Our Imaginary Friend

Theology, a professor of mine used to say, can be defined as loving God with the mind.  This is a lovely idea, and one that commends the academic pursuit of a systematic way of engaging the various questions, mysteries, revelations and commandments of religion.  And while it is a very good thing to have people in seminaries and universities, and even in parish churches, attending to theological pursuits, the truth of the matter is that most of us are not too concerned with theology – and we are happy to know that someone else is doing it.  For many of us, theology is to our daily faith as the food from Le Bec Fin is to what we produce in our own kitchens.  There is a relationship between the two, even some of the same ingredients used; but one is a highly specialized and refined version of the other.

As it happens, the Christian faith does not have its roots in theology, as the story we hear today about Abraham reminds us.  The Lord said to Abram, “Go!”  So Abram went.  And when Abram gets to an oak at Moreh, the Lord appears to Abram and says, “To your descendants I will give this land.”  This was not an invitation to move in, (the Canaanites were already living there), so Abram marks the spot with an altar - a pile of stones – and keeps moving.  This is not an account of theology.  Abram, was not using his head – just ask his wife Sarai – he was not loving God with his mind.  He was doing what he was told, engaged in some kind of relationship with the Lord, who, in a few chapters from where we left off, will change Abram’s name and bring him into a covenant of promise.  Abraham’s faith is not born in his mind: it comes from an encounter with the living God.

Many modern critics of Christian faith would find this assessment of Abraham’s faith right on target – that it is mindless.  How could you build your faith on the kind of God who would call you up a mountain to kill your only son?  How could you think your way to faith in a God who would lead you through the desert without telling you where you are going?  How could you wrap your mind around a God who will allow his own people to be enslaved?  How can you love with your mind a God who allows holocausts, and cyclones, and earthquakes, and warfare?  How can you even think about a God whose supposed salvation is achieved by the death of an innocent man by crucifixion?  A mind, these critics might suggest to us, is a terrible thing to waste on a God such as this.

The most charitable of these critics must see Christians like a group of perpetual pre-adolescents, who have found in Jesus a very lovely imaginary friend, who looks particularly nice in stained glass pictures.  But when you grow up you cannot continue to love this imaginary friend.  Your mind rebels at the uselessness of it.  Your mind invites you into greater maturity: into the real world.  Your mind encourages you to consider the outlandishness of the claims, the impossibility of the miracles, not to mention the absolute mess that the church has made of this “faith” she professes to teach.  Your mind beckons you to a different kind of love – of this world and its many pleasures, its many things.  Your mind shows you its own magnificent power and suggests you should place your trust in that.  Your mind unmasks the foolishness of faith when you are a mere teenager – if you will only allow it to, if you will cast away your imaginary friend, if you are not afraid to do so.  

Any number of the most eloquent critics of faith these days are eager to point out that they saw through the foolishness of faith as mere children – so fragile is the gossamer curtain between reason and faith, even a child can see right through it.

Saint Paul, himself, describes the faith of Abraham as “hoping against hope” – a phrase we have come to understand expresses very long odds.

You know, of course, that our imaginary friend ate with tax collectors and sinners: a rather tawdry bunch.  This was a puzzlement to the Pharisees, who were learned of the law, and who themselves loved God with their minds.  “Those who are well have no need, of a physician,” Jesus said to them, “but those who are sick.”  

“Somebody around here sure is sick,” they must have thought.  “Sick in the head!”

And suddenly a leader of the synagogue runs to Jesus in desperation.  “My daughter has just died, but you lay your hand on her and she will live!”  His imagination is running wild.  He is not using his head.  He has lost it, poor man.

And now a woman, who has had chronic bleeding for twelve years, just wants to touch the hem of his garment, in the wild imagination that some magic power will flow from him to her.  She is not using her head.

Now he is at the ruler’s house.  The flute players are there – they have been hired by the undertakers, who know their business, know the difference between a dead girl and a sleeping child.  They laughed at him: they were using their heads.

Why this child, and not all the other children taken too soon from their parents?  Why that woman and her fibroids, and not all the other suffering souls who battle illness every day?  Why are these given such lavish gifts of healing?  And how can we even imagine that Jesus is our friend if he has passed us by?  What has become of the power that was to flow from him to us, even from the hem of his garment?  If we will just stop and think about this – if we will use our minds – will we not see that this faith of ours has been placed in an unreliable imaginary friend; that we are hoping against hope?

Theology – loving God with the mind – is a wonderful thing.  But it is not the first order of business in faith.  First we must encounter the living God, more or less face-to-face.  First we must come to know our imaginary friend, Jesus, and decide whether or not he is real.  First we must hear a call so simple even a child could hear it: “Go,” it might say, or, “Follow me.”  And first we must decide that we have enough imagination to go, or to follow where Jesus calls, even though he could be nothing more than an imaginary friend.

These stories of miracles, of healing, of dead children brought back to life; these friendships forged with tax collectors and sinners are not the building blocks of a systematic theology.  They are signs that point to the way of the Cross, which is a way of suffering and salvation, a way that is not left to the imagination.

And churches are built to house these signs, to configure them in such a way as to draw our attention to that Cross, and to see who it is who hangs there.  Churches are built so the signs can lead us to the table where our imaginary friend is given real form: his Body and his Blood really given for us, shared with everyone who will sit at his table, no matter how tawdry we may be.

God knows how challenging is the life of faith, he knows what it means to hope against hope.  Perhaps that’s why he so often kindles that faith in rather small groups: Abraham’s family, a group of twelve, a hundred or so in church.

First, God calls us into a living encounter with him.  He asks us to open our minds to the possibility that these signs do not point to an imaginary friend, but to the living Lord, his Son Jesus.  He does not promise an end to all our woes, a cure for every disease, an end to infant mortality, the calming of every storm, or the staying of every disaster.  What he promises is hope against hope.  Which is to say that in his time, by his hand, all things will be redeemed, all things made new, that there will be light where we see only darkness, and life where we see only death.

And he asks you and me to allow him to be our imaginary friend long enough to show us that he is alive in us and in the world.  He asks us to see if he does not lead us to places we could not have gone on our own.  He asks us to look for forgiveness we never thought we could find.  He asks us to trust that our lives are not just nasty, brutish and short, and finally headed nowhere.  He asks us to believe that despair can be transformed into joy, that the poor can be lifted up, that the hungry will be fed, that the meek will inherit the earth.  He asks us to be brave enough, faithful enough, hopeful enough to imagine the possibility of these unlikely promises.

And in time, he even asks us to love him with our minds – to try as hard as we can to wrap our minds around his many questions, mysteries, revelations, and commandments.  And to discover what a wonderful way this is to love him, too.

But first, he asks us to look at ourselves closely, to see what a tawdry bunch we are, to come, sit at his table, and get to know him and the hope he promises against hope.  

And we find that he has stepped out of our imaginations and into the real world, and he has opened our minds, and let us love.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 June 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 8, 2008 .