Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore?
I. No God? Goddesses? Your God? My God? Good God!
January 14, 2001
Psalm 107:1-9, Acts 17:16-23 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
Our topic today is a rather broad one, namely, "God". The whole Bible is about "God", and so how does one choose just two Scriptures to be read? I have chosen first a classic psalm about a God whose "steadfast love endures forever". The essence of the God of the Older Testament is that God's tender compassion and unending faithfulness toward the needy, the Creator's persistent love for us creatures such as we are.
The second reading is a vignette from the life of St. Paul. He has come to the great city of Athens, that ancient center of learning and culture, the seat of pagan religions now on the wane. Here amidst the dozens and dozens of statues of the gods and goddesses who in earlier days had ruled the hearts and minds of the Greeks, Paul brings a strange new idea: a god - no, THE God - who has come to live among us in a man named Jesus.
Listen now to discern in the words of the Scripture the Word of God.
Psalm 107:1-9, Acts 17:16-23
Can you see Paul on that visit to Athens? There he was, a stranger and a Jew wandering through those streets paved with dazzling mosaics, towering white marble temples and civic buildings on either side, the Parthenon now four centuries old glistening at the peak of the Acropolis, housing its massive gold and ivory statue of Athena, and statues of the gods and goddesses on every corner and square of that magnificent city. Can you see him: looking up and down those avenues of splendor in awe of their beauty, in awe of all the greatness of that ancient culture - yet with something else burning in his heart: the simple story of a peasant from a backwater town in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, a carpenter's son turned Son of God who would someday turn the Roman Empire upside down with his message that we are all sons and daughters of the one God, the one true God in whose presence the gods and goddesses of Athens would pale, and indeed eventually fall.
The ancient world of Paul's time was of course very different from ours in significant ways. But in one way Paul's Athens was not so different from our New York or Chicago or even our Oshkosh. For just as in Paul's day there was a proliferation of religions, as the old gods had lost their hold on their followers, and new gods sprung up seemingly daily to fill the hearts and minds of eager devotees, so too in our time do we see a multiplication of religions. From New Age to old Pagan, from ancient Native American religion to religions invented last night and spanning the globe by morning via the internet - ours is a day of cafeteria-style religion with a God or Goddess du jour. In his Athens Paul had a message to proclaim against the backdrop of many religions. In our Oshkosh, what God do we proclaim?
Sometimes we of Congregational heritage - because we don't have a common creed, and we emphasize the freedom of the individual - have been mistakenly called "those people who dont believe anything". Or, as I have heard it said among us, "In our church we can believe whatever we want." And it is true enough that our Pilgrim forebears risked life and limb to be free from being told what to believe. But they didn't risk their lives for the privilege of believing in nothing, nor anything. They risked their lives to believe ardently and courageously in their God; free to be fully committed to God in Jesus Christ as they came to understand that God for themselves in the Scriptures. They wanted to be free not just to ask the right questions, but to find their own answers - to affirm what they believed - and to live out those answers in the world.
The sermon series beginning today is called Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore? And the goal of these six weeks is lay out for your consideration not only the questions that surround each of the topics, but to offer some answers as well - what Christians have believed historically, what common beliefs are held by Christians today, and what we believe personally, what I as an individual, what Carol as an individual has found to be true for us.
You are of course free to disagree with us. And you are expected to wrestle in your own mind with what we present. But I challenge you not only to wrestle with the questions, but to come to your own conclusions, and commit yourself to them. Not that your conclusion is final, set in stone, to be never questioned again. But an answer for yourself for today, to be refined and tested, to be modified as you grow and as you interact with others of the faith community and your own experience. But nevertheless an answer for this day.
But does it make any difference what one believes? When it comes to the cosmic issues of God and Christ and the world and beyond - isn't one person's idea as good as another? With all due respect to tolerance and broad-mindedness, I submit to you that ideas have consequences. And not all ideas are good ones. Less than two hundred years ago in this country many people - church-going people, mind you - owned other human beings. They owned the bodies and tried to own the minds and spirits of their slaves - men and women torn from their homeland in Africa and brought here to serve the people of this country. You know the heinous crimes against humanity that took place especially in the south. We today look at the institution of slavery with unbelieving horror, and say that surely those Christian slave owners must have been crazy! But of course they werent crazy. They were just wrong. They believed some bad ideas.
First, they believed that African-Americans were not fully human people. Just as the Nazis of Germany believed that Jews and homosexuals were not fully human, and so could carry out the holocaust against them, so too many Americans not very long ago believed that only white people are really human. But secondly they believed some wrong things about God too. They thought that God cared only for white people, and had put people of color on the earth to serve us. They believed in a God that loved only themselves, and that idea had fatal consequences for their slaves.
Granted that is a bit of an extreme example, but I maintain that what we believe about God - and all the other topics of this series - has consequences in how we live our lives. And so it matters, what we believe. And, no, one idea of what God is like is NOT as good as any other. Its OK even for a Congregationalist to make distinctions and to make judgments between good ideas and bad ones. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we have an obligation to do so when the consequences of wrong-headed theology are so catastrophic as those of Nazi Germany, or the pre-Civil War south.
