Did you have one of those mothers who could sew a costume for you? Make you look like a bunny or a bear or even a tomato, with leaves coming out of your head? I did not. My mother could sit down before breakfast and sew a button back on without anyone being late for school, but that is all she did in terms of sewing (unless cross-stitch counts).
So when our Cub Scout Pack sponsored a costume contest, she and I were at a disadvantage. My friend Steve had already found a Zorro hat, complete with hanging red balls, and his mom had sewn him a black cape. He planned to draw on a black mustache. What chance did I have?
My mom suggested that I go as a robot because a robot costume did not require sewing. A big fan of the ’60s television series “Lost in Space,” I decided that my mom was a genius. We wrapped a large box in aluminum foil, with knobs for controls, and were going to do the same for my arms and legs. Aluminum-covered shoeboxes would be my feet. But what about my robot’s head?
Mom suggested that I ride my bike down to the Dairy Queen and ask Clara for a gallon-size ice cream bucket. I insisted that she send money with me, in case I had to pay for it. I rode off with 50 cents in my pocket.
Faith faces an obstacle more basic than lack of proof: It is our inability to picture what God is like.
I clearly did not explain myself at the window because Clara said that a gallon of ice cream would cost $1.87. It was the first time in my life that I had tried to purchase something on my own without enough money to pay for it. I was so embarrassed! I said, “Thank you.” My eyes filled with tears, and I jumped on my bike, pedaling away as fast as I could.
Can you remember the moment in childhood when you first learned that most everything outside your own home had to be paid for? Maybe not, because it is a lesson that comes very early in life. It is also one that explains why we have such difficulty in understanding who God is and how God relates to us.
Yes, we have the bromide that the best things in life are free, but—let’s be honest—things like abundant natural resources, basic human rights and even love and affection have a way of following the money. Ask the people in Flint, Mich., about water. If you live in a low-income area, you know that your rights before the law are not the same as those who live in more prosperous zip codes. And, granted, money cannot buy you love, but it does purchase access to happier hunting grounds.
Who would make sunshine, flowers, rainbows, puppies and babies without expecting anything in return?
When it comes to belief in God, most people frame the question as one of evidence: Is there adequate proof that God exists? But faith faces an obstacle more basic than that: It is our inability to picture what God is like. We cannot envision an actor, a giver, who gives so anonymously as to preclude our own recognition and repayment. Who would make sunshine, flowers, rainbows, puppies and babies without expecting anything in return? The idea of a giver who gives so copiously yet retreats so completely makes no sense to us.
Yet that is exactly what our faith tells us about God. God created a world that by all appearances can stand so free of God that we are perfectly free to doubt God’s very existence. Put another way, the origin of our world is not just an unmoved mover. Our world is a gift from a giver unlike any other, one who withdraws so completely as to make our repayment of the gift an impossibility.
Our universal law of quid pro quo also illumines St. Thomas’s doubt. Jesus preached that God was a loving, merciful Father, one who “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Look where that got him! Do not tell Thomas that he is back from the dead. Jesus would not be dead if he had been right about the way the world worked, if it was anything like the description that he had given of his Father’s kingdom.
Each spring, as first holy Communions come around, we speak of Jesus giving his very self to us under the outward forms of bread and wine. Again, the fundamental flaw is not explanation. It is imagination. Deeper than our incapacity to understand how this can happen is our inability even to comprehend a goodness that simply gives itself away. It does not correspond to the way our world works. Yet that is precisely what the church proclaims. How do we put our faith in something so utterly foreign to own experience?
The Book of Acts tells us that
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common (4:32).
We suspect that cannot possibly be true. But even if there were exceptions, which Acts itself records, isn’t it possible that the first great insight into God acquired by the nascent church was that the best things in life are free because the best thing in life is the one thing so universal and so free that it is quite hard even to see: God, the giver who stands behind the gift of the world? Ask yourself: If you really believed that God gave us the world and his only Son, wouldn’t your own economic choices look very different?
The real presence, the resurrection, mercy for the asking and the world as gift: It all sounds much too good to be true.
First holy Communion, the real presence, the resurrection, mercy for the asking and the world as gift: It all sounds much too good to be true, and that is what deeply irks us. It is the utter foreignness of the faith—what one might call, our faith in the free—not its lack of compelling explanation.
Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 Jn 5:4-5).
My mom drove me down to the Dairy Queen and had me repose my question. Clara gave me an empty bucket, free of charge. Fifty years later, and my friend Steve still laments his loss. I won the contest!
Hard to believe? Why? Really, ask yourself, why? Because I cannot prove it, or because it does not correspond to what you expect of the world?
Readings: Acts 4:32-45 1 John 5:1-6 John 20:19-31