Archive for June, 2009

Popular Religion in the Day of Darwin

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

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To return to this pulpit in a series devoted to the impact of Charles Darwin on religion is an honor and a privilege. (You see, I have grown a Darwin beard just for the occasion.) I am especially privileged to follow the Reverend Dr. Wesley Wildman who last Sunday reminded us that our conservative evangelical Christian friends who oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution know whereof they speak. If Darwin’s theory is approximately right, then God cannot be that benevolent supernatural agent of evangelical piety who does good things for you when you believe in Him (I use the male pronoun advisedly). The evolutionary world is random, wasteful, and bloody, as well as glorious and awesome: no benevolent divine person would create that way.

Our conservative evangelical sisters and brothers have an additional symbol for God, different from the benevolent supernatural agent. Some evangelicals identify with the God of wrath and violence who dealt death to the firstborn of Egypt after Himself hardening Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites, and who will come again in the person of Christ the Avenger to destroy the Earth and save only the remnant of people who persevere in servile obedience. Like the God of love and benevolence, the God of strict justice and wrath is conceived to be a hands-on administrator of a world which is understood to be like a kingdom. Darwin’s world is not like a kingdom with a benevolent or demanding tyrant. It’s more like a jungle. If Darwin is more or less right, and all the evidence points that way, God cannot be conceived literally to be an intentional personal being without also being conceived to be wasteful, cruel, and pleased to toy with us.

Our text from the book of Job is a profound recognition of this. The author deliberately uses figurative language that is not intended literally. The opening scene in Heaven, where God lets Satan torture Job and kill his children solely in order to justify God’s bragging, is heavy with irony. If God is conceived literally to be a personal being, like the God of Job’s prologue, then the pervasive suffering of innocent people signifies that God is just toying with us. The main portion of the book is a series of philosophical arguments by Job’s friends to the effect that, if Job suffers, it must be because he deserves it, for God is just and would not let Job suffer unjustly. For Job’s friends, God simply cannot be conceived to be someone who deals out pain and death to win a bet with a Heavenly colleague. Their arguments all fail, however: Job has done nothing to deserve what he is getting. (Think of the people in Darfur.) Therefore God cannot be conceived to be just. The passage toward the end of the book on which Rev. Wildman preached last Sunday, where God speaks out of the whirlwind to Job directly, is usually taken to mean that there is no place for us to stand in order to apply moral categories of justice or injustice to God. The Creator is beyond good and evil, unlike persons. The very end of the book of Job returns to the Heavenly courtroom where God wins his bet with Satan. God then restores Job’s health, gives him new children and makes him even wealthier than before. Of course this is ironic. New children, however welcome, cannot replace the earlier loved ones who were killed frivolously. Restored health does not justify Job’s needless agony. What does Job need with even more wealth than he had before? If God is conceived as a person, as in the literary imagination of the prologue and epilogue of the book of Job, then that divine person delights in gratuitous suffering and is not benevolent or just. The Book of Job is against that. So there is profound biblical warrant for rejecting the idea that God is a benevolent or wrathful person of the sort that plays such a prominent role in conservative evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Muslim worldviews. We need a better conception of God than that, however much that anthropomorphic vision is a mainstay of popular piety. Of course there may be occasions in which it is legitimate to symbolize God in personal terms, but never with literal meaning.

Nevertheless, the issue is not merely one of finding a conception of God that accords with what we know about the world in cosmic and biological evolution. The larger issue is about the worldviews involved, of which conceptions of God are only elements. A worldview links conceptions or symbols of ultimate matters such as God to other, more profane but important affairs of life, such as how to treat family, community, strangers; when to have babies, go to war, to pray; how to accept new life, how to relate to the Earth, how to be at home, or to be alienated; what to do with guilt, with economic hardship, with the fragmentation of life; how to face death; how to imagine the world without you. The worldviews of the great religions exhibit a continuum of life issues from the most sacred, defining the ultimate, to the most profane, with many combinations of symbols in between. And the symbols of the ultimate get linked to all the places mixing the sacred and the profane.

For instance, how does your worldview link your understanding of God to the way you should treat people? If you believe that God is on the side of your in-group, say the Christians, then you will be inclined to treat Christians with justice and love and will be ready to treat non-Christians with hostility, at least until they convert to your side. On the other hand, if you believe that God is equally the enthusiastic creator of everybody, Christians, those in other religions, and the irreligious, then you will be inclined at least to try to treat every person with love and justice, regardless of your in-group. What your worldview believes about nature, about various societies, and about your history, makes a difference to how your symbols of God are ranged along the continuum from the sacred to the profane.

The salient point here is that conceptions of God are not determined only by our best thoughts about God but also by our human interests in relating God to all the elements in our worldview. Suppose, following the book of Job, we say that God is beyond good and evil, wholly transcendent. Fine. We can sit easy with a Darwinian worldview about nature. So then, just how does God bear upon good and evil? How should we think about our suffering in divine terms? How should we deal with wickedness and guilt? You can see why there is such a temptation, almost an irresistible urge, to personify God, to say that God wants us to do good and avoid evil, that God shares our suffering, that wickedness is met by God’s demand for repentance. At some sophisticated level we know it is a mistake to domesticate God literally to a kind of interactive person just in order to relate God in familiar ways to human affairs. At another level, it seems that, if we do not do that, we do not have a coherent worldview that lets the sacred bear upon these profane but important human affairs. Our conservative evangelical friends feel this pull.

