Archive for July, 2009

The God Nobody Knows

Sunday, July 26th, 2009


Click here to hear the sermon only.

On March 9 of this year, a report was released that made the front page of USA Today. It wasn’t the story of yet another corporate bankruptcy or a sex scandal involving a prominent politician. It was the report of the American Religious Identification Survey documenting what is widely being proclaimed as the decline of religion in America. The headline read, “Almost all denominations losing ground, survey finds,” and the bold print proclaimed, “Faith is shifting, drifting or vanishing outright.” The article states that “the percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation…The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic… And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.”(1) The survey found that in the past eighteen years, from 1990 to 2008, in spite of the fact that growth and immigration have added nearly fifty million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground.(2)

Most alarming for many is the fact that the group that claims no religion at all — the atheists, agnostics and other secularists — has almost doubled during the past eighteen years, from 8.2% to 15%. In New England, the increase in those claiming no religion has been almost threefold in that period of time, larger than the increases in other areas of the country. In Vermont, 34% claim no religious affiliation.(3) A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 42% of Vermonters say that religion is “an important part” of their daily lives — the lowest percentage of state residents polled across the country.(4) To quote Barry Kosmin, co-author of the American Religious Identification Survey, “More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.’”(5) So many Americans claim no religion at all, that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. The report concludes that in a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity… does not come from other religions, but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”(6)

When the phone rang on a cold, snowy day in February, it was Bob Hill calling from Boston. Would I be willing to come to Marsh Chapel and preach at my Alma Mater this summer, he asked? What an honor to be asked to preach in the place where, as a seminary student, I had heard William Sloane Coffin, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Gayraud Wilmore, Harrell Beck, Richard Nesmith and Walter Muelder, to name a few. What a thrill to stand in the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., once stood. Then Bob said that the topic was to be science and religion, Darwin and faith, and reality set in! What a challenge to speak about science and religion in a day when religion in general and the church in particular seems to be losing ground, a day when our culture is increasingly adopting a non-theistic world view. To be sure, religion is not going away. In fact, a follow-up article in USA TODAY by Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion here at Boston University, notes that the United States today has more Christians than any other country in human history.(7) But in the day to day scheme of things, what is the place of faith in the decision-making process, not only of governments and corporations, but of individuals such as you and me? Aren’t we all being affected by the growing secularism of our culture?

There was a time when the village church with its spire pointing toward heaven was the tallest building in town. It reminded all who passed by of the values that the people held and the focus of their faith. Nowadays, the tallest buildings in our cities and town are the offices of large corporations, dwarfing the churches in size and prominence, and I suspect, overshadowing their influence as well. It is worthy of note that the tallest buildings in Boston are not the churches, but the headquarters of insurance companies, which could be a sermon in itself! The aerial view of Boston University on the website shows Marsh Chapel at the very heart of this great university. But are religious values and ideals at the center of the life and influence of this institution?

Didn’t it all start about four hundred years ago when a man named Galileo pointed his first crude telescope toward the heavens? Yes, 2009 marks not only the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin; it also marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first recorded observations with a telescope. When Galileo looked through that lens, he discovered what contradicted thousands of years of traditional belief. He found that the moon was neither smooth nor unchanging, and that the earth was not the center of everything!

Many of Galileo’s contemporaries fiercely rejected his findings. Some refused to look through the telescope for fear of what they would see. The pope summoned Galileo to Rome, where the Inquisition found him “vehemently suspect of heresy.” Galileo was forced to “curse, and detest” his own work. He lived the rest of his life under house arrest, and his publications were banned. Only in 1992 — 359 years after the trial — was an apology issued by Pope John Paul II, officially admitting that Galileo was right!(8)

As foreign as the idea seems to our thinking today, early astronomers, of course, believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the other planets, and even the sun, revolved around it. In the early 1500′s, before Galileo’s telescope, Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, had proposed the radical idea that the sun is the center around which the other planets rotate. He taught that the sun is the source and sustainer of life as we know it. The work of Copernicus marks the starting point of modern astronomy, the beginning of the scientific revolution. This shift in focus, from the earth to the sun as the center of the solar system, became known as the Copernican Revolution.

When we are born, we see ourselves as the center of the universe. Everyone and everything exists in relation to us. Babies are very self-centered creatures! Gradually, as we grow and mature, we begin to see that the world does not revolve around us. Indeed, we begin to see that we are an alarmingly small part of the cosmos, no more than a cog in the machinery. Even though our Judeo-Christian heritage teaches that God has placed humanity at the very pinnacle of the created order (Psalm 8:5-6), we are not the center of the universe. In our self-absorbed and self-consumed culture, how much we need to hear that!

Of course, none of us today would proclaim that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the other planets, as well as the sun, revolve around the earth. Yet how many of us, by our actions, imply that we are the center of the universe, that the whole world revolves around us. We demand a grossly disproportionate share of the world’s resources to sustain our lifestyle. We have developed a cultural elitism and a chronological snobbery that allows us arrogantly to look down our noses at other cultures and previous civilizations.

When I was a student at Boston University School of Theology, I remember so well Professor Harrell Beck cautioning us not to assume that our perspective
was somehow superior to others. When Harrell and his wife, Leila, came to Boston to teach, they bought a home in Lexington. They had met when Harrell was on an archaeological dig in the Near East. When they fell in love and got married, Leila left her native Egypt to come with Harrell to Boston. Wanting Leila to appreciate the rich cultural heritage of New England, some of the well-intentioned women of the area took her on a tour of the historic, Revolutionary War sites of Lexington and Concord. “Some of these homes are over 200 years old!” the New Englanders told her. Harrell Beck, in his dry style, commented, “My wife, who grew up with a pyramid in her back yard, was not impressed!”

