God Acts Through the Inconsequential; God Arrives Unexpected: A Sermon for June 17, 2018.

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.

childrenSeparatedWe human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.

But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.

For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.

And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.

The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…

It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.

I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)

So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.

And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.

Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.

Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.

But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.

Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.

Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!

It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.

There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.

To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:

  • Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
  • Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…

And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!

Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.

But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.

As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Satan & Freedom: A Provisional Theodicy

edenIconChristian attempts to explain the problem of evil have traditionally (but not exclusively) relied on an argument centered around human free will. The basic sketch of this argument can be seen in the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis: Adam and Eve chose to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which had been expressly forbidden by God. Therefore, the argument goes, they were punished with banishment from the Garden and, ultimately, suffering and death as well. This explanation of the existence of evil has certain merits: it is relatively straightforward and simple, and it also fits common patterns of human reasoning. Human leaders demand obedience, and human leaders punish transgression. It’s easy to assume that God acts like a very powerful and authoritative human.

But this general argument also leaves many questions unanswered, and it seems in conflict with the full breadth of Abrahamic doctrine. First, the text of Genesis itself seems to provide a serious obstacle to this common account of evil’s rise: the serpent, here a sign of Satan (“the Accuser”) is already in the Garden. If evil only arose due to human disobedience, why is the deceiver already present? Second, this traditional argument seems to run directly counter to another central claim of the Abrahamic traditions: namely, that God is all-powerful and is therefore able to determine creation as God sees fit. If God is in full control, can humans really have free will? Notice that John Calvin took exactly this line of thought when he argued for God’s total sovereignty (and against any real conception of human free will). Third, whatever position we take on God’s power and sovereignty, the Abrahamic tradition has also insisted that God is loving. How can God’s love be reconciled with the image of divine punishment for the errors of a finite creature? Fourth and finally, some might argue that the doctrine of human free will runs counter to our direct experience: my “choices” are often more or less compelled by circumstances, and, in any event, even if I can choose to seek what I want, I generally can’t decide what to want (Paul himself recognized this, as Romans 7:15-20 suggests). Having choice over means but not ends does not seem to be a full and robust freedom.

The alternative to free will, as hinted at above, is a theology that argues for God’s utter and total sovereignty, along the lines of John Calvin’s position. Such an argument claims that, since God is all-powerful and utterly sovereign, all things–including sin itself–must be according to the will of God, and goes on to insist that humans are simply unable (and unworthy) to understand how and why a good God would will for sin to exist. This approach to explaining sin and evil has even more problems than the traditional one addressed above: not only does it rest on an authoritarian fideism that cuts short critical thought, and limit the fullness of God’s love, but it also seems to demand a contradiction in terms: since one robust definition of sin is “that which opposes God’s will”, it seems logically impossible to claim that God willed for sin to occur. Whatever problems the free-will doctrine runs into, the divine-sovereignty model seems even less cogent.

Now, any one of these concerns could be (and has been!) the subject of entire books. What I would like to do here is propose one possible way of addressing these concerns while maintaining an orthodox (at least in a broader sense) theological stance. I hesitate to call this an “answer” or “solution” to the problem of evil, because I do not think humans capable of providing such. But as a provisional and practical response, I think and hope it has merit.

Firstly, let’s step back a moment and consider the problem of evil from its broader philosophical perspective. The problem of evil posits that God cannot be both good and all-powerful, since evil exists in the world. If God were good and all-powerful, presumably evil would not and could not exist. Since evil undeniably exists (or happens), the all-power benevolent God seems an impossibility.

Philosophical and theological efforts to “solve” this problem are often called theodicy, a term meaning to defend, apologize for, or explain God. Theodicy seeks to explain how God can indeed be both good and all-powerful, considering that the world is far from always good. As suggested above, the two most common approaches have been to argue either that a) God gave humans real free will, and evil resulted from human choice or that b) God is utterly sovereign, and so whatever happens must be God’s will and must be “good” in some final sense.