Consider another continuum within worldviews, and imagine it like this. Imagine the continuum from sacred to profane to be a horizontal line, and imagine another continuum to be a vertical line that moves to intersect the horizontal line at any point. The vertical line is a continuum from very sophisticated t
hinking at one end to “folk” thinking at the other. Most of us think in between. Regarding the sacred or ultimate, sophisticated thinkers for more than two thousand years have known that God transcends good and evil and in fact every other distinction. The first chapter of Colossians says that Jesus is the first visible image of the invisible, that is, unimaginable, God. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology shaped Christianity for centuries, said that God is the absolutely simple, infinite, non-determinate Act of to-Be, and is incapable of relating to anything else; Thomas’s God is not a being of any sort. Paul Tillich, in the twentieth century, has described God as the Ground of all beings that exhibit any distinctions whatsoever. At the other end of the sophistication spectrum are the folk images of God as the mover of storms, the battle deity fighting competitors, the warrior-king of the Exodus story, the personal God of interactive prayer who hides or reveals parking places. In civilized religious worldviews, the rhetorical center of gravity falls somewhere between the high sophistication of the theologians and the undisciplined projections of folk-religion. Our liturgies are somewhere in the middle, mixing both sophisticated notions such as the Trinity with folk practices such as begging for favors. No worldview is consistent in its symbols because it picks them up from all along the sophistication continuum and we learn to live with that inconsistency.

The sophistication spectrum does not apply only to the sacred parts of a worldview, but also to the more profane parts. There is university physics and folk conceptions of how nature works, university biology and folk biology, university psychology and folk psychology. Although we in this congregation believe we view the world through the sophisticated scientific end of our worldview, in point of fact we live most of the time somewhere in the middle: we drink water, not h2o. You see how enormously complex our worldviews are, linking everything from the most sacred to the most profane, and expressing all these linkages in symbols that jumble from the most sophisticated to pop culture.

But these worldviews make all the difference. Our conservative evangelical friends really object only on the surface to the science per se in Darwin’s theory of evolution. As Rev. Wildman said, their objection is more to the negative effect of that science on their views of God as a personal, interactive being. And yet it is not only to the implication for the conception of God that evangelicals object: it is really to Darwin’s undermining of the whole worldview linking their conception of God to the spectrum of life’s issues reaching into the profane. So much of that worldview has to do with placating a personal God with repentance and obedience so that He will not punish us with everlasting torments, rewarding us instead with a good Heavenly life. The placating of a personal God determines that worldview’s approach to morality, which then is for the sake of reward, to other people, which then focuses on judging who is among God’s elect, to nature, which then has only instrumental significance, and to responsibility, which then has to do with obedience to divine authority. If that evangelical worldview is undermined by Darwin’s science, the whole world seems suddenly meaningless. This can lead to passionate denial of modern science in the name of biblical literalism. Or it can lead to angry rejection of and resentment at the exploded evangelical worldview itself. So many of my students here at the university are ex-evangelicals whose entire world has been undermined and who are desperately searching for something that can be saved in any religion.

This brings me to the positive task for popular religion in the day of Darwin, by which I mean religion for thinking people, not just the sophisticates nor devotees of folk religion. The gospel for this morning is from John where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that religion will evolve. Remember that he reminded her of the distinction between his Jewish religion and her Samaritan one, and said that his was better. But then he said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [as the Samaritans did] nor in Jerusalem [where the Jews worshipped].” . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The task of our age is to develop in fear and trembling our old faith with an appropriate new worldview that worships God in spirit and truth.

Part of what we learn from Darwin, and evolutionary theory more generally, is that the universe is vastly older and larger than was understood in biblical times. We are not its center and we have only a tiny sample of what it contains, possibly creatures far more interesting than ourselves. So, worshipping God in spirit and truth means worshipping the Creator of this vast cosmos, and accepting a very humble place within it. Such cosmic humility should be decisive for an authentic Christian worldview. Another part of what we learn from Darwin is that the nature in us is unimaginatively complex. We are creatures of molecular bondings, of intricate metabolic processes, of cells and microbes, of organs that evolved through DNA and that pass on those codes. Our bodies float in a roiling biological ocean and we must worship God as creator of that vast whirlpool of nature.

As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, our religious worldview is still evolving. The Bible is replete with images of God as the creator of the extent and depth of nature, and is deficient only in that its images of nature are far too small, with the result that its attention to human affairs is far too large, distorting the modeling of God. A proper worldview for religion in the day of Darwin will dissociate the historical and personal problems of profane human life from conceptions of God as a person who wills this or that to happen like a divine actor in the human narrative. Instead a proper worldview will associate every part of our profane lives with a profound humility about our place in God’s vast creation. Jesus said the first will be last and the last first.

A proper worldview will associate every part of life with a profound reverence for the astonishing complexity of natural evolution with which God has created us together. Jesus said God shines the sun on both the just and unjust.

It will associate all our human relations with a divinely inspired love based on a grateful appreciation of commonality within the evolving universe. Jesus said we should love one another, even our enemies.

With regard to profane human affairs–how to organize our lives, foster our families, nourish ourselves and others, deal with politics, build communities, make love, make war, make art—these are mainly our own responsibilities. In a proper popular religion in the day of Darwin, we should take up these responsibilities in mature ways, declining to behave like obedient children of a benevolent divine father or, even worse, like abject slaves of a wrathful divine tyrant.

