Monday, September 24, 2012

Where is God? Reflections on Post-theism.

(I have never posted a sermon before, but I had a few requests for this one, so here it is. It begins with me carrying a ladder to the front of the church, and setting it up so that it reaches into the rafters!)

When I was little, I knew heaven was up there. So I suppose it was only natural that when I came to church, I expected that if God was anywhere in the building, he must be up in the rafters. I always wished, as a kid, that I had a ladder, to check it out.

            Well, I'm a minister now, and if I want to fulfill my childhood fantasy, this is my chance. So I've brought this ladder into the sanctuary. I’ll climb it to see if God is up in the rafters. This is a very high sanctuary, after all. (Minister climbs ladder placed at front of sanctuary).

            And I'm afraid I have to tell you that now that I’m up here, I can't see God. Where is God? God must be hiding. Is God hiding from you, too?

            This is an especially good question for us, here at Lawrence Park Community Church, because we’ve been discussing post-theism. The root words of post-theism, from Latin, mean “after God.” I’ve been asking around the congregation what they mean by that phrase. And I’ve heard three different answers that are not mutually exclusive.

            For some people, “post-theism,” is a kind of strong agnosticism, almost atheism, about God. And in fact many things do argue against God’s existence. The universe seems to be explainable by the laws of science. On average, Christians who pray don’t seem to live longer than people who don’t pray. Evil still runs riot everywhere.

            Even Bible writers are frustrated by God’s absence. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist writes: "When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, `Where is your God?'" Or, "Your way is through the mighty waters,” says the Psalmist in 77, “though your footprints were not seen.” Isaiah writes, at one point, “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel” (Is 45:15).

            So I have sympathy for people who identify post-theism with strong agnosticism or even atheism. This is, in its own way, a Biblical sentiment. Important questions for such people include these: “Why should we still pray to God? Worship God? Bother with God at all?” Or is it just that ritual or old hymns are comforting? Perhaps, in the absence of God, we still go to church for community or discussion times?

            A second definition of post-theism that I’ve heard here suggests that post-theism refers to society’s disappearing belief in God. For these people, post-theism means that whoever or wherever God is, he or she obviously isn’t very important to most people in our secular society. God is, in fact, irrelevant and that is what we have to come to grips with in church.

            I also resonate with this answer. Many people, even those who say they believe in God, just don’t go to church anymore. Prayer has long been eliminated from our schools and workplaces. The old rules we used to go by—you can’t have sex before marriage, you can’t drink, you can’t preach if you’re a woman—these old rules that go with the faith of our fathers just seem stupid to most people, and proof that Christianity will be forever irrelevant.

            On the other hand, even if the religious right isn’t a moral majority, it is a powerful force in American politics. And the violent conflict between the fundamentalist kinds of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, strongly suggests that theism is still a very powerful force in our world. It is just not our kinder and gentler theism. But the bottom line here is that only segments of society and only the rare world culture is truly post-theist. In most places round the world, God matters very much.

            A third kind of answer I get to the question of “what is post-theism” is not atheistic, it is not about where our society is at, but it speaks to our old-fashioned ideas about who God is. So, for example, here are some excerpts from a pious poem that portrays God as a Zeus-like big guy in the sky.

It's a good thing God above,
Has never gone on strike
Because He wasn't treated fair,
For things He didn't like.

If He ever once sat down,
And said, "That's it -- I'm through!
I've had enough of those on earth,
So this is what I'll do.

I'll give my orders to the Sun:
Cut off your heat supply.
Turn off the oxygen and air,
'Til every breath is gone."

You know that He'd be justified
If fairness was the game
And yet He carries on and on,
with all the favors of His Grace.

            If this is how we think about God, then it is obviously high time for us to update our thinking. We need to stop imagining that God is sitting in heaven, tapping his toe in frustration because we don’t pray enough or are not good enough. I think we all agree that we need more mystery, more grace, and more spirit when it comes to our ideas about God. We need fewer lightning bolts and more mystery and humility when it comes to our ideas about God.

            Anyway, the notion of post-theism has been a part of the discussion here at Lawrence Park Church for a while now. And let’s be honest—the discussion has the potential, at least, to be a minefield. If we line up behind one answer or the other and dig in our heels the way Christians have traditionally lined up behind doctrinal distinctives, we’ll fight. We’ll fight about the liturgy, about the prayers, and about who is right and wrong. None of us wants this to happen, of course. But humans are humans. We’re stubborn. And, ironically, the things we are most uncertain about are often the ones we shout the loudest about. I’m reminded of a preacher who once wrote in the margins of his sermon manuscript the words, “Very weak point. Pound pulpit.”

