Last week, one of the newspapers I read regularly published a set of interviews on the topic of faith. The people interviewed were from disparate walks of life. Consequently, their views on the topic of faith were quite disparate.
The contemporary philosopher who was interviewed wanted to retain the parts of organized religion that he found acceptable but jettison the aspects he judged to be outdated. The novelist suggested that faith was equivalent to maintaining a sense of purpose about one’s life. The abstract artist responded abstractly, and the marketing expert responded in a way that promoted her product. The trendy, young pastor of a mega-church responded with trendy catch-phrases. Surprisingly, the opera singer was the only one in the group of interviewees who suggested that faith might have to do with the transcendent.
It is not surprising that each of the six interviewees had her or his own perspective on faith. There are, for example, multiple meanings of the word “faith” in Catholicism.
Faith can mean “the Catholic Faith,” the list of articles of belief summarized by the Creeds. Faith can mean personal agreement with a set of beliefs. Faith can also refer to an interpersonal relationship. Today’s first reading illustrates yet another meaning of the word faith, a meaning without which all the other meanings of “faith” are meaningless.
The reading from the Book of Genesis is taken from the beginning of the collection of stories about Abra(ha)m. While the Abraham stories are radically different from the previous eleven chapters of Genesis, there is an essential link between the two sets of biblical materials.
The eleven chapters of Genesis that precede the Abraham stories describe humanity’s disobedience to God and the negative consequences that result from sin. The Abraham stories, by contrast, demonstrate how the destructive consequences of sin can be reversed. Specifically, in the life of Abraham we see how faith heals and reconciles the destructive consequences of humanity’s sin of disobeying the Divine will.
In today’s first reading, Abraham is commanded to leave his homeland and kin, travel to a foreign land, and wait for the fulfillment of a Divine promise of progeny. Abraham responded without hesitation. It should also be pointed out that Abraham responded without any proof of the efficacy of God’s promise that he would be made “a great nation.” (Gn. 12:2)
Certainly, Abraham’s faith amounted to trust in God’s promise. There was also present in Abraham an assent to the content of God’s self-revelation. It was neither of these common definitions of faith that led Abraham to receive a unique blessing from God. The aspect of Abraham’s faith that made him obey God, even though he wouldn’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises, was a profound realization. Abraham realized that he had nothing of greater value than his reliance on God.
In the ancient world, one’s homeland and family of origin would have been considered the most valuable possessions one could own. Abraham forfeited them without a second thought because he knew he possessed something greater. He possessed, and was possessed by, knowledge that nothing is of greater value than relying solely on God. Abraham remains today the Father of Faith because the many, varied meanings of faith are meaningless in the absence of the realization that prompted Abraham to abandon everything of value in favor of something of limitless value.
We live in a time when wealth is abundant. It is possible for just about anyone to acquire just about any sort of wealth that can be imagined. Property is widely available, housing options are numerous, marriage is easily contracted, vast amounts of money can be earned, most people have the luxury of hoarding hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes until these have to be discarded to make room for the treasures appropriate for hoarding during hurricane season. Surrounded by such wealth, I wonder if it’s possible to have faith like Abraham’s.
It is fully possible to give one’s intellectual assent to the list of revealed propositions that constitute the Catholic belief system; Catholics do so each time they recite the Creed at Liturgy. It is also possible to experience a personal relationship with God; every spiritual-but-not-religious person has this experience. Is it possible, however, to realize that there is nothing of greater value than relying on God?
Admittedly, there are many things that are quite reliable. Wealth, notoriety, and success can last a lifetime. The CDC’s competent guidance about avoiding contagious disease is very reliable. Family and friends can be very reliable. One’s health is reliable, until it isn’t.
There remains, however, only one thing that is so reliable that it heals and reconciles even the greatest losses and disappointments; it is the realization that one can rely fully on God alone.
As I mentioned above, the first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the consequences of sin. Humanity’s disobedience of God’s will led Adam and Eve to forfeit Paradise, Cain to commit murder, Noah’s contemporaries to engage in varied sins, and the Tower of Babel’s builders to fragment their society. If you are concerned about the on-going occurrence of such tragic events, you should take note of the Scripture’s perspective on sin and redemption. God’s Word says that all things can be healed and redeemed, if one comes to the realization that one’s only hope lies in God.