Jesus calls us to the amazing project of learning true humility and reverence in the face of the Father of all creation, and learning to love even the random wild violence of evolving creation, including our enemies the earthquake, wind, and fire, and our personal foes. That project is a long way from completion, and its way is tumultuous. One task for us thinking Christians is to work out that worldview with rigorous inquiry, going on from Darwin. The more important task is to discipline ourselves to the humility, reverence, and love, as well as human responsibility, that make disciplined religion itself a part of evolving human excellence. Jesus calls us o’er that tumult.

Amen.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings
Neville

Narnia’s Aslan, Earth’s Darwin, and Heaven’s God

Sunday, June 21st, 2009
Psalm 8, Job 38:1-7, John 1:1-5
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a)

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I


I consider myself an evangelical Christian of the liberal sort, but I have many evangelical Christian relatives, friends, and students who are extremely conservative. Despite mutual respect, it appears that I have little in common with them, theologically. My outlook on life and faith leaves me feeling dismayed by what strikes me as their doctrinal and moral rigidity, appalled by their dismissal of the wisdom of other religions, and a little frightened by their willingness to vest absolute authority in an allegedly plain reading of the Bible. But my self-righteous theological appraisal does not go unchallenged. From their point of view, I am disloyal to what they see as the supernaturally established tradition of the Christian faith, dangerously cavalier about the fragile moral fabric of society, and all too willing to besmirch the purity of divine revelation with arrogant reliance on human reason and experience. They wouldn’t hesitate to declare, with relief, that they share little in common, theologically, with me.

At the personal level, this liberal-conservative difference is manageable, so long as we don’t have to resolve disagreements about biblical authority, so long as we care for one another, and so long as we remember to laugh at ourselves from time to time. At the cultural level, however, the liberal-conservative difference has the proportions of an unbridgeable chasm, which makes it seem deadly serious. Often enough it is a hateful and deadly disagreement. You know about the recent murder of late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller inside the Reformation Lutheran Church of Wichita, Kansas, as he prepared to welcome worshippers into the sanctuary and talked with a friend about taking his grandchildren to Disneyworld. This shows how deadly the disagreement can become. And there are many other disastrous consequences of religious hatred.

Most fundamentalist and conservative evangelical groups decried Dr. Tiller’s murder but others, such as Rev. Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church, said Dr. Tiller got what he deserved and even picketed his funeral. Meanwhile, the violent rhetoric that inspires extremists to act out their distorted heroic fantasies continues. Sometimes it seems that the United States is only a small step away from the religious violence that has been so disastrous between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, or between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East.

Such disagreements among religious people are sad and strange, in some ways. After all, we do have a great deal in common, including our love of children, our celebration of our mothers and fathers, our preference for peaceful neighborhoods, our quest for health and happiness, and our conviction that life is best lived in relation to an ultimate reality that suffuses everyday events and transcends everyday concerns. But despite these shared life goals, mutual suspicion and hostility are very real.

As I address this issue today, I will not take up the abortion controversy, despite our painful awareness of Dr. Tiller’s murder. Rather I will focus on another front of the disagreement, namely, the evolution wars. As far as I know, the evolution controversy has not produced fanatical murders. But it continues to be extremely painful and it surfaces the substantive disagreements clearly, as we shall see.

Keep in mind that I am not addressing the wider secular versus religious debate over evolution. Rather, I am speaking to a dispute among religious people, all of whom accept that the world is God’s creation and thereafter have to undertake some serious navel gazing to figure out whether and how to incorporate evolutionary theory into that basic conviction. I hope to demonstrate that each group of Christians has something valuable to learn from the other.

II

The dispute among Christians over the theological implications of evolution arises on the back of four deeper disagreements.

First, we have conflicting visions of reality. The conservative evangelical imaginative world is defined by a God who knows the world intimately, who cares about each one of us personally, who acts freely according to divine purposes, and who answers our prayers in fatherly love when we ask in confident faith. The liberal evangelical imaginative world is defined by a God who is beyond measure and understanding, speaking from the whirlwind of creativity in ways that are sometimes difficult to comprehend. One God is scaled to human needs and interests and sits awkwardly with evolution, while the other is vastly beyond every worldly agenda, and suits evolution more naturally.

Second, we have conflicting visions of authority. The conservative evangelical vests authority in definitive divine revelation, expressed decisively through the Bible, the Pope, or some other religious touchstone. The liberal evangelical vests authority in traditions of interpretation, accepting diversity, contradictions, and struggles within those traditions as unavoidable and valuable. If evolution contradicts the authoritative revelation of the nature of God then evolution is easily rejected, for one side, whereas the other side naturally seeks for a creative synthesis.

Third, we have conflicting visions of history. The conservative evangelical regards culture and civilization and scientific discovery as the ambiguous stage for the drama of salvation but never salvific in itself, and always subordinate to theological truth. The liberal evangelical sees history as a process of development that can be appreciated as part of what salvation means, and thus as able to challenge traditionally received religious beliefs. One side has little reason to respect scientific theories such as evolution if they contradict revealed truth, whereas the other side receives evolution as a magnificent divine revelation about the world that must be taken seriously no matter what theology says.

