Many of Jesus’ disciples… said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’
Commenting on John’s gospel, St John Chrysostom (347 AD – 407) wrote, "When questioning about the ‘how’ comes in, unbelief comes in with it." What then? Is faith not capable of standing up to careful scrutiny? Defenders of faith usually make a defiant claim that it is, while unbelievers stand by an equally defiant no.
I have a friend who is a karate expert. I once asked him how he could smash a concrete block with his forehead without injuring himself. “I can do it because I don't doubt,” he replied immediately. A doubt, a hesitation, a shadow of fear: these are all forms of withdrawal, he said. When part of your mind is withdrawing while the other part is trying to push ahead, there is an inner civil war and consequent self-defeat. It is not the concrete block that defeats you, but you yourself. If you were to quote John Chrysostom’s saying to such a man, he would probably nod his head in agreement.
Faith is more like karate than it is like a philosophy. (There is more to it than this, but I am saying this for the purpose of comparison only.) It is often treated in academic circles, even by its defenders, as a kind of weak philosophy, an imprecise theory of everything. But it is first and foremost a manner of living. Jesus had little time for explanations. When Nicodemus asked him how a grown man could be born again, he didn’t say, “Let me explain it to you.” He said “Unless one is born again...” (John 3:5). And when asked how he could give his body as food, he provided no explanation; again he simply said, “Unless you eat...” (John 6:53). In each case he just placed the mystery there once again.
Does this mean that we stiffen up when people ask for an explanation of some matter in the faith? (They are quite entitled to explanations of church policy!) No, explanations are fascinating; we have to follow them in order to see the point where they fail. They are at their best at the very point of failure; that is where they really have something to teach us. They are a little like koans in Zen. But don't attempt to do theology without faith – you could hurt your head!
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