Part 5 of the series “What Christians Have to Learn…”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 13, 2013
Psalm 14; Mark 7:1-13
Psalms 14:0–7 • For the music leader. Of David.
Fools say in their hearts, There is no God. They are corrupt and do evil things; not one of them does anything good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on humans to see if anyone is wise, to see if anyone seeks God, but all of them have turned bad. Everyone is corrupt. No one does good— not even one person!
Are they dumb, all these evildoers, devouring my people like they are eating bread but never calling on the LORD?
Count on it: they will be in utter panic because God is with the righteous generation. You evildoers may humiliate the plans of those who suffer, but the LORD is their refuge.
Let Israel’s salvation come out of Zion! When the LORD changes his people’s circumstances for the better, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will celebrate!
Mark 7:1–13 • The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.
You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.” Jesus continued, “Clearly, you are experts at rejecting God’s commandment in order to establish these rules. Moses said, Honor your father and your mother, and The person who speaks against father or mother will certainly be put to death. But you say, ‘If you tell your father or mother, “Everything I’m expected to contribute to you is corban (that is, a gift I’m giving to God),” then you are no longer required to care for your father or mother.’ In this way you do away with God’s word in favor of the rules handed down to you, which you pass on to others. And you do a lot of other things just like that.”
Some years ago, a new student came to worship services here at Kay. She did not have a good experience. She wrote me an email the following day noting that she had come in to the sanctuary and no one had greeted her. She said that the pastoral intern had sat in the pew in front of her and had a conversation with someone sitting next to her, but never said hello. She noted that she didn’t feel welcomed at all. In a final irony, my intern’s sermon that night was on hospitality.
I wrote back to her as did my intern expressing our regrets for her experience. Later, I met with this young woman for lunch to talk further. In the course of that lunch, I made a decision that is among the best decisions I have ever made. I asked her to be my hospitality coordinator.
I was proud of that decision because I was proud that I had been wise enough to realize that the most helpful people are not always the ones who tell you everything is going well. Often, it is your biggest critics. It’s why leaders who surround themselves with yes-men are not as effective as those who remember to take criticism and objection. I’ve always thought that if I were president, I’d appoint a member of the cabinet whose job it was to disagree with me.
And so, as we go through this exercise asking ourselves what we Christians have to learn from various aspects of the surrounding culture, there is one voice that is absolutely necessary to hear: the voice of those who disagree with us most profoundly. And while some of our biggest disagreements often are with our fellow Christians, those matters are usually surface matters that have been blown out of proportion. The question of what age a person should get baptized at is a triviality and is a poor reason to sow discord among Christians. As Charlie Parker pointed out last week, John Wesley would have considered such a question a “non-essential” and so should we.
No. If we’re going to talk about the ones who disagree with us the most profoundly, it would be those who reject the entire proposition of Christianity: namely, that there’s a God at all who cares about us, seeks relationship with us, and seeks our wholeness and that of the entire Creation. The voice that Christians need to hear from is the voice of the Atheist.
There are those who would no doubt argue that unbelievers have nothing to say to believers. But that is a narrow view and not consistent with Jesus’ own behavior recognizing wisdom from pagans and non-believers when he encountered it, as in the case of the Syro-Phoenician woman or the Roman Centurion with the servant in need of healing.
II. FOOLS SAY THERE IS NO GOD
The Christian attitude toward atheists is a difficult one. Christians tend to place a lot of emphasis on ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ and so unbelievers do not sit well with Classical Christian thought. Often people take their cue from Biblical texts like Psalm 14 (one of the few texts, curiously, to address the question of whether there is a God or not).
Fools say in their hearts, There is no God. They are corrupt and do evil things; not one of them does anything good. Are they dumb, all these evildoers, devouring my people like they are eating bread but never calling on the LORD?
Those who do not believe in God, i.e., the wicked who exploit the poor and oppress the people, are fools. They have no knowledge. They lack awareness of the reality of God and wallow in ignorance.
The only problem is this: it is not just ‘fools’ who say in their heart: “There is no God.” Some very intelligent and thoughtful people have come to this conclusion. Say what you will about Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but they’re not idiots. And many on that side of the aisle have things to say that it is hard to chalk up to foolishness.
It was the Muslim philosopher ibn-Rushd who said, “Truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it”—an attitude shared by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas—meaning: if something is true, it is true. It matters not what the source of the truth was. And so we can hear what our atheist brothers and sisters have to say and if it is true, we can—and should—acknowledge it.
