Saturday, April 14, 2012

Doubt, Skepticism and Faith

Doubt, Skepticism and Faith

Our readings today proclaim the story of our dear friend "Doubting Thomas". Not only do I like Thomas, I think that without him there can be no real faith, and I would go a step further. Without Thomas, scientific inquiry could never have found a home in the world of faith either.

Many can take their faith blindly on the basis of other witnesses. And there certainly is a special blessing for those able to do so. Not so Thomas. He wanted to see it with his own eyes, touch it with his own hands. He is the Patron Saint of the fellow from Missouri; the “show me state”.

Down through history, some of the greatest minds in science have also been great minds in the world of faith.

Copernicus for instance set the stage for Galileo’s struggle to make us aware that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but that the sun was. He was a papal nuncio and brilliant canon lawyer, but he was also a mathematician and an astronomer. And his curiosity; his inquiring and discerning mind could not let go of the elegantly simple thought that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. He worked out many of the mathematical problems and it became clearer and clearer to him that he was onto something. He was fortunate that the publications of his new theory came near the end of his life. He was reputedly given a copy of his newly published book describing the orbits of the celestial bodies on his death bed, and thus, it is said, he died in peace.

True enough, both Copernicus and Galileo were persecuted by the Biblical literalists but that did not change the fact that they were correct. And after 600 years of so the church did apologize.

As humbling as it is to wake up one morning and figure out that the universe does not revolve around you, it is just as essential. For until we discover our true place in God’s universe, we cannot have a true understanding either of ourselves or of God. This is the nature of the scientific enterprise. It is essential for us in discovering the truth.

Another good example of just such a man is Gregor Johann Mendel, the Augustinian friar who pioneered the work of modern genetic research. He really didn’t know that’s what he was doing. He was just trying to grow better varieties of peas for the monastery. Then he began to notice that traits in pea plants followed particular patterns. He took careful and complete records. His work was not recognized until the turn of the 20th century, but finally his curiosity and his search for fact and truth was finally rewarded.

Then there was our own Charles Darwin. He was a devout member of the Church of England and studied theology, and even took the bible quite literally as an ethical guide for human behavior but not as a document for scientific authority. He noticed aboard the Beagle in his five year journey around the world that fossil remains, and the amazing variety of species that he witnessed in places like Patagonia, for instance, began to suggest to him the notion of natural selection.

His discoveries have revolutionized the way we think of the evolution of our own ancestry in the development of humankind. It may be humbling to recognize that we are inextricably interwoven with all life, but that’s the truth of the matter.

So controversial is his work that there are places in the United States that take his work as a threat to biblical authority. In some states Evolution must be presented as a theory on a same level as Creationism as if they were completing and valid scientific options; the one based on flawed human inquiry and the other based on inerrant biblical revelation.

That’s like saying; “Nah, the sun still revolves around the world”...don’t believe facts and figures and scientific observation, and for God’s sake don’t look into that telescope!"

Such thinking is an assault not only on the truth of science but on the truth of faith as well.

The ongoing battle between science and religion is a false one for most intelligent and educated people of faith and/or science. Some of the greatest minds of our time have seen a role for both. One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein who is often thought to be an atheist. But hold the phone; was it not he who said this; “Science without faith is lame; and religion without science is blind!” Thus for many thoughtful folks science and faith can be mutually creative and corrective.

In our own church, Margaret Mead taught us a great deal about cultural relativism in her observations in in the South Pacific. Her book; “Coming of Age in Samoa”, is mandatory reading in most Liberal Arts Colleges. As a brilliant thinker she was clearly a formational mind in the development of cultural anthropology. She was also a devout Anglo-Catholic and an Episcopalian.

And lest we forget our current Presiding Bishop. Not only is she a marvelous and articulate woman of faith; she is also a brilliant biologist and a pilot. She is indeed a Renaissance woman.

So then that brings me back to Thomas. He would not believe until he saw it with his own eyes and touched it with his own hands. I am like that in many ways. And yet when I look and when I touch what is indeed around me, I see and feel a world that reveals that God is very much alive, and that Jesus is alive in the hearts and lives of those around me.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not so much a reassuring comfort to us about where we go when we die, but an ethical demand about who we are called to be while we are alive.

There are the poor to be fed, the homeless to be housed, the young to be educated, the elderly to be cared for, the sick, the bereaved and the broken heated to be mended with the healing touch of Jesus.

That’s something I can see and touch. It is the healing touch of Jesus that will make all the difference.

I can assure you that God’s existence does not depend on whether you can wrap my mind around various doctrinal statements. When I am asked to "Believe" in the Creed, I am not asked to give my intellectual assent to a credal formula, as much as I am asked to make a commitment to a way of life.

In many ways, Christ’s existence does depend on whether I am willing to do the work of the living and loving Christ for the sake of the world.

Teresa of Avila summed this up in these words

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr. Paul

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