The former approach (option “a”) emphasizes a more or less humanist approach, arguing that the center of Abrahmic thought is the elevation of human agency. This option above stresses that what is most important about faith is that it should encourage us to take our decisions responsibly, and places the weight of sin, evil, suffering, and death at the hands of free will improperly exercised by creatures.

calvin-institutesThe latter approach (option “b”) has taken a variety of forms, from (as mentioned above) John Calvin’s Reformed theology as expressed in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to G.W.F. Hegel’s more or less monist approach in texts like The Phenomenology of Spirit. Many people will also be familiar with option “b” above when they have heard friends or family members say things like “God works all things to the good”. Such an argument ultimately relies on the idea that, however bad it may seem, this reality is the best of all possible worlds (v. G.W. Leibniz), and so the believer’s duty is to trust God’s sovereign activity.

Both approaches, as outlined in the opening above, leave many questions unanswered and many serious philosophical and theological problems unresolved. But as long as these two approaches have been seen as the only options, Christians, and perhaps other Abrahamic believers, often feel that they have to agree with one or the other. But I think there is more freedom of maneuver here, and I hope that with some further attention to Scripture and some sound creative thinking, a clearer (provisional) theodicy can be offered that builds on the strengths of each of the above approaches while limiting their failings.

Firstly, it seems clear to me that option “b” above–arguing that evil is somehow in accord with God’s will–is a non-starter. Such an argument seems to “resolve” the problem of evil by basically redefining the word evil in such a way that the sort of things we would generally understand as evil–suffering, ignorance, hatred, etc. are not really evil, or not ultimately evil. I think this is merely dodging the issue, and I also think it fails to take Scripture seriously enough. If sin means anything, it means something serious. If sin really is the opposition of human (and sometimes non-human? see below!) action to God’s will, then simply claiming that, somehow, God wills for God’s will to be opposed is both intellectually lazy and doctrinally insufficient. No: the problem of evil is a real problem, and somehow Christian theology must at least provide the sketch of a response to it.

Yet, as outlined above, option “a” is rife with problems as well. Not only does human life not feel truly “free” much of the time, but even if it were, this theodicy seems to assume that human freedom itself is an ultimate good. Yet it’s hard to argue that individual human freedom is somehow so good that it could counter-balance the eternal damnation of even one conscious being. Would such a trade-off be truly loving? If option “a” is meant to justify not only the existence of evil in this world, but also the eternity of damnation (and it has often been employed to do just this), then it seems to fall short; again, God does not seem to be portrayed as truly loving in this formulation.

Furthermore, as discussed above, this position does not even seem to grapple with the Scriptural witness: the serpent was already there, tempting humankind. Isn’t this tempting presence itself already evil in the world? One possible resolution to this issue, of course, is to argue that Satan is actually an agent of God, that Satan’s work is an important element of God’s work in the world. And it’s true that such a relationship seems at least hinted at by, say, the opening of the book of Job. Yet Satan is also portrayed as the opponent of God, the father of deceit, and an angelic being utterly opposed to God’s will; Jesus certainly speaks of Satan as one who will be defeated by God. If Satan is an agent of God’s will, then such a defeat seems a contradiction in terms.

So we find that the byzantine contradictions and opposed priorities surrounding traditional theodicies lie deep within not only traditional doctrine, but Scripture itself. The problem of evil really is a serious problem. So what theological and philosophical options do we have as Christians today?

First, let’s get one final option on the table: some, following John Caputo and the tradition of process theology more broadly, have tried to resolve the problem by inverting the Calvinist “option b” above. Instead of absolutizing God’s sovereignty, they have forfeited it. Proponents of such a “weak theology” argue that God is indeed all-loving, but not exactly all-powerful. Although this option “c” solves one problem, it does so by raising another at least as serious. My concern with weak theology is that it seems to succeed in defending God’s goodness only by problematizing the doctrine of creation: if God is truly a “claim without power”, then what is God’s relationship to creation more generally? If God created the whole world, and the world exists only by God’s sustaining will for it to exist–as Abrahamic tradition insists–then it seems impossible to claim that God is truly “weak”. Caputo’s approach therefore shares a very serious philosophical and theological liability with process theology: regarding God as a process or event completely confuses the doctrine of creation.

