Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) made a good case for most people not really believing what they say they believe. He told a parable about a church of ducks. Paraphrased, the story goes something like this:
One morning the ducks all gathered at the duck church. The sermon was about how God had given them wings to fly. Because of this great gift, ducks could soar to great heights and travel great distances. From those heights, the ducks could see the vastness and beauty of the earth God had made for the ducks to live in.
Quacks of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” reverberated around the duck sanctuary.
Then the ducks all waddled home again.
In that sense, sometimes “losing faith” is growing into an ability to be honest about the extent of disbelief that’s been present all along. It’s not really losing faith so much as finding something better.
I remember trying to walk on water one summer afternoon at the Burshire swimming pool. I’d been to a couple days of vacation Bible school earlier that summer, and they’d told the story of Jesus walking on the water, and calling Peter to walk on the water with him.
(For those unfamiliar with the story, the disciples are in a boat on a stormy sea, and Jesus comes to them walking across the water. When the disciples don’t believe it really is Jesus, he calls Peter to come out on the water with him. At first Peter does walk on the water, but then begins to sink when he realizes the impossibility of what he’s doing.)
I wanted to test it out. If Jesus could do it, and if Peter could do it, I ought to be able to do it. The Bible school teacher had said anybody could if they really believed enough. I was skeptical. But here was a fine opportunity for the experiment. I closed my eyes, ratcheted up as much “I believe, I believe, I believe” as I could muster, and stepped off the side of the pool deck.
Down I went. That was the nail in the coffin of naïve belief for me.
The gospel story about Jesus and Peter walking on the water isn’t really about walking on water. Not in the way the fundamentalists at vacation Bible school described it.
The gospel story is about what happens when you leave the safety of the boat (a symbol of the established patterns of faith — the church) to walk on your own out on the sea (a symbol of chaos and danger). The question the story asks isn’t whether you can believe or do the impossible, but whether you can live in a universe without the artificial constructions of religiosity.
Ironic then, that most of the time you hear the story (as I heard it in vacation Bible school that summer) it’s told in order to reinforce the necessity of the artificial construction.
It’s a good prayer, not just for children but for anyone who has come to realize that the sea is much wider than the boat any of us is in. That realization, if it’s more than ducks quacking their amens, ought to invoke compassion for those who are at the mercy of forces beyond their understanding, let alone control.
Given the vast disparity between the size of our boat and the universe it’s obvious that the boat doesn’t stand a chance. No more chance than of me walking across the swimming pool. Losing faith in the boat is one of the best things I ever did.
I still go back to the boat once in a while. I have lots of friends on the boat. The difference is I no longer regard the boat as protection from the sea.
And if I don’t like the direction the boat is heading, I can always get out and walk across the universe.