Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Genesis 12:1-4
Thus begins a long journey for a man and for civilization. It is difficult to comprehend that on orders from an unseen and often unheard spirit-voice in time, in history, that a man would pack up his family and set out for an unknown destination. All this at age 75 no less! And yet, because Abram and his wife Sarai (later to be renamed Abraham and Sarah) departed from Haran, so much that we take for granted in this world is here. We are here. We are here contemplating, meditating on just what this story, this journey, might mean. As creatures made imago Dei, in the image of God, we seek meaning.
This journey eventually comes to represent what is meant by faith. Faith - a word that is both revered by many and ridiculed by many. As if there is anyone who does not live by faith.
Abram and Sarai are living a comfortable suburban existence in Ur of the Chaldes, when God says, “Children go where I send thee.” Remarkably, they do! Little could they know they would reach a new homeland. Little did they know they would have a child at ages 100 and 90! Little did they know their names would become Abraham and Sarah. Little did they know that their journey would eventually lead to a young man named Jesus carrying on the tradition of faith as a journey with God. Little did they know that through Isaac and Ishmael they would be the matriarch and patriarch of three “faiths”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
This is where it all begins. The very notion that the life of faith is a journey, directed by God’s Spirit/Wind, taking us from we know not when and to take us to we know not where, begins with Sarah and Abraham.
All of which is why, as Frederick Beuchner reminds us in his little book, Wishful Thinking (Harper and Row, NY:1973), “Faith is better understood as a verb than a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure of where you’re going but going anyway - a journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith….doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (p.25, p.20)
Faith is a verb, a process, not a possession. Despite years, decades, centuries of assertions, one cannot “have” faith. This is where we go wrong. We live by faith. All of us. It is the essence of what it means to be alive. We are all traveling on a journey from where we came from to where we are going. Whether or not you understand that starting point to be God or a Big Bang, it turns out that in at least one respect the Bible is right: we are dust and we return to dust. We are fundamentally animated, reorganized, photosynthesized dust. This realization ought to bring us to some sense of humility – grounded, of the earth, as the word humility derives by turns its meaning from the Latin humus, or earth.
Gustave Mahler sought to “create a world” in each of his symphonies. I have been listening to his third symphony for several years during Lent. It has been a journey, a process, an on-again-off-again affair. One might say that I have had faith that one day I might understand it, or get it. It is a massive work – six movements, two of which are as long as some complete symphonies! When one sets out to listen to the Mahler 3, one, like Sarai and Abram, commits to a journey. One accepts that it is going to take time, and that you do not really know where you are going to end up.
Life is like that. Science is like that. Faith is like that. Whether our faith is in God, Science or that we have no faith, we are all traveling together on a journey of which the end-point is uncertain. Now that theoretical and astrophysicists have determined that fully 95% of the universe (universes?) are currently undetectable by human senses many have become aware that the long perceived differences between faith and science have been erased. The objectivism of Ayn Rand which is built upon the foundation of sensory perception collapses as the mysteries of the universe stretch out before us on a journey that seeks to comprehend where we come from and where we are going. It is really quite simple. We are dust and to dust we shall return.
Mahler leads us on this same journey not so much with words, though he does incorporate words into his music, but rather with the mystery of vibrations. Music is sound, a series of vibrations organized in ways that speak to our inner selves in ways that we may never “understand” but nevertheless ways that “speak” to us of the essence of what it means to be alive. Music demands a kind of humility for it is composed of basic elements and properties of the same kind that lead the mostly hidden universe to continue to expand – that is, the universe of scientific inquiry is itself on a journey – or at least we take our understanding of this remarkable discovery on faith.
Mahler himself seems to have been uncertain just what his symphony was “about” – as if it must have an inherent meaning. He wrote and re-wrote descriptions like, “The first movement is in two parts: Pan awakens and Summer marches in.” Later he changed that to, “What the stony mountains tell me and Summer marches in.” He once called it A Midsummer’s Day Dream, and then declared that the best overall title might be “Pan” since that one word has two meanings: the name of a Greek god, and in Greek it means “all.” All those arranged vibrations seeking to open up to the listener the content and meaning of “all.” He discarded all such descriptions when he published the symphony.
While listening to the Mahler 3 this past week I read poems by Wendell Berry from a collection titled Leavings (Counterpoint, Berkeley: 2010). From one of his Sabbath Poems 2007, no. VI :
Listen privately, silently, to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it also be lighted by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
you see the likeness of other people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
In a very real sense, the music of Mahler, the words of Berry, the theories of science, the way of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all begin with a 75 year-old man and his wife leaving on a journey by faith, of faith, initiated by a voice from without that speaks to the person within. The voice itself an organized series of vibrations emanating from primal light, eventuating in primal dust, dust that can detect and interpret those vibrations to somehow make sense of where we are, who we are, and why we are here. Invariably it must instill a sense of humility. When that humility is lost is when tragedy begins, not only for those other people in other places who are like ourselves, but to the very fabric of the earth itself, and all that is therein. Pan. All. The rest is silence. Listen privately, silently, to the voices that rise up…