Guest Sermon by Stephen Wilson, July 22, 2018
Scripture Genesis 1 and 1 Corinthians 1:25-30
I have a lot of doubts about what I believe in and their basis for my faith. I don’t know if this is because of my skeptical nature, my cultural upbringing or my battles with depression but I seem to doubt most everything about those beliefs.
The wrathful, omnipotent, omni-prescient, and omni-present deity of my youth; the authenticity of the Bible; the historicity of Jesus; the value of the modern Church; Christianity as a power for good; Jesus’s miracles; the virgin birth; the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection and on and on.
This listing of my doubts brought a work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to mind – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I reread the sonnet and found that it might in some ways be the mirror image of my thoughts on doubt. I apologize profoundly to Ms. Browning for the paraphrasing.
How do I doubt thee? Let me count the ways.
I doubt thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I doubt thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I doubt thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if You choose,
I shall but know thee better after death.
My transition from a god-fearing teenager through a dedicated Christian-based social worker to an agnostic-middle ager to a later life follower of Jesus Christ, seems to have happened with little conscious thought on my part. Considering where I have ended up, I’m going to take that as a good thing.
I was raised in Northern Ireland Protestantism in which doubt was strongly discouraged. Doubt was considered both shameful and heretical. I learned that the only questions you could ask were ones that had “official” answers. Other questions were off limits. Official policy was that questions could only lead to the proverbial slippery slope to hell.
This was typical of the faith of my youth, where the only true religion was Protestantism based on a literal bible, sins, atonement, hell and an omnipotent, omni prescient, dreadful and wrathful God – who loved us IF we were saved and showed the correct deference. We were told that our God had what appeared to be non-Godly views. For example, the Reverend Dr. Ian Paisley, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland required his congregation to participate in “silent collections” as God did not like the sound of coins in the collection plates.
My Methodist father and Baptist mother encouraged me to go to the church of my choice as I grew up. But whatever church, meeting hall or chapel I when to, it was basically the same story of sin, blood, atonement and hell. This was my exposure to religious labels as in “devout” Roman Catholic and “staunch” Protestant. I grew up in a bigoted system that used labels in powerful and destructive ways.
The constant focus on a wrathful God, Jesus dying for our sins, and that non-believers were going to hell, made me question how any faith could be based on such a deity. God was an old-white man who was a celestial controller, a rule maker, a policeman in the sky who orders everything, and causes everything to happen. He would protect his own people and answer the prayers of the faithful. God was on our side and against all other denominations, faiths and religions, and we could earn God’s favor by worshipping him. In my youth there was never any doubt about how God identified.
This version of God hears some prayers but not others and punish people for all eternity because there only sin is not having heard of him. This God cures some illnesses but not all illnesses and populates his world with flood, famine, plagues and all forms of natural disaster. This God allows incomprehensible horrors such as war, slavery, concentration camps, and monsters like Joseph Mengele.
A God with religious leaders who say that although all those killed in natural disasters are victims, we cannot hope to explain the mysteries of God’s ways; implying that the natural disaster is something God foresaw but for deeper reasons known only to the divine mind chose not to forestall. And when we question how this God could cause or allow these things to happen, we were told that “we didn’t have enough faith”; or the supposedly kinder answer of “God moves in mysterious ways”.
This is what drove me away from religion. I refused to base my beliefs on a god would be morally inferior to the highest ideals of humanity. I rejected that god completely and absolutely both from an intellectual and emotional perspective.
Until my “road to Damascus” moments in this building, I have taken the easier faith journey by focusing on what I understood or empathized with (the Golden Rule, Jesus as a moral leader) rather than trying to know the unknowable, fathom the unfathomable or understand the incomprehensible. However, once again the divine spirit that moved Dee to select the summer sermon topic of Faith and Doubt, has caused me to examine my understanding of the nature of God.
I try to live my life by the Golden Rule, be an active member of this church, go to bible study when I can and even try and fix a flag pole or two on the 4th of July. None of that requires me to understand the nature of God. I could be an atheist or an agnostic and still live the life I lead, because part of what makes me who I am is sitting right in front of me this morning.
Being a member Eagle Harbor Congregational Church and all that those six words entail, is a double-edged sword for doubters like me. It is here I believe that a divine spirit works through Dee to speak directly to me, even though I know she is speaking to a much wider audience. It is here I witness a divine spirit in your faith and works. It is here I feel the love and grace of my fellow “believers in exile” , as Gregory Jenks would say. It is also here that I have the support to doubt. Where doubts are acknowledged, not answered. Where concerns are answered with, “Good question, let’s talk about that.” Thank you all for what you do.
But before I go on and explain the nature of God to you, let me say this.
You’re on your own!
I certainly don’t have the required $5 words or theological knowledge to have any deep insights of my own as to the nature of God. I have found some wonderful authors who have helped me start a journey towards God’s nature that has been “hiding in plain sight” for want of a better expression.
