Monday, November 2, 2009

Sermon for November 1, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Reason

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen. -- Hebrews 11:1-3

Faith can fix anything, right? We hear it all the time. Just have faith, and everything will be all right. Or will it? In his book, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christian Believe, Pastor Larry Osborne says that this belief tops the list. I know, it sounds weird, doesn’t it. We’ve been taught from our earliest days that faith can move mountains. Faith will keep us going on the tough times. Without faith, what is left to Christianity?

Faith believes in something beyond what can be known by our senses. Sometimes we call it “blind faith” – we don’t see, we just know. We don’t ask questions. We don’t entertain doubts. We just believe what we are told to believe, follow whom we are told to follow, and imagine that having faith will make all of life’s pain go away.

When I think of blind faith, I remember Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” Each year in a rigid and isolated small town, a lottery is held. Everyone gathers in the town square, a big box is brought out, and each person, young and old, draws a slip of paper. As you read the story, you think that the winner of the lottery will gain riches and notoriety. The person who draws the paper with the black spot on it becomes the villages’ sacrificial victim. As soon as the black spot is drawn, the whole village picks up rocks and stones the lottery winner to death. Even family members took part in the stoning. Then everyone goes back to his or her business until the next year and the next lottery. No one ever suggests that the murderous lottery is immoral. For the most part, they accept their tradition without voicing any questions or misgivings, for fear of retribution. It has been passed on for so long that the majority does not think twice about it. “The Lottery” tells the horrendous and repetitive story of how mob violence forms the foundation of religion. The victim’s death justifies the mob's behavior. Most religions have stories about sacrificial victims who atone for the sins of the people. The death of the victim is justified by the guilt of the victim.

Or, maybe you have heard this story about blind faith: A woman is out hiking when she stumbles and falls over a 500-foot cliff to the ocean below. A few feet down, she catches a shrub and clings on for dear life. Dangling precariously, her palms begin to sweat. Realizing she has only seconds to spare, she calls out, “Is there anybody up there?” A deep, booming voice answers: “Let go of the branch. Have faith. This is God speaking. I will catch you and set you down safely. Trust me.” The woman looks down at the sea far below crashing against the jagged rocks and then looks up to the lip of the cliff just out of reach. She then looks at the shrub. She looks down and up several times, then calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

As we go through life, we realize that blind faith does not fix everything. Blind Faith does not fix a broken car. Blind Faith does not make acne go away. Blind Faith does not make an alcoholic stop drinking. Blind Faith doesn’t bring loved ones back from the dead. And this is why some people claim religion is dangerous. It makes smart people believe in dumb things. It’s unreasonable. Faith is dangerous when it becomes an excuse to check your mind at the door, to believe the unbelievable, to stop thinking for yourself and to allow someone else to do the work for you. Faith is dangerous when it promotes wishful thinking against the truth. Faith is dangerous when it creates scapegoats, when it victimizes innocent people and creates class systems based on those who have the right kind of faith and those who don’t. What do you think? Is faith dangerous?

What would you do if I were to tell you that I think the Christian Gospel is sheer fantasy? Would you change the channel you’re watching? Hit the mute button? Well, hear me out: I do believe the Gospel is fantasy, but I also believe it is true. That is, I think the Gospel is beyond our experience. It is beyond our senses. It is beyond our time. Sometimes it is like a dream. We know it speaks some truth, but we don’t know what it means. In that sense, it is a fantasy. And because of that, it calls me to have faith in what it says. To put it another way, the Bible describes a reality that stretches beyond the limits of my finite, mortal existence. Believing what it’s trying to teach us has the capacity to change our lives and the world we share.

Near the beginning of poem, “For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden makes the following confession: “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” When you are on the brink of death -- from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or catastrophe or oppression or depression or whatever -- when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of something beyond your limitations. That which is merely possible cannot save. And that is what the Gospel offers: an impossible possibility, a reality that goes beyond the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.

Some would call this an escape, a flight from reality. And make no mistake: this is the great risk of the Christian life. Christianity is a gamble that there is a Reality and Truth that lives just behind and beyond our everyday experience. And what a gamble it is! Think about it: week in and week out, in churches all across the world, preachers declare not only that there is a God who created and sustains the universe, but that this God cares deeply and passionately about your hopes and dreams, successes and failures. This God cares enough to send God’s only Son into the world to grant you new and abundant life. This is precisely the gamble that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is talking about when he says that Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Let’s face it, there isn’t much hard evidence for a loving, self-sacrificing God. Just read the newspaper or watch the evening news. Almost everywhere we look it seems that we humans delight in violence and destruction while failing so spectacularly and regularly at loving each other. How, can we begin to imagine a God of love behind it all? In the face of CNN and Fox news, it would seem that the good news of the Gospel is just a little too good to be true.

Sharon Salzberg has a nice way of describing the maturing of faith. Sharon is one of the leading teachers of eastern meditation in the world today. She differentiates between bright faith, verified faith and abiding faith.

Bright faith beams at the possibilities of life. It is pure optimism. Many children have bright faith. It is beyond their comprehension that life will not bend to their will. We get jaded and lose it at some point. Bright faith is appropriate for children. For adults, bright faith can come close to blind faith. The problem with blind faith is that even though faith can move mountains, you need to see which mountain needs to be moved.

Verified faith includes a memory of past survival and achievement. It is learned wisdom. Verified faith works closely with doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. They are two sides of one coin. Doubt sharpens faith, and faith affirms doubt. The Buddha told a story that showed the movement from bright faith to verified faith. He compared faith to a blind giant who meets up with a very sharp-eyed crippled person, called wisdom. The blind giant, called faith, says to the sharp-eyed cripple, “I am very strong, but I can’t see; you are very weak, but you have sharp eyes. Come and ride on my shoulders. Together we will go far.”

Abiding faith is unwavering in the face of change. Abiding faith doesn’t expect life to remain stagnant. It is in tune with a purpose that doesn’t depend on circumstances. It is one with the flow of life.

Of course, if you are anything like me, abiding faith is hard. I move in and out of abiding faith. Just do the best you can, take time to honor yourself for the moments of great faith in your life, and keep moving towards the light.

The amazing thing the Bible is that it not only tells us the stories of the people of faith. It actually invites us into that same fantastic story. At this very moment you are being called to live out the expressions of mature, abiding faith. You are being called to enact your part of God’s story for the world; to struggle to believe in a world of doubts, to love in a world of hate, to make peace in a world of violence, to offer hope in a world of despair. And whether you succeed or fail, I promise you that God will not give up on you. God never has, and God never will. And if you have the faith to believe that, then you will understand the power of abiding faith. Faith gives the courage to face the powers of sin and death and the hope to engage them. We watch those who have gone before us, and in faith, we know that we too can become channels of God’s love.

Ian Lawton, “You Gotta Have Faith.”
David Lose, “The Faith Journey.”
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Lousiville: WJK, 2004), 5-8.
Keith Ward. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

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