The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” -Hebrews 11:1-3
My first formal academic encounter with metaphysics and philosophy came in the 10th Grade. That’s a good age to ponder “How do I know what I know?” and “Is everything I know true?” and “What is Real, what is True, and what is Good and Beautiful?” Our English classes were given over to various literary genres struggling with the big questions; thinkers ranging from Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and Augustine, to Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche and Sartre were examined, if only in the brief way a survey course can. When it came time to look at the Greeks, our teacher took us through Plato first, then Aristotle. Neither was completely satisfying, since one seemed to insist that I never had and never could directly observe/know anything that is essentially Real, and the other seemed to insist that anything I directly encountered was the sum and substance of all that can be known and therefore, Real. I recall wrestling with both, though more vigorously with Aristotle, whom my well-intentioned teacher vastly oversimplified when he summarized Aristotle’s thought as “What you see is what exists. That’s it, That’s all.” From this premise, an entire system of thought derives, having as its basic assumption the notion that what cannot be apprehended with human sensibilities is not Real, and if it is not Real then its Truth is adiaphoron.
I’m certain that I have no significantly deeper formal understanding of epistemology (or ontology or æsthetics for that matter) than I did at the end of 10th Grade (and that was a very long time ago), but I am grateful everyday for the lessons learned. They forced me to search more deeply and more thoroughly to discover myself, and in that emergent self-understanding, to form and ask philosophical questions; my faith informed the vocabulary and context of the questions. Faith and philosophy…belief and the love of wisdom…good things.
I have always loved this stretch from Hebrews for the simple comfort it gives. It makes sense of the big questions, and particularly of both Plato and Aristotle. In its poetic, forward-rolling rhythm, it brings home the message: by faith, by faith by faith. It states without apology that there are things that cannot be observed, or produced and then re-produced by laboratory method, and those things are no less true or real than things that are amenable to scientific methods.
The most agnostic physicist on the planet operates her/his entire academic life on an indirect observation of atomic behavior. Though the physicist can observe and predict actions and usually repeat them, it is seen only in its effect, proving “that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Most of us don’t think of physicists as persons of faith, but their empirical behavior displays faith, and I’ll bet we’d be surprised how many of them are persons of faith precisely because of the science rather than in spite of it.
This is where faith makes life sensible and livable. Like good physicists, faithful people have seen God indirectly, through His actions, but not directly...we see where He’s been, and not much more.
“If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Jesus responds to an imperceptive remark made by Philip and makes clear that He is “from before time and forever,” eternally Real, eternally True, and that what was formerly Real, True and Unseen is now, in Him, Real, True, and fully Seen.
This is made possible by gift of faith...assured faith...faith confessed not simply as one believes, but as one knows.
And the breadth of that faith need only be one heart wide. Though the greatness of the Church is the confession of millions, those millions are numbered one at a time. It is personal, individual struggles in faith that shape the faith of the community. The necessary difficulty is that our personal individual struggles in faith-leading-to-knowledge require Him to be known before He is seen, not the other way ‘round. Wiman avers that
“If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see.”
We are called to embrace the faith as both/and, not either/or...we are after all those who confess in each others’ hearing every Sunday that “we believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
Faith teaches knowledge. Knowledge rarely teaches faith. In the end, the wonders and struggles of theology and philosophy lead us straight to this knowledge taught by faith. And at the end of all those intellectual gymnastics and thinking and praying and all of the learned discourse, what do we know?...not what do we believe, but what do we know?
We know that God is Real and True whether we’ve seen Him or not, (and we have in Jesus), and furthermore, we know that God is Real and True whether we believe in Him or not. I am so glad. I would hate to be asked to shoulder the heavy responsibility for God’s existence. If God’s Truth and Reality depended upon my say-so, or yours, He wouldn’t be much of a God at all, now would He?
“By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 7 August 2016, being The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
 John 14:9b, NRSV
 The Book of Common Prayer, pg 373
 Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2013. pg 11
 The Book of Common Prayer, pg 327