When Paul arrived in Athens, a leading city of his day, he encountered much the same atmosphere that a person finds in any modern city in the United States: some superficial attention given to religion, but not much in the way of substance and meaning. Paul noticed that the city was full of idols, statues to this god and to that one. The idols were offensive to the Apostle, but then Paul noticed an altar with the inscription, “To the God Nobody Knows.” In other words, the people were so concerned about doing their religious duty that they erected an extra altar, just in case there was one of the pantheon of deities that they had accidentally forgotten.

Before we laugh at the superstitious nature of the first century Greeks, may I say that I have encountered many 21st century Americans whose religion is little more than superstition. Like the person who throws a pinch of salt over his shoulder for good luck, we come to church if we need a favor from God or if we are feeling especially guilty about something, and hope that by doing this or that God will smile favorably in our direction. I can never quite understand the mentality of people who join a church or attend services or give a little money because, as they say, “I want to have all my bases covered.” That, my friends, is superstition, not religion. Superstition says maybe there is a God and maybe there isn’t. But just to be on the safe side, I’ll give lip service to traditional faith. Superstition says, “I’ll call on God when I need to, but when things are going well, I’ll just go on my merry way.” Superstition is inconsistent. It does not take life seriously. It plays the odds rather than faces the realities. Yet that’s the level upon which most people operated in first century Greece and the level upon which many people function today.

“In contrast to that,” says Paul in his sermon to the people of Athens and the people of New England, “There is a better way. This unknown god can be known! This mysterious presence to which you pay lip service can be understood and comprehended. You are missing something in your lives that this superficial nod toward religion is not going to satisfy. Why don’t you try real religion for a change?”

The essential message of Christianity is that this God whom we believe in not only exists, but is actively pursuing us, redeeming us and seeking to guide us from day to day. God is not just a vague something or other that we try not to upset. God can be a vital life force, making a difference in our lives, not just in emergencies, when we don’t know where else to turn, but in every aspect of our existence.

The unknown God makes himself known through the creation. I could easily become a nature worshiper. When I see a bird or a beautiful wild flower or the gracefulness of a deer or the overwhelming lure of the ocean or the majesty of a mountain or the power of a thunderstorm, then I am aware of the power of God operating in the world and I stand in awe of God’s creation.

The unknown God makes himself known through other people. When I am down and someone listens to me, when I am happy and someone celebrates with me, when I am anxious and afraid and someone takes my hand — then I know that God exists and that God cares. God often works through other people.

The unknown God makes himself known most profoundly and most completely in Jesus Christ. When God became a person, God limited himself, yet revealed his true nature in such a compelling way that it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could miss the point. If we want to see what God is like, all we need to do is look at Jesus. Jesus cared about the people that everyone else forgot. He was also concerned about the dimensions of personality that everyone else seemed to overlook: their inner feelings, their yearnings and their deep need for God. He wanted to see that the hungry were fed. But he was concerned not only with the sharing of daily bread but also with satisfying the hungers of the human heart. He was concerned with the alleviation of pain and suffering, but he recognized that mental and emotional anguish is the most severe pain of all. He talked with people about matters of life and death, reminding them that only those who are prepared to die are really ready to live, and that life after death is not only a future possibility but can be a present reality. Jesus taught by example that the meaning of life is not up for grabs — it need not be a superficial and self-centered existence, but a bold and confident adventure of faith.

Copernicus discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, that the sun was the center around which the other planets rotate. Christians believe that God can be known, and that the Son is the center around which our lives should rotate, that is S-O-N. This is a fundamental Christian belief, a shift in focus, if you will. If we embrace that belief, it will cause a Copernican Revolution in our lives, for we will begin to see that I am not the center of the universe, nor does the world revolve around me. Instead, we have a new center — the bright light of the Son — S-O-N — to lead and guide us from day to day, as we are told in the prologue to John’s Gospel .

Yes, the unknown God can be known. My own journey of faith has convinced me of that. Yet God remains beyond our total comprehension, and more powerful than we can imagine. It was Pascal who said, “A religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true.”(9) While the reality of the presence of God stands at the center of biblical faith, God’s presence is always elusive. “Truly, you are a God who hides yourself!” Isaiah writes (45:15). The Deity of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures always escapes human grasp and human manipulation.

Several years ago New Testament scholar, J.B. Phillips, wrote a book that became quite popular in religious circles entitled, Your God Is Too Small. In it he addressed a number of issues that people have about Christianity and pointed out that oftentimes our concept of God is too narrow or too provincial to embrace the Lord of the universe that the Psalmist writes about. The God of the cosmos can embrace scientific discussion and the expansion of human knowledge. The God that we worship can embrace the ideas of Galileo and Copernicus and Darwin and the best minds of our post-modern world. Francis Collins, who, until last summer, headed the National Genome Research Institute, said in an interview, “When I discover something about the human genome, I experience a sense of awe at the mystery of life and say to myself, ‘Wow, only God knew that before.’”(10) Collins writes, “In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us.” (11) If you believe that science and faith are not compatible, then perhaps your God is too small.

In his book, A Mass for the Dead, William Gibson tells about his own struggle for faith. He says that one time after his mother died, he picked up her gold-rimmed spectacles and her faded, dog-eared prayer book. He sat in what was once her favorite chair. He opened the book and tried to hear in those words what she must hav
e heard. He placed her spectacles on his nose and tried to see what she must have seen in that book. He reached — in desperation — for the slender thread of her faith, once so alive, so real, so meaningful. William Gibson writes that he did not see what she had seen; he could not hear what she had heard.

Gibson tried to stoke the fire of his mother’s faith — but it never works that way. Every one of us must discover the faith and come to know God for ourselves.

This morning I stand before you to tell you about “The God Nobody Knows,” as Eugene Peterson translates the words of the Apostle Paul, the God who is bigger than all our concepts and theories and ideas. I submit that this God is knowable, for I have seen evidence of God’s power and handiwork, and so have you. I have seen God at work in the kind and loving acts of so many people, and so have you. I have seen God revealed most clearly through Jesus Christ. World-famous missionary, E. Stanley Jones, who taught a class of Boston seminarians, myself among them, was fond of saying, “If God is like Jesus, he can have my life without question.” God is like Jesus, and I hold him before you today.

You are not the center of the universe! Our earth revolves around the sun, and God intends that your life revolve around the Son (S-O-N.) If you have not already done so, it is my prayer that you will take that “leap of faith” and commit your life to the God who can be known. And may each of us commit ourselves to follow where God leads.

Notes:
1. Grossman, Cathy Lynn. Redrawing the Map of American Religion. USA TODAY. March 9, 2009., p. 1.
2. Ibid.
3. The Christian Century. Vol. 126. No. 7., p. 15.
4. Ibid.
5. Kosmin, Barry. Quoted in USA TODAY. March 9, 2009., p. 1.
6. Grossman., Ibid.
7. Prothero, Stephen. Post-Christian? Not Even Close. USA TODAY. April 27, 2009., p. 11A.
8. Collins, Francis S. The Language of God. New York: Free Press, 2006.,
p. 156.
9. Pascal, Blaise. Pensees., p. 191.
10. Keefe, Mark. Reconciling Science and Religion. Plain Dealer. February 8, 2003., p. E4.
11. Collins. Ibid., p. 6.

~ The Rev. Dr. Charles D. Yoost,
Senior Pastor at Church of the Saviour, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

The Limits of our Exceptionalism

Sunday, July 19th, 2009
Hebrews 2: 5-18


Click here to hear the sermon only.


There are those who believe religions can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, except for Christianity. Other religions are humanity’s search for God, while Christianity is God’s search for humanity. Religions are human endeavors, except for mine. This way of thinking could be called Christian exceptionalism.

If one nation consumes significantly more than most of the rest of the world, and has a foreign policy based on keeping its citizen’s desire to consume sated, and if this nation uses its military to police its foreign policy, this nation would usually be called an empire. If we say that nations that become empires are inevitably oppressive of others, except for my nation because my nation, unlike other nations, is good and well-intentioned, this might be called nationalist exceptionalism.

A Boston University professor named Andrew J. Bachevich has written what I think is one of the most important books of the decade. Bachevich is a retired bird colonel, a student of the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, a long-term opponent of the war in Iraq, the father of a soldier who gave his life in Iraq. His book is a stinging critique of American consumerism, foreign policy and military policy. The book is entitled The Limits of Power. It is subtitled “The End of American Exceptionalism.”

Galtism — the idea that the rich are rich because they are superior to the poor– is an exceptionalist way of thinking. There are lots of examples.

One of the reasons Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was so shocking at the time it was published 150 years ago and continues to be at the center of the cultural wars of our time is that Darwin’s theories challenge and undermine pretty much every expression of exceptionalism.

Darwin discovered in his study of nature a radical egalitarianism. Life has evolved the way it has not because some forms of life were especially ordained or superior but simply because the organisms that are best adapted to their environment tend to produce more offspring while those less well suited tend to diminish.

The phrase “The survival of the fittest” does not mean the survival of those who go to the gym the most. It means the survival of those who happen to fit best within the environment in which they find themselves. It could just as well be called the survival of the luckiest … the survival of those species that find themselves in the time and place that happen to fit them best.

Not divine selection, not moral selection, not even intelligent selection –I’ve known some folk who were exceedingly intelligent and have not tended to produce more offspring (watch an episode of the TV show “The Big Bang” sometime). Not selection by any merit but natural selection.

Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says: “Darwin’s theory challenged the notions of human exceptionalism and brought to light this idea that humans are a result of natural processes, meaning we are not as ‘special’ as we once thought.”

The new book Darwin’s Sacred Cause argues that a major driving force behind Darwin’s study and research was that he believed nature shows that there is no basis in nature for slavery, prejudice and human suffering. One of the authors James Moore says that Darwin believed nature teaches us that there is “no high or low, better or worse. Things [are] just different.”

What do we think about this, those of us who read poetry and pray and sing hymns and listen to sermons?

Well, clearly we human beings are special. It wasn’t raccoons that built this beautiful chapel, was it? It wasn’t chipmunks who wrote the music we hear the choir sing.

Of course, we are special, just maybe not as special as we once thought. Whatever else we are, we are animals too. We need to eat.

I travelled in Africa some with a bishop I used to work for who had visited Africa many, many times. He used to tell me that when you travel in Africa and someone offers you food you eat it because you can never be sure when you’ll eat again.

I asked him once why he thought a certain African nation kept electing an obviously corrupt president. He said that when you have experienced starvation, you will elect anyone you think will feed you. This is not that different from the “It’s the economy, stupid” election campaigns here in the US, is it?

