When I was a kid, I never thought about hope. I felt so good about the future that I assumed everything would be fine and wonderful. But time has a way of opening our eyes and tearing down our illusions. In my early years of ministry, I was no longer so naïve. I saw the world more or less as it is, but this time, instead of a blind belief that things would be great, I chose to hope instead. I chose to believe (paraphrasing Dr. King) that despite any hardship we currently face, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, no matter how long it takes. There is a rebellious and subversive element to this idea. These very words speak hope into a world that that doesn’t seem to warrant it.
But the world isn’t content to let us have such hope. Trauma, pain, disappointment, and loss have a way of beating us down until we no longer feel like being subversive. At some point, like the Empire in Star Wars, life strikes back, and no amount of willpower will allow us to simply keep hoping against hope. We realize that the evils of this world won’t go away. Even if enough people believe in Jesus. Even if the right person becomes president or they install the right pope. Even if we cancel all debts, the economy is good, employment is down, and they renew our favorite TV show for another season. The world will never be simply fine and wonderful.
So, this is where I am.
The posture of subversive hope is hard to access. I no longer desire naïve assurance, and that’s hard to live with, at least for me. Yet there is still something inside of me that refuses to accept the status quo, even in my darkest moments when I fear things may never be OK.
My religious tradition is fraught with things I wish I could change or at least dissociate from. But one of the things I appreciate about it is the room to distinguish belief from faith. Belief is being confident that something exists. Such assurance is hard to come by in a postmodern age, where all beliefs get equal voice, and the foibles and failings of all religions are on display.
However, faith is different from belief. It invites us to action, not simply brain activity. Faith is acting as if something is true, whether we fully believe it or not. Faith has room for doubt, growth, trauma, and pain. Faith is what we do even when we stop believing, momentarily or chronically, because we are committed to it, even if we no longer know why.
It may sound odd and a bit foolish to act as if something is true, even if we don’t believe it. But here’s my secret. I have found that people lean into me much closer when I behave this way. I don’t insist on my beliefs. I question them, even change them, but I always try to be faithful to what I’ve learned.
For instance, I don’t know if Jesus is God or if the miracles were real, or if the Gospels are historically reliable. But I do know what Jesus has asked of me as a follower. He’s asked for humility, love, kindness, and grace. So, I doubt all the time, and my beliefs are in flux, but my faith—trying to act upon what Jesus asks of me—is intact.
What I find fascinating is that as I travel the world with this kind of faith, it works! I don’t mean more people come to church with me (although that has been true in some cases). I don’t mean more people convert to Jesus or stop cursing, smoking, sexing, or voting Republican. I mean that I see community forming. I see people getting healed. I see people opening up, sharing, overcoming past trauma. I see opposition to injustice and the powers that support it. I see people rising up and refusing to take part in the slow rot of unkindness.
My rejection of assurance, but acceptance of radical faith, has placed me in the path of these minor miracles quite often. I have almost come to cherish the pain and trauma that allowed me to finally arrive at this place.
When I act faithfully, despite my wavering belief—and it works—I find myself believing a bit more. And that, in turn, gives me hope.
Rev. Chad Presley is Pastor of Westside Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.