Finally, we have conflicting visions of church. The conservative evangelical sees correctness of doctrine as a vital form of religious purity, and will sacrifice church unity to protect it—by expelling those who stubbornly resist the party line, if necessary. Meanwhile, the liberal evangelical tries hard to tolerate doctrinal variations because certainly about such matters is impossible, and because unity of believers matters more than purity of beliefs. One side handles tension between God beliefs and evolution by rejecting evolution to protect doctrinal purity, while the other side minimizes the tension in the name of Christian unity and in hopes that God-beliefs and evolution can somehow be reconciled.

III

Let me be clear: in my view, conservative evangelicals who reject evolution in favor of creationism, or who embrace the neo-creationism of Intelligent Design theory, make a serious error in judgment. Yet they un
derstand what is theologically at stake in evolution far better than most of their liberal counterparts who casually resolve the issue by declaring that God creates through evolution, without pausing to think through what that must mean.

Charles Darwin, whose two-hundredth birthday we celebrate this year, began his scholarly career as a convinced believer that God intentionally conceived, designed, and created the world in roughly the form Darwin encountered it. As a young man he read and accepted the still-famous design arguments of his countryman William Paley. After all, he couldn’t explain the wondrous structure of the eye any other way; he had to assume a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active designer God. As his studies widened and deepened, however, Darwin’s theological views slowly shifted. Though he never discovered the DNA mechanism by which traits were transmitted across generations, he was confident that trait preservation and transmission occur, and that random variations of traits make organisms more and less fit to survive the rigors of any given environment. He believed that this process of trait inheritance, random variation, and natural selection in competitive environments is powerful enough to explain the origin of species, which is the name he gave to his most famous book, published 150 years ago. And he assembled a formidable array of evidence to support his theory—evidence that is extraordinarily difficult to explain apart from the evolutionary hypothesis.

Unsurprisingly, Darwin’s view of God changed as the secrets of the natural world opened before his uncanny gaze. God was no longer necessary to explain the particulars of the world and its teeming life forms. Rather, God’s domain was the creation of the potentialities of the world-as-a-whole, a world that answered to the description that the theory of evolution provided. Unsurprisingly, to Darwin God gradually seemed less personal, benevolent, attentive, and active. Surely such a loving, personal deity would have created in another way, a way that involved less trial and error, fewer false starts, less mindless chance, fewer tragic species extinctions, less dependence on random symbiotic collaborations, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort out the fit from the unfit. Darwin arguably never lost his faith in God. Rather, believing that God created through the evolutionary process, his growing knowledge of that process dramatically transformed his view of God. And this left him ill-at-ease with the anthropomorphic personal theism of his day, and with friends and colleagues who believed in a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active divine being.

Christians and other theists who casually assert that God creates through evolution—as if there is no theological problem with this—should pause and consider Darwin’s faith journey. Darwin was theologically more perceptive than many of his liberal endorsers. He knew that saying God creates through evolution puts enormous stress on belief in a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity. Evolution casts a pall over the moral clarity that most people want to see in the God they worship and serve. Darwin felt the difficulty acutely. Many theologians since Darwin have struggled with the problem. Do you feel the challenge? Or do you casually blend evolutionary theory and belief in a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active God as if there is no problem?

IV

Many of my conservative evangelical Christian brothers and sisters who reject evolutionary theory feel the problem Darwin felt. They instinctively grasp that their personal, benevolent, attentive, and active God could not possibly have created the world as Darwin described it. Such a God would be morally unrecognizable to them, a kind of heartless gambler over the lives and wellbeing of Earth’s creatures, and not at all like the loving and wise Parent they trust and serve. This would contradict their morally clear and homey worldview, which is borne up by a God of pure compassion and perfect goodness. Because they take on authority the proposition that God is personal, benevolent, attentive, and active, they know with confidence that Darwin must have been wrong.

To see the power of this argument, consider C.S. Lewis’s creation story. It is in a lesser known volume of his Narnia Chronicles called The Magician’s Nephew. The children in that story are present when the great Lion Aslan creates Narnia and its creatures. The method of creation is beautifully intimate and personal: Aslan sings in a majestic voice, with spectacularly complex undertones and rippling overtones, and the world awakens around him. Each creature struggles up and out of the Narnian soil, awakening to a new world, personally called into being by the fatherly Lion God himself. I find the story enormously moving. You see, C.S. Lewis grasped the point that Darwin also felt so forcefully: the God Lewis believed in could not create in a way much different than Aslan did. Good literature is able to test the coherence of the “God creates through evolution” idea. So long as God is conceived as a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active being, like Aslan, the literary acid test shows that God cannot and would not create through evolution. They just don’t fit.

Conservative evangelical Christians who resist evolutionary theory for theological reasons are shrewdly targeting a problem for their God-infused worldview, perhaps the sharpest problem that worldview has ever faced. They are not tiptoeing around, pretending that the God they trust every day somehow creates through evolution. They feel the contradiction and just say no to evolution. I admire that. I, too, feel the dilemma they feel. Since a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity cannot create through evolution, either that God or evolution must go. Unlike them, however, I am not in any doubt about the exceptional robustness of the theory of evolution. It is as stable a scientific theory as the atomic theory of matter.