Now, one resolution, of course, would be to claim that God is not the creator at all. But now we have only kicked the can down the metaphorical (and metaphysical!) road: if that which created the world is powerful but not good, and there is a separate good-but-powerless force that is somehow trying to interact with and help the world, monotheism itself seems to be fractured, and it’s hard to know why humans should be concerned with this second benevolent interloper. Indeed, we find ourselves with a theology not much different from that of some of the so-called Gnostics. Such a position does not, however, solve the problem of evil, it just complicates it.

Lucifer3I’ve spent many paragraphs outlining the problems, complications, and difficulties of various theodicies, but it’s time to start proposing some kind of alternative. In short, I hope to take what I think is best about options “a” and “c” above and combine them with a serious treatment of Satan as presented in Scripture to arrive at a provisional semi-theodicy that I think may be our best option moving forward–though it by no means solves all the problems or answers all the questions.

The advantage of option “a” above is that it does seem to offer an intellectually robust reason why an all-powerful and truly benevolent God might allow for (but not will or cause) sin: if at least some part of creation is free relative to God–that is, if at least some part of creation can act in a way which God does not determine–then the possibility of sin in creation is at least non-contradictory. However, as we saw above, according this kind of freedom to individual humans runs into both philosophical and empirical problems: would individual human agency actually be worthwhile as to make the risk of sin morally justifiable? And, in any event, does this account of radical human freedom really accord with our experience of the world?

Part of the difficulty here for us is that post-Enlightenment culture in the West does in fact embrace a strong sense of human agency; we live in a political culture that assumes that humans are indeed inherently free and that maximizing this human freedom is a great (perhaps the greatest?) good. The trouble is, if we move beyond the realm of Enlightenment political ideology, human life often seems profoundly un-free. Many people are forced to work in deplorable conditions for poor pay–and their only other option is to risk starvation. Being offered a “free” choice between these two horrible options seems to be “free” only in the least meaningful sense possible. Furthermore, many people feel deep compulsions within their own emotional life that they do not want: addiction seems to muddy the waters of human agency. If it is possible to want something while not wanting to want it, what does satiating human free choice even mean?

So we not only have to challenge the Christian tradition here, we also have to challenge our own contemporary political and cultural ideology; it is convenient to consider human agency a self-evident truth and a foundation for our political culture. Yet upon examination, it seems less like a fact and more like a mythological promise.

So–if freedom seems essential to resolve the problem of evil, but human freedom seems neither philosophically sufficient nor empirically probable, where can we go? It seems that we need to identify an existent freedom not tied to individual human agency. Strange as it may seem, this is where I think Satan must enter our picture.

Many today may hear the name “Satan” as nothing more than a mythological illusion, but in fact this word carries a deep but often over-looked theological significance in Abrahamic thought. Satan is there in the garden; Satan is there at the opening of Job; Satan is there tempting Jesus in the opening of the synoptic Gospels. Modern efforts to articulate a Christian theology without Satan are both theologically and scripturally deficient.

Yet this does not mean we should embrace belief in a horned beast living underground. Such a picture was only meant to convey moral, philosophical, and theological truths through evocative imagery. We deceive ourselves if we believe in the existence of such a thing, but we also deceive ourselves if we reject the concept of Satan outright because we find such imagery fantastic. No, the idea of Satan is a crucial theological insight: Satan marks the freedom of creation which has turned against God.

Thus, creation as a whole really is free relative to God: that is, God empties and limits Godself in giving the gift of creation in such a way that creation is free to either respond to God’s love or turn away from it. Such a kenotic move is necessary because of what God’s goal in creating is: to be in real loving relationship with creatures. Love, by definition, cannot be determined or forced. It must be freely offered. Therefore, in creating, God must take the risk of sin–it must be possible for creation to turn away from God (towards death, hatred, suffering, meaninglessness, etc.) if creation is going to be fre enough to truly have the capacity to love God.

