“If I can learn, so can you”

Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter

When I was serving as a priest in the Free Episcopal Church, my bishop had a wonderful saying that I continue to carry with me in life: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”  I love that.

I love that saying because it so beautifully messes with our society’s cultural assumptions about what it means to have faith.  To the modern mind, having faith means possessing absolute certainty about a set of ideas, even if you can’t prove those ideas to be true.  If faith really does equal certainty, then a person of faith would necessarily have to be like the character Horshack on the old sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter: “Oh! Oh! Oh!  I know the answer!”

If faith is all about certainty and knowing the answer, then the voice of faith becomes just one more voice, shouting above the noise of every other political ideology and commercial product that claims absolute certainty for itself about the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.  If having faith really is just about being certain, then the church is just another Horshack, shouting from the back of the classroom: “Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  I know the answer!”

But I don’t believe that’s true.  I don’t believe that faith is just another voice, trying to shout over the crowd in the marketplace of ideas.  Furthermore, I don’t believe that faith has anything do with certainty at all.  If anything, I believe that absolute certainty is the exact opposite of faith.  If you’re absolutely certain about your faith, then there’s no stretch that your intuition or imagination has to make.  In order for faith to be authentic, our hearts have to be free to make that leap of trust into the unknown.  We have to come to that healthy and humble point of being able to honestly say, “I don’t know.”

The modern world doesn’t like those words: “I don’t know.”  The modern world wants certainty, but our ancestors in the pre-modern world (ancient and medieval) were much more comfortable with not knowing the answers when it comes to the mystery of existence.  Ancient theologians and philosophers taught their students that, if they truly wanted to understand the meaning of God, then they always had to keep their minds in motion.  Anytime they settled on an idea and claimed to have the final answer, they were told to keep looking, because any answer that a human being could fully understand was obviously not the whole truth about God.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian, claims to present five proofs of the existence of God.  But if you read his five arguments, you’ll walk away frustrated and disappointed because he brings his readers to the point of accepting the need for an explanation of the origins and orderliness of the universe, but then he just stops cold in his tracks.  Aquinas leaves his readers on the brink of a precipice, peering into the dark abyss of the unknown, wondering what might be out there.  He never actually goes so far as to prove, once and for all, that God exists.

This, it would seem, is the stance of faith for the ancient and pre-modern spiritual masters: the stance of openness and reverence toward the great mystery of existence in the universe.  This kind of faith is not a faith that claims to know all answers with absolute certainty.  This faith is a leap of faith, made by a mind in motion.  In today’s gospel reading, we can see that kind of faith in Jesus himself and in the Syrophoenician woman he meets in the city of Tyre.

At this point in the gospel story, Jesus is traveling through foreign territory.  As a Jew in the city of Tyre, he was “a stranger in a strange land”, a fish out of water for sure.  The text itself doesn’t say exactly what business brought Jesus to that city, but it does say that, for whatever reason, he was trying to lie low while he was there.  But, unfortunately for Jesus, word got out that he was in town and someone in need came to see him.

This woman was not Jewish.  She came from a different race and religion than Jesus.  On top of that, she was a woman speaking up for herself.  In the patriarchal world of the ancient Middle East, this was not the norm.  She may have been a widow with no surviving male relatives to act as her official mouthpiece in public.  Whatever the reason, the fact that she was making a scene remains the same.  A non-Jewish woman was confronting a Jewish man in public.  This would have been the scandal of the week in the city of Tyre.  If they’d had tabloids and paparazzi back then, this would have been on the front page.

But you see, she didn’t care about that.  She was desperate.  The text of Mark’s gospel tells us that her daughter had “an unclean spirit”, but it doesn’t tell us exactly what that means.  In the ancient world before the advent of modern medicine, mental and neurological illnesses like epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and schizophrenia were often misdiagnosed as demonic possession.  This might have been one of those cases.  On the other hand, it’s not entirely inconceivable that there really was something happening to this little girl on a supernatural level.  Jesus and his fellow Jews in the first century CE would have had no problem whatsoever with that idea.

A first century Jew would have been especially unsurprised to hear of demonic activity in a city full of pagans, like Tyre.  “Of course she has an unclean spirit,” a typical Palestinian Jew would have said, “All these people in this city have unclean spirits, on account of their bowing down to false gods and idols!”

At first, Jesus seems to concur with that party line.  He refuses to help her because she is not Jewish.  He says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Dogs?  That’s a little harsh, even for Jesus.  No one would have blamed her for storming off, offended, but that’s not what she does.  This woman is desperate and she believes that Jesus is the only one who can help her.  Her love for her daughter leads her to stand up and ride roughshod over the sacred barriers that separated people of different genders, races, and religions in that society.  Here, at the end of her proverbial rope, she throws all caution to the wind and takes matters into her own hands.  I like to imagine that she got up off her knees, looked Jesus right in the eye, and put a finger in his face when she said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I wish the text of Mark’s gospel had described the look on Jesus’ face when she did that.  But we don’t get that luxury.  In the text, Jesus responds to her boldness by saying, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  There is a TV movie on the life of Jesus that came out about 13 years ago.  This scene from today’s gospel reading appears in that film.  The screenwriter takes some liberties with the text and embellishes the point being made with additional dialogue from Jesus.  In the movie, Jesus turns around and says to his disciples, “This woman has taught me that my message is for [all people, not just the Jews].  If I can learn, so can you.”

I love that idea.  Jesus, far from being a distant and static object of worship, is an intimate and dynamic presence in our lives.  The Spirit of Christ grows within us as Christians in every generation are called to speak the truth in love to an ever-changing world.  The needs of the world today are different than they were two thousand years ago.  We are called to follow where Christ is leading us today, not where Christ led our ancestors five hundred years ago.  Let me give you one example: just a few decades ago, the idea of racial integration would have sounded ludicrous.  But today, none of us would want to worship in a church that had “Whites Only” printed on the marquee outside.  The fact that we would now find that offensive and unacceptable is a sign of the Holy Spirit working and growing within us, leading us into new levels of truth that our ancestors weren’t yet ready to hear.  What new truths is the Spirit leading you into today?  What ancient barriers of close-minded prejudice is Christ tearing down in this generation?  When our children and grandchildren grow up and look back at this era of history, will they be proud of us for taking risks and standing up for what we thought was right?  Will they see evidence of Christ growing in our hearts?

I certainly hope so.  I hope we leave them a legacy that they can run with.  I hope that same Spirit will grow in them and lead them to follow Christ in ways that make me feel uncomfortable.  I pray today that your faith in the growing Christ will lead you out of the static realms of certainty and across the established borders of this world and up to the brink of the precipice where you too can gaze with reverence and humility into the darkness of the unknown abyss, defying every humanly-constructed ideology, confessing with scandalous honesty the creed openness before the mystery of existence: “I don’t know the answer.”