We all have one sermon in us
Trinity 14, Sunday 22 September 2019, Fr James Heard
I’ve heard it said that we all have one sermon in us. Something that needs to be expressed. If you had one sermon to preach, I wonder what you might say? Perhaps it would change from year to year as we stumblingly attempt to follow in the steps of Christ. At this church, like many others, we follow the weekly lectionary readings – these same readings are read all over the world and following them expresses our catholicity, our unity, with the worldwide church. It also forces us to work through passages of the Bible we might otherwise choose to avoid and be challenged by.
However, there are times, like today, where I can feel bound by having to preach from the set texts. So I’ve decided not to refer to today’s texts this morning/evening, but rather to preach my one sermon. So here goes….
I often think of those who never attend church. I regularly meet them. Some are my own family and friends. Many put ‘no religion’ on their census form. But they are far from being atheists. Rather, they’ve been liberated from the social convention of having to attend church. I’m curious about their experience of life and of the spiritual or divine.
I also think about the atheist objections to faith. I have sometimes been tempted by atheism. Not very often, but sometimes. But I’m with Ian Hislop, who said, ‘I’ve tried atheism. The problem is, I keep on having doubts’.
William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, wrote a book in 1902 (The Varieties of Religious Experience), and he expressed it like this:
‘Is there More’? Is there more to the visible world and our ordinary experience and as disclosed by science? Is there More, an extra dimension of reality. Until relatively recently, this question wasn’t asked. The ‘more’ has been named in various ways: God, Spirit, the sacred, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Atman, and so on.
The naturalistic worldview, born in the c.17 Enlightenment, answers this ‘more’ question with a resounding ‘No’. There is no more to reality than what science can discover and describe. The universe is made up of tiny particles of stuff plus mysterious force fields, all operating in accord with natural laws, which we continue to discover and learn about. Noah Harari has written a fascinating book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which he surveys the history of humankind from the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. He puts the issue very clearly and bluntly: “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose…Hence any meaning that people inscribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
In his latest book, Homo Deus, he describes how science and technology are showing us that all life, including all human life, is series of algorithms. And when it comes to algorithms, AI is already a lot cleverer than we are. The end result is that humanity will come to be a mere ripple within the cosmic data flow.
This is quite different to the Judeo-Christian belief that we are all made in the image of God, we have the spark of the divine, and we have non-negotiable dignity.
Our existence is far more mysterious and wonderful. Reducing life to only that which can be described or analysed scientifically, or reducing life to a series of algorithms, strikes me as profoundly reductionist.
This is where my doubts about atheism come in. Of course, it’s impossible to demonstrate or prove the reality of the divine. But isn’t there More, as William James put it? When I think about More, I think about Mahler’s fifth symphony, Bach’s St Matthew’s passion, Chopin’s nocturne number 1 (which I’m still trying to learn). Or Michelangelo’s Drawings. I think about the beauty of the mountains, those sunsets over the sea, the beauty and intricacy of flowers in our garden. A really good cool bottle of white Burgundy.
Then there are the millions of people throughout time and across culture who have had experiences that seem overwhelmingly to them to be an experience of the divine. Are they all just stupid or deluded? I’m not convinced they are. And then there are the quieter forms of religious experience in our daily lives.
So, I want to affirm a resounding yes to More.
But that begs the question: what might that More look like? How can we describe he, she, it? Is More personal? Religious traditions have attempted to make sense of this in different ways.
A point I think it’s important to make here is that we often claim to know too much about God. Paul Tillich, a hugely significant c.20 protestant theologian, said that when you think of ‘God’, if you’re thinking of a reality that may or may not exist, you are not thinking of God. His point is that ‘God’ does not refer to a particular existing being, a supreme being in the universe. Rather, God is prior to existence, God is the ground of being.
The point is, that God is beyond imagining, beyond words, beyond all language. Another word for this is ineffable.
The Christian theologian Belden Lane puts it like this:
We must speak, yet we cannot speak without stammering… [Language about God] stalks the borderland of the limit of language, using speech to confound speech, speaking in riddles, calling us to humble silence in the presence of mystery.
So any attempt to describe God is bound to fail. Always tentative, imperfect. And yet, we do attempt through words, poetry, music, art, ways to engage with the divine.
One of the distinctive elements of the Christian faith adds to the picture – and it’s an outrageous thought. The incarnation – that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The first incarnation, creation, expresses how God presence is pulsating in the universe, the air we breathe, all around us and within us. The second incarnation expresses that became flesh in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we glimpse a man totally transparent to the divine. That it shines out and overwhelms.
If we asked what God is like? Well, it’s like when a woman is caught in adultery and the religious people want to kill her, Jesus shows love and compassion. It’s like, when Jesus sees a despised tax-collector half way up a tree, he invites him down for supper. It’s like when a young man goes off and spends his father’s inheritance on dissolute living, he’s welcomed home and there’s a huge party. This is what God is like.
This is what good religion is like – not judgemental, condemning, fearful, tribal. Rather, it’s generous, welcoming regardless of our past or background or social status or education. It’s open to learning, discovering something new from other religious traditions. It’s open to change and transformation.
I believe in More. I believe in exploring and experiencing life in abundance, and through that encountering more of God. I believe in a God who makes our world bigger, not smaller, who loves us enough, not to leave us with our own little views of reality, but smashes through our preconceptions and assumptions and constantly moves us onward in our journey of faith.
What sort of more do you believe in? Maybe today, as we begin to reflect on our Mission Action Plan, we might consider what church might be, what journey we want to take, and what church might we become over the coming years here in Holland Park.
Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity