I have been intrigued by the recent attacks on religion by the so-called new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. My wife Susan, aware of my interest, recently brought to my attention a book entitled, I Don't Believe in Atheists, by Chris Hedges (New York: Free Press, 2008) while we were browsing through a bookstore. Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for the New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Explanatory Reporting for the New York Times coverage of global terrorism.
Hedges critiques the narrow-minded mindset of religious fundamentalists as well as new atheists, arguing that the radical agendas of both groups promote a utopian form of faith that is inimical to democracy. While reading through the first chapter, I came across an astonishing claim (Hedges, 10):
The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists; it comes from those, who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species. Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. . . We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history.
Is such an understanding of human nature – limited, flawed, and "irredeemable" (Hedges, 24) – a fair assessment? Is the testimony of history simply one of tragedy and conspicuous human sinfulness? (Hedges, 13-16; 113-118). Looking back at history, should Hedges not have found evidence of the transformative realities of God's kingdom shaping Christian communities to enact the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? Should he not have found evidence of the dawning of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), in which a cosmic transformation is underway, creating gracious and loving communities that call others to repentance and baptism, reach out to the poor and oppressed, and prophetically challenge the social injustices of the day? In short, should he not have found communities that have manifested the fruits of the Spirit? (Gal. 5:22-23); communities that have "crucified [the Greek is plural] the flesh with its passions and desires"? (Gal. 5:24). These are the astonishing claims of the New Testament.
Steadfast Faithfulness: a Fruit of the Spirit
Our lesson this week is on faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). The Greek word for faithfulness (pistis) in Galatians 5:22 denotes "someone in whom confidence can be placed, faithfulness, reliability, fidelity, and commitment" (Walter Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. [Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000], 818).
The lesson illustrates faithfulness by highlighting the faithfulness of God (Ps. 89); the need for believers to steadfastly endure until the end (Parable of the Bridesmaids, Mat. 25); and the persevering fidelity of the ancient exemplars who "lived by faith" (Heb. 11). I'd like to focus our reflections on the meaning of faithfulness through the "Hall of Faith" chapter of Hebrews 11.
If Hedges were to read through the Israelite history of the ancient heroes of Hebrews 11, he would doubtless note that Abel was murdered; Noah got drunk and lay naked in his tent; Abraham lied about his wife Sarah; like his father, Isaac lied about his wife Rebekah; Jacob was a deceiver; Moses was a murderer; the people of Israel continually grumbled and murmured; Gideon was a doubter; and David was an adulterer and murderer — all, Hedges presumably would argue, in their own way, members of "a hall of flawed people."
A contemporary example of such a notion of humanity is William Munny (Clint Eastwood), an apt poster child for Hedges, of the film Unforgiven. Munny was a notorious outlaw who indiscriminately killed women and children – anybody – for the sheer sport of it. He claims however that his wife Claudia, recently deceased, has "cured him"; when his past is alluded to in the film, he repeatedly declares, "I ain't like that no more." Nonetheless, with his hog farming not going well, economic necessity tempts him to collect part of a $1,000 bounty from the prostitutes in a brothel, who have posted the bounty because one of their number has been wronged by a few cowboys. In the end, William Munny's old violent self comes roaring back and he kills countless men and vows to return and kill "everyone" in the town of Big Whiskey if his partner Ned is not given a proper burial and the prostitutes are not treated with dignity and respect. So much for Munny being cured by his wife and his ostensible moral advancement . . . (Unforgiven may well be a meditation on the viability of Paul's bold claim, "seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" [Col. 3:9b-10 RSV; cf. Eph. 4:22-24].)
For Hedges, the checkered history of humanity is clear attestation to the corruption and irredeemability of human nature. Is he right about the human condition?
Not according to the author of Hebrews. When the author looks at the same Israelite history, he sees something entirely different. What exactly does he see that would likely escape Hedges? The author perceives flawed individuals who lived according to a striking belief: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1 RSV). William Lane (Hebrews 9 – 13, Word Bible Commentary, vol. 47B [Dallas: Word Books], 394) nicely explicates this definition of faith:
Faith is characterized as a quality of response to God that celebrates the reality of promised blessings and the objective certainty of events announced but as yet unseen . . . The eschatological, forward-looking character of faith invests the realm of objective hopes and promises with solidity. It is the property of faith to render hope secure. The writer finds in faith a substantiation of hopes as yet unrealized and events as yet unseen . . . By conferring upon objects of hope the force of present realities, faith enables the people of God to enjoy the full certainty of their future realization [italics mine]
The great cloud of witnesses (12:1) were so utterly assured and convicted of the faithfulness of God and his future promises (4:1-3; 10:23, 36; 11:16) that those unrealized promises and unseen eschatological events were just as real to them as their own empirical lives.
Are you serious?! No wonder educated pagans were baffled by the "willingness of Jews and Christians to suffer for the undemonstrable" (Lane, 316). And suffer they did; according to Hebrews 11, some experienced dramatic deliverances from various dangers and death (11:32-35a); others steadfastly endured torture, imprisonment, stoning, persecution, and violent death (11:35b-38).
The Letter to the Hebrews was written to a community of believers that was experiencing suffering for their commitment to Christ (10:32-35; 12:3-13); which was “dull in understanding” and spiritually immature, in need of milk not solid food (5:11-13); which was discouraged, exhibiting “drooping hands and weak knees” (12:12); which was disheartened and no longer meeting with the church (10:25); which was “being tested” (2:18) and tempted from turning away from their commitment (12:16-17; cf. 6:4-8; 10:24-29) as a way to relieve some of the oppressive measures brought upon them.
To people in such a precarious social setting, the author of Hebrews crafts a brilliant homily that underscores the finality of salvation achieved by Jesus Christ. Through numerous warnings and exhortations, the author urges, encourages and exhorts his audience to recognize the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ, and to remain resolutely faithful, for the will of God is that "my righteous one will live by faith" (10:38). The literary unit of Hebrews 11 plays a significant role in the homily, for its models of faithfulness are potent paradigms of how one ought to live in one's pilgrimage to the heavenly country (11:13-16).
What does it mean for us?
There is something perplexing and surreal about the vibrant portrait of faith sketched in Hebrews 11. How is it possible to have a faith that makes unrealized promises and undisclosed eschatological events just as real as my own empirical life? How can the author say that "faith is the reality [a legitimate translation of the Greek word hupostasis] of things hoped for"? This does not seem possible. Indeed, it is not humanly possible. Faithfulness, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit.
The December 7, 2009 issue of Time magazine called the decade of the 2000's "The Decade from Hell." The U.S. endured two market crashes, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the decade; the terrorist attack of 9/11; Hurricane Katrina; wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Many of us have been impacted by these events and have gone through experiences of hardship, suffering, and brokenness. Seasons of discouragement, anxiety, and depression have been the lot of far too many.
As we continue the pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland, keenly aware that we are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" (Heb. 11:13), who eagerly await "the Day" of Christ's second coming (9:28; 10:25, 37), may our lives be characterized by persevering faith, always striving to imitatio Christi. By imitating Christ, we walk in the footsteps of the preeminent paradigm of faithfulness; for Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted" (12:2-3 RSV).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2165