Sermon Series: Christianity Without Easy Answers
“Christianity: An Art, not a Science”
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Philippians 2: 5-13
In his movie Religulous, he says with great frustration as though we just don’t get it, that there is no way to know the things religion talks about. There is no way to know whether there is life after death or whether God hears our prayers or, if God does, whether it makes any difference. There is no way I can know these kinds of things, he says, and there is no way for anybody to know these kinds of things; therefore, religion is at best useless and at worst a fraud.
Well, he is right that religion talks about things that we can not know. This is precisely what religion talks about. Religion is the means we use to think about and act on the things in life that we can absolutely not know.
Because there are things about existence and about life we can not know, it does not mean those things are unimportant or don’t matter. In fact, it seems to me that the realms of life about which we can not have knowledge in the sense of hard facts – the things we cannot know – are some of the most important parts of our lives. Religion is the language we use to talk about these things. Religious language and practices are the means we use to try to make sense and to make decisions in these realms where we cannot have knowledge.
We are beginning a new sermon series today on the theme: “Christianity without Easy Answers.” I think some of our friends who are not active in church sometimes have mistaken impressions about what we believe and do as Christians. Like Bill Maher, they may think we make claims that we may not be making. They may think we believe things we may not believe the way they think we believe them. So between now and the Sunday after Easter I want to try to make my way through a number of areas of the Christian faith where I think there may be misunderstanding.
My hope is that these sermons might help you to think through what Christianity means to you and that they will help us talk together about our faith.
Bill Maher is absolutely right. Religion talks about things that I can not know and that you can not know and that nobody can know. What caused the universe to exist? Is its existence an accident or intentional? Is my existence accidental or part of some bigger picture? Is there a Supreme Being? If so, does the Supreme Being know I exist? Does the Supreme Being have any feelings toward me? Does it matter whether I get out of bed in the morning? Does it matter if I try or just get by? Does it matter if I live or die? Does it matter whether I tell the truth or keep my commitments or am honest?
The questions are endless and we can not know with certainty the right answer…or even if there is a “right” answer. Sometimes the questions are very specific. Should I work another hour on this work project that I don’t think is very important but that will make me more successful professionally or should I spend the hour with a friend who is lonely? How much should I spend on a haircut this week? How should I respond to the man who asks me for money every morning on my way to the Metro? How should I respond to the person who seems to be flirting with me who is not my partner or who is somebody else’s partner? How do I relate to the co-worker who is driving me crazy? What do I do about the person who has deeply hurt me? How do I handle the feelings in my stomach when I think about dying? What do I do with my grief and pain when a loved one dies? What do I do when the doctor tells me the test has come back positive? How do I decide on a vocation? What do I do with my anxiety about maybe losing my job?
Responding to some of these kinds of questions in certain ways can become habitual and hardly even conscious anymore unless we stop to reflect on them. We can develop habitual ways of thinking: Positivity or negativity can become habits. Affirmation or criticism can become habitual. Shame or self-esteem can become habits. We can live out the answers to some of life’s deepest questions without actually stopping to think much about them. Our attitudes become almost automatic. Have you ever known anyone who when you begin a conversation with them you know they are almost surely going to complain or someone who you can be sure is going to be optimistic?
And there are even questions that we cannot put into words but that gnaw away inside us in a place deeper than words. “Sighs too deep for words,” the Apostle Paul called them. (Rom. 8: 26).
So religion is about the aspects of life where there are no clear and easy answers but that we still need to think about and talk about and act on. The way we talk about these things is through stories, poems, memories from the past, speculations about the future, myths, laws, reasoning and logic, jokes, hymns, rites, rituals, habits, practices and silences.
The particular set of stories and poems and rites and rituals and all the rest that we use here to try to figure out how to live in regard to those things we can not know is Christianity. Christianity is the stories, poems, memories from the past, speculations about the future, myths, laws, reasoning and logic, jokes, hymns, rites, rituals, habits, practices and silences that Christians use to deal with the aspects of life about which we can not really know but that we still need to deal with and think about and talk about and make choices about. Most of our stories and memories and speculations and rituals have in some way to do with Jesus Christ, who has helped us – we who are Christians – more than anyone else with the questions to which there are no verifiable absolute answers.
Religion, or what the Apostle Paul called faith, is about how we live when we cannot know. Paul was aware of this as much as anybody. “We walk by faith not by sight,” he said. (II Cor. 5: 7) “For now we see through a mirror dimly,” he wrote, “now I know in part.” (I Cor. 13: 12) “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he said. (Phil. 2:12) Eighteen times the Pauline corpus uses the word mystery.
