The Quixotic Nature of Faith

“I talk with Jesus everyday, just like this.”
“You mean physically? Like you’re talking to me now?”
“Yes, just like we’re talking now.”
“So…you see Jesus sitting there with you, just like you see and hear me here, now?”
“Yes, I do.”

This was a conversation I had as an undergraduate with a pretty, wholesome girl named Rachel who, like me, was studying Biblical Hebrew at the largest public university in my home state. Listening to her saying these things, I was like: Holy Shit, Rachel, you’re practically Moses from Exodus 33:11:

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (NRSV)

Now before you go dismissing Rachel as an obvious head case, let me assure you: she was no fool. Rachel was a very smart person who excelled in her studies and rocked Biblical Hebrew pretty thoroughly. When she made the claims to me detailed above, she was sincere and in earnest, as she was in most everything she said and did. Rachel presented the quintessential image of a humble person of sincere and deeply held faith, and I respected her for it. Which is why, when she told me she had real, out-loud conversations with Jesus Christ during which she saw and heard him as a physical person, I felt unnerved. Maybe what went wrong for me in prayer wasn’t failure to control my mental impulses or adverse reactions to normal, monkey-minded thoughts as they arise. Maybe I just lacked faith.

Another intelligent, studious friend of mine during those undergraduate years— let’s call him Bill—likewise gave me reason to view faith as something special, other, fundamentally not me. Now a professor of New Testament Studies in that exact same Religion Department at the state university where we both studied as undergrads (he earned his doctorate at Cambridge), Bill once confided in me that he didn’t use an alarm clock to get up in the morning.

“Oh,” I said, “so your body is just accustomed to a certain schedule? You just wake up at the same time everyday, like with an internal timer?”

“No,” he answered, “the Lord wakes me up when He needs me to get up. I trust in Him.”

I think my head exploded a little when Bill said that to me. I haven’t checked back with him now, after all these years, to see if the Cambridge Ph.D. and professor of Religion still doesn’t use an alarm clock because Jesus wakes him up in His own good time. But I do know that Bill remains a person of profound faith in the Gospel. It wouldn’t surprise me if he still relied on the Son of God to get him out of bed every morning.

Combine these two with a couple more examples, and you’ve got an airtight case for a kind of faith I totally lacked and still do. First, there was the girl I tutored in Greek who wore a wedding ring—on the wedding ring finger!—because she “was married to the Lord” until such time as she could find an earthly spouse and lose her precious virginity. Then there was the young woman I overheard bending the ear of my Hebrew professor after her Intro class one day. I overheard their conversation as I was walking in for my more advanced Hebrew class. The young woman approaches the professor and tells him, “I want to learn Hebrew because I want to travel to the Holy Land and talk to the people in their own language and ask them What is it about your Scriptures that you don’t understand?” The context and continuation of her conversation—hell, it was a monologue; the professor, Dr. W., only hmmed and grunted from time to time—made clear that she thought “the people” (read: Jews) of the Holy Land (read: Israel) didn’t understand that the Old Testament clearly prophesied and attested to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah and literal Son of God who had come to earth and died for all our sins and that, therefore, they should become Christians and not remain faithful Jews. Never mind that Biblical Hebrew and modern spoken Hebrew are vastly different languages, to the extent that mastery of the former provides little more than vocab assistance with the latter. So the pontificating undergrad’s self-avowed quest was more than a little quixotic from the get-go. Definitely a case of tilting at windmills.

But you should also know—and this misguided undergrad might have thought twice about her little speech had she known—that Dr. W. was a man who had been raised a Southern Baptist but who then went to earn his Ph.D. at a graduate school attached to a Reform Jewish seminary. In his time at that seminary, Dr. W. earned his doctorate, met and married the daughter of one of his professors, converted to Judaism, and became an ordained Rabbi as well as a Ph.D. Mind you, he wasn’t a very good Rabbi: he once confided in me that Judaism was just the religion he felt most comfortable with as pretty much a non-believer. He also admitted that, on one particular Yom Kippur—a traditional holy day of fasting and atonement for Jewish believers—he had been driving between two far-flung congregations where he was to perform services when he just had to stop for a bite to eat. His choice of cheat meal on that holiest of holy days? A bacon double cheeseburger! You read that right: a Jewish religious professional breaking the fast on the holiest day of the liturgical calendar only to violate two key laws of kashrut: no pork and no boiling the kid in its mother’s milk (i.e. no cheese or dairy at all with meat). Oh well, as a Reform Rabbi Dr. W. didn’t have to worry about keeping kosher, right? The point is: Dr. W. could have seen this misguided undergrad coming from a mile away. He had played both sides of the fence and ultimately chosen what his delusional interlocutor would have regarded as the wrong team. I could practically hear his eyeballs rolling so far up and back into his head, they were probably edging toward his “calcified pineal gland.”

Anyway, these two ladies, like my buddies Rachel and Bill, clearly believed—wholly, committedly (fit to be committed?), and more than a little misguidedly—in a way that I never would. And Thank God! is all I can think to say to that!

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