Leo (2). 'If You Can'. The Meaning of Faith

Mark 9:14-29
As they were coming down the mountain Jesus sternly charged them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the son of man should rise from the dead. They kept his words to themselves, but they discussed among themselves what this ‘rising from the dead’ could mean. They began to question him. ‘Why do the legal experts say that Elijah must come first?’ they asked. Jesus said to them, ‘Elijah does come first and is putting everything straight. But why do the scriptures say that the son of man must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? I’m telling you, Elijah has indeed come, and they’ve done to him all that they wanted, just as it has been written of him.’ 

                When they reached the other disciples they noticed that they were arguing with some legal experts, surrounded by a huge crowd. As soon as the crowd caught sight of Jesus they were amazed and they ran towards him and began to greet him. He said to them, ‘What are you arguing with them about?’ One of the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you because he has a spirit of dumbness, and whenever it seizes him it throws him down and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth, and he’s wasting away. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they weren’t powerful enough.’ He answered them, ‘O faithless generation! How long must I put up with you? Bring him here!’ They brought him, and when the spirit saw him it immediately threw the lad into convulsions. He fell to the ground and was rolling about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been going on?’ He replied, ‘Since he was a little child. Many times it has thrown him into the fire and into the water in order to destroy him. If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! Everything is possible to someone who has faith!’ Straightaway, the boy’s father cried out, “I do have faith! Help my lack of faith!’

        When Jesus noticed that a crowd was bearing upon them, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, ‘Deaf and dumb spirit, I order you to come out of him, and never enter him again!’ With a shriek, the spirit sent the lad into terrible convulsions, and came out. The young man looked as if he was dead, but Jesus, taking him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. When they went into a house, the disciples asked him privately, ‘Why weren’t we able to cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Nobody can cast out this kind except by prayer.’

Children's Story: The Doctor’s Diagnosis

A man was in bed, very sick. He had not eaten or spoken for two days, and his wife thought the end was near, so she called in the doctor.

            The doctor gave the old man a very thorough physical examination. He looked at his tongue, lifted his eyelids to examine his eyes, listened to his chest through his stethoscope, tested his reflexes by hitting his knee with a little hammer, felt his pulse, looked in his ears, and took his temperature. Finally, he pulled the bed sheet over the man’s head, and pronounced, in sombre tones, ‘I’m afraid your husband has been dead for two days.’

            At that moment, the old man pulled back the sheet, lifted his head slightly, and whispered anxiously, ‘No, my dear, I’m still alive!’

            The man’s wife pushed his head back down again, covered him once more with the bed sheet, and snapped, ‘Be quiet! Who asked you? The doctor is an expert, he ought to know!’


This sermon was delivered on 19th August 2007

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.
(William Blake)

