A Sermon: The Big Questions-Is There Something or Someone More?

Preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt June 17th, 2012 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia

Today I begin a series of sermons that will carry us through the summer, a series I am going to call The Big Questions. These sermons grow out of something that I’ve started to tell our confirmation classes for the past several years.   When we introduce the idea of writing statements of faithand that they themselves will be required to write out what they believeat this point in their young lives, as eighth graders, about God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Church, the meaning and purpose of life and so forth, I tell them that there are big questions in life.  They are questions people don’t get to avoid answering.

“You may not answer them the way I do, or the way your parents or your mentors do,” I tell the confirmands.  “Your answers might not line up exactly with Presbyterian theology, or a traditionally Christian worldview. But we’re going to expose you to that tradition as a time-tested way people over the centuries have thought about the answers to some of the big questions….”

Whether you embrace those answers for yourself or not you don’t get to avoid the big questions.

One of the biggest questions in life is whether God exists, whether there is something more at work in the world than just random chance and human initiative. Is there something or someone more or bigger than just us out there?  Is there some sort of divine order at work within and beyond existence?  Or, is what happens in life, including natural forces and biochemistry just the outworking of the interplay of luck, chaos, and bell curve probability? Is there a God or not?  And how can we know?  It’s a big question.

Not everyone believes in the existence of God, and there are times when even the most dedicated, the most faithful, among us, can have our trust that there is something or someone more at work in the world, shaken. See Mother Teresa’s memoirs for evidence of that.  She speaks to that kind of doubt.  And who was a better example of faithful commitment than Mother Teresa?

The rise of what have come to be called the New Atheists— Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris; and with them entertainers like Bill Maher, George Carlin, and others, is just the most recent manifestation of an impulse to answer the question of whether or not God exists with an emphatic no.

Psalm 14, which we’re about to read, suggests that this impulse goes back to biblical times.  It also suggests that people of faith have had a tendency to misrepresent atheists as utterly incapable of doing good things for at least 2500 years.   Listen now for God’s word in Psalm 14. Pay attention to the psalmist’s conviction that God is the refuge of the poor, and that God will restore the fortune of God’s people.

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

The second lesson comes from the Gospel of John. It opens with an answer to the big question of whether God exists by affirming that God was the Word that was there at the beginning, through him all things came into being.  Listen now for John’s take on God at the very start of his gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Does God exist?  Or not?  In some ways that seems like a silly question for a person like me to be asking.  I mean, isn’t that settled? After all, I guess you could say that I’ve bet my life that the answer to the question is yes.  Although I felt the stirrings of a call to pastoral ministry all the way back to when I was in high school and most of the time it’s hard to imagine doing anything else with my life than what I’m doing now, than  what I’ve chosen—or what God chose for me, it could have been otherwise. I could have pursued other careers, made other life choices, that promised more money, more acclaim. But something drew me to working in the church.  What was that? I name that something God, a God I’ve somehow come to understand through the life, death, resurrection and continuing story of Jesus.

I say a God I’ve come to understand, but there’s part of me that wrestles and probably always will wrestle, with the mystery of divinity. I relate well to Ann Weems, the Presbyterian poet and elder, and her poetic affirmation

God is the Question with whom we contend throughout our lives.

God is the One standing there in the closing of doors and the opening of windows.

God is the Surprising Voice that calls in the jaggedness of life.

God is the Hand that keeps the world from snuffing out the stars.

 God is the Poem that begins and ends in a circle.

God is the Circle that neither begins nor ends.

God is the Question, the One, the Voice, the Hand, the Poem, the Circle. That’s what Ann Weems says.  That’s how she wraps her mind around the question of whether or not there is something or someone more.  But not everyone would agree.

There are a number of people in the world and in the U.S. who would say that God does not exist—that God is at best a product of our imagination, an opiate of the people, a flawed way of making sense of what are at root coincidences.  Rather than to bash that point of view, and to misrepresent those who hold it as perverse, wicked, evildoers, it is worth acknowledging that many people who hold that position do in fact accomplish a lot of good in the world.  They are good, kind, caring people.  I’ve known them.  I know them.  They just don’t happen to believe, at least not most of the time, that there’s anything more at work in the world than random chance, biochemistry, and human initiative.

