7 Oct 2007
“And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” (Luke 17:5) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
This is Columbus Day weekend and I’ll bet nobody even gives a thought to poor ol’ Columbus. Here’s a guy who goes looking for shorter way to the Orient so that it will be cheaper to bring spices into Europe, and instead he runs smack dab into the fringes of some obscure continent. Sure that continent was discovered by wandering tribes of hunters during the last Ice Age when they crossed over from Siberia, later Scandinavian explores may have come upon it too, but Columbus is a Renaissance explorer. Europe is just emerging from the Dark Ages. The knowledge and science of the past had been lost. Ignorance was rampant. People thought that if you sailed too far to the west you would simply fall off the edge of a flat earth.
And why did they think this way? All they had to do was look up into the night sky and see the curved shadow that was blocking out the sun’s light on the moon and realize that the earth wasn’t flat. There’s a picture of the earth right there on the moon most every night. The Greeks figured that out thousands of years earlier, and before them there were the Babylonians and Egyptians. But these old Europeans were afraid to study the world because it might conflict with their faith. Job talked about the “corners of the earth” (37:3), they said. Isaiah spoke of the “four corners of the earth,” (11:12), and even the New Testament’s last book makes a couple of references to those same “four corners” (7:1; 20:8). Well, if you have corners, they argued, then you have a flat service, not a round one. Now I don’t think Job, Isaiah or John were intending to offer scientific data in their passing remarks, but some of their readers thought they were. So they blocked out all of the other information surrounding them. They thought that the only way their faith and their Bible could survive were through ignorance. They chose to remain in the dark because they didn’t think their religion could handle the light.
But good ol’ Columbus got on his ship anyway and sailed west, farther west than anyone else of his day and age thought possible. I’ve never read anything about it, but what did all those “four-corner” prophets have to say when Columbus sailed back home? They were trying to protect their religion by separating faith from knowledge. They thought the two were mutually exclusive. What I think they really thought was that knowledge was stronger than their faith, and so they tried to isolate their faith from it. They didn’t think faith was up to the challenge of knowledge. Their intentions may have been decent, but they were trying to protect a pretty sad, weak, timid idea of faith. I don’t think they really gave faith much credit, as a matter of fact.
And there are still people today who are afraid for their faith, who imagine that it can’t stand up toe-to-toe with knowledge. There are people still today who read the Bible in isolation from all other wisdom. This, I don’t think, is a mark of a strong confident faith, but of a scared one. They just convicted Warren Jeffs, as an example, out in Utah who was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was convicted as an accomplice to child rape because he was arranging polygamous, incestuous marriages among his followers, and often times the brides would be mere children. His people called him a prophet, but for him to be a prophet they had to live in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. Discontent and disagreement were judged to be the work of the devil. This prophet of theirs had predicted the end of the world four times. Again, just like those “four-corner” prophets during the time of Columbus, how did he answer his people when the day-after-the-supposed-end-of-the-world arrived, and yet everything was the same as it was the day before? There has to be an extreme disconnect between experience and faith, between thinking and faith.
In today’s Gospel selection, the apostles turn to Jesus and ask Him to increase their faith. Jesus answers in reply that if they had faith even the size of a mustard seed that they could order a tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea. Now I don’t know of any apostle who was able to pull that off, and I don’t think we’d fare any better. We can take the exact same test on our way home from church today. If anyone’s successful, make sure and give me a call. But if there aren’t any trees growing out in the ocean tomorrow, then what does that imply about our faith? Does this then mean that we and apostles failed Jesus’ test and have no faith? Or do we have to admit that the Bible allows for interpretation, that the Bible actually needs knowledge and wisdom for it to open up as a book of faith so that only then can we understand what God is saying to us? Can we realize that it’s not literally about uprooting trees, but that it’s a statement about our faith-commitment in general?
Somehow the ones who read the Bible literally have managed to claim that they are the only protectors of God’s Word no matter that they can’t even pass their own test of transplanting a tree into the sea. They often speak out rather loudly against the idea of biblical interpretation and of any new achievement of human knowledge because such things, they say, are opposed to the old ways of God. But if the puny thoughts of the human mind can threaten the truth of God’s Word, then maybe we’ve underestimated its depth, beauty and vibrancy. Maybe as people of faith we need to be more like Columbus than the old “four-corner” prophets. It’s written in today’s Lesson: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power … Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord.” (2 Tim. 1:7, 8) Faith shouldn’t have to retreat into sanctuaries and closed off communities to talk about God. We need to take religion out into the world, not the world out of religion. Faith can talk to science, and psychology, and history, and evolution, and hold its own. Faith is a spirit of power not of cowardice. So let us pray that apostles’ prayer: “Lord, ‘Increase our faith,’” but let’s also pray for knowledge, wisdom and open-mindedness. And for these things we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)