I was really looking forward to May 1, 2007. No, it wasn’t my birthday, or International Workers’ Day, or the end of the semester, or the beginning of finals, or anything like that. No, Tuesday, May 1, 2007, was the day that Canadian rock legends Rush released their latest album–and I was psyched. For as anyone who has visited my Facebook page can see, I am a fan (a big fan, actually) of this progressive rock power trio from Toronto and have been ever since I picked up a bass guitar in college and learned how to play by trying to mimic Geddy Lee’s mastery. More than 20 years later, they’re still my favorite.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 2, 2007
Psalm 14; Mark 9:14-29
I had heard the first single off the album and was looking forward to hearing the rest of it, and it did not disappoint. The music was everything I was looking for, and I was pleased that they hadn’t lost their edge. But the more I listened to it, the more I began to notice certain themes in the lyrics.
The second song had a lyric that read:
We hold beliefs as a consolation, a way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation or medication, a comfort or a promised reward…
Sometimes that spirit is too strong or the flesh is too weak…
The suit of shining armour becomes a keen and bloody sword…
Well, alright, yes–religion has sometimes been used to hurt people when it should be a comfort. Alright, I see your point, Rush.
A few tracks later was a song called “The Way the Wind Blows” that had the following lyrics:
And now it’s come to this, it’s like we’re back in the dark ages
From the Middle East to the Middle West, it’s a world of superstition
And now it’s come to this, while the armies of the faithful
From the Middle East to the Middle West, pray and pass the ammunition…
Well, okay, sure. I don’t like militant fundamentalisms either. But then comes a song called “Faithless”:
And all the preaching voices, empty vessels ring so loud, as they move among the crowds.
Fools and thieves are well-disguised in the temple and marketplace
Hey, that one took a shot at the clergy. Atme.
I don’t have faith in faith, I don’t believe in belief
You can call me faithless, you can call me faithless
But I still cling to hope, and I believe in love
And that’s faith enough for me, and that’s faith enough for me.
Hm. Well, now I was in a down mood. It’s a strange thing to discover that people you admire think that what you think is a pile of nonsense. It’s like finding out that someone you respect not only disagrees with your opinions but finds them dangerous and outmoded. At least the tunes were still rocking.
Around this same time, I was flipping around the dial and came upon an episode of the Charlie Rose show, and he was interviewing someone who was immediately interesting. This man, Christopher Hitchens, was talking about our Iraq policy and was articulating a conservative position about staying and began talking about the implications for Western Civilization, etc., etc. He was very thoughtful and certainly interesting to listen to. But then the conversation shifted to his latest book: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And he went on to make a number of observations that were, one assumed, also made in his book.
A couple of days later, Joe and I were driving down Massachusetts Avenue and we saw Mr. Hitchens walking along the road, and Joe pointed him out to me. Well, when a number of events like that happen in succession, I am inclined to think, as they would say in the Black church, ‘Maybe God’s trying to tell you something.’ Now, I assumed that what the Lord was trying to tell me was not ‘I don’t exist.’ I think God was rather telling me that there was something in what these voices were saying that deserved listening to. And so I ordered Mr. Hitchens’s book and read it.
II. THE TEXT—PSALM 14
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, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. ... Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon 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 Mr. Hitchens, but he is no idiot. And many on that side of the aisle have things to say that it is hard to chalk up to foolishness.
III. WHERE THE ATHEISTS ARE RIGHT
A. Believers have acted with violence
The first objection is the most obvious, I suppose. Religion, the atheist claims, incites people to kill one another because they do not believe properly, worship properly, have the right scriptures, recognize the right authority, or because they happen to occupy a piece of land that another group claims is holy.
Yes, they’re right. Far too many people have died at the hands of the faithful. Far too many people have died in wars, crusades, jihads, inquisitions, pogroms, and witch hunts. Sectarian strife in Belfast, Kosovo, Iraq, Beirut, India, and so many other places, has made it plain that religious people have caused a lot of suffering in the world.
B. Religion is the enemy of reason
The next criticism is perhaps the second most obvious: religion is the enemy of reason. They point to the long history of persecution of people who turned out to be right: Galileo, et al, who claimed that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. The modern critic points to the controversy around evolution and intelligent design and complains that ‘intelligent design’ is not science and is instead an idea that is used to undermine actual science and reason.