My major challenge is that most of my perceptions of God are based on the religious labels of my youth. From time immemorial the name of god has been associated with power. Almighty God, God the Father, Sovereign Lord, Great and Awesome God, etc. These labels were given to God by a church/religion whose earliest organized beginnings were also about power; not only the power of God, but also and the power of the religious organization.
It is the issue of the “nature of God” around which all my other doubts seem to have their basis and circulate – particularly the concept of God’s omnipotence.
There appears to be binary or bipolar approaches to the nature of God. She exists or does not exist. She can or cannot control our lives. She can or cannot control nature. If she can control events but chooses not to, she is a callous and cruel God. If she cannot control events she cannot be God.
Does God really need to be omnipotent to be-I was about to say, “worthy of our worship”, but we worship so many things today that are far from worthy, applying that conditional seems to demean both God and the act.
The Old Testament lesson we heard this morning was the first of the two creation stories in Genesis. The other more well-known one is God making man from dust, woman from the rib of man, the garden of Eden, fruit of knowledge, sin, expulsion, Cain and Abel, the flood, etc. This is Yahweh, the strong theology God, the God of Power, the setting-man-up-to-fail God. This has been the uncontested “creation-out-of-nothing” story, since the middle of the third century CE.
The creation story we heard shows a different nature of God and its interpretation brings the God of love more clearly into focus.
In his book The Weakness of God-A theology of the Event John Caputo brings together the work of Professor Catherine Keller and Rabbi Rashi, a medieval rabbinic commentator, to reevaluate the opening verses of Genesis, and proposes that first verses of Genesis are to be read “When God began to create in the midst, God said, “Let there be light.”
This interpretation has God presiding over the elements (at that time the earth was a tohu wa-bohu, (a term best understood as something desolate, like a desert, something arid, barren, uninhabited, and more abstractly as an emptiness); and the darkness covered the tehom, the deep the ocean, the face of churning salty waters, over which a wind (ruach) swept) when she began to create.
The beginning had always already begun when Elohim was moved to speak to the barren earth, lifeless water and sweeping wind, and by addressing them she calls them into life; she does not bring them into being, for the whole point is that they were there all along.
Elohim is not responsible for the fact that the elements are there but for the fact that they are fashioned and called good. Caputo writes that Genesis is not about being, but about life. It is the life that God breathes into bare barren being, that was already there, that God calls “good”, which goes a step beyond being .
Not only does Genesis start with serenity and nonviolence. There is no battle with warring chaos; nothing evil to be conquered; Elohim creates by her words, she calls what she has created “good.” But, there is also an element of instability built right into creation, so that creation is going to be continually exposed to re-creation. A passage from the Talmud states:
“Twenty-six attempts preceded the present genesis,
all of which were destined to fail.
The world of man has arisen out of the chaotic heart
of the preceding debris; he too is exposed
to the risk of failure, and the return to nothing.
‘Let us hope it works’
Exclaimed God as he created the world,
and this hope, which has accompanied the subsequent history
of the world and mankind, has emphasized
right from the outset that this history is
branded with a mark of radical uncertainty.”
This “radical uncertainty” can undo the best laid plans of God and mankind, even as it keeps the future open. Caputo writes “That is why life is a risky but bracing business…while God is keeping the divine fingers crossed, hoping that it all works out.”
Even if you prefer the Yahweh, and the creation-out-of-nothing version in Genesis, it cannot be understood to mean that every element of chance and misfortune has been purged from life, or that God’s plans are exposed to failure, or that she so thoroughly and omnipotently dominates human existence that nothing happens unless she has arranged it and is responsible for it or has permitted it. Remember this is the God that liked to walk in the garden in the cool of the day. This is the God that didn’t know that Adam and Eve were hiding after eating of the tree of knowledge. “But the Lord God called to the man “Where are You?”” He didn’t know! This is the God that so totally lost it with mankind that he flooded the earth. These are not good indicators of omnipotence.
God is what God is supposed to be, but that does not mean that everything is perfect or that God is responsible for everything that is not.
I think Caputo sums up the God of Creation quite beautifully when he writes: “…The event that rings out in the name of God in the creation stories is to announce a kind of covenant with life that we are asked to initial. We are asked to say “yes” to life by adding a second yes to God’s “yes”; to countersign God’s yes with our yes, and that involves signing on to that risk, to embrace what God has formed and the elemental undecidability in which God has formed or inscribed it. God does indeed have a plan for creation, but God, like the rest of us, is hoping it works.”
Caputo does not think of God as some super-being who out-knows, out-wills, out-does, out-powers, and out-exists every entity here below, a higher super-entity, a hyper-presence dwelling in a higher world. God is not an omnipotent onto-theo-comso-logical power source for the universe but is the conditional demand for beneficence that shocks the world with a promise that is not kept, as the heart of a heartless world, as the call from below that summons us to rise beyond being, beyond ourselves.
For me, now, the omnipotence of God is not a force that controls, manages or disrupts, but a spirit who breathes, who inspires, whose gentle breath urges us on. The “good” that God sees in us is a call to us without causality, power, or prestige, calling upon what is best in us.