But every time Paul talks about not being able to know, in each case, he also affirms that because of the faith we have through Jesus Christ we can manage to live with purpose and direction.
“We walk by faith not sight [but] we do have confidence,” Paul says. “For now we see through a mirror dimly but then we shall see face to face,” he says. “Now I know in part but then I will know fully even as I have been fully known. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you.”
“Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great,” Paul writes to Timothy, but then he immediately repeats the Christ story, saying: “He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” (I Tim. 3: 16) This is the story that guides us in the presence of mystery.
The first epistle of John says it beautifully: “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3: 2) We don’t know what we shall be but we trust that we shall be like him.
We can not know, but the stories, poems, rituals, habits, reasoning and logic of Christianity help us find a way to live with faith, hope and love even when we can not know…even when nobody can know…especially when no one can know.
We also have to acknowledge that not knowing is uncomfortable. We like to know things. The more certainty we can have the better we feel. I pretty much know the stock market is likely to rebound before I start drawing my pension but I’d rather be certain. Right? Knowing is much more comfortable than having faith. Not knowing gives us a sense of “fear and trembling,” as Paul said.
The American philosopher who has influenced American education more than any other single person John Dewey delivered the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion in 1929 on the topic of the relationship between knowing and doing. He entitled the lectures “The Quest for Certainty.”
There is within the human soul a longing for certainty. It is this quest for certainty that drives philosophy and science and learning. The great temptation for all religion, including Christianity, is to try to claim certainty when all we can really have is faith. We have stories and speculations and rites and rituals that help us to think about and talk about and emotionally deal with and make decisions in the realms of life where we cannot know, but we would rather have certainty. Not knowing is uncomfortable. So the great temptation is to persuade ourselves that we can know when we really can’t.
The sociologist of religion Peter Berger says that Christianity has three great temptations to abandon faith for a false certainty.[i] One he calls the temptation of trying to find certainty in the institution of the church. He calls this the Roman Catholic temptation. If the church says it, it must be infallible, so you can have certainty if you agree with what the church says.
The second temptation Dr. Berger writes about is the temptation of trying to find certainty in the biblical text. This is the Protestant temptation to which Protestantism and especially evangelicalism is most prone. If the Bible says it, it must be absolutely true. The Bible is an inerrant – without error – source of certainty.
The third temptation is to try to find certainty in one’s own religious experience. This Berger calls the Methodism temptation and it is seen most clearly, he says, in the derivative of Methodism called Pentecostalism. “Yes, God is real.” How do I know God is real? “Because I can feel God in my soul.” Inward experience is a source of absolute certainty.
The church, the Bible and religious experience are, of course, all very, very important parts of Christianity. We use the teachings of the church, and the Bible and our own experience to help us think about and talk about how to live when we can not know. But neither the church, nor the Bible, nor our own religious experiences are infallible, inerrant or absolute. They do not take away the uncertainty of not knowing absolutely.
The institution of the church from generation to generation informs our faith. What would it be like to be dropped into the world without any one before us having thought about or talked about the great imponderables of life? What would it be like if we were dropped into the world and had no rituals or practices to help us deal with the anxiety of life’s big unanswerable questions? There were those who wrestled with these questions before us. There are those who wrestle with these questions with us. There will be those who will wrestle with these questions after we are gone. The church is a great gift, but the church is not infallible. Do I need to argue this with anybody here?
The Bible is a powerful collection of stories, poems and affirmations that informs our faith. It is a book which contains literature that has spoken powerfully to humans throughout the ages and continues to do so. It contains themes that help us in our efforts to figure out how to live in the face of things like injustice and evil and death. The Bible has had such an impact on so many of us that it is hard not to see it as an inspired collection of writings, but the Bible is not inerrant. It contains internal conflicts and factual mistakes and assumptions that we no longer believe to be true. It contains ideas that reflect the culture in which it was written. Some of these ideas, such as slavery and patriarchy and homophobia, we now reject, often on the basis of other ideas we find in the Bible, such as justice, inclusion and compassion. The text of the Bible is not inerrant.
Our spiritual and religious experiences are great gifts. There are moments when we can experience a divine presence with something almost like certainty. We call these transcendent experiences – experiences that take us out of the ordinary and give us a sense of a larger reality. We say here at Foundry in our statement of call that we want our worship to be transcendent – that in music, prayer, speech, architecture, ritual, we want to connect with a deeper reality. We want worship to be a “thin place” where the curtain between earth and heaven becomes thin. Transcendent experiences are great gifts that sometimes give us a taste of something very close to certainty, but they only last moments and then they are gone.
