Sunday, November 07, 2010

Believing is Seeing (Hebrews 11:1-3)

The idea of faith costs Christianity a lot of potential followers. Lots of people like what Jesus says about how to help the poor, love our enemies and treat each other with respect and dignity. But when it comes down to a decision to accept as real things that can't be proven as real, well, they part company.

Some Christians hold that following Jesus doesn't have to have this idea of faith in it. We can do just fine without supernatural concepts and ideas, or holding something true that can't be proved true. I respect those folks for sticking with their principles, but I believe we can't reduce Christianity to what we can perceive with our senses and prove with our reason. There's something more to it.

Which leaves me to wrestle with this idea of faith being the "conviction of things not seen," or "evidence of things not seen," as you may have heard it if you grew up with the King James version. What makes a life of faith different than a life without faith? What are these unseen things that faith prompts us to accept when we have no real-world evidence for doing so?

First, it seems like there are two main reasons we don't see things. One is that we can't. Too small, too dark, too bright, too far away, etc., are the kinds of things that prevent us from physically seeing something, and there might be some connections there, but I want to focus on the other reason this time. Lots of times, we don't see things because we overlook them -- we don't pay attention.

There's a well-known perception test video in which people are asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed back and forth among a group of people. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of  the game, stops, beats his or her chest, and walks on across to the other side. The people who developed the test say that almost half of the people who watch the video don't see the gorilla until they are asked about it and shown the scene again. They overlooked it because they were looking to see how many times the basketball was passed.

Physically, of course, they saw the gorilla-suited person just like they saw the people and the basketball. Light reflected from the image in the visible spectrum; that light reached the rod and cone cells of their retinas and sent chemical and electrical signals along their optic nerves to their brains and their brains processed the images. But they didn't perceive the person in the gorilla suit. The simple change from paying attention to the basketball to paying attention to the whole scene almost acted like an entirely new sense, adding a layer to the viewers' perceptions that hadn't been there before.

I believe that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers in the same way that paying attention worked in the eyes of the test audience. The Spirit adds another layer of perception to our senses that enables us to "see" things, so to speak, that our everyday senses don't pick up.

For example, if you come to a busy intersection in a city, there may be people standing there holding signs about needing some kind of help. You might notice them and not pay any attention to them at all. Or you might pay attention and see them as humans being in need of help -- chances are the help that will do them the most good isn't the help their signs ask for, but truly seeing them involves recognizing that they are in fact people in need. Many people do this, and many people, believers and otherwise, try to help those folks.

But a Christian sees more than just a piece of the scenery and sees even more than a person needing help. A Christian sees a child of God. A Christian sees someone whose birth brought God joy and whose spirit Christ thought worth his death on the cross to save. And if you don't think it takes the eyes of faith to see a glorious child of God in some of the burnouts who stand at off-ramp corners, you haven't met many of them.

The eyes of faith see bread and juice (or wine) as bread and juice, and as symbols given to us by a risen King, not a memorialized lost leader. For some traditions, the elements of communion are actually the body and blood of Christ, even though they may still look like the earthly elements they appear to be. Either way, we Christians perceive something in those symbols that people who look at them without faith do not see. Doesn't make us any better, smarter or more perceptive, but it does mean we perceive them differently.

So why have these eyes of faith? Why trouble ourselves about perceiving the world differently than other people might? Why create the headache of having to defend something to someone who doesn't even accept our premise to start with and rejects the idea that there's anything beyond what we can sense or prove? The folks who cruise past the guy at the off-ramp intersection like he's not even there probably sleep easier at night than the ones who wonder if that guy even has a place of his own to sleep.

Well, for one I need the eyes of faith to look in the mirror and see a redeemed child of God instead of a hopeless sinner. I run out of evidence that I'm a follower of God long before I run out of things in my life that need to be brought in line with God. Only the testimony of God's Holy Spirit that Jesus really did live, die and rise again in order to set my relationship with God right is gonna sway me in the face of all the physical evidence to the contrary.

For another, the eyes of faith can show us a hint or a glimpse of the world the way God intends for it to be, just as they may show us a glimpse of us the way God intends us to be. Perceiving the world in the way the Holy Spirit reveals it to us offers us a context for life unavailable without it.

It also opens up the true wonder of the world around us. Reflected light, atmospheric conditions, rods and cone cells and optic nerves and whatnot can describe for me the exact process by which I see a sunset, but none of those things can help me know why I might look at one and go, "Wow." Life without faith is walking. Walking will get you where you need to go, and good, beneficial lives can be led by people without faith,.

But life with faith is dancing. And the two are not the same.

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