            So where does this variety of answers to the question, “who is God,” leave us? Well, Jesus’ suggestion, from our text in Mark 9:37, is that if we want to find God, we can find God in Jesus, and if we want to find Jesus, we should look to the child. Or, to shorten the formula, we see God best in the child among us. Like in the Pat Green song we heard sung earlier in the service. We’re:

         For the inner city teacher
         With her heart stuck in her throat
         [who] Can still see God in every child
         And never gives up hope.

            What is it about a child that the child should stand in for God in the eyes of a parent, or teacher, or neighbor? Well, Jesus doesn’t say, exactly. Using almost poetic, and very evocative language in our text, Jesus leaves it to our imaginations. But in the rest of his life and teaching, Jesus made it clear he wanted us to pass on all the old, “orthodox,” ideas about God—that God is in his temple, that he is an old man in the sky, that God is mostly angry and righteous, and that God’s name must not be spoken. Not so for Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells us that God is not far away. God is close to us, approachable, in and with us. God waits for us, just as a little girl might wait for her mother to gather her up in their arms.

            Of course, saying so doesn’t make God easy to understand, or less mysterious, or put God in a box. Still, if we see God in the waiting child, it does mean that we can relax and enjoy the search for God—even make a life-long game of it.

            What I mean is illustrated by a little story. There was a rabbi once, whose son came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between sobs, he said, "Father, I've been playing hide and seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. But no one came. They got tired of looking and just quit playing and never even told me. They just left me there, all alone."

            The boy's father, the rabbi, put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. "Ah my son," he said, "that's how it is with God, too. God is like a child gone hiding, hoping people will come seeking him. God is like the child who wants to be found and embraced. So we must not give up the search. We must play till he is found.”

            My ladder looks slightly ridiculous, I know, but it symbolizes something that we ought to be busy with—not “or else,” but for the joy and wonder of it—we ought to be busy looking for God as we might look for a child playing hide and seek with us. We ought to look for God for pleasure of it. And all those thoughts about post-theism: interesting, fascinating, important. But not as lovely as playing the game of hide and seek with God. The search is the thing. Because, remember the promise of the gospel in another place, is “seek and you will find.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Universal Suffrage: Why Everyone in the World Should Vote in America's Election.

I am a Canadian citizen. And, I am an American citizen. In the interests of full disclosure, I became an American citizen in order to vote for Al Gore. Not that it helped.

This past week I received my ballot for the November 6 presidential, state, and local elections. I’m always tempted to vote straight ticket, but if I can find a moderate Republican or two, I’ll vote for them. I do it for the sake of political conservation. I would hate to see that species go totally extinct.

In any case, now that I’ve received my ballot, and have begun considering my options, I have had an amazing insight. The problem with the American election is that only Americans get to vote.

That’s wrong! The consequences of American policy are so great, for so many people all around the world, that I think these people ought also have a say in how America exercises its power. American consumption of natural resources, contributions to global warming, farm subsidies, military interventions and foreign (usually military) aid—the list goes on and on—are all matters of grave concern to the world’s billions who won’t get to vote. In fact, there is hardly any American policy that doesn’t impact the rest of the world. Our policies are taxing most of our neighbors round the world, in spite of their not being able to vote about who will legislate these policies. Taxation without representation!

Worse, American politicians are quite clear that when America acts in the world, it must do so in the American interest. Not in Canada’s or Sudan’s or China’s. When it comes to American politics, Samaritans are not good neighbors. Only other Americans are good neighbors. So while it is inevitable that some American policies will also be good for at least some none-Americans, this is merely trickle-down largesse. American policy, whether foreign or domestic, is about putting us, ourselves and our fellow citizens first.

This sort of America-first thinking runs contrary to a key Christian conviction. You see, before we are Americans or Canadians or Kenyans, we must identify ourselves as Christian. The Apostle Peter says, for example, says that Christians are “strangers and aliens” to the world, and instead, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” National distinctions must give way to our transnational—some would say “kingdom,” identity in Christ.

Among the earliest Christians, overcoming racial and national prejudice was a big deal. Jews and gentiles had to find their identity in Jesus—as did men and women, slaves and free. The early church was about creating a new identity that transcended all those divides. Paul adds that Christians are “ambassadors of reconciliation.” The image is that of a divine political institution sending Christians into the world to remake it in Jesus’ image. For Christians the question can never be “am I better off now than four years ago.” Rather, it must be, “are my neighbors better off now than four years ago?”