They’re right. Intelligent design is not science. It’s a statement of faith. When you can’t figure out how something happened, and you say, “God did this,”—that’s not science. That’s piety. It’s a beautiful piety–one we can affirm. I will stand here right now and say to you that God is the creator of the universe and that we are made in God’s image. But that’s a theological truth, not a scientific one. And the two ought not be confused.
C. Religion has often used fear and hate
Another criticism is that religion has often used the fear of hell to scare people into doing what it wants them to. Would that we could say this was not true. But how often have we, in our own experience, seen fear used to try to cow people into some belief or other? But, alas, the atheist is right here, too. So many people act out of fear –and too often, that fear comes from our pulpits.
They likewise claim that religion has reinforced some of the most negative social constructions and divisions of racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and other prejudices. Sadly, this, too, is true. In earlier centuries, people used religion to justify slavery, the subjugation of women, and the eradication of the Indians.
E. Religion is Man-made
The final objection–though it pervades all the others–is that religion is man-made.
Of course, it is! God has no use for 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 aMethodist. These are the systems that we fashion to try to make sense 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.
They are right about all these things. But there is something important that they are very wrong about.
IV. NOT THE GOD WE BELIEVE IN
A. The Debate
Some years ago, I was invited to participate in a debate on campus over the existence of God. It was sponsored by a philosophy club on campus that no longer exists. There were four of us participating in it: two atheists (who, I later learned, were devotees of Ayn Rand), a Muslim Imam, and me. The atheist panelists had all kinds of clever arguments. They’d say things like: “God does not exist. God is by definition something outside of reality, and obviously anything outside of reality cannot exist.”
“Where exactly did you get that definition of God?” I asked. They seemed to have a lot of very handy definitions that they used in their arguments that very conveniently happened to prove their arguments. (What would they have done, I wonder, if I had defined God as ‘that which is the most real’?) They would also say things like: “Well, then God is not in the universe, and it’s not as if God can stand outside of the universe, because the universe is all that there is.” I pointed out that Stephen Hawking, for one, believes that it is entirely possible that there are other universes beyond our universe. A number of physicists believe that our universe exists as a ‘bubble’ inside what they call a metaverse, a universe of universes. After having debated them, it occurred to me that there were some very real differences between our sides of the issue–beyond the obvious one.
Taylor, a former student here, who attended that event, summed up the major disconnect by repeating something her father had said to her: “Ask an atheist about the God he doesn’t believe in–chances are you don’t either.”
B. The Difference
And that was exactly it.
The God they were describing was unbelievable. The God they described was silly, petty, and relied on convoluted logical proofs. They mocked that God at every turn, and yet I was not offended–because that was not the God I believed in.
I had the same experience, ultimately, reading god is not Great and listening to Snakes and Arrows. I looked at the God they didn’t believe in, and neither did I. And neither do we.
We do not believe in a God who requires the death of our enemies. We do not believe in a God who sanctions holy war. We do not believe in a God who requires the death of those who do not think, believe, or worship like we do. We do not even believe in a God who requires us to hate people who disagree with us. We believe in a God who requires us to love even our greatest enemies.
We do not believe in a God who is the enemy of reason. We believe that God gave us our intellects and expects us to use them. You’ll notice that there is no sign on the chapel door that says, “Check your brains at the door.” A former pastor of mine had on his office door a Jesus fish right next to a Darwin fish. He was an ordained United Methodist pastor and a biophysicist who worked for the Smithsonian. One can believe in the Big Bang and in evolution as scientific explanations and still be a faithful Christian who affirms God as the creator. Science can answer the “how,” and faith can answer the “why.”
We do not believe in a God of fear. Personally, I have never done anything because I was afraid of hell. To the extent I have done anything moral and right with my life, it is because that is simply what a Christian does. Not for reward. Not for fear of punishment–just because. Freely as a sign of the relationship we have with God. I am willing to bet that you do so, too.
And we believe in a God who is not limited to our religion. Those of us in the Methodist tradition have always had an expansive view of this because Wesley, the founder of Methodism, never set out to create the ‘one true church.’ We believe that our way of doing things is a good way of doing things–for the sake of our community–but not because doing so or not doing so would somehow please or displease God. We might have our preferences, but trust me, God does not care which tune we sing for the doxology, or whether we say the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, or any of the other modes of expression we have.