For me, therefore, the choice leads to a different conclusion: God the creator simply cannot be a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity. We can preserve those affirmations symbolically and poetically but they do not refer to a divine being with intentions and awareness, with feelings and intelligence, with plans and powers to act. Rather, they refer to the ground of being itself, to the creative and fecund power source in the depths of nature, to the value structures and potentialities that the world manifests. They refer to the God beyond God, which is to say the truly ultimate reality that hovers behind and beneath and beyond the symbolic Gods we create and deploy to satisfy our personal needs, to make sense of our world, and to legitimate the exercise of social control.

V

You may be surprised to hear me praising the theological perceptiveness of the conservative evangelical resistance to evolutionary theory while also praising evolutionary theory itself. And you may be taken aback by my affirmation of the God beyond God, with the associated critique of more popular views of God as a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active being. I speak to you this way, however, not to convince you to agree with me about God; I understand this to be a bit of a stretch for most people. Rather, my aim is to convince you that there is a big problem trying to fit popular personal theism together with evolutionary theory—a bigger problem than many Christian believers and even many theologians are ready to admit. Ironically, it is the conservative evangelicals who resist evolutionary theory that really grasp this point. They believe in a God who could only create the world in something like the way Aslan creates Narnia. But Darwin showed us a different world. That revelation demands not atheism—not
for Darwin and not for us today either—but a different conception of the divine. You may not think it is necessary to embrace my solution to this problem. But I am confident that we will never understand the real passion and coherence of the religious anti-evolution position until we grasp the problem that evolutionary theory poses for personal theism.

The luminous Narnian creation story helps to confirm what evolutionary theory shows us, namely, that God did not create that way. It also helps us grasp why a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active divine being could not and would not create through evolution. One of our readings has God interrogate Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Well, we were nowhere to be found, so we have to approach these matters with humility. But that does not mean we should be casual in our theological reasoning. Our readings from Psalm 8 and John’s Gospel set examples for us of careful thinking about the meaning of creation, and we should do the same. Conservative evangelical anti-evolutionists and neo-creationist ID believers detect the inconsistency and are willing to protect their homey worldview at any cost—even if it means rejecting a scientific theory as well supported as evolutionary theory and the attendant migration into an cultural backwater where people who don’t get what is at stake make fun of them.

Are you as careful and consistent as they are? Do you believe in a God who would and could create the world in the way Aslan created Narnia? Such a God could not and would not and did not create the world evolutionary theory shows us. So how do you resolve the theological puzzle? When God speaks to you from the evolutionary whirlwind, do you hear a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active divine being addressing you, soul to soul? Or do you hear the abysmal ground of being rumbling in fecund creativity, morally impenetrable, imponderably beautiful, and defying rational grasp? My spirituality is tuned to the latter conception, to the God beyond all Gods, so I can afford to acknowledge the theological perceptiveness of my conservative evangelical anti-evolutionist brothers and sisters. What about you? What sort of God could, would, and did create the world through evolution?

In this year of Darwin anniversaries, we owe the great man nothing less than careful reflection on this question, which so haunted him. And to the God who speaks to us from the whirlwind, demanding to know where we were when the foundations of the earth were laid, we owe our very best efforts to absorb what is revealed to us about the world we inhabit and to incorporate that into our faith journeys as honestly and consistently as we can.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Wesley J. Wildman

The Secret is in the Dirt

Sunday, June 14th, 2009
Mark 4: 26-34

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Preface

The New Yorker cartoon images sometimes return to the mind, in recollection or memory or both, from decades past. I wonder whether another generation, clickified so, will retain the delight, or whether theirs will be other delights? Those etchings, those whimsical, often wise inspections of cotidian strangeness have been over time a friendly companion. Religion and life are not separate from one another. Religion is life, and life is religion. You spell that L.I.F.E. I do not want a religion separated from life, nor a religion which provides an escape or a hiding place, nor do you.

This particular cartoon shows a church, just as the service begins. In the pulpit stands the minister dressed in a black suit and collar. Over his right shoulder hangs a golf bag. One can make out three woods, several irons, a putter, a towel, a ball retriever. Three rows back one man leans to another and says, ‘I could be wrong, but something tells me that today’ s sermon may a short one’.

We are at the edge of summer. This summer we welcome an exciting array of guests, who will preach the gospel of truth and hope as they consider the influence, at his bicentennial, of Charles Darwin. They bring a hopeful and helpful word, and will set to work in the work before them. Let me spill the beans, and let the cat out of the bag. We intend these ten sermons as an evangelistic rally, of sorts. That is, we intend to offer sermons that connect to and with people whose primary language, mother tongue, is scientific, whose work involves microscopes, stethescopes, and lab coats, who on the great divide long ago measured by C P Snow, in the Two Cultures, are most immersed in the ranges of truth known in the physical, natural and biological sciences. Certainly, the broader population—internet, radio, live—we have in mind. But too infrequently in our time, there have been offered examples of preaching the gospel of truth that fully acknowledges scientific truth. Marsh Chapel makes this gift to the country and beyond this summer.

Today, in Mark 4, we focus on the practice, the rigorous practice, of faith. We do not ever focus enough on the actual practice of faith, faith after all known in its practice, particularly on planting and fishing, on tithing and evangelism.