We do not have to be enslaved by our appetites but we usually get in trouble if we try to deny they exist. I know eating disorders are a complicated thing and I don’t want to trivialize their causes, but the Jungian therapist Marion Woodman, who was anorexic as a young woman, believes that one of the things that food disorders, and their prevalence in our society, symbolizes is a desire not to be bound to the earth, not to be dirty, not to make dirt, not to be human. The prevalence of food disorders symbolizes a desire to be more than human, to be angels, to be gods. She calls it an “addiction to perfection.” Maybe all addictions are.

We don’t have to be enslaved by our appetites but, as my mother used to say, “You’ve got to eat.” I knew an exceptional person years ago who starved himself to death as a protest against homelessness in America. I never want to see such an exceptional thing happen again.

Whatever else we are, we are animals too. And part of it is that we are sexual. We don’t need to be slaves to our sexual drives and feelings but it is generally not very smart to pretend they don’t exist. You know who was very practical and down-to-earth about this? Some of you will be surprised. The Apostle Paul. I’m not kidding.

Apparently for some of his life Paul was celibate, and he writes in one of his letters that he wishes all Christians could be like him in this way so that they could concentrate all their energies on ministry, but then he adds this proviso. However, he says, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (I Cor. 7: 6-7) It is not a good idea to pretend that you are not sexual. It is better to find healthy ways of expressing our sexuality. It seems to me a pretty enlightened way of thinking for the times, admittedly in a guy sort of way. I think if Paul knew what we know today he would agree with Massachusetts and Connecticut and Idaho. It is not a good idea to expect human beings not to be sexual.

Whatever else we are, we are animals. We are sexual. And we are subject to the vicissitudes of earthly existence. We have not figured out how to do away with disease and death yet.

I miss Sue Zable. Sue was an ordained clergyperson and a seminary professor, but she plunged into congregational life like any rank-and-file Christian. Sue even took a turn at chairing our finance committee. You know how rare it is to find a seminary professor who’d be willing to chair a local church finance committee … or capable?

Sue got cancer and too soon died. You know the scripture she quoted to me most often as she was fighting her cancer? She quoted the words of Jesus saying that God “makes [God’s] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45}

Cancer happens. Disease happens. Death happens. We
can study disease and try to eradicate it and we should, but apparently God or nature does not except us from natural disasters, disease, physical anomalies, congenital disorders, or any of the rest of it. Apparently God or nature does not dole out diseases to those who deserve them or grant good health to those who deserve that. We are not excepted.

A friend sent me this week a photo of somebody’s great-grandmother sitting in front of a birthday cake with three candles on the cake. The candles were in the shapes of the letter 1, 0, 0 and spelled out 100. She was leaning forward toward the cake using the flame of the second candle to light her cigarette. Go figure.

I love listening to your choir on your podcasts but on the treadmill at the gym, I sometimes to listen to a British guitar player and songwriter named Mark Knopler. I like him because his lyrics are often a combination of profundity and fun. He wrote these lyrics:

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug
Sometimes it all comes together, baby
Sometimes you’re a fool in love
Sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger
Sometimes you’re the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re going lose it all

You gotta know happy – you gotta know glad
Because you’re gonna know lonely
And you’re gonna know bad
When you’re rippin’ and a ridin’ and you’re coming on strong
You start slippin’ and a slidin’ and it all goes wrong, because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug …

One day you got the glory
One day you got none
One day you’re a diamond
And then you’re a stone

Everything can change
In the blink of an eye
So let the good times roll
Before we say goodbye, because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug …

John Richard Newhause said, before he died, that the mortality rate seems to be holding steady at 100 percent. No exceptions.

Apparently God doesn’t make the sun shine on the good or grant them health and wealth and advanced degrees, nor does God make it rain or send trouble and hardship to only the unrighteous. Apparently God doesn’t make an exception for me or you. So where is God in all this?

Of course, it is too big a question to answer in one sermon. But I think there are a couple of hints in the book of Hebrews as to where God might be in the midst of natural selection and evolution.

I turned to the Book of Hebrews because it asks the question, What is a man? What is a woman? What is a human being? But I found there some hints to the question: where is God?

The Book of Hebrews says (I think this is absolutely delightful): “Now God did not subject the coming world about which we are speaking to angels.” (Hebrews 2:5) Then. Later, talking about Jesus, Hebrews says; “It is clear he did not come to help angels but the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2: 16-17)

Whatever God is doing in the universe, it is not in the angelic realms of elevated and lofty sentiments and nobility, not in the rarified purity of heavenly places. It is in the world where whatever else we are we are animals and we are sexual, and where we are healthy and full of life sometimes and where we get sick and die other times. No exceptions. That world. This world. The world of windshields and bugs and Louisville sluggers and balls.

Warren Zevon was another song-writer. His lyrics too were often smart and funny. He abused substances severely and then found sobriety and then was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer. He knew he was dying. He agreed to go on the David Letterman show. It was an amazing show. You can watch it on YouTube. You should.

Zevon talked with Letterman openly and with a sense of humor about his impending death. At one point in the interview Letterman asked Zevon, “Is there anything you know from the place you are at now that I might not know?” At the edge of death, is there any knowledge that you can share with me who will be there someday too?

Zevon said, “Not really. The only advise I could give you is: enjoy every sandwich.”

Where is God in the world of natural selection and evolution? I think God is in the sandwich. Isn’t this what we Christian say we believe – that God is in the bread and the wine?