We believe in a God of love who asks nothing of us but that we love God and one another.
V. THE CAUSE OF NON-BELIEF
So, then we may ask, why don’t atheists believe in the God we do believe in?
A. Why Should They?
There is a famous scenario that Blaise Pascal outlined –a sort of “wager” that basically argues believing in God minimizes risk. If you believe in God and there is a God–great. If you believe in God and there isn’t one: so what? You probably won’t ever know this. But, if you don’t believe in God, and there is one, what then? The ‘wager’ itself smacks not of faith but of hedging your bets– of the ‘fire insurance’ we talked about last week.
Bertrand Russell responded to the hypothetical question: “What would you say if you died and were confronted with your Maker?” His response would be to say, “Oh God, you did not give us enough evidence.”1Hitchens, p. 211.
There is a certain truth to that. Because I want to be very clear– there is nothing irrational about not believing in God. St. Thomas Aquinas–the brilliant and extraordinarily influential medieval Christian theologian–stated very plainly in his masterpiece the Summa Theologica that the existence of God was not self-evident. If we were to know the nature of God, then God would be self-evident, but human beings do not know the nature of God, and so God is not self-evident. God’s existence, he stated, must be argued from God’s effects.
Now, Aquinas had the following effects in mind: motion, causality, gradation, and necessity– the classical Aristotelian proofs. Things are in motion; things that are in motion were put into motion by other things. This can’t go on forever–at some point, there has to be a Prime Mover who got the ball rolling, and that is God. Or, effects are caused by causes, which are themselves caused by other causes. At some point, there has to be a ‘first cause’–i.e., God.
Aquinas maintained that even these arguments could not get you to a Biblical God –but he believed they could get you started. The imam at that debate I mentioned earlier used all these classical proofs. I confess I found them as unconvincing as the atheists did–and I believe in God. There is no reason that anyone using logic or reason has to believe in God.
But for me, the evidence of God is not in how clever an argument you can make. The “effects” of God are not in the heavens; they are in the human heart and in the experience of God in the heart and in community.
B. The Body of Christ
The heart of the Christian claim is that it is through Jesus Christ that one comes to know God. We believe that the earliest Christians, when they encountered Jesus, somehow encountered God and that it was this encounter that led them to spread the news about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection across the world.
But the world of today is at no great disadvantage to those ancient forebears. For we are yet the Body of Christ, through whom the world may encounter God. The church is the Body of Christ, and barring personal miraculous revelation–if the average person is to encounter God, they’re going to do it through us.
So how about this? How about instead of telling a non-believer that unless she believes in God, she’s going to hell, or instead of telling him that it’s “safer” to believe in God (why take the chance, right?), why don’t we try loving one another instead?
There are a lot of people out there who have been wounded by religion. Too many. People who no longer identify with a faith tradition but who, like the lyrics of the song, “still cling to hope and still believe in love.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were to live lives that were lives of hope and love, too?
The man in tonight’s Gospel lesson, who saw his son miraculously cured, cries to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” So many try to believe and fail because the world is such a stumbling block. So many try to believe and cannot. Many have given up on even trying.
I do not blame atheists for their non-belief. I blame us. If someone has never actually seen the love of God in the world, how on earth could they be expected to believe in God? If someone has observed the followers of God acting in violent, hateful, or ignorant ways, why wouldn’t they believe that such a petty, violent, and silly God wasn’t even worth believing in?
There is a lot that the atheist is right about. But a lot they’re wrong about too. And that’s on us, not them.
For us who believe, like the words of the song, that “there must be a God somewhere,” then our task is to live lives like we really believe that. Lives of love and grace. Lives of openness and hospitality. Lives not driven by fear and hatred. Lives that communicate to a disbelieving world what it is that we have experienced in our lives and in our community. Lives that testify to the reality of God with every living breath. Lives that are lived so full of love and grace that even the most hardened atheist, upon encountering such a people, would say, “There must be a God somewhere.”
0 To the leader. Of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?
5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is their refuge.
7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!–All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”