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Trinity + 13: Faith

21 August 2005
Exodus 1.8 - 2.10, Matthew 16.13-20, Psalm 124 Only because of the Lord

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 2:1

Paul the apostle famously found his faith in a blinding light on the road to Damascus, but most of us cannot claim anything so dramatic. Some days, the most any of us can manage is Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief. Mark 9:24

Matthew Arnold expressed his despair in 'Dover Beach'

The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full and round earth's shore, lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.

Noel Coward said Life without Faith is an arid business but Faith, an unswerving unshakeable faith, is sometimes difficult to find:

Our technological civilization has cushioned life on all sides, yet more than ever before, people helplessly succumb to the blows of life. This is very simply because a merely technological culture cannot give any help in the face of life's eternal tragedy; here only an inward foundation can help. Externalized as they are, too many people today have no ideas, no strength, nothing that might enable them to master their restlessness and dividedness. They do not know what to make of trials, obstacles, or suffering-how to make something constructive of them-and perceive them only as things that oppress and irritate them and interfere with life. F W Foerster, 'The Cushioned Life'

But here the French come to the rescue, in the shape of Blaise Pascal.
You have to bet. It is not voluntary- you are already embarked [on life's voyage].
And not to bet that God exists is to bet that he does not exist. Which side will you choose? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in opting for the side that God exists. If you win, you win everything. If you lose, you lose nothing. So you should wager without hesitation that he exists. I tell you that you will also win in this life; and that at every step you take along the way you will see so much certitude of winning, and so much and so much nothingness in what you are hazarding that you will know in the end that you have bet in favour of something certain and infinite. 'Pensées' #54

I told a Turkish friend about Pascal once, and she was deeply shocked at what she regarded as such a cynical reason for having faith in God. But Christianity allows us to use our reason as well as our emotion, and I think Pascal, whose faith was deep and genuine and who also said:

Be comforted. You would not be seeking God if you had not already found Him, was just trying to talk to the most logical people on earth in a language they could understand.

Tolstoy said:
We have one infallible guide, and only one: the Universal Spirit which inspires each and all of us, implanting in every individual a yearning for what ought to be - the same spirit which causes the tree to aspire towards the sun, which causes the flower to shed its seeds in autumn and which impels us instinctively to draw closer together.
Lucerne, 1857

Wordsworth speaks of:
one in whom persuasion and belief had ripened into faith, and faith become a passionate intuition 'The Excursion' Book IV, line 1293

In the end, we have to be prepared to make a leap of faith.

Did Jesus live? And did he really say
The burning words that banish mortal fear?...
Between the probable and the proved there yawns
A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
Our only hope: to leap into the word
That opens up the shattered universe.
Sheldon Vanauken, 'A Severe Mercy'1

Professor Vanauken was a friend of C S Lewis, who describes how he finally took this leap:
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed... I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought or great emotion. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. 'Surprised by Joy'

We started this thought with our bad days, when our faith wobbles. But let us not forget our good days, when we can echo with feeling the words of Job,9:25 set so marvellously to music in Handel's Messiah that I challenge you to say them without your spine tingling:
'I Know that My Redeemer Liveth!'

Lord, you lead us by ways we do not know, through joy and sorrow, through victory and defeat, beyond our understanding. Give us faith to see your guiding hand in all things; that being neither lifted up by seeming success, nor cast down by seeming failure, we may press forward wherever you lead, to the glory of your name.
Eric Milner-White and G W Briggs


1 I am unfortunately unable to quote the poem in full for reasons of copyright but you can read it if you follow the hyperlink.

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