In one of the many biblical stories that leaves me less than certain about its meaning, Jacob spends a night wrestling with...something. Traditionally it is believed that the mystery character is either an angel or God. Either way, following the night of wrestling, Jacob’s name is no longer Jacob--it is Israel. This change is significant because an entire people group, and two religions, draw their roots from deep within the name “Israel” and all that it represents.
This feels particularly significant to me today. The words “wrestle” and “struggle” are more than appropriate ways of describing the way I currently interact with the questions “What exactly do I believe?”, and “What does that have to do with my life?” The story of Israel seems to affirm this tension and struggle as a natural part of the process, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say that it doesn’t feel that way to me. Instead it feels disorienting, not welcome, even threatening.
Marcus Borg, in his book “The God We Never Knew”, says that his childhood understanding of faith was “strong and correct belief”. There was nothing dynamic about it. No struggle. No wrestling. It was simply believing what was being taught and holding on to it regardless of the experiences waiting just down the road.
This understanding of faith seems to have set me up for a crisis--causing me to believe that my wrestling puts me at risk of losing something deeply important in the spiritual journey. But is that really what’s happening? Am I at risk of losing my faith? Am I simply leaning into the truest meaning of faith? Is it something between those two extremes? I’m not really sure, but I can’t help but have the sense that we--that all-encompassing word meant to signify that you and I are together in this--need to do a better job of acknowledging that wrestling is somehow an important part of what it means to be a Christian--not simply something we “make room for”, and absolutely not something we marginalize as threatening.
I think our failure in this ties back to fear. We are afraid to “get it wrong”. We are afraid others will “get it wrong”. We are afraid they will convince even more people to “get it wrong”. But this way of understanding faith removes all questions, wrestling, struggle. It totally invalidates the ancient origins of the name “Israel” and it discredits the personal experience of so many Christians around the world, causing them to either keep their struggles secret or leave the identity of “Christian” behind entirely.
I am not willing to go so far as to say that if your faith experience feels “certain” you are somehow not where you should be. I am just suggesting, maybe from a selfish place, that when that faith experience feels like we’re lost on a heavily forested mountain with no clear path of how to return to what we “know”, maybe that’s OK too. Maybe that’s just another wrestling match that will end with a blessing and a greater sense of identity.
Ben Edwards is a friend and supporter of Celtic Way.