Every four years Methodists elect delegates to national and regional conferences, and they pass the rules of the church and elect bishops. Back in Washington there is a very funny resolution that some people wrote that we will be voting on next year. It says that Methodist clergy shall not campaign to be elected as delegates to General or Jurisdictional conferences neither shall they campaign to be elected as bishops. This is a very funny resolution.

Passing a law that Methodist clergy should not jockey for position and power and prestige within the church is like passing a law that hound dogs should not sniff nor monkeys scratch.

See, I think God is somewhere in the midst of grubby church politics. God is in the midst of the fervent departmental wars in this university. God is in the midst of the wheeling and dealing in the halls of Congress. Whatever God is doing in our world, God isn’t doing it in the realm of the lofty and angelic. God is doing it in the world where we eat and mate and practice politics. God is in the bread and the wine. We ought to taste every bite, laugh at everything that is funny, cry about all the sadness. God is in the sandwich.

The other hint I see in Hebrews is that God is somewhere in the rules to which we are subjected. Not the rules we make but the rules we can’t do anything about … the rules with no exceptions.

God is somewhere in the rule that when the humidity in the air reaches a certain point at a certain temperature, it is going to rain on us whether we are righteous or unrighteous.

God is somewhere in the rule that determines the sun is going to set at 8:16 p.m. tonight in Boston whether we are good or bad the rest of the day today. Test it if you want. Be as good or as bad as you can be today, and the sun will still set at 8:16 p.m. in Boston tonight. Check it out.

No matter whether we are righteous or unrighteous during the night tonight, the sun is going to rise at 5:26 a.m. in Boston tomorrow morning. No exceptions.

God is somewhere within the rules to which we are subjected. The rule that the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent. The rule that none of us gets out of here alive. The rule that a sperm and an egg will meet and seed new life. The rule of survival of the luckiest.

God is somewhere in the rule that we more or less reap what we sow … the rule that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time …. Malcom X’s rule that chickens come home to roost …. Dr. King’s rule that truth crushed top the earth will rise again.

God is in the sandwich and God is somewhere in the rules to which we are subjected.

Eight years before he completed The Origin of the Species 1851, Charles Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, the light of his life, died. It was a massive grief. After her death, Darwin concentrated even more on his work. He plunged into it to it almost to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe he was just compensating for his pain.

But something else may have been at work in him. It may be that when our world has fallen apart the rules of the universe can feel to us like everlasting arms.

We find God in the sandwich and somewhere in the rules that we can neither make nor change. No exceptions.

~ The Rev. Dr. Dean Snyder,
Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C.

Reading the Bible after Darwin

Sunday, July 12th, 2009
2 Corinthians 4: 7-18

Click here to hear the sermon only.


For those of us who love the Bible, Darwin has not made reading it any easier, has he? He has wrecked havoc with the opening chapters of the book, sure, but more than this, he has raised the question of where we are to discover the God of the Bible in a world of evolution and natural selection where there seems little place left for God to be, little left for God to do. Darwin has compelled us to read the Bible anew asking new questions. He hasn’t made reading the Bible easier.

I think the Christian Century writer Amy Frykholm is right when she says that most mainline Christians have made our peace with Darwin.

“We may not have grasped all the nuances of the scientific debate,” she says, “but we have concluded that evolutionary science is good science and therefore must be compatible with good theology. … We believe that [evolution and] natural selection [are] evidently part of God’s method of shaping the natural world.”

We have accepted the thrust of Darwin’s ideas but most of us have not really explored very carefully the implications of this for our understanding of the God of the Bible and the biblical story.

“I, for one,” Frykholm says, “do most of my thinking about science out of one mental box and my thinking about religion out of another. … While I think the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.” [italics mine]

“Perhaps that’s because the content of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible,” she concludes. There are implications here for the way we read the Bible that we are still trying to figure out.

I want to suggest that Darwin and the evolutionary sciences which he helped birth have actually done those of us who love the Bible a favor. Darwin has not made it easier for us to read the Bible but he has compelled us to read it more profoundly.

Of course, it wasn’t only Darwin. The same century that produced Darwin produced David Strauss, Julius Wellhausen and other pioneers of higher biblical critical thought who have taught us that the Bible is intricately layered and richly contextual. It is the same century that gave us Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. Lots was happening in the era that produced Darwin, and all these have all done us a favor because they have compelled us to look more deeply into scripture to find God. But certainly Darwin too.

Darwin, with his radical commitment to discernable truth, forced us to realize that we will not find God in the cosmology, biology, epistomolgy, or superficial politics of the Bible. No, we’ve got to look more deeply than this within the Bible to find God.

An image that works here, I think, is the one the apostle Paul uses in II Corinthians. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul says. (II Cor. 4:7) And the clay jar he is talking about most of all is himself. Paul is a clay jar. His ideas are clay jars. His writings are clay jars even when they later become part of scripture.

A clay jar is disposable. It is temporary. It passes away. It is important only because it contains the treasure. Someday the treasure will be poured into some other clay jar. The clay jar has only passing value. Our goal is to discern the treasure both held and hidden within the clay jar.

Darwin compels us to read the Bible this way … to look into and beyond the clay jars to find the treasure … to look more deeply within scripture to find God.

God is not found within the details of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, mostly borrowed from Babylonian mythologies. The details of the seven days are disposable. God is found, if we are to find God, deeper down within the story — within the form that pulls itself up out of the void, within the impulse to life, within the drive toward intelligence.

