Faith & Disillusionment (Reflection on Mt. 17.14-21)

I’ve had it on my heart for a while now to challenge myself — especially in this time of unemployment when I have too much time on my hands — to write more, daily if possible, and to centre this writing on the Gospels of the day. There are lots of reasons for this. It now seems pretty certain that I’ve entered a time of renewed faith, and I think it would be helpful for me to spend time again reflecting on the Scriptures in an intentional way that isn’t determined by the whims of my mind. Also, as one of the biggest problems in long-term job hunting is staying in good head space, I figure this exercise will help keep me focused on good and needful things rather than my fears and anxieties. At least that’s the hope. I’m not going to be legalistic with myself about this — I’m sure I won’t sustain doing it daily, and if there is something more interesting to me in one of the other daily readings, I’ll be happy to reflect on those instead, but this is the goal I’ve set out for myself.

So naturally, the first Gospel reading I encounter in this little project is one of my most hated episodes in the life of Jesus. In this story, Jesus comes down from the mountain where he was transfigured and finds that his disciples have been unable to cast a demon out of an epileptic boy. He chastises them for their lack of faith and tells them that anything is possible with faith: even moving mountains on command. This is a story that has occasioned a lot of sadness and guilt over the past two thousand years. Most Christians will try to do things and fail, often things they only attempt in the first place because they have faith that God will help them. (In fact, of late, entire movements have been founded which revolve around the belief that all things — physical or emotional healing, the acquisition of wealth and power, etc. — not only can but will be granted by God if only the believer has enough faith.) The depression and disillusionment they suffer when things go sideways — especially in light of Jesus’ admonition in this story — is profound. This is true whether we’re talking about big or small things. Jesus’ admonition that all things are possible with faith runs counter to our lived experience in the world. What are we to make of this?

I’ve been doing a quick refresher lately on the Hebrew Scriptures, which are a large and diverse group of writings that represent several hundred years of the Israelite/Jewish community’s collective memory and theological reflection. These writings contain founding stories which are taken to be normative for the community (e.g., the Exodus, the Covenant and Torah, and the royal and priestly centrality of Jerusalem), but they also — especially as time goes on and history doesn’t work out as (apparently) promised — contain deep reflections of disorientation and disillusionment. The simple quid pro quo of Deuteronomy had to be reassessed in light of the realities of Exile and a bitter-sweet and incomplete national restoration. The certainty of Proverbs required a more critical and ambivalent response in Ecclesiastes. Psalms recollecting God’s triumphs on behalf of his people had in time to be balanced with Lamentation. But crucially, in these works, the response to disillusionment is not cynicism and skepticism, but a renewed faith, a kind of second naivete, an intentional reaffirmation of faith in spite of life’s harsh realities. Even if, as Walter Bruegemann points out, history “happens first of all in tears that are long and salty, that yield only late, very late, to hope,” it is hope and not tears that marks the end of the story.

This doesn’t help us understand what exactly Jesus was getting at in today’s Gospel, but it does provide a window into how we can understand our discomfort with it. Even if our circumstances and experiences leave us disappointed and disillusioned with God and with faith, we still have the choice to come at faith again. Our world faces what seems like insurmountable problems: our social, economic, political, and environmental systems all feel on the verge of collapse. We as individuals and as communities of faith have been sad participants in these crises, and our faith feels small and powerless against the immovable mountains of greed,  heartlessness, complacency and fear. But we have a choice now as ever: whether to give in to our disillusionment and become paralyzed by despair, or to take comfort and hope in the difficult words of Jesus, that faith even as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.

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