III. WHAT WE HAVE TO LEARN
In thinking, then, about what we have to learn from atheists, I was tempted to start by saying that one thing we don’t need to learn is a combative, smug, self-righteousness like the kind we encounter in folks like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But then in occurred to me that atheists probably learned that combative, smug, self-righteous pattern of behavior from Christians in the first place. Which leads us into our first point:
A. Our Role
The first thing we have to learn is the stories of many of our atheist brothers and sisters. The first lesson we have to learn is that a sizeable number of atheists are atheists because they found the notion of Christianity or faith unpalatable. And do you know why they found it unpalatable? Because of us.
Many years ago, we showed Monty Python and the Holy Grail for our Monthly Movie with the Methodists. The conversation afterwards wound up being really wide ranging and covered a lot of topics. This was surprising to me, I was expecting it all to be “Wasn’t it funny when…” kind of stuff. By the end of the conversation, there were only four of us left, a member of our community, me, and a young man and his girlfriend. He was decked out in piercings and leather with a mohawk. And his attitude toward religion was dismissive. Especially toward Christians. “You Christians think anyone who doesn’t think like you is going to hell,” he’d say. “You think gay people are going to hell.” “You don’t believe in evolution and other things determined by science.” He would be surprised every time I’d respond, because I’d say, “I don’t think that way at all. I believe in evolution. I don’t think non-Christians go to hell. I don’t think LGBT people are damned…” and so on.
As the conversation wore on late into the night, I tried to figure out where he’d gotten this idea about Christians. And then it became clear: he’d been raised as one of them. The church he’d gone to was full of that attitude. The conversation wound up being a really good one and whenever that student and I would run into each other on the quad we’d stop and chat for a bit.
But the encounter saddened me because he hadn’t come to this opinion out of malicious intent, or because he felt like being antagonistic. He had come to this opinion because he had experienced spiritual violence by people who claim the name “Christian”.
And so the first thing we have to learn is that when it comes to sharing what we believe, Christians are often our own worst enemies. We should not fault atheists for believing Christians are narrow-minded, intolerant, hateful bigots, while there are so many Christians who are narrow-minded, intolerant, hateful bigots.
In Judaism, there is a concept called hillul ha-Shem, which means “profanation of the Name”. It refers to a particular kind of sin—bringing disrepute or shame upon God or upon Judaism. That is, when one acts or speaks in such a way as to make the Jewish faith or the God of Israel look unfavorable, one has committed hillul ha-Shem. In Jewish thought, there is no atonement for this sin short of death. That is, no amount of grain or guilt offering, no amount of repentance, can atone for this sin. Only at one’s death is this sin atoned for. This is how seriously Judaism takes it when people cast God or their faith in an unfavorable light. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had that?
While I’m not going to say that every single atheist was driven away from faith by a Christian, the fact that it happens at all is profaning the name of God.
When it comes to sharing faith with others, there are constructive ways that respect other people, that respect boundaries, and respect belief. And then there are ways that are belligerent, obnoxious, and as far as I can tell, utterly ineffective. Has the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, ever gotten a single convert by showing up to funerals with signs saying that God wanted the deceased to die? Has anyone in that misguided so-called church ever considered that they themselves might be the biggest barriers to anyone actually listening to what they have to say? No. And for the average person, they put a very visible, and hateful, face on Christianity.
We have to learn that that is our responsibility. It is our task to present a different face of Christian faith from the loudest voices. Our task is to present an open-minded, tolerant, inclusive, welcoming faith. This isn’t to say that doing so would convert every atheist out there, nor is that the point. But it would take responsibility for the fact that so many have been driven from Christian faith not by an outside force or temptation, but by what is wrong within.
B. Human Tradition
Another point we could learn from atheists is about the nature of religion itself. Atheists will often point out that much of religious tradition is man-made. That our rituals, our traditions, our doctrines, our structures, are the products of human creation.
Of course they are! God has no use of religions. They are all human attempts to understand the divine-human encounter. God has no religion–God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist. God is not even a Methodist. These are the systems that we fashion to try to make sense out of our encounters with the divine.
And yes, the critics are right, when we become more concerned with the religions than with the realities they are meant to help us explore and understand, then all manner of woe ensues.
That is exactly what Jesus is dealing with himself in the Gospel passage we read earlier. He is questioned as to why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. He responds that his critics have elevated a human rule to a divine rule. And that they have a history of elevating human rules over divine rules. He notes that the commandment to honor your father and mother has been superseded by a rule that allows you to shield certain wealthy by saying it’s been dedicated to God. That is, it’s like a tax dodge. It’s an off-shore account. You can claim that the money is dedicated to God and therefore is not part of the money that you should use to take care of your parents.
