Saturday, November 23, 2013

I Believe I Can Fly?

Unless you believe, you will not understand (cf. Is 7:9). The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint translation produced in Alexandria, gives the above rendering of the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz. In this way, the issue of the knowledge of truth became central to faith. The Hebrew text, though, reads differently; the prophet says to the king: "If you will not believe, you shall not be established". Here there is a play on words, based on two forms of the verb ’amān: "you will believe" (ta’amînû) and "you shall be established" (tē’āmēnû).

Terrified by the might of his enemies, the king seeks the security that an alliance with the great Assyrian empire can offer. The prophet tells him instead to trust completely in the solid and steadfast rock which is the God of Israel. Because God is trustworthy, it is reasonable to have faith in him, to stand fast on his word. He is the same God that Isaiah will later call, twice in one verse, the God who is Amen, "the God of truth" (cf. Is 65:16), the enduring foundation of covenant fidelity.

It might seem that the Greek version of the Bible, by translating "be established" as "understand", profoundly altered the meaning of the text by moving away from the biblical notion of trust in God towards a Greek notion of intellectual understanding. Yet this translation, while certainly reflecting a dialogue with Hellenistic culture, is not alien to the underlying spirit of the Hebrew text. The firm foundation that Isaiah promises to the king is indeed grounded in an understanding of God’s activity and the unity which he gives to human life and to the history of his people. The prophet challenges the king, and us, to understand the Lord’s ways, seeing in God’s faithfulness the wise plan which governs the ages.

Saint Augustine took up this synthesis of the ideas of "understanding" and "being established" in his Confessions when he spoke of the truth on which one may rely in order to stand fast: "Then I shall be cast and set firm in the mould of your truth". From the context we know that Augustine was concerned to show that this trustworthy truth of God is, as the Bible makes clear, his own faithful presence throughout history, his ability to hold together times and ages, and to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.
Lumen Fidei 23

Reflection – This is a bit of a longer paragraph to have in one go, but it couldn’t really be split up and still have much to say to us. My reflections will be correspondingly shorter.

‘Just believe’: in countless cheesy movies there is the great inspirational scene where the hero is about to give up and has to be given a pep talk either from the love interest or the wise older mentor. And of course he (it’s almost always a he) is enjoined to ‘just believe’ and somehow this wise counsel motivates him to go out and win the big game/destroy the alien fleet/make a killing on the stock market/beat up the school bully. Just believing, the very act of faith, seems to be adequate to get the job done, in the universe of cheesy movies anyhow.

To which my question is ‘believe what?’ Believe in… little green men? The healing power of crystals? Lucky numbers? One’s own self? Any old belief will do? Faith emerges in this as a mere psychological trick—the power of positive thinking!—the ‘secret’ which somehow taps into hidden spiritual or human energies to make everything go our way.

It seems to me that if I have faith that gravity doesn’t apply to me, and walk off the ledge of the nearest tall building, I’ll be let in on a secret, all right. 'I believe I can fly - I believe I can touch the sky'. Not. And if I truly place my faith in anything that is simply not so, I’ll be let down in some similar fashion, perhaps not as immediately and directly, but certainly as painfully in the long run.

We believe in God, not because ‘believing’ is some kind of mind trick to get what we want out of life, but because God is true. We believe in God, and take our stand on Him, because to stand on God is to stand on the solid ground of the cosmos and not some shaky shifting soil of unreliable half truths and errors.

We believe in God and place our whole life in his care because that is the only way to live, really, the only path of life there is, ultimately the only path at all. The Year of Faith, wrapping up tomorrow, doesn’t just bid us put our faith randomly in whatever pleases us, but to build our life on the solid ground of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the good soil in which the saints rooted their lives, and the firm foundation on which the imposing edifice of the Church has arisen in human history.

It’s a simple affair—read the Gospel and apply to your concrete life today—but in the face of the Assyrian invaders or whatever dangers and threats you and I face next, it takes courage and prayer to do this. But this is what it means to ‘just believe’, and to build our life on a firm foundation that will see us through all dangers and evils. So… let’s do that today, best we can.

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