Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Fine Sermon: What I Learned This Year

Guys -- Below is the sermon I preached last Sunday -- a "report" on the group this year, or more accurately, my observations from our reading.  It's kind of "What I Learned This Year" -- See what you think!
-- Ralph

A year ago a men’s book group was launched with two purposes in mind.  First to prove that yes, indeed we men could read books and talk together about them.  And these were hard books too!  But the second, more important goal, was to give us a chance to look at faith methodically and in its most basic form.  I called it “Faith from Scratch” – clearing away our presumptions about the Christian faith, even about the very existence of God, in order to figure out just what it was that we each believe.   Of course, you can’t really begin “from scratch” – we come to these questions with boatloads of presuppositions and experiences with faith and life. But we tried to start from the beginning, putting everything on the table.
    And so we read some books. Seven in all.  And we talked.  And we thought about God and the universe and the Bible and Jesus and . . . you get the idea.
    I am grateful for the opportunity to work through these books, and to wrestle with them with some very bright and insightful guys.  Today I report. Not on what the group concluded, but what I have.  So far. 
    We began with the mind – with how the brain works.  Not chemically, but the patterns and functions of the mind – habits of the mind, how we process what comes into the brain through our senses. There is a relatively new field of research called cognitive science that has been exploring the habits of our minds.   A book called Why Would Anyone Believe in God? summarized the latest theories of the mind, and related them to religious behavior.  And it seems that we are hard-wired (at birth, or very early on) to be on the lookout for gods – “agents” seen or unseen that are doing things in the world.  Looking for someone, something to explain some event, we – as individuals and as cultures – are not bashful to find a god in our midst.   The point of the book was that it should be no wonder that we are by and large religious people; it’s practically our default setting.  It was fascinating to think about how we think!
    Armed with a little knowledge of the mind, we next listened to some objections – some very strong objections – to religion in the world.  Sam Harris, in The End of Faith called for just that: the end of all religion in the world.  The Bible and Qu’ran, he said, are mountains of life-destroying gibberish.  Religion, he said, is a living spring of violence.  Citing the rise of terrorism around the world, carried out in the name of God, Harris wrote forcefully that religion – and he here is talking about Fundamentalist religion – threatens our very existence as a race.   It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs.
    In religion’s place Harris proposed a rationalistic, scientific naturalism in which reason would guide individuals and societies to a more just and peaceful world. 
    In response to Harris’ withering attack on all religion, John Haught in  Is Nature Enough? sought  to lay out . . .  a reasonable, scientifically informed alternative to naturalism. A purely naturalistic view of the world, he said, is too limiting.  There are many layers of reality – kinds of experience – that are true, science being just one of them.   Scientific naturalists like Harris were denying, with no solid evidence, whole realms of human experience.
    Haught also started us on a road toward defining authentic Christian faith. Harris had legitimately exposed the atrocities of religion.  But it was a religion of a certain kind.  The mindless, fundamentalist kind.  Haught and others we were to read talked about a very different kind of faith – a faith that was open and tolerant, liberating and compassionate.   Faith that Marcus Borg talked about in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.
    Marcus Borg is a very popular writer and speaker, one that many of you have seen either in person or on the Living the Questions discussion videos.  He contends that Christianity has been falsely defined by Christian Fundamentalists because of their view of the Bible.  About 150 years ago, reacting to the popularity of Darwin’s theories, and fearing science, Fundamentalists – that was their name for themselves – created a form of faith that was foreign to that which had gone before.  Rigid, judgmental, closed, Fundamentalism elevated the Bible to the place of God.  It took very human, flawed book and made it God’s perfect book; it took a collection of diverse styles of writing – history and legend, poetry and law, to say nothing of story and parable, letters, and wild apocalyptic vision – and made it a single book to be read literalistically.  We say around here that God is still speaking. Fundamentalism says God spoke once for all, a very long time ago, and has nothing more to say.
    Borg, on the other hand, said that the Bible is not a prosaic listing of true statements about God and everything – a recipe for God, a rule book for living, to be read literally.  Instead we read this collection of writings through the “lens” of metaphor, seeking glimpses of God in story and parable.
    With a different approach to the Bible that was new to some of us, we turned to two writers who invited us to look at the Christian faith in a new way.  Jacques Ellul, a French writer and theologian of the 20th century, began where we did in the reading today, with the simple verse, “God is love.”  Love to be genuine, he said, requires freedom.  And so Christianity stands for love, and against any power that seeks to take away personal freedom, be it institutions of the state, or of religion.
    John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary scholar whom many of you have seen on the Living the Questions videos, in his book God and Empire continued the theme that Jesus came not to start yet another oppressive institution (as the Christian church was to become) but a movement marked by love and grace, freedom and sacrifice, as he brought good news not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and outcast.  Crossan brought his considerable historical and biblical knowledge to his understanding of the man Jesus who became the Christ.
    The last book, by Karen Armstrong, was The Case for God.  In this sweeping overview of religion across the millennia and around the world, she traces how humankind has wrestled with the fundamental questions of religion: Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  How should we live?  And, what is the meaning of death?  Religion’s task was not give us the answers (such answers are not available), but “to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.”
    She, like Borg, makes a strong case that authentic faith – believing – is more a matter of the heart than mind.  It is not giving mere mental assent to a list of doctrines, handing down to us, as if one might earn eternal life by correctly answering all the questions on God’s final exam.  We use our minds, our powers of reason in faith; we bring to it the findings of science, of language, of culture to explore the questions.  Faith is not mindlessly affirming things we know cannot be true.  But at the end of our questions, and in the middle of them too, faith is of the heart, the soul – a trust in our God.  For the answers to the questions we ask, and the God we seek to know, are so far beyond our experience and imagining that all words fail us.   Armstrong encourages us to explore the way of silence – of sitting in speechless awe confronted by the Holy Presence – the Presence we encounter most often in the majestic wonders of nature, but also in the faces of our neighbors.
    That was our journey, from the theories of cognitive science, to the objections of the new atheists, to new ways of reading the ancient text and finding there the radical mission of love and freedom that was Jesus’ then, and ought to be the church’s today.