Yet note that we are saying that creation as a whole must be free relative to God–we are not insisting that each individual creature is fully free, nor or we arguing that creatures necessarily have freedom relative to each other. Indeed, we know that creatures often compel other creatures in all kinds of ways–this is, after all, one of the consequences of the sinful turn away from God.

It is not individuals, but creation as a whole, that has freedom relative to God. And Satan is the word we use to mark the fact that creation turns away from God; creation turned in on itself, denying its dependence on anything other than itself, and in cutting itself off from its own source, began to collapse from being to non-being. This–not moralistic platitudes–is what the theology of sin is really all about. To name “Satan” is to recognize that the entirety of creation–the whole cosmos–is in relationship with God, but that creation as a whole has turned away from this relationship, and is therefore sliding into nothingness. (It might be convenient to think of this “turning” in anthropomorphic terms, but it is important to note that such a reading is not necessary. Such an issue is too complex to discuss further here, however.)

This theodicy, then, might be option “d”: a combination of the theology of freedom from option “a” (though shifting that freedom from individual humans to the whole creation), and the indeterminacy of option “c” (though without insisting on God being “weak” in any final metaphysical sense), and the re-introduction of the prominence of Satan in Christian thought (though with rigorous philosophical attention).

In option “d”, humans participate in and contribute to sin, but are not the original causes of it. Sin is nonetheless a free turning away from God, but a turning that happened with the very beginning of creation itself, not in the act of a single human or human couple (it should be noted that this in no way challenges the truthfulness of Genesis chapters 2 and 3–it only challenges a brittle literalistic reading of these passages). Satan marks this fundamental having-turned-away-from-God that we call sin.

I believe that this theodicy resolves many of the contradictions of the other options while also being grounded on a careful consideration of the Scriptural witness. I do not pretend that it is a total or irrefutable solution to the problem of evil, but I do hope that it provides a better way forward on this question, and that it may prove fruitful as Christians–and others–consider the seriousness of evil and suffering. In the future, I hope to write more on specifically how the doctrine of the Incarnation helps us to understand how God is reaching out to a world that has turned in on itself. But that discussion will have to wait for its own post.

Randomness, Patterns, & Bottles, Oh My!

message-in-a-bottle-633134It is often commented that the religious impulse is a manifestation of the human desire to find meaning in all experience, even that experience that is fundamentally meaningless. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, will claim that our distant ancestors faced so much danger from predators (and perhaps also from each other) that highly cautious, borderline paranoid behavior was selected for over the generations. Imagine, for example, that a prehistoric hominid heard a rustling in the bushes. Maybe it’s a hungry lion, or maybe it’s just an aggravated squirrel. Evolution might favor the person who assumes the worst and runs, since, even if they’re wrong, this will only result in a few wasted calories. Meanwhile, the person who sits easy and assumes no danger will pay a much higher price if they are mistaken.

The modern reasoning goes that this cognitive bias towards assuming that noises in the night must be caused by some powerful agent eventually led to human religiosity–we began to see agency in the movement of stars, in the timing of volcanic eruptions, and in the forming of storms. This explanation for religion, of course, forms a powerful basis for critiquing and rejecting spiritual and religious practice. After all, if human religion is nothing more than the fanciful products of over-active imaginations (or paranoia), then perhaps it is something better left behind in the dustbin of history.

But is this account of human religion convincing? Does it account for the variety of spiritual systems and the full range of religious philosophies developed by, and spiritual practices of, religious humans? This is a question of great breadth and depth that touches on a range of disciplines–psychology, sociology, history, and evolutionary biology, to name only a few–but I want to offer a response from a Christian theological perspective here.

First, I want to argue that this account gets at least some things right. I think it offers a (partial but nonetheless) powerful explanation for some religious tendencies and practices. Second, though, I want to argue that its true value can only be recognized once one recognizes its limitations, and I want to suggest that this account misses at least as much as it captures.

