Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nagging Doubts

Nagging Doubts

We come now to the great feast day of Doubting Thomas. He would not believe until he saw with his own eyes, and touch the wounds with his own hands. That’s a graphic image if ever there was one.

There is the doubt we have of God.
There is the doubt we have of Jesus.
And then there is the doubt we have of the Church.
These three great doubts are epidemic in our time.

Modern Science and technology has built so much of its knowledge base and methodology on the necessary of deleting the God postulate from its purview. But that does not necessarily mean that there is no God.

Many years ago I debated an Oxford scholar on the notion of God. His arguments ran something like the following;
  1. How do you explain the suffering of God’s people?
  2. Science has a better explanation than anything religion can offer.
  3. There is no evidence of God’s existence. Can you point to any evidence of God?

I stayed with the man and his wife in a northern London suburb and so on the second night I offered these rejoinders;
  1. Assuming that there is no God what then do you propose as the meaning of life. Ultimately he said there is none. Ultimately, life is Absurd with a capital “A”. I said I renounced that because it makes no sense.
  2. So then I said when you remove the God postulate you remove a powerful inner ethical force. With what would you replace it? How would you keep in check the very powerful destructive human urges that is intrinsic to human nature. Well, he said, obviously we’ll need strong weapons, armies, and police forces. Aha! That explains British Imperialism and American hegemony and makes might right; but removes God from the human heart. When you remove that foundational ethical power you remove the cornerstone of civilization itself.
  3. It is a historic fact that the church has given us some of our finest institutions; hospitals, universities, art, architecture, music and literature. Shall stand by and let our heritage crumble around us? This inspired some ire from my friend. The thought that the finest of Britain’s great cathedrals face the very real possibility of crumbling seemed to give him pause.

Neither of us convinced the other to change our mind.

But to me, there is no doubt that the more we operate without the reality of God within our hearts the more danger we fall into ethically and spiritually. There seems to be no ethical compass to direct us. And talk about depression? Imagine a world where there is no God. Where there is no meaning to our lives whatsoever. Imagine a world where our lives are ultimately meaningless and absurd; where there is no spirituality at all. Now that’s depressing!

Danger! Depression! A world without God? Such a world could give rise to an increase in violence and mental illness. We renounce such a world view because we know that God is our guide and our moral compass and that God loves us and forgives us. 

Which brings us to Jesus. Apparently God loves us so much that God became one of us in the flesh and blood of Jesus. It began so beautifully over the little town of Bethlehem. Shepherds and wise men and angels all came to kneel down offer their gifts and join with all of heaven and nature to sing “Glory to God on High and Peace to All on Earth”. That was a good beginning. 

Then he taught us and fed us on the hillsides of Galilee. He walked on water, healed the blindness of all, the lame, the halt, reached out to the rejected, marginalized and outcast of the Temple. And that’s when things got a bit dicey.

With his questionable retinue in tow, there were the tax collectors and the prostitutes and so on, he arrived in Jerusalem. There was his triumphal entry with the palms and the donkey and all that and then he had to go and spoil everything by upturning the tables of the money changers. His fate was sealed. He was tried and convicted of blasphemy. Then he was crucified, dead and buried. On Easter Day he rose again from the dead and what a surprise that was!

So surprising that it pushed the credulity of Thomas the Man from Missouri, the “Show me” state. So Jesus did show himself to Thomas and he believed. And so it is that the rest of us fall into two camps; believers and those who will believe it when we see it. Take a look around you if you will. there is some evidence that Jesus lives. It is in the hearts and minds and the lives of those around you now. In the words of Theresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours”. It is you and your love now that persuades us that Christ is alive.

Which brings us now to the church. Suppose I believe in God, and suppose I even believe in Jesus, but what of the institutional church? Especially when the church’s record on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and orientation is not quite what it could be. How can I believe in such an institution.
First of all, let me say that this church and many of our churches have struggled with the biblical notion that we are “A House of Prayer for ALL People”. All means all. And we are taking that seriously. We are building an emerging “welcoming set of communities” and seeking to be faithful to a Christ whose outstretched arms on the cross include all without exception.
But what of the “institutional church”
Some time ago a lawyer came to me to arrange for a baptism for his daughter. We met together over a cup of coffee and were going over arrangements when I asked him about his membership status in the church. He told me he believed in God but not in the institutional church. This remember was a lawyer. I had heard this line a thousand times and there was something that snapped in me at that moment. 
So I said to him; Do you believe in Democracy? 
Yes, of course I do.
Well then it follows that you will have to believe in Congress and Politicians.

What about Justice then? Do you believe in Justice?
Yes, of course I do.
Then you will of necessity need to believe in the Courts and Lawyers. Egad, I added, that’s asking a lot. Lawyers? Politicians? 

Saying I believe in Lawyers and Politicians is like asking me to sit down to a nice big plate of bird feathers. Not the least bit appetizing.

So that begs the question.
You say you believe in God. What then of his Church, which is the Body of his Christ? What of the Men and Women of God who are God’s messengers. Not quite the same as a walk in the woods or a sunny day on the golf course. If you want Democracy or Justice, you will have to put your back into it and make it work. Likewise with God. You want God to live? Put your back into it. It is not enough to allow God to exist by some lazy form of intellectual assent. 

There’s a lot at stake here. Our civilization depends on the ethical and spiritual presence of the Church. 

I said to the lawyer, I rest my case. He did come to church the following Christmas and Easter. Oh well, I only go to a lawyer when I have to! 

Do I have my doubts about God?
Or the resurrection of Jesus?
And do I run into frustrations on how well the Church as institution is running?
Of course I do.
But underneath these doubts there is this faith that will not go away; a faith that is built upon the knowledge and love of God and of the people of God. 
“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  

~Romans 8:38,39

Fr Paul


Elizabeth said...

On the Resurrection: our preacher today said something I had hear before and is compelling to me. You may not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but something huge happened. That something took a band of semi-literate (at best), working class, scared to death disciples and created well spoken (today's 1st lesson), fearless, determined Apostles to the world. The change in the Disciples was enormous. What could have caused such a change?

"Fr. Paul" Bresnahan said...

Excellent point Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing it. Your preacher is a fine preacher!

amesababble said...

Nice argument and discourse. I thought of something this year. Jesus said his first words after the resurrection to Mary Magdalen. He spoke his first lines to his disciples after they got together and he said, something like,"Why didn't you listen to Mary Magdalen and believe her?" That is remarkably feminist, but after all these years women are still struggling for equality and respect. Why don't men pay attention to what and who Jesus thought was important? Christian men especially.

amesababble said...

There is a Thomas the doubter day, but no Mary Magdalen the know- it- all day. :-)

"Fr. Paul" Bresnahan said...

Jesus is remarkably feminist...or humanist...or at the very least decidedly inclusive of those marginalized by the religious majority of the day. I love the discourse of Jesus with the woman at the well...imagine at high noon at a well in Samaria; a Jew holding "discourse" with a woman at the well! And drinking from her bucket and her ladle. Imagine! This is utterly shocking ! Chuckle, chuckle! This is what stands out about Jesus. The woman washing his feet with her hair. And then of course the women coming to the tomb on Easter Day. Without such women there would be no Christianity at all such as we know it. It is remarkable that the early church did not sanitize out the mention of these events...except that the early church did have to admit that we are all one in Christ "Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Galatians 3:28). You have astutely observed that Jesus has a remarkably feminist view of things...but it goes way beyond just that. His is a "House of Prayer for ALL People". It has taken us millennia to realize the extent to which he MEANT that. Thanks for your comments.