15 Questions for Theists

One of the blogs I follow is hessianwithteeth, which I find interesting because it is a good place of encounter and dialogue between theists (mostly Christian) and atheists, including the two atheists who write for it.  Recently, they noted that in their experience, Christians often grill atheists with lots of questions about their unbelief, but similar questioning is seldom turned on Christians.  (I note that this doesn’t match my experience!)

However, in the interests of good dialogue and good will, I have undertaken here to answer their “15 questions for theists.”  I encourage anyone else who is also interested to do so.  And, while I’m on the topic, they are also running surveys on discrimination against Christians, against atheists, and because of religion or lack thereof.  I think those surveys are looking at interesting questions and encourage you to provide them with much-needed data.

But, without further ado, here are their questions and my attempts at succinct answers.

1)How many gods are there? What are their names?

One God.  יהוה.

2)How do you know these gods (or this god) exists? Why do you believe they exist?

I can’t be absolutely certain, but it’s got to the point where either God exists or I am quite mad.  I prefer to believe (and the world seems to concur) that I am sane, so I’m operating on the assumption that God exists, that I have a relationship with God which is deeply personal, in which God and I can converse and have conversed, and in which I have seen God’s power and positive influence in my life and in those around me.

3)How do you think the universe began?

The big bang; but that speaks to material cause.  I would say that God was the efficient cause.

4)When do you think the universe began?

The physicists say that it’s about 14 billion years old, and I’m happy to accept that as a working number.

5)How do you think life began?

I’m pretty happy with the idea that complex organic molecules organised into self-replicating particles gradually over time.

6)When do you think life began?

I believe scientists are currently estimating 3.5 billion years ago or so.  (Have we established by now that I’m not a fundamentalist and quite comfortable with a world view which integrates my faith with current scientific understanding?)

7)Is morality objective or subjective? How do you know, or why do you believe, this?

Objective.  Right and wrong are not something we each get to determine for ourselves, on a whim; there are ethical principles which transcend that kind of petty individuality.  Ultimately, since I believe we are created in the image of a moral, ethical God, I believe all human goodness is a reflection of divine goodness; but you don’t need to agree with me on that for us to have ethical common ground.

8)What do you think this god, or these gods, want from humans? Why?

Relationship.  God is within Godself relational and communal (a trinity of persons), and that desire for relationship, for mutuality, is what I believe has motivated God to create other beings to draw into communion with Godself.

9)What do humans mean to gods? What is our importance or significance?

I think I’ve sort of covered that in talking about relationship.  We are loved.  I believe we are destined to go on to deeper relationship beyond this life and into eternity.

10)Could they get whatever it is they want from humans without humans? Do they need whatever it is they created humans for? Why?

I guess there are the angels, and possibly other created sentient beings as well. But our existence suggests that we bring something unique.  I’ve come across the idea that if God didn’t create us, God would have needed to create some other for the relationship which would fulfil God’s relational nature, so I guess in that sense it’s a need.

11)Could you conceive of a world where humans exist without need of a god? What would that world look like? Why would it look like that?

I guess I could conceive of a world which had become entirely atheist – I think that’s more denying/not recognising the need for God rather than truly not having that need.

I’d be out of a job, for a start… Beyond that, I’m not sure.  I’d like to believe it would be possible to construct an ethical, humanist, peaceful, just, atheist society… but deep down I suspect it would be no better than now, and probably worse, as whatever good influence religion does have would be removed, with nothing to replace it.  Perhaps the atheist forms of Buddhism could flourish?

12)What do you believe to be the consequences of a world without god(s)?

I think I sort of covered this with question 11.

13)Where does evil come from? What is the god(s) role in the existence of evil?

Ahh, theodicy.  The big question.  I concede here that there are multiple views, and I am not claiming any ultimate authority.

Evil is not-good.  The shadow where there is no light.  It’s not a substance or essence in and of itself but the quality of an absence.