What is perhaps most interesting from a Christian theological perspective is that this modern account of human religion actually accords with traditional Jewish and Christian accounts of polytheistic faiths, especially those of the “pagan” peoples around them. Jews and Christians alike frequently mocked and derided what they saw as superstition among other Middle-Eastern and European peoples. Augustine, for example, spends a decent chunk of his Confessions making fun of astrology; the Biblical prophets often took an opportunity to laugh at people foolish enough to worship images carved in stone and wood. In both cases, Jewish and Christian thought seems to recognize that humans have a desire to control the future and their surroundings, and they also attempt to anthropomorphize matter around them in an attempt to bargain with the forces determining their lives.

In that sense, then, although evolutionary psychology may be a recent development, the basic critique of religion outlined above is not only not new, but it’s not even necessarily anti-religious across the board. It can be deployed by some religions against others, depending on their exact features. This brings us to the second point I’d like to make: this “explanation” of religion gives us a better understanding of some traditions than it does of others. To see why, consider this short example:

Imagine you are walking along a beach on a desert island. You’ve been living there for years and never found any trace of another human being. But today, as you walk along the tide-line, you see something shining in the water, bobbing up and down. As you approach, you realize it’s a bottle, and, as you pick it up, you see a small note folded up inside. A message in a bottle! You had heard of such things back before being stranded on this island, but you never expected to find one yourself. Excited, you pull the cork, reach inside, and pull the letter out. It is thin and fragile, clearly it’s been floating in the oceans for decades. As you unfold the note, you find not an endearing message in cursive, but a block of printed letters with no spaces. Try as you might, you can’t find any words spelled throughout the text. The letters appear to be completely random.

Now, if you really struggled and tried, and developed some complex scheme, you might be able to convince yourself that, actually, this is some kind of code. Over time, you might be able to develop a cipher which would allow you to “decode” the block of letters. Of course, since you could craft this cipher at your leisure, you could make it as complex and arbitrary as necessary to make the text say whatever you liked. If you wanted an encouraging message, you could “discover” than in the text. If you wanted to a romantic message, you could make that happen as well.

Now, here is where the evolutionary psychological critique outlined above would kick in and explain your behavior: we humans are wired to see messages and agency everywhere, even when there isn’t one, and so the “messages” you discovered were, in fact, constructions of your own mind. And, in this case, they’d be right.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Even if you admitted to yourself, after many years of trying to believe that there really was a message there for you, that the block of letters was random and arbitrary, the bottle and its contents would not lose their curiousness. Stepping back from the meaning of the note, you might begin to ask different questions. Even if the note itself is just a random series of letters, how did it get into the bottle? And why was the bottle dropped into the ocean? The shape of the ink on the page might be random and meaningless, but it’s hard to believe that it got into the bottle, with cork on top, and then into the ocean through purely random events. The best explanation is that someone intentionally put a meaningless note into a bottle, and intentionally put that bottle into the ocean.

Why would they do such a thing? In asking this question, the same impulse that you had when you were trying to decode the note is at play, and yet here it is not so easily dismissed. In fact, this new question might weigh even more heavily on you than the previous one. Why would someone go through the trouble of getting this note into a bottle if the note itself meant nothing? Does the bottle mean something? Did the process of putting the bottle into the ocean mean something?

In these two different kind of questions–the meaning of the note, on the one hand, and the meaning of the note’s presence in the bottle, on the other–we see models for two different kinds of religious and spiritual thinking. One kind of common human religiosity sees the gods as beings in the world who have control over specific phenomena–a god of the sea, a goddess of the crops, etc. For this kind of religion, the shape of entrails as they fall from a goat, or the size of a flock of birds overhead, means something. And it is this kind of religiosity that is susceptible to the evolutionary psychological explanation–trying to see  a human-like agency in phenomena that are probably arbitrary, or caused by sequences of events that are nothing like human thought.

