It’s easy to talk a good talk about faith. “Faith is belief in that which is unseen but still known,” we might say, or “faith gives my life meaning.” There’s nothing wrong with these statements, but they can direct us toward a pietistic, quietist approach to the world if we are not careful, distracting us from the need to build the Kingdom of God (or, perhaps better, God’s House) through our work for justice and peace. Talking faith is easy. What can each of us do to make sure we have a “walking faith?”
If I have a walking faith, it must be that describing my faith is not just describing what I “believe,” but rather, describing how my faith impacts me, and what I do in the world as a response to that faith. The thoughts below represent a kind of exercise in which I explore my faith as a “walking faith.” This exercise consists of four parts: saying something about the content of my faith, explaining what my faith offers me, considering what my faith demands of me (how I am called to respond to it), and attending to the question of how I keep my faith strong in difficult times. I encourage all justice-focused people of faith to examine our faith lives, and hope that this four-part exercise is helpful in freeing us, strengthening us, and in evoking delight, compassion and love more fully within us.
1. What is my faith? In what do I have faith?
Most simply, I have faith in God, particularly in the God described by Jesus: gracious, compassionate, welcoming, incredibly inclusive, freely loving, delighted by all that is Her creation. I have faith that this God is at work in us when we make decisions and take actions that are about loving ourselves, our neighbors and the Holy.
I have faith that God is bigger than human doubt, hate and fear. I have faith that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love unless we ourselves turn our backs on it, and that even then, God is at work in a hundred ways to turn us back around. I have faith that “repentance” is available to anyone who needs it, not because we are terrible people, but because there is always “more light,” more love and acceptance to be received. I have faith that God has the capacity to free us from our (self-) hatred and (self-) destructive tendencies, so that we may live in gratitude and build God’s House on earth.
I have faith that “all is well” in some ultimate sense, though that certainly doesn’t mean that there is not a great deal of work to do in the world to make manifest God’s House of justice and welcome for all. Rather, I take “all is well” to mean that God accepts us exactly as we are, and that such acceptance was demonstrated by the life and death of Jesus (and by the lives of other God-intoxicated people).
2. What does faith offer me, or provide for me?
Faith, at heart, offers me liberation — liberation from the bondage of my low self-esteem, shame, self-hatred, self-sabotaging behaviors and other manifestations of my own personal demons. Faith also, and no less importantly, offers me release from the bondage of worshipping the gods of conventional wisdom, money and “success,” and faith sustains me in my attempts to live morally rather than self-centeredly. While I would not (could not!) claim to be so liberated all the time, my faith has made a tremendous difference in affording me the opportunity to move forward in the face of my own doubt and other people’s hostility or indifference. This is true both in terms of my devalued statuses (such as my gender and bisexuality) and my privileged ones (such as my being white and middle-class).
My faith has thus enabled me to enhance the amount of energy that I devote to giving my best to the world. If God really loves me totally and completely, I might as well stop hating myself, and if God accepts me as I am, I might as well do my best to accept myself similarly. Contemplating these insights, I find peace, joy, freedom and strength. Called to help rather than driven to fear, I am free to go work and create and do my toiling in the fields out of joy, gratitude, service to others and similar motives that follow from my experience of God’s love. I don’t need to produce frantically in order to prove that I deserve to exist on the planet. I don’t need to own “beautiful” things or be a “beautiful” person. I just need to be myself, doing the best I can, but never failing to challenge myself to give a little more back to the world.
3. What does faith demand of me?
The most immediate demand, as I see it, is to give up relying on conventional wisdom or the things I have, and put my trust in God. This can be extremely difficult, as I (like everyone else who grew up in this society) have been deeply taught to rely on conventional wisdom (about how to live, what’s right, what’s wrong, who’s successful, who’s worthy). When God’s love contradicts that conventional wisdom (e.g., that the rich are no better than the poor, that compassion is always the better choice), I often fall short of the ideal response, but at least it frequently seems clear how I might follow it.
In concrete terms, I believe that God’s love calls me to work for justice, to own my privileges and to struggle to use them for good (and/or to repudiate them, if that seems feasible). This is the only meaningful way to go about making manifest God’s welcome to all people in a deeply unequal society. Thus is God’s house built: through justice-compassion work.
Another way to conceive of this work is that I am called to love God by loving my neighbor (that being whoever needs my help). Loving my neighbor involves attending to her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs, forgiving him his wrongs, being compassionate and being generous. Clearly, this is work that I will get only somewhat better at over my lifetime, but it is, nonetheless, the work that I believe is mine (and ours) to do.
4. How do I keep my faith strong in hard times?
This first thing that I must say here, if I am to be honest, is that I have had many “hard times.” I was raised to be an atheist, and so disbelief is far more “natural” to me, especially in periods of stress. Also, recent health difficulties after coming to my beliefs have severely tested my ability to trust in a generous, good and loving God. The atrocities of violence and inequality around the world, and in my own backyard, have made faith even harder. The corporate rich seem to increasingly win, while the rest of us are pushed into decisions that are far from the best for us, for our planet and for future generations. This sometimes leads me to feel as though there could not possibly be any greater being that cares about the well-being of the poor during their lives on Earth.
That said, I find that there are several ways to exercise my faith muscles ^ which are no different than physical muscles in their need for such “workouts.” Keeping my faith strong mostly involves prayer, sometimes simply as a cry for help, sometimes in combination with contemplation of the good work that people of faith – and others – have been able to accomplish. Particularly, I often find it helpful to think about Jesus, experience of God, his surrender into love, and his resulting ability to help other people in a similarly imperialist and otherwise unjust era. As such, Jesus is my main role model; when I need to find hope, surrender to God, and compassion within myself, Jesus, life is an important source.
Additionally, because I view the spiritual world as interwoven with the physical world, I conceive of my faith as being in that which is unseen, and which therefore is not demolished by the condition of the “seen.” Thousands of pages have been written on the philosophical and theological issue of how there can be a good, all-powerful God in a world as troubled as ours is. Blaming the “fallen” condition of humankind, it seems to me, is an excuse to accept the present violations of the human spirit, and fails to help us cherish our capacities and abilities to know and do the good. Therefore, my response to times of doubt is, as best as I can, to just keep going, and to accept the grace of good times with awe and gratitude. Like anyone, I need some evidence that it is worth not just giving up on faith, but perhaps I don’t need more evidence than is available on a daily basis.
This, then, is my “walking faith.” It walks me through every day of my life, even when I am least in touch with it, and it is one of the most important blessings that I have ever received. I pray that I may increasingly join it to the “walking faith” of others, that we may build God’s House in the world.
A hymnwriter, songwriter, composer, and writer who specializes in music and lyrics for liberal/progressive religious people and communities — including inclusive, social justice-minded Christians, Unitarian Universalists, and other open-hearted religious traditions — Amanda Udis-Kessler maintains the website Queer Sacred Music.