So among Christians, there ought to be a groundswell of support for letting other Christians, our international neighbors, vote. And since it isn’t only Christians—but Jews and Muslims and Baha’i and Hindus who all teach love of neighbor, we ought to throw the American election open to all people.

And yes, of course, this is written tongue in cheek. But voting in America is a very serious matter. So what will you vote this time around? Your pocket book? Or your brothers and sisters all around the world?

What do you think? Leave a response!

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Myth of Jesus' Return

            When Jesus walked from Galilee to Golgotha, he and his followers hoped that the end of the world was just around the corner. That is, they believed that God would one day soon tear open the heavens, come on down, judge both the living and the dead, and bring history as we know it to an end. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:28-31).

            Of course, Jesus got it wrong. Perhaps sensing that Jesus’ words were a bit bold, years later the writer of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus temper hopes for his speedy return by having Jesus add, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32).

            Nevertheless, the earliest Christians continued to hope that Jesus would soon return. To give one of the more humorous Biblical examples, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning virgins considering marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are . . . for the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:25-31). Unfortunately, his advice probably made for some very old bachelors and maidens. Jesus did not return in those virgins’ lifetimes.

            The last 150 years have seen a huge upsurge in predictions about the immanence of Jesus’ return. The largest wing of Christian Fundamentalism, Premillennial Dispensationalism, is committed to reading the Bible and newspaper headlines about the Middle-east as if they were secret codebooks that reveal how Jesus will return any minute now.

            Of course, all of such predictions, whether they are found in the Bible or are being made by TV preachers, are wrong. For all their Bible studies on Revelation and their adding and subtracting of millenniums to dates for the State of Israel; for all their book, TV and Christian radio warnings of the end-time battles at Armageddon or Aleppo, for all their Left Behind novels and YouTube movies of Jesus floating down from the clouds, so far, Jesus has not returned.

It is no wonder, really, that from day one Christians hoped for Jesus’ return. Life was tough. From job loss to imprisonment, from slavery to—in some cases—being fed to the lions, choosing Christianity meant choosing for membership in the bottom rung of society. So early Christians directed their hopes towards escape by means of a deus ex machina—the god who sometimes suddenly appeared on a crane at the end of Greek dramas to save the hero. Early Christians hoped for a similar sudden, liberating reappearance of Jesus.

            And many people still hope for Jesus to save them from the trials and tribulations of this world. In a way, we understand. Terrorism. Crime. Taxes. Deficits. The chaos of the Arab Spring, North Korea and Afghanistan. New public values when it comes to sex, being gay, abortion, and on and on—no wonder the world seems out of control to some people. They put their hope in a belief that Jesus will return on the clouds and save them from all this. Soon! Maybe this year!

            The trouble with putting your hope in a miraculous return of Jesus to earth is that instead of trying to do something here and now to make the world a better place, you are mightily tempted to wait for Jesus to do it for you. If Jesus is going to return to judge the world and cleanse it from all evil, then why should we bother to do anything ourselves? The kind of Christianity that focuses on Jesus’ return makes for a week-kneed Christianity that has no energy for social action, unless it is the sort of social action that calls sinners to repent and be saved before the Day of Judgment.

But all such hope for the future is vain, based on wishful readings of the Bible. Whatever mysterious way Divinity works with and among us to make the world a better place, it won’t be Jesus returning on the clouds that seals it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, Biblical texts about Jesus’ return, whether in the gospels or Revelation, are all written in the language of myth. They're important texts, full of meaning and insight, but they're nothing like history.

            So what ought we base our hope on? Well, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What this text suggests is that we’ll never really understand hope until we understand that love is the greatest. Hope is love's legitimate child.

I don’t mean to be simplistic here. I’m offering a sort of “think global, act local” solution to our feelings of hopelessness. Our hope for overcoming this world’s woes is, naturally, partly rooted in the mysterious presence of God in and among us. But if God is present, much of the mystery of God has to do with how God inspires us against our baser instincts to nevertheless root our lives in love for neighbor. Whether you are a parent, a pastoral care worker, a money manager, a nurse, a CEO of a company that produces useful widgets, each of us can find ways appropriate to our position for putting our neighbors—our children, fellow church members, customers—in a better place tomorrow than today.

It is as the Apostle Paul said, more wisely than with his words of advice for virgins: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing . . . Love never ends. But as for prophecies they will come to an end . . . for now we see in a mirror, dimly. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

(For more on this theme, see the entry for June 4, 2011, "The End of the World." Feel free to leave a comment, too!)