But in asking about the message-in-the-bottle’s existence in general, a different kind of religiosity is on display. Here, it is not the shape of the goat’s entrails or the size  of a flock of birds that necessarily says something–it’s the fact that goats and birds and the whole cosmos exists at all that says something. This question–“why is there something instead of nothing?”–superficially resembles the questions behind polytheism and divination–“why do volcanoes erupt? why did my family not have more children?”–but in essence it is a radically different question. It is not an attempt to explain particular aspects of the world with superstition. It is not, that is, an attempt to do pre-scientific pseudo-science. Instead, it is an attempt to secure the foundations of knowing and being in general. It seeks to understand how it could be that science is even possible, that being is even extant.

Religion in this form–and I include here at the very least the great Abrahamic and Indic traditions, though I am sure other currents of human thought, both religious and philosophical, also fall into this category–is not so easily explained away. Any mature thinker who carefully considers the strange facticity of the immediacy of existence will find themselves gazing at that bottle and wondering questions that lie beyond the mind’s grasp. Another way of saying all of this is that some religious traditions and practices are focused on content, and others on form. Religious practices that try to explain particulars–volcanoes, the seasons, the dark spots on the moon–are the former. Meanwhile, religious thought that asks about the genesis of the cosmos, of the meaning of time and space themselves, of the possibility of causality and meaning in any sense fall into the latter. (It bears mentioning that while I think dividing religious traditions between these two broad trends is useful, there is clearly also overlap: some “pagan” communities eventually developed sophisticated and robust philosophical systems, and many members of Abrahamic and Indic religions–Christianity very much included–often fell back into self-serving superstition.)

The main point I hope can be taken away from this is that words like “religion” and “god” are not homogeneous, single-reference signifiers. It is a foolish errand to try and explain the genesis of religion through one very neat causality, because what you are trying to explain is incredibly complex. Likewise, the distinction between a “god” and “God” cannot be over-stated. Seeking to understand why sometimes the waves are calm and other times violent is simply not the same as wondering what and why being is. The former is, at its core, a scientific question, and we moderns (and postmoderns?) are right to leave behind superstitious answers. The latter, however, is a question seeking the foundations of any possible thought, science included, and is a philosophical question as relevant today as it ever was.

So, I say: religion is dead; long live religion! Let us leave behind not only superstition but also false confidence in simplistic explanations. Let us stop, sit, and consider ourselves clearly. What sits in the mirror is, after all, a defiant mystery.

Asking “God?”

question“God” is not an answer, but a question.

To wonder about God, to think about God, to pray, to worship, is to ask the question: where is this coming from? “This” being all that we experience: whatever we think, whatever we sense, whatever we imagine, whatever is extended in space and time before us. Now, this question may not occur to everyone. Many people seem to assume that what-is is; it just is. It’s there. But under careful reflection, this credulity starts to look rather strange.

Our lives, the whole ebb and flow of existence, of experience, of living, is marked by contingency. Contingency, in this broad cosmological sense, simply means that whatever-is did not have to be. Whatever is happening, we know something else could be happening. It’s important to note that this is true even if one is a strict determinist. Even if you believe that every event that has happened since the Big Bang has been caused without any possible variation by the preceding set of events, that whole collection of events (that is, the universe) is still utterly contingent: first, because the rules that govern those events seem to be contingent themselves. The fundamental forces of physics, for example, do not seem to be necessary. As far as I know, no physicist argues that these forces or rules are absolute or necessary in the strict and final sense. And when these forces or laws are expressed mathematically, there are a range of constants and operators which we know could be otherwise, at least in theory. The fundamental forces of physics are actual but not necessary. They are, thus, contingent.

But contingency runs even deeper. It’s not just that what-is could be other than it is, it also seems that what-is could simply not be at all. This is often expressed in the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s important to understand that when philosophers and theologians pronounced “nothing” here, they are not talking about empty space and time, but rather no-space and no-time, no-actuality and no-possibility, even no-necessity. Nothing means no-thing, nothing at all. Often, when people talk about nothing, they mean not-this-thing. But not-this-thing is not nothing, it’s just something else. Empty space and empty time–an endless black expanse with no matter or energy for eternity–would still be something. Extension of space and time is not no-thing, it is something, even if it’s a something that appears as almost nothing to human thought.