Moreover, they see and are disturbed by the manipulation and evil that has been wrought in the name of God by those who say they believe in God whatever religion the believers happen to embrace. They see and know the history of some Muslims committing terrorist acts and oppressing women; some Christians engaging in inquisitions and witch hunts and sex abuse and looking the other way during Holocausts; some practitioners of other faiths committing other atrocities….  They look at these things and say “I have no use for religion.  Believing in God is dangerous.”

I love the quote that my wife Judith posted to her Facebook page this very morning. (Just in time to make it into my sermon!)  It’s from the comedian John Fugelsang.  He says: “I’ve come to view Jesus the way I view Elvis-I love the guy but the fan clubs tend to freak me out.”

 One way to look at the damage wrought by God’s various fan clubs is to say that God is a harmful idea that must be discarded.   Of course, another way to look at God’s harmful fan clubs is to say that God is a real presence Whose standards are high and Who is offended by the misuse of God’s name to justify or excuse lack of compassion among people who claim that name. Maybe God is offended by God’s fan clubs misusing God’s name. I opt for that second choice.

I like what a friend of mine says.  He says, “When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. Because chances are I don’t believe in that God either.

So does God exist, or not? I was talking about this with a college-aged friend of my daughter’s last Saturday. Okay, it was her boyfriend.  We went to dinner.

Like a lot of people his age, he’s got questions. Knowing that I’m a pastor, he asked me, essentially, “How can you believe this stuff? How can you believe in God?” And then he mentioned the idea of Russell’s teapot, the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s notion that if you want to posit that there is a teapot floating somewhere in space between, say, Mars and Jupiter, you have the burden to prove that it exists.  It’s not up to others to prove that it doesn’t.

The first thought I had when he trotted out that argument was that affirming the notion of transcendence, the idea that there is something bigger than us, a power greater than ourselves, a God if you will, is much more significant than positing that there is a cosmic teapot floating out in space…

The second thought I had, and I told him this, was that given that most people throughout time have had a notion of transcendence and that religious and spiritual perspectives have arisen in almost every culture known to humanity, that seems, to me, to move in the direction of proof for the existence of God.

What sort of hubris do people have to possess to think that there is nothing more than just us?  And that the relatively small number of people in the world who believe that there’s no divinity that shapes our ends are somehow smarter and more evolved than the 6.5 billion or so people of various religious faiths who believe that there is?

We all possess hubris.  That’s not unique to any one perspective on God or religion. But here’s another thing.  We all put faith in things that are beyond ourselves…

I really like one particular Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. If you are a Facebook friend of mine you might have seen this one. The boy Calvin is talking to his friend Hobbes, the tiger.  He says, “You know, I don’t think that math is science.  I think it’s a religion.” 

Hobbes scratches his head.  “A religion?”

“Yeah, all these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one new number. No one can say how it happens.  You either believe it or you don’t. 

“This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith,” Calvin says, holding up his math book. “It’s a religion.”

Then Hobbes the tiger leans over and says, “And in the public schools, no less.  Call a lawyer.”

Calvin ends by saying, “As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.”

The truth of the matter is that we all put faith in certain things that we just have to accept, we just have to believe. Whether it is math…  Or science…

As science has progressed we have gleaned progressively more insight into how the world works but it too requires believing in some theories, accepting certain basic assumptions.

And then there is religion.  There is spirituality.  There is that sort of faith.

So does God exist or not?

Over the course of history there have been many proofs offered for the existence of God.  St. Anselm said that because we have the idea of something “that than which no greater can be conceived,”  because we can come up with the idea of divinity or transcendence, it must exist.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that because things move, and we know this empirically, we see them move, then there must be a first mover, someone who sets all that motion in motion.  Because there is cause and effect, there must be a first cause that then causes everything else.

Some people look at the marvelous complexity and diversity of the world and say, “When I look at that, I can’t do anything but believe that there is something more. I mean how else do you describe how a penguin came to be?  Or a panda?  Or a platypus?  Is that just random chance?  No.  Of course not. That’s a proof of God’s existence.”

The theologian N.T. Wright, in his book, Simply Christian  bases his conviction that God exists on what he calls the echoes of a voice that incline our hearts in God’s direction.  He names four echoes in particular.  The longing we have for justice: the sense that there is right and wrong in the world even if we don’t always attain it.  The quest for spirituality: the feeling that our hearts are somehow restless, that they long for something bigger.  The hunger we have for relationship and love.  Where does that come from?  That’s a proof for the existence of something or someone transcendent.   The delight we take in beauty, whether in nature or in art, the fact that beauty exists.  That, too, is proof of the existence of God, for Wright.