Our atheist friends remind us that we are all too often guilty of doing the same kind of thing. So much of what we do as a church is human tradition. That’s not a bad thing: so much of what we do as human beings is human tradition: driving on the right side of the road, placing federal holidays on a Monday, firing off fireworks on the Fourth of July, having a cookout for Memorial Day. There’s nothing wrong with that and the church is full of precisely those kinds of things: two candles on the altar, wearing the color green during Ordinary Time, singing three hymns during worship, and so on. But the problem is that we quickly elevate those rituals, those traditions, to the level of divine warrant. And lose all historical perspective in the process. We imagine that the way we do something or think about something is the way that we always have. And that if that be the case, then it must have come directly from God back in the beginning of time. So many of what we get bent out of shape about are our traditions that seem normal to us only because we’re used to them.
It’s these kinds of things—is baptism given to children, who is permitted to take the sacrament of communion, who can be ordained to the clergy—that are determined by human tradition. And as I mentioned earlier, they become the things that we fight about the most with our fellow Christians.
And what a spectacle we make of ourselves in the process. Yet more of that hillul ha-Shem, where we beat each other up over such minor matters that it brings our whole faith into disrepute.
So, yes, we could use a reminder that these are human creations. We came up with the rules about the sacraments, ordination, people’s roles in the church, and so on. We ought not pretend that these rules are eternal or that they trump the ones that are: to love one another, to work for justice, to be peacemakers. To serve other people without precondition. The way Jesus would have.
And finally, our atheist brothers and sisters remind us to be skeptical. To question. To challenge ourselves.
I sometimes note with some irony that atheists and fundamentalists often share a religion in common. Fortunately, that religion is not our religion. When we were looking ahead to this Sunday, Rachel asked me what the artwork for the bulletin should be. We discussed a couple of ideas and she asked me if there were any “iconic” images to go along with Atheism, they way that we had the Abbey Road cover, the Nighthawks painting, and the Last Supper on previous iterations (just wait until you see next week’s!). So I went online to see if I could find any. I found a lot of images, but most of them were memes mocking religious ideas. The problem was, I found those same ideas also mockable. Much of what was being attacked in these posts was not what I would think of as my faith, but clearly an overly superstitious, uncritical, unthinking faith is what was being reacted to. But it reminded me of something one of my old students used to say, “Ask an atheist about the god he doesn’t believe in, chances are you don’t either.”
Because the religion that was being mocked was a religion of simplistic thinking, of narrow vision, and literal interpretation of scripture. In short: it was fundamentalism.
It was a religion of narrow-mindedness, but also of uncritical thinking. The thing about fundamentalism is that it’s so uncritical. It never questions itself. In fact, it is much more concerned with having the answers rather than asking the questions. And a fair amount of time is spent on apologetics, defenses of the faith from outside challenges. They’ve got their pat answers designed to explain everything should it come under questioning.
But a healthy faith wrestles with questions. A healthy faith admits uncertainty. A healthy faith takes doubt head on and embraces it. It does not seek to cover things up with simplistic answers, but seeks to grapple. This kind of faith is a process rather than a result. And it is the kind of faith we should have.
Asking tough and uncomfortable questions is at the heart of that exercise. And should not be feared. Not because there’s a ready answer at hand in case anyone asks anything too difficult, but because the tough questions are the centerpiece of faith. There is no benefit to an unthinking, mechanistic religion that brooks no dissent, that asks no questions.
But a faith that is willing to ask questions and wrestle with them is a faith that can serve us well in a world that is often not easily understood.
For if there’s one thing wrong with our country today it’s that we have an excess of certainty. Our public discourse is chock full of people who are so sure of everything! They know exactly what should happen and they have a five point plan to get you there. The result: a toxic political climate and the lowest levels of civility in a generation.
A religion that is unthinking, uncritical, unwilling to embrace ambiguity and questioning, has nothing to contribute to such an environment. All it has to contribute is more certainly, now in the name of God. One of the sad tragedies of the world is that so many atheists have rejected the certainties of the fundamentalists and replaced them with certainties of their own.
But if we can incorporate asking the tough questions into a life of faith then we can help to translate that idea through a number of different areas. And who knows, perhaps open the door to a climate in which people are willing to listen to each other because they won’t assume that they already know all there is to know.
Sometimes, our critics make our best friends. They have things to tell us that we won’t hear from anyone closer to us, who is a supporter. And that holds true with those who reject religion. The insights that we can take from our critics, in this case the atheists, actually strengthen our faith, rather than weaken it. Taking ownership of our faith’s history of spiritual violence, being mindful of the human element in religion, and adopting a critical, thinking attitude toward faith, willing to embrace doubt and uncertainty, is helps us to live out a faith that is more open, more authentic, and that more truly reveals God to the world.