When I arrived in Grand Rapids in the middle 60’s, the locals called him “Littlefaith.” His name was Duncan Littlefair. Littlefair, the Reverend Duncan Littlefair, was for 35 years, from 1945 to 1979, pastor of Fountain Street Church in downtown Grand Rapids. Fountain Street was a large and flourishing congregation under Littlefair’s leadership, filled with people who had left more conservative churches for a different approach to faith, one that seemed to let fresh air into the often stuffy ecclesiastical scene of the time.
The sobriquet “Littlefaith” never really fit Littlefair. Not at all. He didn’t lack faith. His faith was different from the faith of those who criticized him, but he was as passionate for his convictions as they were for theirs. His sermons were always sermons, not lectures. He preached them; he didn’t read them. His were not polite expositions on subjects that were interesting in an academic way. He believed that what he had to say mattered, mattered then and now in the lives of his listeners. He believed that what he was speaking was Truth.
It seems often to be the case that people who hold firmly to what they consider to be traditional convictions think that the problem with those who do not hold those same convictions is a lack of faith. Their problem, so goes this notion, is an inability to believe. They have allowed doubt to rule. It’s often expressed as a quantity: they have little faith.
I first noticed this idea of quantifiable faith with regard to beliefs about Genesis 1, a passage much debated when I was younger. In the churches of which I was a part, there were at least three groups in this regard. The largest group held to a seven-day creation—seven twenty-four-hour days, each one full spin of the earth. The second group, having slid down the slippery slope, held that the days in Genesis 1 might have been much longer than that, often claiming (erroneously, as it happens) that the Hebrew word for “day” can mean a long period of time (not in this context). And then there were a few who believed, as many do now, that in Genesis 1 “days” are a literary device, having nothing to do with how the universe came into existence or how many times the earth went around in the process.
The fact that there were these three groups is not in itself remarkable. There were many reasons why someone in an isolated and conservative church in the 50s and 60s might think that the most natural reading of Genesis 1 is that the “days” were days, seven of them. The remarkable thing is that these differences seemed to represent, at least to some, a hierarchy of belief.
At the top of this hierarchy—those who believed the most—were the seven-dayers. Below them, exponentially lower, were those who allowed that the “days” in Genesis 1 might be long periods of time. Far, far below were those who denied that the “days” were about time at all. People like me. We were the little faithers.
A part of this is the idea that true faith requires absolute positions. To the seven-dayers, their position seemed—perhaps still does, if there are still seven-dayers around—absolute. No ambiguity about the length of days or about the symbolic roles the days might play in the account. If God says “seven days,” then they believe it. Or so they say. Of course, the question is whether Genesis 1, let alone God, says anything like that at all.
You get the same kind of thinking with many other questions. Absolute positions seem strong—full of faith—and less than absolute positions seem, well, wishy-washy. The strong in faith teach absolutes; those of little faith teach “compromise.” So goes the argument.
This is silly, of course. The question is not how many things one believes before breakfast but whether what one believes is true. A person who on reading the Narnia books declares that the second person of the Trinity is actually a lion and goes by the name of Aslan may believe more things about Narnia than the person who says that the stories are an allegory, but the first person is wrong and the second right.
Which brings me back to Duncan Littlefair and the passion with which one believes things. Progressives are often dubious about passion. Many progressives believe that passion, like patriotism, in the words of Samuel Johnson,“is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Even passion for God, religious passion. Perhaps especially religious passion. Paul, himself a man given to passions, says something like this. Speaking of his contemporaries, he says that it’s not that they lack passion for God but that their passion lacks knowledge (Romans 10:2).
What the apostle seems to be suggesting, perhaps out of a long and bitter struggle with himself, is that passion needs to be instructed. Or, better, to be always open to instruction. Our passions can go wrong in a thousand different ways. But for all that, we need passion—passion for the truth.
It’s the kind of passion that matters. Not passion born of self-preservation but born of self-giving, not of rage but of love. In his lists of the evils of his generation, the Apostle Paul calls out rage as often—perhaps more often—than the sexual sins so worried over at the recent synod. He knew the depredations of rage. He knew where rage was headed—to the destruction of his people. Which indeed it did. Jerusalem rebelled not long after and was destroyed by the Romans.
But, to say it again, we need passion for the truth, always but especially in this age when both our political order and the church seem under threat from people who are filled with destructive rage. What’s at stake is the gospel itself.
On any fair reading of the New Testament, the concerns of the Christian message, beginning with Jesus, run more to loving others than to preserving purity. It’s about who and what God is for, not about whom and what God is against.
In society and the church today the loudest voices seem now to be against: against immigrants, against those who speak other languages, against those who believe differently, against those who love the “wrong” people, against those of a different culture or a different race—against those who by their very difference seem to threaten those whose posture is to be against. Not only have these voices been rising, freed by their leaders to say what they really think; they believe that this is their moment.
What we need in this moment is a passion for equal to their passion against. We need leaders who speak with passion, who put forth again and again with clarity and firmness the dream Jesus called “kingdom of God.”
We need to say and keep on saying this is what are for. This is who we are. We are those who believe that the whole truth of the gospel is yet to be entirely understood. We are those who believe that the gospel grants freedom and creativity to the church, a Spirit-filled creativity to include those who have been excluded, to understand the meaning of the cross anew in new circumstances, to both be enriched by and to enrich the long tradition of the church.
We need to preach this, not because we lack faith but because our faith is strong. And if they say of the likes of you and me that we are of little faith, we will smile and know that this is what they said of those who went before us.