Say what you like about the Internet, but when you want information quickly it’s often there at your fingertips. In preparing this sermon I wanted a copy of The Penny Catechism – the little booklet that most Catholics over the age of fifty would have had to learn by heart – but it’s not readily available these days, so I put my request into Google, and within seconds – 2.4 seconds to be exact – there was The Penny Catechism up on my screen. I couldn’t have accessed it more quickly if I’d gone to my bookcase to fetch it!
            I was after the Catholic definition of ‘faith’, which I still vaguely remember from my own hours spent with the Catechism, but which I wanted to get right. It comes early on, at question nine:
            Question:  ‘What is faith?’
Answer: ‘Faith is a supernatural gift of God, which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.’
A couple of questions on it asks: ‘How are you to know what God has revealed?’ And the answer is: ‘I am to know what God has revealed by the testimony, teaching and authority of the Catholic Church.’
And then: ‘What are the chief things which God has revealed?’
Answer: ‘The chief things which God has revealed are contained in the Apostles' Creed.’
 The Apostles’ Creed follows. You probably know how it goes: ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.....’
            I wanted this definition of faith because faith is a central concept of the zodiacal sign Leo which, I believe, has inspired the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are currently considering. The astrological writer Charles Carter says that, ‘If the keynote of the sign Cancer is “I fear”, the keynote of Leo is “I have faith”’. In fact, Faith is a central concept in all three of the so-called ‘Fire’ signs of the zodiac, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and with good reason: ‘Fire’ is the Element which represents enthusiasm, energy, vigour, zest, power, individuality, all of which are bound up with what the Gospel of Mark means by faith.
            But there is no trace of any of these things in the Catholic Church’s definition. In the Catechism, faith is about believing certain propositions – propositions which have been ‘revealed’ to us by God and delivered to us by the authority of the Catholic Church. This is how most of us have been schooled to understand faith, and why the definition given years ago by Mark Twain that ‘faith is believing what you know isn’t true’ is not too far wide of the mark. ‘Losing’ our faith is simply ceasing to accept that these propositions have any correspondence with the truth, or any relevance to life.
            For many Protestants, who talk about being ‘saved by faith’, ‘faith’ means accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and trusting that he has paid the price of sin. If one firmly believes this, they say, one is ‘saved’, that is, destined for heaven.
            But neither the Catholic nor the Protestant definition of faith comes even close to what Jesus meant by the word. In the story of the Cure of the Deaf Boy, which we heard earlier, Jesus rebukes his apostles for their lack of faith, and the boy’s father exclaims, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief!’ Is Jesus telling the apostles off because they don’t believe the propositions of the Apostles’ Creed? Is the boy’s father asking for help in accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour? Hardly. A moment’s consideration will show that this cannot be the case. For Jesus, faith is not about metaphysical propositions which one has to sacrifice one’s reasoning powers in order to accept. Faith is an attitude to life, a positive attitude, grounded in a strong sense of our immense powers as human beings, which we can have – or not have – regardless of the contents of our supposed metaphysical belief system. Faith is what gets you out of bed in the morning; it’s what keeps you struggling on in the face of life’s vicissitudes and disappointments. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, both of which are perfectly reasonable intellectual responses to speculative theological statements: it is apathy, cynicism, an overwhelming sense of futility and pointlessness, a feeling of being a helpless pawn in the mindless drift of an indifferent universe.
            Nowhere in literature is this attitude to life more succinctly or more chillingly expressed than in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth may well have claimed that he ‘believed’ the contents of the Apostles’ Creed, but his nihilistic observation shows that he has no faith at all.
            Although Macbeth’s brand of ‘faithlessness’ has been around since the dawn of time, it seems to be on the increase in our own day, fed by influential schools of contemporary thought – philosophy, biology, psychology, genetics - which casually strip us of our personal autonomy, telling us we are simply objects in a world of objects, accidents of cosmology and history, our actions and our attitudes determined by circumstances beyond our control. I remember, many years ago, when I was a student in York, attending a lecture by a professor of psychology, at which we were told, quite blithely and with no sense of regret in her voice, that we were completely at the mercy of our genes and our environment, with the environment having the bigger influence. ‘There is no freedom of the will at all,’ she said. ‘Freedom of the will is pure fiction.’
            I wondered then, and I wonder still, what such teaching does to our sense of moral responsibility, to our sense of right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and bad, honourable and despicable. Is there any room in such a system of thought for praise or blame, approval or censure? Strangely, although I have met many people who would say that they go along with such opinions, none of them has shown the slightest inclination to curb his or her tendency to criticise volubly those who have wronged them, or to heap praise on those who do them favours. Certain Marxist thinkers, who talk of human beings as pawns of history or economics, never seem tired of using the language of moral censure on people who are simply responding, so some Marxists would have us believe, as psychological, sociological and economic laws dictate. Nor is such an attitude restricted to secular philosophies. Religions often preach a type of fatalism which renders us powerless in the face of some deity’s whims and diktats. So, to some Muslims, Allah has written the script and we are simply acting the parts allotted; to Christians of the Calvinist persuasion, the end of history is known in advance, and God has already separated the saved from the damned, so there’s not much point in any kind of moral striving. All of which cuts clean across that deep sense we have of ourselves as moral beings with the power of choice – however limited such a power might be. We may laugh at the woman in the story I told the children, who believed the expert rather than her experience, but how different are we? My experiences of life may teach me that I am being with some degree of moral autonomy, but the university professor tells me I don’t have any, so I must believe her. I may base my daily life on the assumption that people around me are making decisions for which they can be applauded or censured, but the intellectually respectable Mr Grim Faced Determinist tells me that they are just acting as they must, As a consequence, faith in my own limited but real autonomy is eroded, and gradually replaced with a feeling of impotence in the face of cosmic inevitability.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning – one of the most important spiritual books of the 20th century – psychiatrist Viktor Frankl considers the effects of such faithlessness on his fellow inmates in Auschwitz. Frankl puts it quite starkly: those without faith died first. He does not mean that those without religious belief died. Religious and non-religious people suffered in the same degree. He means that those who could see no
purpose in their lives died quickly. Those who could perceive no meaning in their existence, no point to their experiences, gave in most readily. Such ‘purpose’ need not involve what we might call ultimate, transcendent purpose. He isn’t talking about abstract or overarching meaning, such as might be given by certain kinds of religious conviction; he is talking about the specific meaning that life might have at any given moment. Quoting Nietzsche, he says that ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how’. Faith, for Frankl, is the why of life. The why will differ with the individual, but without it we will find ourselves in despair, regardless of our level of prosperity. Many people, says Frankl, ‘have enough to live by, but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning’. Or, as the Book of Proverbs has it, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
            Frankl’s experiences in Auschwitz taught him that human beings, far from being the playthings of circumstances, have the potential to attain and express what he calls a ‘spiritual freedom’ which cannot be taken away, and which alone can make life purposeful and meaningful. He writes:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of his endowment and environment – he
has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.... man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