I guess God’s role is allowing a space where there can be that absence.  But I do not believe it will endure forever.

14)What makes one thing good and another thing bad? Do good and bad have the same source (ie. The same creator)? Or do they have different sources? What is the source of bad things (if it’s different from the source of good things)?

What is good is, broadly speaking, what is aligned with God’s nature, and what is bad is what is contrary to it.

I think I’ve kind of covered your following questions already.

15)Why do you think your god(s) exists, but the other possible gods don’t? Why do you thing I should believe in your god(s)?

I believe that if the other gods were real and important for me to know about, God would have pointed me in their direction (as indeed the Father did with Christ – long story).  As God hasn’t done that, I feel free to commit myself within my own tradition, and I find more than enough to occupy me there!

I acknowledge that others have had similar experiences to me and claim that their belief in their other gods is validated by those experiences.  I suspect that at least some of them – giving a particular nod here to the other monotheists – have encountered the same God within different traditions.  Beyond that I can’t say much about what they have encountered, except that one day we will all know more fully than we do now!

That last question – why should you believe?  I can’t argue you into belief.  All I can do is invite you into encounter.  Come and see.

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A horrible warning

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of Holy Innocents, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Matthew 2:13-18, 1 John 1:5-2:2, and Jeremiah 31:15-20.

(Note: this sermon is very much intended to be a unit with my Christmas morning sermon, which is the previous post on this blog.  For the full point I made over these two sermons, I recommend reading both posts).

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” It really should have been the Herod family motto; in the whole of the New Testament there isn’t a positive mention of any of them.

What we heard this morning, though, gives us a particularly vicious glimpse into their world. Herod the Great (father of the Herod who later was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus) has heard from the Magi that there is a child born as “king of the Jews.” Unable to be sure which child it is, but knowing in which town he lived, he has all the boy children of the right age killed.

We don’t know how many children that was. Contemporary historians, looking at the population of Bethlehem at the time, have suggested it was maybe a dozen; whereas medieval enthusiasm suggested thousands. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter; the horror of this action can’t be reduced to a numbers game.

The real question for me is, why did Herod do it? This isn’t an isolated incident, by the way; history records that Herod killed two of his own sons to prevent them becoming a threat to him. (Prompting the Roman Emperor of the time to comment that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews don’t eat pigs).

But why this approach? It’s not as if Herod didn’t have options. Confronted with a similar message, another ruler might have decided to govern so well and benevolently that the people would never support another claimant to the throne. Or he might have decided to identify the child, or a pool of possible children, and offer to train them for an important post – to be a future general or civic administrator or Sanhedrin member – and thus bring the child under his patronage. He might even have simply decided to exile all of the relevant families.

But instead of doing something creative and interesting, or even boring but relatively harmless, Herod reached first for the most brutal solution. What is that about?

Matthew sort of avoids the question by making it all about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament typology; just like the original sons of Jacob, Jesus goes into Egypt; and the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem answers the weeping of Jewish mothers in exile in Jeremiah’s time. But while that might be a fruitful way of exploring connections, it can’t – for me, at least – be enough of a satisfying answer to the question of why.

On Christmas morning, I reflected in my sermon that accepting the baby Jesus was an exercise in hope and trust. Here in this part of the story, we see where the lack of that hope and trust ends when taken to an extreme; fruitless, destructive paranoia.

Herod wasn’t a particularly devout Jew, but what would it have been like, I wonder, for him to read that passage from Jeremiah that we heard this morning? Would he have found anything with which he could identify, at all? Not the weeping mothers, surely; but what about “Ephraim” pleading to be allowed to come back to God? What about seeing himself as the recipient of God’s promise of hope and a future, or as the dear son in whom God delights, for whom God is deeply moved?

