Belief

Christ is risen and forever lives
to challenge and to change
all whose lives are messed or mangled,
all who find religion strange.
Christ is risen. Christ is present,
making us what he has been;
Evidence of transformation
in which God is known and seen.

Music has a way of transporting us to new states of experience and alternative levels of thought. Yet, sometimes, it works in the inverse; music transports new states and ideas to us.

In church on Easter Sunday, we sang a hymn entitled “Christ Is Risen” by the Scottish minister and Iona community member John Bell. New to me, the hymn’s concluding verse seemed particularly poignant for an Eastern morning. I have included that verse above.

Because of their simple complexity, I think these lines deserve some quick consideration.

The opening line encapsulates a standard declaration appropriate to the day, reiterating the church’s historical attestation to Jesus’ resurrection to eternal life. While central to the faith, this declaration’s pairing with an expectation of practical impact upon our “messed and mangled” lives seems more novel. Often, when making such propositional claims like the one in the first line of this hymn’s final stanza, we do so in the abstract, like some objective fact out there located somewhere in ethereal infinity. Yet, here, Bell’s linking of the abstract with the practical transitions the declaration from a statement about the past to a promise for the present.

If these first three lines prove novel, I find the next line even more fascinating: “all who find religion strange.” I love this phrase because I, too, more often than not, count myself in the number of those who call religion strange. As someone who makes his living dedicated to studying, promoting, and practicing religion, it might seem odd that I would find religion strange. Yet, I do.

I particularly find religion strange when religion is understood, as it often is, as a series of declarations about certain truths concerning the nature of the Divine, life, and us. While certainly important, claims to ideas seem like a rather flimsy foundation upon which to rest one’s life. Those claims vary so significantly from denomination to denomination from creed to creed that our claims cease to possess much, if any, credibility. Facts and definitive assertions, it turns out, prove less reliable as the cornerstone for our faith or religion than we might hope.

Yet, if not facts and assertions, then what might serve as the foundational building blocks for the edifice we call faith or religion? The hymn seems to suggest a useful alternative by substituting one noun for another, i.e., replacing “what” with “who.”

The hymn does a wonderful service to religion, rescuing religion from the obscurity of abstraction and excessive variance and linking faith not with intellectual ascent but with our personal and collective action as an imitative exercise. Or, to paraphrase Will Willimon from his text Pastor, religion is not what we hold to be true but what we do.

While statements of faith are certainly important, the essence of the Gospel is not encapsulated in the content of declarative statements as much as the willingness to make a statement in the first place. As a certain kind of action, statements of faith remind us that for faith to be resuscitated from lifeless doctrine, faith must be seen as a kind of doing that emerges from and transforms our being.

Moreover, Bell understands that faith, again, is not found in abstract formulations but as an act of personal trust experienced and known between peoples and with God. As Bell asserts, God is made known and seen through our acting as agents of transformative change. This kind of knowing, again, is a kind of knowing connected with living life together, not as a type of intellectual but, rather, of personal familiarity. In other words, it is a biblical “knowing”—something known and experienced intimately, personally, socially, communally, deeply.

This kind of knowing affects our intellectual reasoning, certainly, but its source and substance are less the product of mental gymnastics as the outcome of the day-to-day habits of life shared and persons trusted and truth exercised and God pursued. In other words, the doing affects our knowing—as much if not more—than the inverse.

In this short stanza, Bell reminds us that faith is not a point of arrival at the end of proper intellectual ponderings but the starting point from which we launch a life shared in imitating love of the One pursued.

Travel well for the road ahead will not be easy, but, also, remember not to travel alone.

Peace.

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