God is not found among the trees and the snakes of the Garden of Eden of Genesis 2. The details of the Eden story are disposable. God is found, if we are to find God, deeper down within the story, in the human capacity for good and evil, in the struggle within us between self-indulgence and responsibility.

God is not found within the laws of the Pentateuch. We will not find God in the “shalts” and “shalt nots” of various and sundry commandments. We will not find God in the condemnations and abominations of Leviticus. Those laws are temporary and disposable. We’ve got to look deeper to find God. We’ve got to look at the pull within humanity to make laws, the impulse within us to discern how we are meant to live morally. The specific laws themselves are clay pots but they hold and hide the treasure of the awareness of moral responsibility and culpability within the human spirit. This is where we will find God.

God will not to be found in the various social and political structures of the Bible. The social and political orders of the Bible are all temporary and disposable. The imperfect biblical governments riddled with such institutions as slavery, the divine right of kings, and patriarchy are clay jars. If we want to find God we must look beneath the superficial social and political institutions of the Bible to the human impulse to live together orderly and justly and in harmony. The flawed biblical attempts at this are just temporary and passing pointers toward the longing for the realm of God. This is where we will find God in the Bible.

God will not to be found in the biblical theories of atonement and propitiation and substitution. These are clay jars. They hold and hide treasure. God will be found deeper, within the cross, within the human capacity for true altruism, self-giving, and agape love.

Darwin, not Darwin alone, but Darwin for sure, Darwin compels us to search more deeply in scripture to find God. To look within and past the clay pots that hold and hide the treasure.

It is hard to tell how much of this Darwin himself knew. He went from being a candidate for the Anglican priesthood to becoming an agnostic but, even as an agnostic, some days he affirmed his belief in God. He was not a very good agnostic. For some, you know, agnosticism doesn’t mean that they can’t believe in God. It just means they can’t believe in the god being imposed on them. I suspect it was this way with Darwin.

A new book just published this year by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Darwin’s Sacred Cause studies Darwin’s personal papers and notes and even the scribblings in the margins of the books he read and comes to the conclusion that Darwin’s compulsion to discover the ancestry of humanity was motivated by his hatred of slavery. Slavery was one of the clay jars defended by many of its proponents as “biblical” and “natural,” and Darwin believed natural selection undermined the legitimacy of slavery that natural and biblical theologies were sometimes used to justify.

A fascinating book by Keith Thomson Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature explores the debate about evolution for the 150 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species. Thomson discovered that many of Darwin’s predecessors and adversaries in the debate about evolution, especially William Paley, feared the idea of evolution because they feared social change. Paley and others preferred to think that poverty and misery were the give
ns of nature.

It may well be that Darwin knew at some level of his being and intellect that the God of clay jars is an idol and that Darwin’s passion for observable truth was an effort to liberate God as well as humanity.

There is inspiration here for the struggles of our time … obviously the struggle to protect the integrity of science and the academy from those who would corrupt them for ideological purposes, but also the continuing struggle against patriarchy, the struggle against racism, the struggle against poverty and economic injustice, the struggle for gay and lesbian inclusion and equality.

Part of the reason finding God in the depth rather than the shallows of the Bible is important is because it returns the Bible to us as an agent of transformation in our lives and world. We’ve wanted the Bible to give us information or theories or explanations or rationales or justifications, and what the Bible has wanted to give us instead is life.

If we can find God in the depths of the Bible, perhaps we can find God again in the depths of the world we live in today and in the depths of our own lives.

One of my heroes when I was a student here 40 years ago and then a young minister was a South Baptist preacher named Carlyle Marney. He died 30 years ago this year.

Carlyle Marney was once spending a couple of days at a seminary in the South. He wandered into a room where some of the seminary students were having a discussion. They were arguing about where the Garden of Eden had been located. Some thought it had been in the Middle East; others thought it had been located in Egypt.

One of the students asked Carlyle Marney where he thought the Garden of Eden had been. He said: “I know exactly where it was. It was at 1611 Locust Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
The students looked at him in wonderment, so he continued.

“It was at 1611 Locust Street in Knoxville,” he said, “that my mother gave me some money when I was a small boy to go to the corner store to get milk. When I got there, instead of buying milk, I bought candy. I had eaten the candy by the time I got home. When I got there I hid in the hallway closet behind the coats. After awhile, my mother came and opened the closet door and pushed aside the coats and looked at me and said, ‘Carl, what have you done?’

So you see,” he told the students, “the Garden of Eden was located at 1611 Locust Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.”

Each of us has in our life a Garden of Eden.

Each of us has in our life a Tower of Babel, an Egypt, a Red Sea, a Sinai, a wilderness and a Promised Land. Each of us has in our life a Jerusalem and a Temple, a Babylon, an exile, a Diaspora, and a homecoming. Each of us has in our life a Bethlehem of Judea, a Capernaum, a Samaria, a Jerusalem, a Gethsemane, an Upper Room, a Golgotha, a betrayal, a denial, and an empty tomb. Each of us has in our life a Pentecost, a road to Damascus, an Isle of Patmos, a New Jerusalem, and a heavenly city.

If we can learn to find God in the deep places of the Bible, then perhaps we can rediscover God in the deep places of our lives and of our world again.

Darwin has not made it easier for those of us who love the Bible to read it. But he has helped us read it more profoundly, to look into the Bible more deeply to find God.

Darwin and the Personalists

Sunday, July 5th, 2009
Matthew 6: 1-13


Click here to hear the sermon only.