So let us in our search for right ideas about our faith begin at the beginning, which would be . . . God. In the bulletin each week you will find a series of "Historical Statements of What Christians Believe" - statements from the classic creeds of Christendom beginning today with the Apostles' Creed that many of you memorized in your youth, down to the present statement by the United Church of Christ. The Kansas City Statement of Faith, by the way, was the last doctrinal statement affirmed by the Congregational churches, back in 1913. We offer these statements so that you can see what people of our faith have been saying for now nearly two millennia. You can learn a lot just by seeing how each statement compares with the others, and in our 9:30 discussions each Sunday morning we will look at those classic creeds.
One of the beliefs shared by all of those creeds is that God is the Creator. And surely this is a fundamental belief of many religions, this idea that the world came from somewhere, displaying such intricacy and beauty and design that there must be a creative Mind behind it. Many would want to say that not only is God the Creator, but God is still creating. The process of the universe is on-going, and so God is continually creating: sustaining and preserving all things.
Note that when one asserts that God is the Creator, we say nothing about the means of creation. Believing "evolutionists" say God is Creator. Believing "creationists" say that God is Creator. It really need not be an issue.
But when we say that God is the Creator we say that while God created everything, God is not everything. And while God is everywhere ("omnipresent" is the big word for it), God is not in everything. Christians are not pantheists, who say that God is in everything. We say that the energy of God infuses all things, the life of God animates all life. But God is yet separate from all things, and all life. And so we worship God, not the creation. We may speak of the earth for example as "Mother Earth": a poetic way saying that we come from the earth, and as a child is dependent upon its mother, so too are we dependent upon what the good earth gives us. Thus, we must cherish, and nurture and yes, be reverent toward the earth. But still, we do not worship the creation, but rather the Creator.
In Confirmation the other night we were listing words that described what God is like. There were many excellent answers, and one student came up with the profound description of God as "different". And the deepest thinkers of the centuries have asserted just that, in fancier words. They have said that God is that which is "Wholly Other". Utterly unique, different from anything else in the universe. The biblical word is Holy: unlike anything thing else.
I cringe inside when people refer to "the Man upstairs" rolling eyes skyward with a knowing look. God is not the "Man upstairs". God is in no way even like the man upstairs. Of course, I know that they are using an image to refer to the God. And images are all we have to use, to describe that which is ultimately indescribable, this Holy Creator of all, this Wholly Other who sustains galaxies and heartbeats. But since we are confined to using those images, those word-pictures, those metaphors to say what God is like, let us be careful about which images we use.
Our opening hymn today, Bring Many Names, is a good example of a modern poet exploring new images of God - images that retain a reverence, an awe, a sense of the holy, but also let us peek into new dimensions of that God, with images that stimulate the mind and touch the heart. "Warm father, strong mother God . . . Old, aching God, young growing God. . . ."
And the closing hymn today does the same thing. It is full to the brim with challenging and moving pictures of the God we serve, and draws out the implications of those images. As I say, ideas have consequences. The images you have of God have consequences both as to how you relate to God, and how you think you should live in the world.
Creator, Holy . . . but does this God care? The psalmist today urges us to think so: "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever." And then the psalm said that when some wandered aimlessly in the desert, a people without a home, God delivered them, rescued them, saved them we might say. This is not an aloof God, spinning off new universes but not caring what happens in them. No, Christians believe in a God imbedded in life, immersed in the world.
Now this is both good news and bad, isn't it. It's good if we like a God who comforts us, saves us, goes with us as any good parent would, as a friend. It may be not so good if this same God starts making demands, having expectations about how we should be living. Martin Copenhaver in his excellent book To Begin at the Beginning, speaks about "the intrusive presence" of God. He says that believing in a God in our lives can at first be a welcome realization; we are not alone. "But", he says, "that also means that this God [may] meddle in human lives" - an idea not so welcome.
A God who meddles . . . who has ideas about how we should be living, how we should be acting toward one another. A God who invites us . . . no, demands of us that we "do unto others as we would have them do unto us", that we love our enemy, that we care for the needy, that we do justice and live with compassion, and even that we worship our Holy Creator: that is also part of the Christian concept of God.
But of course our God makes such demands always and only in love for us. Again, as Copenhaver says, God doesn't say to us, "If you do this then I will love you." No, a gracious God say, "I love you, and so do this." Living gracious lives ourselves springs out of knowing that the Holy One who made us is, when all is said and done, Love. "God is love", wrote St. John centuries ago.
And he knew that because he had known Jesus, the Christ. For Christians when we answer the question, "What is God like?", we begin with Jesus. For it was in Jesus that the eternal, Holy Creator came to us. In the words of that Christ, in his deeds of compassion, in the mystery of his death for us and the glory of his resurrection we have seen the face of God.
A Creator who is both different - Wholly Other - and yet enough the same to be incarnated in the man Jesus; who has the power to create worlds, and yet whose Son Jesus the Christ submits out of love to the forces of wrong in the world, to suffer and die. A God who is good, and so calls us to accountability, and expects us to live a certain way, yet is extravagantly patient with us. A God who is love, who is grace.
That is the "unknown God" Paul announced to the Athenians - a strange God to their way of thinking, and a strange God to our world's way of thinking too. An Unknown God to most of our world as well. But that is the God that Christians affirm to the world, and the God we are here to worship. Amen.