So why is there something rather than nothing? The idea of “God” is not the answer to this question! When we use “God” as an easy answer to such profound and unanswerable questions, we both disrespect the intelligence of atheists and belittle the power and mystery of God. God is not an answer, God is not an idea, God is not a topic of discussion. The idea of God is simply the mental response of taking the question seriously. “God” is the horizon of all being and knowing.

To say that one has faith in God must mean that one simply says that the contingent universe, the actual but not necessary flow of whatever simply is at each moment, and indeed the very ground of that existence–extended space and time–that all of this, all of this, proceeds from something other than itself. God, then, conceptually, is the Whence of existence. I use this archaic English word “whence” here because I think it captures something that is harder to communicate in contemporary English.

Centuries ago, in addition to the question word “where”, we also had two other location words in English: whence and whither (not to be confused with “wither”!). To ask “whence” was to ask “from where”, and to ask “whither” was to ask “to where”. So, if I asked “whence cometh thou?” I would be asking “Where did you come from?” And if I asked “whither goest thou?” I was asking “Where are you going to?” Where told someone my current location; whence and whither told them where I had come from and where I was going.

To say that God is the Whence of existence is to say that God is that from which existence flows. Once we have seen that existence is utterly contingent–that it is actual but in no way necessary–asking after this Whence makes sense. But if we see existence as both actual and necessary, if we think that what-is just is and needs no further comment, then we won’t ask after this Whence. This is what it means to say that “God” is a question. When we say “God” we are asking ourselves and each other, “whence comes all that is?”

It is crucial to see one important consequence of understanding “God” in this way. If it’s true that all that exists flows from God, then it is not true to say that God exists. Now, this is not to say that we would agree with what people mean when they say “God doesn’t exist”. Rather, it is to say that the category of existence is simply not able to capture the reality of God. In other words, to believe in God is to believe that existence–the events of extended space and time, and even the rules that govern this extension–does not include everything that is real. “Real” here covers the fullness of all that is in the broadest and deepest possible sense, where “existence” refers only to reality as it appears to humans, that limited degree of reality that we can sense and cognize (for more on this, see Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal).

This is why it is truer to say that “God” is a question and not an answer. Prayer and worship are not confident acts of certainty, but the opening of humanity to the mystery at their very center, an attempt to gaze back at the very fount of existence, to ask the great Whence. For Christians, to admit that “God” is a question should not challenge our faith, it should deepen it! For Jesus made this point himself when he instructed us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-12). Once we have understood that our actuality depends on something other than itself to be, we have taken the first step towards God.

The Flat Self and the Deep Other

Julian-of-Norwich-&-hazelnut-798183Early in our lives, our sensory and mental life is all we can imagine; it fills not only our immediacy but also the boundaries of what we think possible. However things appear, whatever thoughts come to us, that’s reality, as far as we can know or imagine. It doesn’t seem like there could be anything else. As we get older, things start to change a bit. We have new experiences, new ideas, new conceptual relations. We begin to realize that there is more to reality than what appears to our consciousness at any given moment. We come to realize that other people’s experiences could be different–perhaps radically different–from our own, and yet also reflect reality just as truly as our own.

Once we begin to admit and accept that not all is as it seems, that there is more than meets the eye, and indeed more than meets our conceptual models, a funny thing happens to us. Our sensory experience, our mental life, which before seemed so full and so rich, starts to flatten. We recognize that what occurs to us is superficial. It’s almost as if our world goes low-definition; we thought we had three or indeed four dimensions available to us, but we begin to see that our world, the world as it appears to us, is more like two-dimensional. Something is missing. Maybe a lot is missing! We begin to fill a bit hemmed-in by the horizons of our immediate consciousness.

This can be deeply unsettling, because our grip on certainty loosens here, and we have to give up control. Especially for people raised primarily as English-speakers, this can be even more troubling, for the culture of English-language philosophy is primarily a culture of empiricism: a confidence that, if we analyze our sensory experience closely enough, we can uncover all truth. To begin to see that this may not be quite true is to relinquish not only a view of the world that is important to us, but a view of ourselves too. The real world is somewhat veiled to us; not all mysteries will yield to our probing.

