Blessed are the confused

By on February 1, 2010

In the world of the New Normal, we can’t count on people knowing anything about the faith.

Remember the six-year-old boy who thought crosses were plus signs? Adults also suffer from mathematical faith confusion.

I’d been introducing a post-graduate student and his fiancee to the basic experiences of the faith as part of their marriage preparation. Neither had much church background, so I’d picked the passage from Isaiah where the prophet experiences God as a whirlwind in the temple. I thought they could relate to that as an experience of awe. I thought it might make God more real for them. We read the passage. Then I asked if they had any questions.

“What are all the little numbers for?”

It took me a moment.

“Those are the verse numbers.”

But it was clear my answer hadn’t helped.

“Verses?”

Finally, I got it. “Every sentence in the Bible is numbered so you can look up any sentence you want.”

The lights went on. They were really impressed. “What an ingenious idea!” Christianity just went way up in their estimation. Finally there was something they were impressed by.

In the world of the New Normal, we can’t count on people knowing anything about the faith.

How is it that our Western culture, steeped in the Christian faith for 2,000 years, now knows almost nothing about that faith? How did this happen?

Strangely enough, it was the Bible that taught us to be secular. Remember Genesis and the six days of creation, and how God put a large lamp in the sky to give us day and a smaller lamp to light the night? Those stories sound like agrarian poetic images, but in reality they were acts of theological warfare.

The neighbouring religions at the time believed that the sun and the moon were both gods, so to refer to the sun as a lamp, and the moon as a smaller lamp, was to claim that the gods of the neighbouring religions didn’t really exist.

A bit later in Genesis, something similar happens. This time, it’s the story of Joseph and how, through a long series of accidents-favouritism by his father, the jealousy of his brothers, imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit-he is able to administer Egypt’s food supply and save his people from starvation. But God never appears. “God is alive and well and powerfully active,” the author of Genesis seems to be saying, “but you can never demonstrate it.”

That’s a very sophisticated understanding of God. It’s a statement that all human ideas about God are inadequate. And the great criticism that modern secularism levels at our faith is that religion thinks it can prove God-thus all the books on disproving God. But Genesis tells us we can’t prove God exists. This is one of the foundations of our faith.

So, could God be the source of modern secular attitudes? Perhaps God is saying to us, through our secular culture, that we need to become dissatisfied with our images of God. Perhaps the couple who didn’t understand verse numbers were longing for an image of God that would astound them. I should have asked them about the ways in which they experience awe. Perhaps by asking them how to speak to God, they would then be impressed by more than the fact that every sentence in the Bible is numbered.

Canon Harold Munn is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.

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