Preface


We spend a part of each summer on a small lake. Ours is a real ‘Once More to the Lake’, lake, with much of the beauty, memory, quiet, seclusion and sense of mortality in E B White’s fine story of that name. The tight belt and wet shorts follow the swim–and forecast death.
We do a good job at the bad job of deceiving ourselves about how short, how fragile life can be. And therefore, to the same end, about how wondrous, splendid, magnificent is every hour and every day.

One night we puttered about in a boat with a 9 horse motor. No one else was around, no one else was in sight. We let the motor idle, then die. And all around there was endless silence. That quiet that tingles and tickles. We sat in the boat. We sat a good long time. We had talked enough, so we just sat. There were 6 or 8 different bird calls, repeated, moving against the background of the nothing, the quiet. There was then, after a while, the long low frog call, and again, and again. There was a little quiet wind, just enough to move the trees. Two dogs barked, but only a little. A bass jumped, then another. Then the long stretch of stillness, again. A deep, long quiet. At last a car moved along the shore road, slowly and softly but with enough steam and sound to break the mood.

Here is our experience. Mystery. Silence.

In faith we face our experience. At its depth, our experience is about mystery, and about the exploration, step by step, of that mystery, along the trail of the mystery of discipleship. In fact, that is a lot of what faith is meant to do, to help us truly to face up to our experience. Today, before we receive the Eucharist, we shall depend on our faith to help us face our experience as creatures, surrounded in a vast creation, older and larger than we have imagined, and shrouded in a mysterious silence. We shall look for help in the writings of one of the great Boston teachers, the father of a philosophy called ‘Personalism’, Borden Parker Bowne. We shall see whether he, and others like him, can help us in our discipleship, our experience, in mystery, in silence.

Our lectionary gospel today, Mark 6, acclaims the mystery of discipleship, and reminds us of the requirement to let things go, to leave unnecessary, weighty baggage behind. Jesus’ representatives, you and you all, are not to take anything unnecessary along for the journey: no bread, no bag, no cash, no change of clothes. You take only a staff, a defensive weapon of self-protection from the wild dogs of pride, sloth, and falsehood. (Falsehood and sloth can hurt you. So can pride.) Tie your running shoes double tight so that when you need to vamoose, to amscray, to make like a tree and leave, you do so dragging along no dust.

This summer we listen for a good word about Darwin and faith. Our preachers represent the best of Protestant preaching both regionally and nationally, and together they well blend ‘the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. Some are teachers with pastoral experience. Some are pastors with scholarly accomplishment. All are themselves disciples—knowers and lovers both. Their presence this summer is in the service of the ministry of the word. We thank them for their gifts to us: Drs. Wildman, Neville, Snyder, Yoost, Wegter-McNelly, Peterson, and Br. Whitney. Our series, “Darwin and Faith”, is unabashedly evangelical in purpose. We are reaching out to those whose mother tongue is the scientific method, who with us affirm the truth in Darwinian theory, and who seldom, if ever hear the preaching of the Gospel of truth to include evolutionary truth. We are reaching out to those in lab coats, holding stethescopes, using microscopes, who remember the trial of Scopes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the miracle of discipleship, are yours, too, we affirm. We are also reaching out to those who have long been seized by the confession of the church, but who discern a falsehood, whether spoken or silent, in the church’s own preaching of the Gospel of truth, who seldom if every hear that preaching to include evolutionary truth. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the mystery of discipleship, can continue to be yours as well, 200 years after Darwin’s birth and 2,000 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

Today, we ask, we wonder, did those here in Boston 100 years ago, midway between Darwin’s birth and our morning Eucharist, leave us something to guide us along the trail of the mystery of discipleship?

In earshot of Mark 6 and 1 John 4, our response is in the affirmative. They teach us something about confidence, something about experience, and something about development.

Darwin and the Personalists


1. Confidence


First, confidence. The Personalists lived and taught a robust confidence about faith facing knowledge, religion meeting science. In particular they had no fear of learning from evolutionary theory.

For most of its history, Boston University has been the home of Personalism, a distinctive North American philosophical perspective, whose best known disciple was M L King. In addition to offering certain theological perspectives, Personalism celebrated the freedom and potential of the human person.. For Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar Brightman, their late Kantian idealism made man the measure of all things, and saw in personality a clue to the nature of the divine. Listen briefly to Bowne, in his major work, titled, simply, ‘Personalism’, cited throughout the sermon, and published in 1908, halfway between Darwin’s birth and our service today:

“A wise naturalism has displaced the false supernaturalism of earlier time…We may admit the evolutionary formula as a description of the order in which things come along, such that the earlier forms were simple and homogenous, and the later forms more complex and differentiated.” (18)

Science and religion, long star crossed lovers, need each others’ embrace now, in 2009, perhaps more than at any other time in human history. Science flounders without the wonder, legacy, discipline, morality, and purposeful compassion in religion at its best. Religion flounders without the factual honesty, native humility, reverence for experience, and practical compassion in science at its best. Truth is truth, in learning and in piety. Of course, among others, Paul Tillich wisely taught us this 50 years ago. Of course, among others, Howard Thurman, that lover of penguins, wisely preached this, ‘in the sweep of the natural embrace’, 50 years
ago.

Our Boston University forebears, the Personalists of all five generations, give us the gift of confidence. In person, in fact, they were confident people. I studied under a fifth generation Personalist at Ohio Wesleyan, Dr. Lloyd Easton. My father studied with Edgar Brightman, here at BU, who filled the Bowne chair in those years. The Personalists still have some things to teach us, about Darwin and faith.