Ben Hogan, perhaps the last century’s best golfer, died some years ago. So often we do not appreciate a person until she\he is absent, or dies. Tragic, this. Hogan rose from poverty, survived an unsurvivable automobile accident, overcame a slight build and reached all of his golfing potential, plus 10%. Most shocking to the average mortal golfer is the bitter fact that Hogan, for years, struggled to tame a fierce slice. (A slice is when you hit the ball 300 yards, 150 forward and 150 due east). At last he conquered this besetting sin, this slice, and went on to glory. Of course, everyone wanted to know how he did it. “It’s a secret” is all he would say. His obituary, however, reported that a couple of years before he died, Hogan revealed what he by revelation, by apocalypse, had learned: “The secret…is in the dirt”, he concluded.

Now there is a gnomic, epigrammatic, mystagogical wisdom saying, if ever there was one. “The secret is in the dirt”. Hogan meant: the secret is in the constant, lifelong swinging of the club into the dirt, morning and evening, in season and out, victory and loss. “The secret is in the dirt”.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…

In the d.i.r.t.:

Determination
Intensity
Repetition
Thrill

1. Determination

There comes a time in life when one determines one’s determination.

There comes a time to choose, and then to follow through. You do not have forever to choose, though forever you live with how you choose.

We are impressed, this spring, with the sheer anxiety of the workplace. Women and men, particularly men, are anxious and fretful. Capitalism, the grinding will of man in the market, shows little partiality.

“Believe me, John, I’d love to do otherwise but the numbers are just not there”.

I feel for the women and men, particularly the men, of this age who offer soul and body to work—only to find that the goddess of labor is not always faithful. We have long been leaving people behind in this country. It’s just that the numbers and kinds of people so marooned have changed.

Jesus asks you this: “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life? What can a man give in exchange for his life?”

There is more to life than work. There is more to life than work.

Yet, we have managed to develop an anxiety laden country of 90hr weeks, neglect of home, dismissal of community, abandonment of children. We clergy have some responsibility here. We have modeled the spiritual dimensions of commitment, earnestness, and the work ethic. But have we heeded the grandfather who said, “Looking back I wish I had spent more time in reflection, risked more, and focused on my legacy to another generation”?

Here Jesus stands. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.” There comes a time when one determines one’s determination.

Enter in at the narrow gate. Broad is the way and wide is the gate that leads to perdition, and many there are who go therein. But narrow is the gate and straight the way that leads to life and few there are who find it.

When shove supplants push, my friend, whose are you? Can you sing something like the old hymn, “Where he leads me I will follow”? The secret is in determination. In this sense, it is really the work of teachers of so many sorts in discipleship, that counts most. I’m speaking to women and men, particularly men. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will only be pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own. The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship; it calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible”.

The secret is in determination.

2. Intensity

Determination hungers for intensity, for the purity of the heart which is to will one thing, a continual bearing down on the very core of your life, your vocation, your calling.

It matters greatly, as Bill Muehl wrote, what happens in life.

We lived for a while in a small town along the Mohawk river. One Sunday our Bishop came to preach. He was one intense cleric. My mother planned a fine Sunday dinner for after church. But the Bishop was not planning to stay for lunch. In the end, though, he stayed. We all hurried through the meal. Especially my sister, who backhanded her milk glass all over the Bishop’s black suit, clerical collar and spec
tacles. He even wore, for part of the meal, a slight dollop, a thin thread, a trace of the aforementioned milk on his nose. When I say him later in life, I could still “see” the milk.

Death is a part of life, and not the other way around.

Suffering is a part of experience, and not the other way around.

Love outlasts loss, and not the other way around.

The secret is in intensity. In this sense, it is really pastoral work, the pastoral care of our fellowship offered both by ministers and lay folks, that counts most. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it, is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to suffer injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way.”

The secret is in intensity.

3. Repetition

Such intensity, to survive, needs repetition in practice. The determined, intense, repetitive practice of faith, as in all things, at last wins out.

Count it all joy, brethren, when various trials beset you…

In community we learn to challenge each other when our strokes are errant. We learn to challenge abusive behavior, intended or unintended. We learn to challenge the use of crude language, which does not become the gospel. We learn to challenge misuses of power, however benevolent. We learn to hold one another accountable to Jesus Christ. We learn…by practicing. We learn…by repeating. In this sense, the work of our small groups are most important. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence—then we have (forgotten the cross).

I know that the word religion is suspect, today, and rightly so. So much darkness, so much hurt, so much that maims life is covered by such a word. It takes repetitive resistance to shift, to shove to shift, the balance of influence in that word.

So we resist. We resist the cultural influences that make the tragic slaying at the Holocaust museum a referent for the word religion. We resist the cultural influences that make the tragic killing of Dr Tiller a referent for the word religion. We will resist the Denver leader, quoted in the Globe, who, reflecting on Tiller said, ‘well, you know, when you work for the mafia, you know you are taking risks’ (Our pulpits need to ring out, now. I will give you the phrase. Here it is: women’s bodies are women’s bodies). So we resist, with a swinging repetition.
The secret is in repetition. Backswing, stroke, follow through. Backswing, stroke, follow through…

4. Thrill

In the end, there is a thrilling prospect that awaits us.

Determination produces intensity.
Intensity produces repetition.
Repetition produces a thrill.
Thrill does not disappoint.

Whitehead wrote,

“The death of religion is the repression of a spirit of high adventure.”

The human condition is not a spectator sport.

Are you…

Determined?
Intense?
Repetitive?
Thrilled?

This summer, there may be a high moment.

