Book extract: "Humbler Faith, Bigger God - Finding a Story to Live By" by Sam Wells

Sam Wells, in "Humbler Faith, Bigger God - Finding a Story to Live By", explores the value of belief and in this extract - the importance of trust: 

And so to trust. Ballet is a form of performance dance whose roots are in fourteenth-century Italy. Over the centuries it has become globally recognized and has formed the foundations of many other kinds of dance. It became shaped by French terminology and technique after Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France in 1547. The heart of ballet and the center of every dancer’s training lies in the five positions in which it is standard to place one’s feet on the floor. First position means pointing the feet flat, touching and turned out; second position is the same, with the feet twelve inches apart; in third position the feet are placed adjacent but in opposite directions with the toe of each touching the arch of the other; fourth position is the same, with one foot twelve inches in front of the other; and fifth position, which is the really difficult one, is similar to third position, but with the two feet entirely overlapping one another. If you can do all five positions, you’re well on the way to being trained in ballet. The point, of course, is not to know what the positions are but to reproduce them as second nature.

When you first come into contact with Christianity, it can feel a lot like ballet. Not because its practitioners are lithe, talented, and dis- ciplined, or because the result is melodious and beautiful, but because there’s a lot of technical jargon, much of it in a foreign language; be- cause people seem to be passionate about it and have never got time or vocabulary to explain why; and because it hits you somewhere so deep and so visceral that quite quickly it starts to shape the way you think, and move, and live.

When you read the absorbing roll call of people of faith in Hebrews chapter 11, it’s like being inducted into a hall of fame—a catalogue of the great ballet dancers since 1400. It makes faith exotic, be- cause it involves conquering kingdoms, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, escaping the edge of the sword, being stoned to death, and being sawn in two. But it can give the misleading impression that faith is for superheroes. In fact, the opposite is the case. Like a ballet teacher, I want to walk through the five steps of faith, to explore what it means to join what we could call God’s dance.

First position is, there’s a reality that’s deeper, truer, and more permanent than this one. Before about three hundred years ago, this was a largely uncontroversial assumption. So much of life was unex- plained, everyone took for granted that it was controlled by unseen forces. But in recent centuries the chain of cause and effect has linked so much of the known universe that it’s become tempting to think it can gobble up everything. When we use the phrase “people of faith,” this sense of a beyond is pretty much the only thing all such people can agree on. Of course, a lot of people don’t share this conviction. It’s pretty much impossible to prove or disprove. But even ardent atheists in practice often operate out of an aspiration to see beyond appearances, take life further than face value, and live in the light of eternity rather than simply the realm of the five senses. This is the appeal of profound music, love, beauty, poetry: it reaches something beyond mere life. When it’s considered an end in itself, it tends these days to take the name “spiritual but not religious.”

Second position is, that deeper reality is a personal being who has a single overarching purpose—to be in relationship with us. This is a large step from the first one, and quickly dismantles the rather fanciful idea that people of faith all fundamentally believe the same thing. For Christians, first position doesn’t count for much: true faith begins here. Here lies the reason for creation, the sense of a story with advances and setbacks, and a possible ending, when that relationship is completed, celebrated, and enjoyed forever. Here also, more poi- gnantly, emerges a context for love. After all, you can’t love a deeper reality; you can only love one with whom it’s possible for you to be in relationship. This is a vision you can shape your life around.

Third position goes a step further again. That personal being, who constitutes that deeper reality and has that single purpose, is funda- mentally shaped to be with us in human form in Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew who dwelt among us, showed forth his glory, died as an outcast, and rose again. This may seem to many a breathtaking leap. Interestingly the Gospels, which you’d think would have an interest in taking us gently through first and second position and breaking the news when we were in the right mood to hear it, actually skip first and second position and come right in here. The first words of Mark’s Gospel are “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” No messing around there. The resurrection isn’t an optional epilogue to the Gospels: the Gospels are accounts, written for those who know about and trust in the resurrection, of who this person was and how he came to be crucified. The resurrection is the central moment when our past is redeemed and our future made eternal.

Fourth position maintains that in Jesus we can see the foundation of a new community with God, with one another and with the new creation. The resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit are a declaration of God’s faith in the world, because if we were worthless, God wouldn’t have given us this opportunity. This means God really intended the church—as an experiment in hope that people could embody and share the resurrected life of freedom, justice, peace, and joy—but God also set forth the kingdom, surprising and redeeming the church by letting glory also spring up elsewhere.

And fifth position is that there’s a place in this story that only you can fill, and it is waiting for you to step into it. All these previous steps remain perfectly valid in their own right, but they only take effect for you if you’re open to this fifth step. Think about the litany of the faith- ful in Hebrews chapter 11. The writer gathers this cloud of witnesses in order to say, here are those who took up the mantle, stepped into their destiny, and entered the story, with remarkable results. There would have been a story without them—God would still have found a way—but how glorious to be one of those who answered the call and fulfilled the purpose of your creation.

Each of us is different and, like ballet dancers with their own re- spective stomach muscles, legs, ankles, and feet, each of us is challenged by a different one of these five positions. I don’t think there are many people who move logically through the five positions like a deductive problem solver. Instead, we wonder what our life is for and want it to make a difference, so we go straight in at number five and perhaps work our way back from there. Or we’re captivated by the person of Jesus and move back and forth from position three. Or maybe we believe from experience and conviction that humans are social animals, and thus that there needs to be something more or less like the church—and we start working out the rest from position four. And over the course of our lives, which position we’re most drawn to, and which we find a stumbling block, may change. When people lament that fewer people go to church in the West than fifty years ago, what they’re seeing is that in our generation people seem to find fourth position more problematic than they used to; those people are not necessarily much differently aligned in relation to the other four positions. Perhaps a more general trend is that increasing numbers of people want to keep the first and fifth positions while bypassing the middle three.

The truth is, none of the five positions make a whole lot of sense on their own. How can you want your life to make a difference if you don’t have any notion of the story of which you think you are a part? What’s the point in believing there’s a reality deeper than this one if it makes no difference to anything else you think or do? The phrase “blind faith” is often used as a criticism, but it could be a description for holding tightly to one of these five positions while losing contact with the others. By contrast, the term “simple faith” is usually used as a compliment, but it could be a way of saying that you really connect with one of these positions and you’re happy to let the other four coalesce around you.

The amazing thing about the constellation of the faithful in Hebrews 11 is that even they didn’t uphold all five positions. They all predated Jesus, so they didn’t have number three or, arguably, number four. But they still went ahead and shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were stoned to death, and sawn in two. And that shows us what really matters about faith. Faith is fundamentally trust in God’s faith in and faithfulness to us. There’s a truth deeper than our being, a love truer than our knowing, a life beyond our comprehending, a community more significant than our experiencing, a purpose more wondrous than our discovering.

Hardly anyone has perfect posture when it comes to all five posi- tions. You’d doubt whether it was genuine if they did. But that’s not the point. Faith isn’t about adhering to certain doctrines, any more than ballet’s about keeping balanced and still. We weren’t made to be sure and right and certain: we were made to dance—to dance with God. And God doesn’t want us to wait like a wallflower until we’re confident of all five positions. God says, “Bring what you’ve got onto the dance floor—and I’ll do the rest.” Faith isn’t, in the end, about taking a great leap into the darkness. It’s about allowing yourself to be drawn into a dance.

Published by Canterbury Press, "Humbler Faith, Bigger God - Finding a Story to Live By", by Sam Wells, is available here.