Yet this realization is, ultimately, liberating. To relinquish this world of our creating is to relinquish a small, sad, dead world. So long as the world is only what we see and think it to be, so long as we are the measure of reality, we know that we can never go beyond ourselves, we cannot transcend our limitations; we know we are trapped. To realize that the world we know is flat and superficial, ironically, allows us to see the world’s true value. Its flatness points to a depth somewhere else; the world we make doesn’t speak the whole truth, but it is spoken by a deeper truth. If there is more to reality than what we see and think, that more is real and is worth turning towards, even if its beyond our sensing and thinking. To see the world as flat is actually to begin to appreciate its real depth.

To see our world–and ourselves–in this way, however, is not easy. It means relinquishing not only that control and certainty, but also easy and convenient answers. It means accepting that life is, at its very core, infinitely mysterious, that we are given to ourselves from a place beyond our understanding. So it is not only that our world is stranger than we imagined, but we are stranger to ourselves than we imagined or want to accept. It’s not always a totally pleasant realization. But in the face of this troubling mystery lies our truth and the only possibility of real freedom.

Most of all, this realization, of the otherness of reality from our immediate experience, is the true foundation for faith in God.

Questions for Christmas and Epiphany

shepherds&angelsDuring Advent, I found myself seeking new directions in my devotional practice. I found that I was less attentive during private times of prayer. After thinking on this for a while, I decided to begin using questions as a part of my prayer life. At a time when I wasn’t sure how to pray, I figured spiritual honesty was the best approach. So, during Christmastide, I reflected on three questions as a part of my devotional and prayer practice: what does Jesus’s Incarnation really mean? How is Jesus incarnate with us today? How can we live that incarnation? I say that I reflected on these questions, rather than “asked” them. I wasn’t seeking a straightforward answer–from myself or God. I wanted to really meditate on these questions, to enter the depth and mystery of Christian life.

Now it is the season of Epiphany, when we in the western Church reflect on the visitation of the magi (or “wise men”) who had been called to a new land to meet a new human who would inaugurate a new kind of life. So, I find myself reflecting on new questions: what New Thing is God doing with the birth of Jesus? How can we have eyes to see and ears to hear, so that we can understand this new thing? How can be be prepared for a New Thing to happen today?

What I have found interesting–and surprising–is that my Epiphany questions seems to almost provide answers to my Christmas ones. What does Jesus’s incarnation mean? It means that God is doing something truly, radically new in the world. How is Jesus incarnate with us today? By opening us to the possibility of more new and radically unexpected possibilities.

Jesus is so familiar to us Christians–and, indeed, even to many non-Christians–that we forget how strange, how uncomfortable, how truly and ridiculously new he was and is. We often domesticate him, make him an easy ally and friend, a crutch for our own personal or political beliefs. We lean on Jesus when it’s convenient, but ignore his inconvenient teachings, his challenges to popular ideas, his call to radical discipleship.

To say that Jesus is a New Thing that God is doing in the world is to accept and admit that, in Jesus, God is changing things. God is not only changing other things, other people, God is changing us. And that’s not easy to hear. We want God to be an insurance policy for who we are now, we want eternal life to be us staying who we are now, forever. But that isn’t what Jesus is offering. That isn’t who Jesus is.

Salvation means being changed. It means being made new. This is, I think, the hard teaching Jesus offers us in the third chapter of John, where we hear that we must be born “again” (or “from above”). Jesus is bringing a new life so radically new that it’s like being born again. We have to die to our past selves so that we can live as new selves, true selves, the selves that God always meant for us to be. This is the promise of God’s love, but it’s not easy. It’s not convenient. This view of Christianity doesn’t allow us to maintain the status quo and feel self-righteous. It forces us to be honest with ourselves, to ask how we have to change to be True.

So let us have eyes to see and ears to hear the New Thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. And let us be gripped by this New Thing, let us be changed, let us become who we truly are.

Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.

virgin-of-extreme-humility-orthodox-christian-icon-13