funds and structures the energy of faith in whatever form it comes to us. The steps outlined here constitute a practice for the journey, a practice that I think will help avoid the temptation of fatalism and equip us to weather the great difficulties that are likely to come. A Boundary Waters Experience I have been sustained and guided by childhood experiences of the kind noted above. They have kept me on track through tumultuous times, and have prompted me, from time to time, to revisit and renew an elemental relationship with the features, conditions, processes, and creatures of earth. As a balance to the heavy sledding of this lecture so far, I would like to share a story from my experience that bears on my theme - the ecology of faith. I can’t promise that economics and spiritual responsibility won’t sneak back in - they will - but this story, at least, provides a narrative interlude, and a few images that are likely to be more memorable. And to further enliven the hour, this story and its reflections will be presented by Ellen. In the spring of 2002 our niece, Laurel Voran, organized an extended family canoe trip in the Boundary Waters region of northern Minnesota. When the invitation came, we hesitated not a minute in our response. This legendary region had long been on our mental maps, and the opportunity to make a pilgrimage was a dream come true. Such is the grace of having adventurous relatives. Our project was promptly dubbed “the old codgers canoe and camping trip.” Three of our party were over 70 years of age, and two of us were 65. Fortunately, we were in the care of our highly competent middle aged children. We did a four day trip on the South Kawishiwi River, which, in the scale of trips was a relatively easy one, but with many short portages. Within the first hour of setting out on the first day we observed a moose and several deer, including a faun, feeding along the river’s edge. Later on, we saw otter, beaver, a huge snapping turtle, snakes, frogs, osprey, a heron, gulls, crows, ravens, red squirrels, chipmunks and vultures. We saw the scat of mink and the tracks of coyotes. On the last night we heard wolves twice - once far off and once much closer. Loons frequented every stretch of waterway and surfaced in close range of the canoes without alarm. We could clearly observe the subtle iridescence of their neck feathers without binoculars, and gaze for long moments into the ancient intelligence of their alert red eyes. The calling of the loons was the continual music of our star filled nights. Our days were filled with cloud piled skies and the gently lapping water on the rock outcroppings and glacier placed boulders along our way. The gray granite rocks were graced with the colors and forms of many lichens, and always, all around us, there was the “the green dark woods.” And then there was the night of rolling thunder, great sheets of lightning, and pounding rain. It made me think of Thoreau’s line about “needing to witness our limits transgressed.” In the morning came the supreme achievement of our fire starting team, who, using only birch bark and twigs, brought a good blaze to life. Most of all it was the interweaving of wilderness sounds and silence that brought home the reality of this place and the great blessing of presence it provides. We spent two nights at one campsite just down stream from the nest of a bald eagle lodged high in the upper branches of an ancient white pine. The great bird conducted it fishing and lookout duties as if we were a normal part of the woodland fauna. The morning we were breaking camp, the great bird snatched a fish from the river not more than fifty feet off shore. As she rose, legs and undercarriage dripping water, and flew at a low angle around the point directly in front of our launching site, small bits of white plumage fell from her body and floated on the surface of the river. The first canoe launched paddled out and picked them up. Later, after drying, we found it was a down like material rather than small feathers that had fallen. We had an amazing collection of six pieces of eagle down. And then, to our further amazement, we realized we were a collection of exactly six households - one piece for each, a tangible memento of presence! I am not naturally inclined to mystic speculation about events like this, but I can tell you this experience has left its mark. Who knows how, and perhaps why, such things happen? Beyond thought and under consciousness, this meeting continues to cast a rippling light over the ever widening horizon of communion. I have friends who have no doubt about the significance of a gift from an eagle. And it is not the first time an eagle experience like this has come my way. I am not a skeptic, and I appreciate the sensitivity of deeper interpretations, but I hold back from putting any particular construction on this event. I am content to stay with the plain reality of presence. Communion and the Commonwealth of Life The Boundary Waters is a land set in water and spirit. The anchor of the land and flow of the water together cradle the great community of life, and together give rise to a presence we call spirit. We may be the only animal in the landscape that puts this kind of construction on its experience, but that’s the kind of animal we are, and the kind of experience that makes real our communion with the commonwealth of life. Our journey through the Boundary Waters vividly recreated the experience of communion, and reminded me of the opening through which communion often comes - the opening into self-forgetfulness, into disappearance. There are special moments when, through the experience of disappearing, we have a heightened sense of the spiritual, and we wonder, where does this come from, how does this happen? Although we may never fully answer these questions, and, perhaps, may not even want them to be answered, we know, in a deep sense, that all our experiences arise within the encompassing reality of the great Creation. On this point scripture and science agree; we are formed from the dust of earth. But science has added a great deal to our understanding of Creation, and the dust of earth is not what it used to be. The ecological relationships of earth have now been revealed to be more intricate, finely tuned and resembling the spiritual than previously imagined. There is a good reason for this resemblance. When we think clearly about the spiritual and Creation, we become aware that the essence of both is found in the reality of relationship. All the factors of our lives and all the forms and processes of earth arise in patterns of relationship that give us a sense of a great surrounding reality. It is not so much the discrete forms of the environment, or the individual creatures of the world taken by themselves, or any specific experience we may have, but the continuous flow of relationship in which all forms, creatures and experiences are embedded that calls up our sense of Creation as a spiritually encompassed reality. There are some scientists and some theologians who are dismayed that solid research seems increasingly to reveal the cogency of this world view. Others are delighted that ancient religious wisdom and scientific knowledge are converging in an increasingly interesting and helpful way. From a biblical point of view we can be encouraged that the profoundest theme of scripture - the theme of relationship - has emerged in the field of ecology in a way that helps us regain a sense of the integrity of Creation and a new feeling for our embeddedness in the whole community of life. There seems to be something about the soul that wants to disappear, that wants to be embedded in and encompassed by a greater reality. I am not suggesting anything like a full blown mystical experience, although that may happen. I am thinking more of those moments when we are lifted into communion with beauty and an utterly undeniable sense of presence. These are small times of disappearance, times when we are drawn out of ourselves and into a sense of embeddness in the great Creation. In the Boundary Waters experience it happened with the gift of an eagle. But it can a simple as catching the morning sun, while the cool mist rises from the river; or watching the beaver’s regular evening passage around the campsite point; or seeing the otter rising in a graceful arch, turning playfully and slipping silently back into the dark water; it can be hearing the loons embroider the night with their ancient music; it can be the presence of great rolling clouds and that special slant of light found only in the vast northern sky; it can be moonlight over water; it can be soft, multi-hued coverings of everlasting lichens on tough granite rock; it can be the midnight chorus of a wolf family on the move. All these, in the Boundary Waters, are the ordinary openings into which one can momentarily disappear. And on return, the light imprint of that greater world changes one’s identity in a small but definite way. A new relationship is now carried in the soul. The experience of relationship within the cradle of earth advances our sense of the spiritual, and prepares the way for a fully rounded sense of the Divine. Our experience of earth’s astounding beauty and its great community of life brings us to an important threshold of appreciation, a threshold that opens into an expanded sense of communion. This path of experience does not imply that Creation should be regarded as Divine. On the contrary, a fully rounded sense of the Divine unfolds into a cosmic mystery that encompasses Creation. Within this sense of earth as an encompassed Creation we are given a sacred trust. It seems no more than the common sense of both science and scripture to understand the spiritual integrity of the soul and the ecological integrity of earth as mutually enhancing aspects of the great Creation. This is what embeddness means, and embeddness is the reality that opens us to the pull of communion, and the experience of presence.