The Apostle Paul talks in II Corinthians about a transcendent experience … about being caught up to the third level of heaven and hearing things that “no mortal is permitted to repeat.” “Therefore,” he says, “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh … to keep me,” he says again, “from being too elated.” (II Cor. 12:1-7) The Greek word uperairomai translated “elated” here means haughty, arrogant, over-confident, too certain. Our religious experiences are not meant to give us certainty. They are not infallible or inerrant either. My suspicion is that those of us who are most gifted in experiencing the presence of God may be most likely to most intensely also experience the absence of God.
The great temptation of religion is to try to claim certainty instead of faith. The three great temptations to a false sense of certainty in Christianity are to make the church, the Bible or religious experience absolute. The Bible consistently teaches that anything we try to make absolute becomes an idol.
Loren Meade thinks that there is a fourth temptation to certainty. He believes it is a temptation to which American Christianity is particularly prone. It is the temptation to try to find certainty in success. If it is successful it must be true. If it is a best-seller; if it is growing; if it is full, it must be right. Success is not necessarily a bad thing, most of us prefer it to failure, but it is not infallible or inerrant either.
Sometimes I think that people outside the church think that Christianity is about knowing. Maybe even some of us here think so too. I am suggesting this morning that Christianity is about figuring out how to live when we can’t know. The really big questions of life are the ones for which we will never find certainty.
I have a clergy friend. When he was a student in a systematic theology course in seminary, someone asked the professor what he believed about heaven. The professor answered that he hadn’t really thought about it much because he was focused on how to live in the world here and now. My friend thought that was a pretty good answer. Why not focus on life in the here and now? He spent many years focused on making the world a better place and not worrying about what happens after we die. Then my friend’s brother died at 40 years of age. My friend said he suddenly realized that he needed some kind of theology of heaven.
There are questions we will never answer with certainty in this life but that we need some way to think about and talk about and make decisions about. My friend needed help managing despair and hope in the face of his brother’s death.
Bill Coffin when he was chaplain at Yale was once asked by a student if religion wasn’t just a crutch. Bill answered, “Yes it is, but who isn’t limping?”
Christianity is not so much like the sciences as it is like the arts. There are those things we believe with a high degree of certainty because science has discovered they are true to a high degree of probability. But then there is another kind of truth that comes from the arts. John Keats wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[ii] There is a truth we learn from a sunset or a night sky full or stars or an anthem sung by the choir or a poem or a dance.
The truth of science gives us information. The truth of beauty gives us courage and hope. Of course, it turns out that one of the tests of a mathematical equation is whether it is beautiful and one of the tests of a scientific theory is whether it is elegant. So the distinction is in some ways artificial.
Faith is how we live with the ambiguities of life. There is no escaping the ambiguities in this life. There are questions we can not answer absolutely but life still compels us to think about them and talk about them and act on them.
Let Christopher Hitchens speak for some of our friends outside the church who may not understand what we do here. Hitchens says he has had more late night discussions with his religious friends than anyone else. From reading him, he seems to me to be a nice guy…someone we’d enjoy hanging out with. In his book GOD is NOT GREAT: How Religion Poisons Everything Hitchens says that the “most radical and the most devastating” criticism of religion is this: “Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did…. And yet – the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what ‘he’ demands of us – from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality.” Hitches calls this “stupidity, combined with…pride.”[iii]
But Christianity says just the opposite. It says we don’t know…we know in part…we see through a mirror dimly…we do not know what we shall be…we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Certainty is not faith; it is the enemy of faith. Biblically, certainty is idolatry.
We don’t know, but we’ve been given this gift of stories, poems, memories from the past, speculations about the future, myths, laws, reasoning and logic, jokes, hymns, rites, rituals, habits, practices and silences to help us. Do we find certainty in these things? No. But we can find faith. We can find beauty. We can find enough truth to live by.
out your own salvation with fear and trembling [don’t claim certainty] for it
is God who is at work in you,” Paul writes to the
Then he ended his letter to them with these words:
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4: 7-9)
To find absolute answers, you’ll need to give yourself is an idol whether the idol be the church, the Bible, religious experience, success or something else. But in Christianity we can find truth, justice, beauty, excellence, and a peace that passes understanding.
[i] Peter L. Berger, “Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty,” The Christian Century, (Aug. 26, 1998), 782 ff.
[ii] John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” The
[iii] Christopher Hitchens, GOD is NOT GREAT: How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen & Unwin, 2007), 10-11.