 And this is precisely the lesson of the story of the Deaf Boy in Mark’s Gospel: we are greater than we think. Jesus and his disciples have come down from the mount of Transfiguration, the mountain on which the innate divinity of the human person is graphically described. Coming down from the mountain represents coming down to earth, encountering real life once again. And what does he encounter? A man who is begging help for his troubled son. Remember the principle upon which my interpretation of all these miracle stories is based: that the physical ailments from which the gospel characters are suffering are metaphors of universal human spiritual conditions. This boy is deaf and dumb, and from birth onwards he has been thrown into the fire or into the water, unable to determine for himself the course of his existence, buffeted here and there by a force which overwhelms him. He has no voice, no power, no control. The boy’s father asks if Jesus can help, and Jesus replies, ‘Don’t ask what I can do, ask what you can do! Everything is possible to one who has faith!’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Everything is possible to one who accepts his own innate power as a child of God.’  And Jesus cures the lad. Jesus represents that power within each of us which enables us to transcend those confining shackles, what William Blake calls ‘mind forg’d manacles’, false ideas about our nature and our abilities which shut our ears to the call our innate divinity, and which keep our aspirations paltry, and make us slaves to fashion and circumstance. Changing our attitudes, having faith in ourselves and in all human beings, may not cure our physical ailments – to think this is, in my view, to misread the story – but it will transform our personal psychic universe, and help us to create that transfigured world for which we all long.
            The Face to Faith column in yesterday’s Guardian (18th August 2007) dealt with this very theme. Its author Canon Andrew Clitherow, says that such a faith is actually a prerequisite of a genuinely mature faith in God.

However, while religion often tells you to have faith in God first and then to know your place in his scheme of things, developing a faith in human nature today actually precedes having an authentic faith in God. Then as we unearth the divine potential in cosmic existence, we can take increasing responsibility for ourselves and the universe in a creative and loving way.

One final point: ‘the divine potential in cosmic existence’, the transforming power of the Christ within, has to be discovered. The kind of demon that was afflicting the young boy – that is, the demon which convinces the individual that he or she is a plaything of circumstances – cannot be driven out, merely by wishing it away, or by begging someone else to take it from us. ‘Only prayer will do it,’ says Jesus. By which he means that we must pay assiduous attention to our spiritual practice, if we are to develop the kind of faith which will transform the individual and help to transform the world.

My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from



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