One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast. There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do: believe in impossible things.
I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence. Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance. The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”
Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith. Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.
A few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades. For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.
Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction: distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.
What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience? Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart. When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble. We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads. We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score. We have never had proofs. We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.
Mother Teresa was a witness. Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away. “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness. In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights. Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them. Far more convincing is the sight of “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.
Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things. The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway. And that makes all the difference.