What does it take to be completely closed to any of that? Perhaps Herod was simply an atheist, culturally a Jew but without any sense of God. Even if he were, I don’t think that explains his actions. Most atheists don’t reach first for the most brutal answer to their issues. Herod’s pattern of response goes far beyond passive indifference to the idea of God, and well into active resistance to moral as well as spiritual light. Unable to be reached by the faith of his people, the boundaries of the law or the pleadings of the prophets, he stands as a fine example of what Martin Luther described as a “man curved in on himself;” a sucking vortex of anxiety and neediness, a horrible warning of what sin looks like, given free rein.

So if Herod is the warning, what do we make of that for ourselves?

Just because none of us is out to kill babies, doesn’t mean we know nothing of this internal resistance. All of us have dark corners within ourselves; there are plenty of private little hells behind the walls of this city. And if we deny it, as John wrote in our other reading for this morning, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Herod points us to what John tells us is the only remedy; to be self-aware, to be honest, with ourselves and with God, about where those dark corners are and what lurks in them. To be prepared to commit ourselves – over and over again, if need be – to open our closed selves to the light, and to allow that light to cleanse, heal and change us.

It’s a gradual process; the work of a lifetime. It’s sometimes painful, humiliating, or fearful to be willing to accept discipline; even from a loving father who delights in us. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

There’s one more point I want to make this morning. This phenomenon of being curved in on ourselves, so closed to God’s light and hope that we give darkness free rein – or at least cut it a lot of slack – is not just something that happens to individuals. It happens to groups of people too; even to congregations and parishes. Such groups can obsess endlessly about petty things, and be blind to the wider horizons to which hope might call us. And if you’re tempted to think that that doesn’t happen at all in this parish, I have a question for you, my brothers and sisters; why is it, do you think, that the single biggest conflict in the church this year has been over the question of how we should serve morning tea?

It would seem that we have a choice about which we would rather be in the Christian life; a good example, or a horrible warning.  The apostle tells us that God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all. All we need do is be open to Him.

Christmas – a time of hope and trust

This is the text of a sermon for Christmas morning, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-20.

So here we are. The morning after the night before, as it were; through yesterday and late into the night Christians gathered all over Melbourne to remember Jesus’ birth. And now, in the light of a new morning, we and other congregations have gathered again, perhaps with less drama but with no less sincerity, to consider what it all means – and what it all means for us.

It got me thinking about Jesus’ birth from the point of view of “the morning after.” We aren’t told what time of day – or night – Jesus was born, but at some point, the drama of the birth itself would be over, the shepherds would have come and gone, and Mary would have been left holding a new baby boy, with more than the usual amount of processing to do to make sense of her recent life-changing experiences.

I remember all too well my own “morning after” musings, the day after my daughter was born. I sat holding her and marvelling at the tiny, perfect, new person.  I traced a finger over her feet, and realised that as soon as she learned to walk on those feet, she would be walking away from me, to explore the world; at first beyond her blanket on the floor, then beyond her home, to school, to work, out on a date; perhaps one day, down an aisle to marry, or to make other significant life commitments.  It was my job to hold her hands while she learned to walk, and then to let them go, so that she could.

It’s a bittersweet sort of realization, when it hits you as a mother that your job is – as best you can – over time to make yourself a smaller and smaller occupant in your child’s life, so that your child can have the space necessary to define his or her own identity and carve out an independent path. For Mary, holding God-made-flesh in her own vulnerable hands, I can only imagine that it was even more overwhelming. What would it demand of her – I’m sure she wondered – to raise and nurture and form the human character of this unique person? What would it cost her when he eventually let go of her hands, and moved on to a destiny at which she could only begin to guess? What would be her part in the new reality which was coming in to the world, in the form of her son? Whatever was to come, it was not a reality which she could anticipate with certainty, or control.  Heavy things to ponder in her heart, in the clear light of a new morning.

On that first day, Mary could not have begun to imagine what would come of her mothering; Jesus’ public ministry, his death and resurrection, a church which would begin small and persecuted but go on to express itself in empires great and terrible. Perhaps it was just as well for Mary that she couldn’t foresee it all, or she might have struggled to trust that God would be at work, even in the shadowed parts of that long story.