Philosophy, theology and preaching begin in wonder. The experience of lasting good is a mystery to be explored, a depth to divine. So Bowne asked, ‘What is the power at work which produces the phenomenal order?’ (96)

2. Experience


Second, experience. For all of their idealism (another subject for another day), the Personalists focused on experience, and, more narrowly, on the mystery of experience.

Bowne: ‘Philosophy is simply an attempt to give an account of experience (4)…Experience itself must be accepted as unconditionally trustworthy (32)…Experience itself is the primary fact (89)…All thought about reality must be rooted in experience (104)…For us, the real can never be anything but the contents of experience, and whatever we may infer from them (108)… Our problem is to explain the world of experience (149).

Their understanding of experience continuously pronounced an apprehension of mystery.

Mystery in experience. Perhaps an epigrammatic chorus will help: Philosophy begins in wonder. The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. Experience is a mystery to be explored. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. ‘No one has ever seen God’. God is seer, not seen. God is not in time, time is in God.

Mystery in experience. They argued that the strength of our necessary negation needs to be further strengthened still, to include ourselves, and to include our own limitations: a personal, even humble admission of our ultimate ignorance. For all our knowledge of the connections between water, rock, plant, fish, bird, and animal life, we are still sitting in silence, on a boat, the 9 horse motor now stilled.

The whole boatload of wisdom literature in the Bible could be cited here (Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, all):

Mystery in experience. The wisdom chorus: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. Where were you when I forged the foundations of the universe? I perceived that under the sun the race is not to the swift…time and chance happen to all. There is no speech, nor are there words…

Mystery in experience. Bowne: “there is nothing to excite alarm in any permissible doctrine of the transformation of species”(250)

We who embrace a strict negativity, a theological via negativa, the marrow Protestant aversion to idolatry, need to make sure that we are negative enough, that our negation extends far enough, far enough to include us, too.

Once you admit the reality of the invisible, in your own experience, you make space for the exploration of mystery.

Mystery in experience. Is memory real? Are dreams things of substance? Are thoughts things? What about dread, longing, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair—are they actual existential realities? Is friendship something real? What about trust, or affection, or confidence or agreement? And love? Is love more than affective byproduct? When you say, ‘I love you’, does the verb refer to anything real? Let me ask you about hope. When you say, ‘I sure hope so’, does the verb refer to anything? What of faith? When you say, “I have faith in him”, does this mean anything?

Memory is invisible. So, too, are dreams, thoughts, dread, friendship, trust, affection, confidence, love, hope, and faith. All these are things invisible, heaven not earth. Do you admit to their reality? Or not? Once you admit, in personal experience, to the reality of the invisible, you admit, in general, to the possibility of invisible reality. As Bultmann once wrote, the Gospel is the triumph of the invisible over the visible, of what is not visible over what is.

A central, particular case of this mystery of the invisible is what Bowne terms the ‘mystery of self-determination’: “This is something which cannot be mechanically analyzed or deduced as a necessary resultant—it can only be experienced…It can only be recognized as the central factor of personality, the condition of responsibility, and the basis of the moral life. (210).

Our need is to understand, to face, our experience–which includes experience of the invisible, the non-material. Our experience includes more than the very real dimensions, equally present in cosmic and personal life, of the impersonal, the ambivalent, the inattentive, the passive, the wild, the violent, the inexplicable, and the wasteful.

3. Development


Third, development. The Personalists took up the Darwinian insight into development with all its random, wasteful, violent, unforeseen effects.

Development, change, progression are at the heart of things. The Personalists saw and emphasized this many decades ago. A Darwinian perspective causes us to value development, to see continuities between our own created being and the rest of the known world, to acknowledge continua and continuity, all of which will help us in our time. Bowne: “the universe is no fixed and completed static fact, but rather a process” (213). Again: “No developing thing can ever be understood or defined by what it momentarily is, but only by all that which it is to become” (247)

In addition, they argued that social Darwinism needs strongly to be avoided. Bowne passionately opposed Spencer and others, and gave us an example for avoiding the social misapplications of Darwinian theory that threaten to emerge in any age.

Bowne’s idealism we may dispute, or not. But regard, for a moment, his conclusion, which we may be inclined to admit:

“The more we dwell upon this view, the more mysterious our life becomes for the imagination…In its relation to man the space world is largely a potentiality, waiting for realization by man himself. There are harvests waiting to grow, and flowers waiting to bloom, but it cannot be until man sets his hand to work. The flora and fauna of the earth are increasingly taking their character from our will and purpose. Even climate itself is not independent of our doings and misdoings. The space world is nothing complete and finished in itself, but is forever becoming what we will it to be.” (276).

In the mystery of discipleship, here is a witness, a Personalist witness from 100 years ago, to affirm confidence, experience, and development. In faith, with an affirmation of confidence, experience, and development, we may continue to face our experience. You may take confidence. You may trust experience. You may engage development.

Conclusion


The author of 1 John knew theological difficulty better than we do, and, in concert with the author of the Gospel of John displayed more spiritual courage than we normally do. He said: “No one has ever seen God”; the d
ivine, the invisible, that beyond our poor power to add or detract, the unimaginable. But this author then moves ahead. He invites you to explore mystery. He even gives you the necessary clue about how to do so. “If” (a big if) “we love one another, God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us”. Dwells and develops, lives and lasts. How? How so? It is a mystery, the mystery of discipleship. You are invited to travel light. You are invited to come along.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
And wait to watch the water clear, I may
I shan’t be gone long.
You come too.

Amen.


~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.