So.  My conclusions.  So Far.

Humanity, be it by nature or by nurture, is “hardwired” to watch for causation, purpose, reasons for actions in the world.  When the cause of some event is not clear – we immediately look for some explanation, some agency that is behind that event.  We look for gods – and we find them too, gods by many names. That religious impulse doesn’t prove the existence of such gods.  But it helps us understand why our race is so unrelentingly religious.  Religion is likely here to stay.

No one religion is inherently “better” than the rest.  No one religion has a lock on the truth, the only sacred book, the “right” view of God.   No matter how loudly preachers or imams or rabbis tell us differently, all of our religions are noble but inadequate attempts to know the unknowable, to express the inexpressible.

There is good religion, and bad religion.  Good religion, no matter its name, leads its followers to freedom, to kindness, to graciousness and forgiveness, to love, to compassion for others.  Bad religion fosters intolerance, exclusivity and superiority, judgment instead of compassion, fear instead of love, hatred for those who disagree, instead of understanding and humility toward those not like us.

It follows that there are good Christians and very bad Christians.  There are good Muslims and very bad Muslims.  For in the end what matters in religion is not what one “believes” with the mind, but how one lives from the heart.  Correctness of doctrine has nothing to do with the quality of our character.  People can believe the most bizarre things, and yet live truly beautiful, compassionate lives.

Which is why it is possible for people to “believe” nothing at all about God intellectually – agnostics, atheists, humanists, whatever – and live as morally, compassionately, with mercy and kindness as any believer of any religion.  The reading today said, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  It didn’t say that God lives in people who profess correct doctrine, say the “right” things about God.  No, God lives in anyone who loves – period.

The collection of writings that we call “The Bible” is not an inerrant account of what God is really like or what God says we must do.  It is not a book of science, or careful history, still less a rule book from God. It is a collection of diverse, sometimes conflicting, witnesses to God’s presence in the world of many, many centuries back.  The truth of sacred writings like these does not spring from the bare, literal words on the page but from the interaction of my spirit with the text, a sharing of ancient story and today’s experience.  God is still speaking, any time we encounter the sacred text with an open heart, and mind.

And lastly, and with this I conclude: In that Bible we learn that the essence of Jesus’ teachings and life is that all are welcome to the banquet which is the presence and love of God.  He stood against any powers that oppressed people economically, socially or religiously.  His religion was one of grace and compassion, of inviting people to a new way of faith, challenging the powers of state and religion to become sources of freedom instead of prison-keepers of body and of soul. That was his mission, and that is ours as well, as we continue the journey of faith, growing in grace.