Summer in the northeast carries a precious liturgical and ritual. In a land of cold, snow, ice, dark, wind, rain and storm, these summer months allow a pause. In this pause we may travel. In this pause we may enjoy the gifts of nature. In this pause we may connect or reconnect with our families. In this pause we may read, stroll, wander, wonder. No wonder the minister carried his clubs into the pulpit.

At dawn, along the lake. Sitting under a water fall. Alone along a trail. Fingers and toes deep in sand. Sunset, purple. Howard Thurman on Daytona Beach.

There may be a high moment, an experience of truly being alive.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

A Common Prayer

Sunday, June 7th, 2009
Psalm 29, Isaiah 6, Luke 15


Click here to hear the sermon only.

Preface


The ministry of Marsh Chapel, in this decade, quickens in connection with voice, vocation and volume. The voice of this pulpit, around the globe, is lifted and shared, in the liberality of the gospel, as it has been from the time of our first Dean, Dr. Franklin H. Littell. Our Psalm today celebrates voice. The vocation to service, in ministry and culture, to which we invite young people every day, is our joy and hope, this day, as it was in exuberance over lunch last Sunday. Our lesson today celebrates vocation. The volume, simply put, the increasing worshipping presence of the people of God, grows in ordered worship, as we lift hymns in four part harmony, enjoy choral music both historic and contemporary, and ponder the word, with head and heart, to ‘unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’, as the lost are found. The gospel today speaks of the lost and the found. We invite you to step alongside the ministry of Marsh Chapel, our shared common prayer, in voice, vocation and volume.

1. Voice


First, voice.

The hallowed predecessors who occupied this pulpit in the cradle of liberty and the cradle of Methodist theology are names, and voices, you mostly know. Robert Cummings Neville. Robert Watts Thornburg. Richard Nesmith. Robert Hammil. Howard Thurman. And Franklin Littell.

Dr. Franklin Littell was the first Dean to occupy this pulpit. President Daniel Marsh brought him here in the early 1950’s. As recently as May of 2006, Littell was able at age 88 to preach here, as he did that spring at commencement (for the School of Theology). A friend, colleague, contemporary and fly fishing partner of our dear friend Dr. Ray Hart, Littell brought a stirring sermon to that moment just three years ago. You may know that Littell died just recently, in late May.

Or maybe both his life and death are unfamiliar territory for you. In fact, I guess that such is the case for many, and so, come October, I am planning to preach a full sermon titled ‘Remembering Littell’ for Alumni Weekend.

We at Marsh Chapel, and we at Boston University may not yet have the largest financial endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. One day, that may change. If you would like to help us to help that to change, please let me know. Be assured that we will do whatever we can for your personal and spiritual welfare, in gratitude. But there is another way in which Marsh Chapel, and Boston University may already have the largest endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. Our riches are vocal. Our largest endowment is not financial but audible, not monetary but epistolary, not in the coin of the realm but in the language of the heart. Boston University, and centrally within the University, Marsh Chapel, is a treasure store of voice. You notice that, probably, every Sunday when you come across the plaza, and pass the sculpture and monument to Martin Luther King, birds in flight. Said Karl Barth, ‘The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’. But King’s voice was not only or mainly a solo voice. He sang in a choir, in choro novo. He sang as one bird in the flock. Howard Thurman sang with him, for example. So did Allan Knight Chalmers. Robert Hamill’s voice was known in his regular column in motive magazine. Littell lead the way. Remember today three features of Littell’s voice.

He was the father of holocaust studies. Littell was the first to offer courses, formal study, in the area of the holocaust. Throughout his life, with passion, and as a Methodist preacher, he continuously challenged the Christian community to take emotional responsibility for the horrors of the holocaust. Yesterday, rightly, we honored those who physically, and in some cases ultimately, took responsibility for stopping the Third Reich. Littell, in his time here and later in his long career, never stopped pushing, preaching, even attacking his own Christian church to look hard, deep, and long at Auschwitz. He did so from this pulpit. He did so later as a college President, and he did so in scores of classrooms from Temple, to Emory, to Chicago. Remember his words: “Most gentiles, even church leaders, have not confronted the Holocaust and its lessons for the present day… It is important, especially for Jewish children, to know that in those terrible years not all the gentiles in Christendom were either perpetrators or passive spectators,” (NYT obit)

Likewise, Littell gracefully and steadily combined learning and piety. His ministry embraced both head and heart, and actually could not have been conceived or developed without such a real, even radical integration of the mind and the spirit. His passion about the holocaust, for instance, began out of a revulsion he felt as a student in Germany in 1939, attending a Hitler rally. He never forget the feeling of that early experience, and that feeling fueled his work through the years. Feelings are more than emotions, more than sentiment. They are the great steed, the great horse on which we ride. The mind is the bit and bridle, as Wesley somewhere wrote. He pressed the church, our church, to remember the great Kingswood hymn of Charles Wesley: ‘to unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. So he was a preacher who also was President of Iowa Wesleyan. He was a pastor, who also taught and wrote. He was a person of faith, who saw the need to combine mind and heart.

In addition, and to my great benefit, Littell was an early supporter and even translator and commentator on the work of Rudolph Bultmann, still an important voice in the study of the New Testament.

Holocaust, head and heart united, the critical study of the New Testament—these are three gifts of Littell to our time. His voice continues to bless us. Voice, the liberality of the gospel, is our central mission.

2. Vocation


Second, vocation.

