April 7th, 2016
You might not find a more provocative headline than the one written for a column in The New York Times last week. The article was by Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Wilkes Barre, PA) William Irwin, entitled, “God is a question–not an answer.”
The title comes from a recent work of fiction, which itself took its cue from an earlier work by Camus. But to Irwin it captured perfectly what it means to believe in God in a world where pluralism reigns, where the question of evil endures, and where the history of atrocities committed in the name of various deities is perhaps rivaled only by the atrocities committed by those who opposed any and all deities. For every reason to trust in a transcendent presence there are other putative reasons not to; though the converse is also true.
Given present conditions in which the question of God has become increasingly heated, Irwin argues that any credible belief–held by believer and non-believer alike–naturally and necessarily wrestles with doubt. Those who cannot fathom the slightest reason for entertaining an alternative view, or at least second-guessing their settled position, reflect a kind of certainty that says more about their determination to dis/believe than comprehensive analysis of their dis/belief. It’s not that he reproaches anyone for being properly zealous for their view–he even advocates for one’s advocacy of their view. He only ascribes a certain “fraudulence” to anyone’s belief that never shows signs of weakness or admits contrary thoughts.
It’s safe to say few columns in the “paper of record” have provoked more responses than the nearly 2,300 recorded in the combox thus far, among many of them the very stridency Irwin has observed (on balance, mostly from those of the disbelieving persuasion, with their frequent appeals to their patron and patronizing saints Dawkins and Hitchens).
One reading of Irwin’s musings would be that he was encouraging those on both sides of the God question to reconsider just how assured they have a right to be. One may never be fully settled on the question–there will always be arguments for and against any belief. But countenancing reasonable differences with one’s point of view can only sharpen one’s own thinking about why one believes. The point is not to pursue a constant state of dis-equillibirum or to live without any commitments that at some level require faith (an impossibility). Rather it is to authenticate one’s belief by letting it be tested against opposing ideas. Above all, indifference to the question, in Irwin’s view, has no place. The implications for wherever one falls on the “continuum” of belief are inexorably far-reaching.
Faith, when conceived of abstractly, is certainly a category rich with philosophizing potential. Its dialogue with Reason has spilled no little ink over the centuries. But tying the credibility of faith in God to philosophical argumentation alone will always lack something essential to abiding in what that faith propounds. Quietly reciting Anselm’s ontological argument at the bedside of a dying wife offers the coldest comfort.
So what does serve to fortify one’s convictions in some meaningful and abiding way?
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus responds to the incredulity some had as to the authority of His teaching. While it’s something of anachronism to say Jesus was espousing a kind of empirical verification of His wisdom, He says in John 7:17, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” (I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the same text: “Anyone who wants to do his will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up.”) In so many words, Jesus is arguing that to walk in the way He outlines is a path to discovering whether there’s anything more to it than human wisdom. Could it be, then, that faith is fortified in the practice of what it propounds?
This Sunday we begin a new series in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We’re entitling the series “Re-imagining Life,” because the Sermon presents Jesus casting a way of living almost entirely counter both to conventional practice and to individual and corporate disposition. He rises above both the teaching of His day, and the wisdom of any day, to help us see what is the Way that will ultimately endure. According to Warren Carter:
. . . Jesus has the disciples imagine a different world, a different identity for themselves, a different set of practices, a different relationship to the status-quo. Why imagine? Not because it is impossible. Not because it is escapist. Not because it is fantasy. But because it begins to counter patterns imbibed from the culture of the imperial world.
The Sermon on the Mount offers another vision of the way life can be, but at the same time it envisions what a new community can be. As Garret Keizer said of the church, “It is an attempt to build a human organization in defiance of those very principles on which most human organizations are built.” This Sermon is imagining a new organization, the soundness of which is everything to maturing each member of it.
During Lent we explored what steals life. For the next several months we’re going to see what characterizes it.
But as you begin to hear in the literature commenting on the Sermon, its significance is borne out not just by its content, but more so by what it reveals about the One who delivers it. The question behind “what kind of teaching is this?” is the more important question “what kind of person is this who is saying what He’s saying?” Any other preacher who makes himself the center of attention in his preaching has failed in his task. But Jesus, in saying what He did, makes Himself out to be either deeply misunderstood, profoundly megalomaniacal….or evidently divine. And it will be both in the consideration, and moreover the practice, of what He said that we hope to find a reason for belief more substantial than the arguments we hear or even the company we keep, as nurturing to our pilgrimage as those adjuncts are.
One caveat though: the firmness of our faith will not rest on the soundness of our obedience; it may be what we find from God in our failures of belief that does as much to confirm that belief. But the life He will outline in the Sermon means to do more than confer an ethical vision. It means to confirm that no less than God is present to us (HT: Richard Hays, Reading Backwards).
So we begin this Sunday, but in a way we’ve never done so before.
I take it on good authority (HT: Jim Akovenko) that there are many cultures which have no translation of the bible, but which also are oral, not written, cultures. Among such peoples where developing a written translation would be irrelevant, the task of bringing the biblical storyline comes down to inculcating biblical storytelling. There’s no less attention to precision and interpretation when developing an oral translation, but rather than preserve the stories in written form, the effort does so on an MP3 player (or equivalent technology.)
We who live in cultures suffused with and built upon the written word tend to forget that Jesus’ ministry was conducted entirely in the oral mode; and that before Jesus’ words were ever put to papyrus, they were remembered through oral-transmission. So before there was text, there was a tongue. And the cultures which first embraced the good news were those whose primary means of learning came not through the eye, but the ear.
Well, we’re going to begin our series with that historical reality in mind. Rather than have you read the text, we’re going to have you listen to it. Not because you haven’t heard these words before, but because we all need to hear them sometimes as if for the first time–and all at once.
So Kevin and I have memorized the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount and will plan to recite it, alternating paragraphs, with some subtle attention given to the heart (intonation, inflection, pace) behind the words. In place of the normal exposition of a given text, we will present to you the Sermon in its entirety.
It is not a performance in the sense of seeking to entertain you, or to impress you with our memorization skills. It is only a way of preparing us all for what we’ll give our undivided attention to for the next preaching season in CtK. We’d ask you not to applaud at its conclusion, for we’ll have some summary thoughts on how we hope this series will benefit us as a community, and how you might give yourself to the Sermon for the duration.
To Irwin’s comment that God is at best a question without a settled answer, and therefore we are best to retain an open-mind, it was Chesterton who said, in his inimitable style (admittedly often bordering on the derisive), “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” We make no promise that by preaching from the Sermon on the Mount all doubt in God shall be removed. But perhaps, Lord willing, as we listen and wrestle with what will inevitably challenge us as it reimagines life for us, we shall find a reason to close our grip upon Him more tightly–if only because in so doing we realize it is He who has tightened His loving grip on us.
Come Sunday. Put your bibles down. And just listen.
Community Quick Hits:
We had a rousing time with Dr Julian Russell and his wife Christiana last Sunday. As we made public that day, the Session has elected to begin supporting the Russells beginning later this fall, as their departure date for the Bahamas approaches. They referred to “The Bahamas Project” during their presentation in 2nd hour. You can see first-hand the detailed thinking (and fervent praying) behind this project by clicking here.
Sunday night we’ll gather at the Akovenko’s to pray (this a location change from our earlier plan). We pray together every 2nd Sunday. Perhaps what you hear Sunday morning will give rise to prayer. We will pray for things and people near and far, at peace and in turmoil. If you can’t make it but would like us to pray, drop a prayer card in the offering plate (or give to an elder) Sunday. Otherwise, email us (and please specify whether you’d prefer it to be confidential).