Let the faith argument continue

Sunday, November 28, 2010

At the risk of provoking some potentially unpleasant responses to this column, the TV show "House" has some intriguing theology in it. In a recent episode, the fictional Dr. Gregory House, a confirmed agnostic and brilliant physician, tells a patient who sees God in every circumstance, in every up and down of his treatment, that his thinking process is all wrong: "Punishment, no punishment, it's all God's doing, isn't it? What an interesting intellectual argument!" offers a scornful House. The patient responds well: "Faith is always an argument."

Exactly. Let's look at all of this anecdotally. Examples help. You get sick. Maybe you contributed to the onset of illness by the lifestyle you've chosen. I know a man who has emphysema. He blames no one for this and certainly not God. He's smoked unfiltered cigarettes since he was a teenager. Urged for years to stop, he continued to smoke because it brought him pleasure and release. After his diagnosis, he accepted the news with equanimity. On the other hand, I know another man who seemingly did everything right. Watched his weight, avoided alcohol, eschewed tobacco, stayed away from fatty foods. When diabetes claimed both his legs, he was heard to ask, "Why did I eat all those salads for? It didn't matter anyway!"

Both men are active church laypeople. Their illnesses found them for different reasons. Friend No. 1 seemed to chase his malady; friend No. 2 did all he knew trying to avoid his. They ended up in similar places physically. Diminished and disappointed, neither man abandoned faith. Why not? Isn't faith supposed to be some sort of protective bubble, a religious shield to keep out suffering and hurt? This is Dr. House's challenge. House views faith the way Karl Marx did -- as a willing delusion, as an opiate to keep the masses controlled and content.

If this life is all there is, if we're not all headed somewhere else, if these periods of years are not preparation for another existence, then Dr. House's scornful point might be well-taken. But faith takes a larger view. It steps back and permits the notion that something cosmically great and sweeping is happening beyond our comprehension.

God the Father allows trials to enter our lives. I admit that. God does not stop what he could stop. Did you ever pause and consider that your personal "trouble" might be God's way of giving someone else an opportunity to minister to you with love and compassion? (I can just see Dr. House rolling his eyes at that suggestion.)

I asked Joshua Kezer why he thinks God let him languish for 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. If God's aim was to redeem him, then could God not have done this work in a year or five years? Why 16? Why so long? Kezer's answer is illuminating. It took so long, he told me, because there are other people involved. It wasn't just about the injustice done to him. When the time was right for everybody, then God acted to bring his release. You don't get to that conclusion with what the New Testament calls a "natural" mind. You get there with a consciousness turned by Christ.

People of faith are fools to Dr. House. To him, we operate under a massive and persistent delusion. Faith, he would tell us, is easier than accepting the bleak truth of existence. Faith, by contrast, says House has a narrow, earthbound view. Faith is always an argument. On this Thanksgiving weekend, let the argument continue.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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