No, atheism doesn’t explain it all.  Not for me.  The idea that things happen by random chance, that there’s no order, that it is somehow just all up to us and there’s nothing beyond us, that doesn’t work for me.

Even people I’ve known who have been convinced atheists, when I look at their lives, and the good they’ve done and are doing, I’m convinced that there’s something more at work in the world than just them, just us.

I think ultimately the best proof for the existence of God comes down to experience…

One young man who grew up here at Immanuel after he left here to go to college and beyond into the rest of his life joined a church elsewhere.  When he was being ordained a deacon there, he and the others being ordained with him were asked to share what they believed in.  Several of his colleagues said they believed in God, but they weren’t sure they could believe in church.  Mark said, “That’s odd.  Because I believe in church, but I’m not always sure I believe in God.”

The church, the way it nurtured his faith and shaped him into a kind, principled, giving person… Whether or not that is proof for God’s existence for Mark, it’s proof enough for me.

So is A.A.

My Dad just celebrated his 70th birthday.  In April he celebrated his 30th year of sobriety.  And in September he and my mom will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage. If you had looked at my Dad’s life 31 or 32 years ago you might well have said, “Where is God at work here? This man is on a path to drink away his family, his job, his life. He’s slowly but surely destroying everything that is important to him.”  That was a little more than 30 years ago. Now, when his marriage could have ended, he will be celebrating his 50th anniversary.  Now, when he could well have died too early as a consequence of drinking, he just celebrated his 70th birthday this week. 30 years of sobriety.  For me, that is proof of God’s existence.

Now, you can say, “All right, Aaron, I hear that. I see that.  But let me raise you ten Skid Row drunks, and twenty broken marriages, and thirty lives ended too soon. Heck, let me raise you a Holocaust.” I will still claim that the healing and mercy and wonder that came out of that one life transformed and the difference it’s made not just in his life but in lots of other lives, is proof of God’s existence.

Mac Henderson was telling me the other day about Brittany Mooney’s graduation from Spelman College in Atlanta.  Brittany is one of our Dreamers. (NOTE:  The Dreamer Program is our congregation’s commitment to provide for the education of young people in the Anacostia section of Southeast D.C.  A good number of Immanuelites have been working with our current group for the past eight or nine years—taking them on field trips, tutoring them, walking with them through school troubles, helping them apply to college, get additional financial aid, meet expenses, face crises. We have pledged as a congregation to pay tuition for those who go on for further education beyond high school–and to do our best to see that they get to that place…)   And Mac wanted to go down for her graduation.  He and Laurie have been really invested, really, really invested in Brittany’s life and education.  So he wanted to go down to the graduation and he did.

She strode into the auditorium, Mac said, her head held high.  Brittany has become a fine young woman, a confident, articulate, thoughtful, polite, wonderful young woman. And Mac said that he and Ms. Johnson were so proud to see her stride across that stage.

Mac told me that he almost didn’t make the graduation. When he went to the airport that morning to catch the plane, he didn’t have a whole lot of extra time to make the flight.  When he arrived the TSA lines were backed up.  I mean backed up.  Sure, he could have gotten on a later flight, but if he had, he wouldn’t have made the graduation.  He just wouldn’t have made it.

Mac said he was standing there in this huge line, not moving anywhere,  I guess looking panicked, because he knew he was going to miss his flight.  And some woman, who was kind of an airport ambassador I guess, came by with a mother and several children—I think they were African-American—and they were heading to the front of the line.  The ambassador looked at Mac and said, “Come with me.”  And then she said, “Listen, don’t say that you are not related to these people. All right?” He made the flight and was there in the audience for the graduation.

Sure, if I tell that story to Bill Maher, he’s going to say, “I hear stories like that all the time. It’s just a load of hogwash. This is just coincidence.”

My response to that would be, “Okay, fine. But you tell me why it was that a white man who had no connection to Anacostia whatsoever ten years ago would care enough, be invested enough, to go see the graduation of some African-American young woman whom he might not have ever met were it not for the commitment of his church. You tell me the answer to that question, Bill. And then we’ll talk about whether God exists or not.”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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