My daughter has had a difficult time understanding Lent this year. She was all about pancakes and beads on Mardi Gras, but was disappointed that Ash Wednesday was more solemn and faith oriented. The lack of an outward expression to grasp hold of was something she had a hard time wrapping her mind around. But it's hard to explain faith to a kindergartener, and, for that matter, it's hard to grasp as an adult. We are so conditioned in our modern post-enlightenment world to assume that everything around us must be scientific and objective that we lose sight of the fact that we are subjective creatures immersed in mystery at all times.
Take the Bible for instance. For most of Christian history, people didn't try to place it under a microscope like we do now. That's a very recent development. So these days we see passages like Lazarus rising from the dead and we either scoff at the supernatural elements, or use historical criticism to dismiss any possibility of them ever happening, or we insist on biblical literalism and that one must believe in the historicity of the text. But those approaches don't reflect what true faith is about. The Bible isn't just a book of facts giving us a snapshot of past events that we have to swallow whole. It's a story of God that we are invited to enter into and be transformed by. We are narrative creatures living in unfolding time; our lives come from somewhere and are going somewhere. We inhabit the same world as the authors of scripture and so can enter into that narrative and be transformed by it. The text isn't totalitarian, forcing us to believe scientifically; it is a story that we enter into. We enter this story and are able to embody its eschatological end which is always leading to Jesus. The point is less about whether or not stuff really happened, but rather, whether or not we are allowing our story to be overtaken by God's story and our lives to be overtaken by that grace.
It's a stance that breaks down the Enlightenment spawned dichotomy of faith-versus-reason. Those things aren't pitted against each other, but work together to bring us ever closer to a God that is constantly revealing Godself to us. God created us to be in relationship with God -- our purpose is to ever love and praise God. This is part of what it means to enter into the narrative of scripture and become part of the story of the work of Jesus in the world. It's not about following faith or reason; it is about embracing who we were created to be -- which includes both our faith and reason. Treating God or the scriptures like a lab experiment misses the point -- such things are not mere pieces in a puzzle that we need to figure out and then statically place in the correct place once we have all the answers. They are transformative glimmers of a story that is given to us as a gift -- a story that we have the privilege of living out. It is this story that shapes the community called the church. The church doesn't exist to tell us dogmatically what to do and believe. It is a place where this story unfolds with a polyphony of voices. This pluralism of voices will necessarily cause conflict, but because we are narrative creatures always moving towards God, the point is not to ever impose a false unity on this community. The church, while at times has to take stands, shouldn't tell people that they are expected to believe in some static way, but instead must invite the community with the full humanity of their faith and reason intact to be in constant dialogue as we move forward in this story of following Christ
If we stop pitting reason against faith, the triune God becomes less a problem to be solved and more a relationship to experience. Mystery and a relationship grounded in love are not fantasies, no matter what our modern world has conditioned us to believe. We cannot put love inside a test tube and objectively declare it to be true -- that is not the purpose of love. We love to be transformed, to be part of a story that is greater than ourselves. We were created for love, and to live into that story we need to stop selling ourselves short by forcing ourselves to be people of faith or people of science. Embracing our full humanity changes the lens through which we see the world, encounter the scriptures, and understand how a triune relational God reveals Godself to us. Our faith isn't a discredited tradition from simpler times; it is a reminder that there is a greater story being told that invites the whole of who we are to step into an eternal drama.
We don't unthinkingly observe Lent or smear ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday because we have to, or because someone tells us we must in order to be a good Christian. We do it to remind ourselves of the story we are a part of and the eschatological end we are living towards.
My daughter might not see yet the intensity of the invitation to join in on that story -- pancakes and beads hold more power in the moment -- but to me these ashes are charged with eternal significance that pulls me ever closer in relationship with a dynamic God. And that is what faith is about.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices(IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.