Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Moonshot" faith Fede come sparare alla luna

Very often when we talk about faith, we talk about it as though what is being required of us is some sort of, what I call a ‘moonshot’ – ‘You must believe, you must fire off a rocket at the moon, whether it’s there or not, and if you don’t you’ll go to hell’. This is the ‘moonshot’ picture of faith – it presupposes that one is a blob with a will, a desire, in here, and there is the moon, which is God, and one must somehow shoot off a rocket, saying ‘I believe I believe, yes, yes, I believe’, shut one’s eyes very hard, cross my heart and hope to die. But it’s amazing how this understanding of faith leaves us open to what’s basically a form of emotional blackmail – because that’s what it is, it is a form of emotional blackmail. But this is not the traditional understanding of the gift of faith. The traditional understanding of the gift of faith takes it for granted that rather than us being ‘blobs’ who have to produce ‘arrows’, on the contrary, we are people who are built up by what is other than us over time, very slowly, and habitually. We are called into being by what is other than us, at the level of parents, society, friends, education, political structures, whatever.

But the presupposition behind the Catholic understanding of faith is not, ‘this is a demand that you make a moonshot for the unprovable’, but on the contrary, that someone has come into our midst in order to try and make it possible for us to do something. To believe; to overcome our susceptibility, our scandal.

You don’t have to win, because someone else has already won’. The truth is already beginning to become available. The life of faith in that sense is a learning how to relax better, rather than a learning how to win battles.


Just to show that this is not a one-off, and how easy it is for us to get this entirely the wrong way round, remember this – when we think about optimism, pessimism, hope:

There were some present at that time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No: but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No: but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.

And how easily, in our first hearing of something like that, don’t we think, ‘ooh – he’s telling us we must behave’. Rather than: ‘ooh – he’s pushing us into re-imagining’. Because of course, what the people who had come to tell him about the Galileans were saying – they were full of excitement: there was a fight going on. Pilate’s men had massacred some people who Jews tended to regard – or some of the Jews at the time tended to regard – as slightly heretical Jews, because they did their sacrifices elsewhere. ‘Don’t you think that this is a sign, that maybe the end is coming?’. But Jesus says – he gives a completely secular answer: ‘If you think like that, then you will perish like that. If you think in such tit-for-tat terms, you will perish like that. You’ll be locked into tit for tat with each other, and you will be unable to imagine what God is really like, and what God is really bringing about. You, who think of yourself as good because you have Jerusalem, look at those Galileans – but didn’t a tower fall down in Jerusalem? Weren’t the inhabitants of Jerusalem just as innocent, or guilty, as those Galileans? But I tell you, if you think like that, if you imagine like that, you will likewise perish’.

And then he told them this parable. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. And he said to the vine-dresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground?’ And he – that’s the vine-dresser – said: ‘Let it alone sir, this year also, ‘til I dig about it and put on manure, and if it bears fruit next year, well and good. But if not, you can cut it down’”.

And hearing that parable, how many of us imagine that the one who owned the vineyard is God, and this vine-dresser is a wimp? When in fact the parable is exactly the reverse: because the owner who comes to the vineyard, is a dunderhead if he thinks that a vineyard and fruit trees produce fruit after three years. As any Middle-Eastern horticulturalist will tell you, these start to produce fruit in the fourth year, and in the fourth year you have to pay the tithes of them, to redeem the first fruits. And then in the fifth year, is when you start to get really good produce. So this is not a story about God as the landowner, and a wimp as his vine-dresser; this is a story about humans trying to foreclose, with their dumb imagination – turning up before things are ready, demanding to see the fruit, when, as any A-Level biology student – or first-grade biology student – could have told them, coming after three years is a little bit early if you want a fruit tree. So that actually, the voice of God in this story is not the landowner, but the vine-dresser, who’s saying, ‘err, don’t be impatient – this vineyard, creation, it’s a small thing, of my own; be patient, allow me to put manure, allow me to produce the fruit at the right time; don’t foreclose. If of course no fruit at all gets produced, then you can cut it down’. Of course, the vine-dresser knows, because he’s in the business of producing the fruit, when it will come. The arduous good demands a healthy imagination that is able to inhabit time and space gracefully, to imagine that things are not in our control and don’t need to be foreclosed by us.


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