Our time needs a cultural revolution as much or more than a theological reformation. The peace of God will come to earth as much at the urging and prompting of those committed to cultural transformation as through those engaged in the work of religious or even theological reconstruction. It is striking just how much religious expression is shaped, even determined, by the surrounding culture. Hence, while we hunt every work day for women and men who are called to preach—is that you?—we also here at Marsh Chapel are vigorous in our celebration of those called to service of other saving, healthy forms.

To that end, something powerful happened here last Sunday. And I am not referring to worship, prayer, sermon, or collection, our Sunday service at 11am, though I hope and
trust that we in our way offered our best selves to God in that hour of prayer. No, the wind of grace blew through here last Sunday at lunch as well.

Carefully and covertly, our lay leaders hatched a plan for a surprise lunch, to honor three young women of our congregation. One is a becoming a teacher, one a lawyer, and one is working on the hospitality of the church. Our lay leaders emailed and called and cooked up a smorgasbord for lunch. I doubt that any church luncheon was offered that was more savory and more calorific than that provided last Sunday. I think we lived on its effect for two days. Of course a beautiful cake concluded the repast. Our women and men decorated the room with balloons and crepe paper. They set out the table. The arranged for gifts. These gifts were delicately and carefully wrapped. I emphasize the detail of these gifts because the commitment to excellence in the manner of giving was so pronounced. People notice when things are done well. Excellence, enjoyment of people, and entrepreneurial spirit are three things that grow churches. I mean excellence at anything, from mowing the lawn to preaching to wrapping gifts with style.

After the meal, formal speeches and prayers were made. There was much humor. We sang also some happy birthday greetings. Then a charismatic transfer occurred. I am going to use the term ‘ordination’, only because you get the sense from it of what ‘went down’ last Sunday after lunch. The three women, none preachers, but all heading into ministry, were summoned forward. They were given gifts, practical and beautiful, helpful and playful. Then the community listened as they told the truth about their lives, and their vocations. One is going to work as urban teacher in Missouri. One is going to practice law for the greater good in Boston. One is going to continue to fan the flames of life and hospitable growth in a church not far from here, actually, Marsh Chapel itself. In the speaking, and listening, a transfer of charisma, of gifts, accompanied the transfer of physical gifts. No kneeling occurred, no hands were laid upon heads, no stoles or robes were put on. Yet an ordination of a truly profound sort occurred. Three young women named their callings, and the community cheered.

This is how the world gets better, when young people and once young people connect their deepest passions with the world’s greatest needs. It was a moment that preached out the following question: ‘and how about you?’ Lunch became a charismatic moment last week, a moment of transfer of charismata. Vocation, the liberality of the gospel set to work, is our central calling.

3. Volume


Third, volume.

In a moment we shall celebrate together Holy Communion. If you are listening from afar and would like to have someone bring communion to your home, call the chapel, and we will endeavor to do so. One by one, heart by heart, the good news of love divine changes people for the better. The lost are found. It is a moment of true joy, as our gospel today told us.

Many years ago, Jan and I were serving a little church in Ithaca, New York. We had two little children, and one beagle puppy. The salary was $8,000 a year, the home modest, the work challenging, the learning curve steep. It seemed like it was always Saturday night, and the sermon awaiting its writing.

One Saturday Jan came home in the morning from the grocery store in tears. Somehow she had lost her engagement ring. The ring itself was modest enough, a family heirloom, but nonetheless, a symbol at the heart of things. After a little breakfast, she had been shopping while the children were sleeping, and I was trying to figure out what to say the next day. We spent the later morning and all afternoon hunting for the ring. We went back to the grocery. We walked every aisle. We searched behind cereal boxes, and looked under grapefruit. We enlisted the help of kindly overworked store attendants. Dusk came, no ring. What a sad Saturday night! No ring, no sermon, no joy in Ithaca that night. Finally, the kids went down and Jan went off to bed. Sunday morning loomed, and the wind was just not in the sails.

About ten o’clock I went down into the kitchen. As every writer knows, the only cure for writer’s block is…eating. Even when there is no cure, the eating itself is, like virtue, its own reward. So I poured some juice. Then I waffled between cookies and toast, and settled on a piece of toast, comfort food. There was only one piece of bread left in the loaf, and I struggled to pull it out of the bag. As I did, I felt something. That is something that happens with bread and grape juice, sometimes. You feel something. I felt around in the bottom of that forlorn bread bag. Something small and hard, something round, something smooth, something good—I felt it. And there it was. A simple little ring, with a small diamond, the lost, now found. Is there a more joyful moment than this? Truly I tell you, there is joy in heaven, when the lost are found.

We are coming to the table in a moment. When you eat this bread and drink this cup, there is remembrance, there is presence, and there is thanksgiving, all in one. In feasting on the love of God, you are meant to turn up the volume, here at Marsh Chapel, for that love of God. Heart warmed, you are meant to warm other hearts. You are found, and you have found something, now go and find others for whom such divine discovery has yet to happen. Volume, the liberality of the gospel shared with others, is our central calling.

Coda


Our common prayer: voice, vocation, volume.

Voice like that of Franklin Littell, father of holocaust studies, combiner of head and heart, student of the Bible.

Vocation like that of three young women, a teacher, a lawyer, a minister.

Volume like that of bread and cup, word and table, in remembrance, real presence, and thanksgiving.