Of course, we look at Jesus and his legacy from the other end of a very long passage of time. We know the shadows of that history; some of us have even experienced them in deeply personal and hurtful ways. And it makes it more poignant, then, for us to come back and be reminded of how it all began; with an innocent child, a vulnerable mother and hopes and dreams for a better future; hopes and dreams which needed just as much care and nurturing as any infant. Hopes and dreams which are fragile and sometimes hard to trust.

It’s why some of the more overly sweet or glossy sentiments at Christmas time tend to irritate rather than encourage me. Jesus came as a light into a dark world, and although he continues to shine in it, denying the darkness which still lingers is just plain dishonest.

So where does that leave us, on our “morning after” – coming to be reminded of the light which came into this world of shadows? We, too, come to gaze on the Christ child, each with our own fragile hopes and dreams. We, too, each reach out, tentatively, to God in a way that is more about trust than about certainty. We, too, each know what it is to be caught up in realities which are much bigger than us and beyond our ability to control.

And what do we find here, as we gather to celebrate a baby? By definition, we find beginnings. We find that our fears and brokenness and darkness are met, not by final resolution, but by an invitation to hope and trust and to be part of the experience as these beginnings play out to their inevitable conclusion.

In Christ, we are given a hope which helps us not to be overcome even in our fragility; not to be paralysed in our vulnerability; but to be encouraged to look for the light beyond those shadows.

Mary has long since let go of Jesus’ hand, surrendered her maternal responsibility and gone to her blessed rest. We, now, are the body of Christ; it is up to us to take up the legacy of hope and trust which has been left to us. It is up to us to be the bearers of good news of great joy. It is up to us to recognize and know and be able to extend to others the salvation which came into the world in this baby boy. It is up to us to recognize that the mission of the messiah – the mission of justice, peace, reconciliation and renewal – continues and is placed in our care.

That is a hope which we do not yet see fully realized. Like Mary on that first morning, we see the glimmerings and beginnings of something which will be greater and brighter than we have ever yet known, but which still requires nurture and care in order to grow.

It is up to us to open our hands to receive that, to open our hearts and minds to carry it forward, to open our lives to glorifying God.

The most important thing?

Recently, I went to the World Student Christian Federation Pacific Subregional Women’s Programme on “Healing ourselves, our communities and our planet.”  It was an amazing experience, and I think it will give me much to reflect on for a long time.

As part of the programme (which was held at Puketeraki Marae, near Karitane on New Zealand’s South Island), the organisers asked Councillor Jinty MacTavish, the youngest woman ever elected to serve on Dunedin’s City Council, to come and speak to us about her work as it related to our theme.  Someone present asked her, given the complexities of politics and the fact that the desire to make a positive difference is often frustrated by bureaucracy, compromise and distraction, what she saw as the most important thing in her work.

Cr. MacTavish’s answer struck me as being very profound.  I didn’t manage to capture it word for word, but in effect she said that the most important thing in creating positive change was creating and supporting a community of people who are asking questions of ultimate concern, and committed to acting as best they can on the answers.  Having such a community is foundational to everything else.

I don’t know what religious conviction – if any – Cr. MacTavish holds.   But it struck me that she had described so very neatly what the church ought to be in the world; a community of people asking questions about things that really matter, and committed to acting on the answers.

Yet so few congregations really do this well.  Some are not truly acting as a community but are a collection of individuals who come together for worship.  Some don’t want to have to confront hard questions.  Some struggle to take the step to move from reflecting to action.

It seems to me that part of my job in ministry is not to settle for that, but to keep encouraging people to remember that in order to be salt and light in the world we have to actually do stuff.  And to be effective about it.  Cr. MacTavish’s answer reminded me that this is not an optional extra in ministry, but may well be one of the most important things I can do.