“If I can learn, so can you”

Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter

When I was serving as a priest in the Free Episcopal Church, my bishop had a wonderful saying that I continue to carry with me in life: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”  I love that.

I love that saying because it so beautifully messes with our society’s cultural assumptions about what it means to have faith.  To the modern mind, having faith means possessing absolute certainty about a set of ideas, even if you can’t prove those ideas to be true.  If faith really does equal certainty, then a person of faith would necessarily have to be like the character Horshack on the old sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter: “Oh! Oh! Oh!  I know the answer!”

If faith is all about certainty and knowing the answer, then the voice of faith becomes just one more voice, shouting above the noise of every other political ideology and commercial product that claims absolute certainty for itself about the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.  If having faith really is just about being certain, then the church is just another Horshack, shouting from the back of the classroom: “Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  I know the answer!”

But I don’t believe that’s true.  I don’t believe that faith is just another voice, trying to shout over the crowd in the marketplace of ideas.  Furthermore, I don’t believe that faith has anything do with certainty at all.  If anything, I believe that absolute certainty is the exact opposite of faith.  If you’re absolutely certain about your faith, then there’s no stretch that your intuition or imagination has to make.  In order for faith to be authentic, our hearts have to be free to make that leap of trust into the unknown.  We have to come to that healthy and humble point of being able to honestly say, “I don’t know.”

The modern world doesn’t like those words: “I don’t know.”  The modern world wants certainty, but our ancestors in the pre-modern world (ancient and medieval) were much more comfortable with not knowing the answers when it comes to the mystery of existence.  Ancient theologians and philosophers taught their students that, if they truly wanted to understand the meaning of God, then they always had to keep their minds in motion.  Anytime they settled on an idea and claimed to have the final answer, they were told to keep looking, because any answer that a human being could fully understand was obviously not the whole truth about God.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian, claims to present five proofs of the existence of God.  But if you read his five arguments, you’ll walk away frustrated and disappointed because he brings his readers to the point of accepting the need for an explanation of the origins and orderliness of the universe, but then he just stops cold in his tracks.  Aquinas leaves his readers on the brink of a precipice, peering into the dark abyss of the unknown, wondering what might be out there.  He never actually goes so far as to prove, once and for all, that God exists.

This, it would seem, is the stance of faith for the ancient and pre-modern spiritual masters: the stance of openness and reverence toward the great mystery of existence in the universe.  This kind of faith is not a faith that claims to know all answers with absolute certainty.  This faith is a leap of faith, made by a mind in motion.  In today’s gospel reading, we can see that kind of faith in Jesus himself and in the Syrophoenician woman he meets in the city of Tyre.

At this point in the gospel story, Jesus is traveling through foreign territory.  As a Jew in the city of Tyre, he was “a stranger in a strange land”, a fish out of water for sure.  The text itself doesn’t say exactly what business brought Jesus to that city, but it does say that, for whatever reason, he was trying to lie low while he was there.  But, unfortunately for Jesus, word got out that he was in town and someone in need came to see him.

This woman was not Jewish.  She came from a different race and religion than Jesus.  On top of that, she was a woman speaking up for herself.  In the patriarchal world of the ancient Middle East, this was not the norm.  She may have been a widow with no surviving male relatives to act as her official mouthpiece in public.  Whatever the reason, the fact that she was making a scene remains the same.  A non-Jewish woman was confronting a Jewish man in public.  This would have been the scandal of the week in the city of Tyre.  If they’d had tabloids and paparazzi back then, this would have been on the front page.

But you see, she didn’t care about that.  She was desperate.  The text of Mark’s gospel tells us that her daughter had “an unclean spirit”, but it doesn’t tell us exactly what that means.  In the ancient world before the advent of modern medicine, mental and neurological illnesses like epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and schizophrenia were often misdiagnosed as demonic possession.  This might have been one of those cases.  On the other hand, it’s not entirely inconceivable that there really was something happening to this little girl on a supernatural level.  Jesus and his fellow Jews in the first century CE would have had no problem whatsoever with that idea.

A first century Jew would have been especially unsurprised to hear of demonic activity in a city full of pagans, like Tyre.  “Of course she has an unclean spirit,” a typical Palestinian Jew would have said, “All these people in this city have unclean spirits, on account of their bowing down to false gods and idols!”

At first, Jesus seems to concur with that party line.  He refuses to help her because she is not Jewish.  He says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Dogs?  That’s a little harsh, even for Jesus.  No one would have blamed her for storming off, offended, but that’s not what she does.  This woman is desperate and she believes that Jesus is the only one who can help her.  Her love for her daughter leads her to stand up and ride roughshod over the sacred barriers that separated people of different genders, races, and religions in that society.  Here, at the end of her proverbial rope, she throws all caution to the wind and takes matters into her own hands.  I like to imagine that she got up off her knees, looked Jesus right in the eye, and put a finger in his face when she said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I wish the text of Mark’s gospel had described the look on Jesus’ face when she did that.  But we don’t get that luxury.  In the text, Jesus responds to her boldness by saying, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  There is a TV movie on the life of Jesus that came out about 13 years ago.  This scene from today’s gospel reading appears in that film.  The screenwriter takes some liberties with the text and embellishes the point being made with additional dialogue from Jesus.  In the movie, Jesus turns around and says to his disciples, “This woman has taught me that my message is for [all people, not just the Jews].  If I can learn, so can you.”

I love that idea.  Jesus, far from being a distant and static object of worship, is an intimate and dynamic presence in our lives.  The Spirit of Christ grows within us as Christians in every generation are called to speak the truth in love to an ever-changing world.  The needs of the world today are different than they were two thousand years ago.  We are called to follow where Christ is leading us today, not where Christ led our ancestors five hundred years ago.  Let me give you one example: just a few decades ago, the idea of racial integration would have sounded ludicrous.  But today, none of us would want to worship in a church that had “Whites Only” printed on the marquee outside.  The fact that we would now find that offensive and unacceptable is a sign of the Holy Spirit working and growing within us, leading us into new levels of truth that our ancestors weren’t yet ready to hear.  What new truths is the Spirit leading you into today?  What ancient barriers of close-minded prejudice is Christ tearing down in this generation?  When our children and grandchildren grow up and look back at this era of history, will they be proud of us for taking risks and standing up for what we thought was right?  Will they see evidence of Christ growing in our hearts?

I certainly hope so.  I hope we leave them a legacy that they can run with.  I hope that same Spirit will grow in them and lead them to follow Christ in ways that make me feel uncomfortable.  I pray today that your faith in the growing Christ will lead you out of the static realms of certainty and across the established borders of this world and up to the brink of the precipice where you too can gaze with reverence and humility into the darkness of the unknown abyss, defying every humanly-constructed ideology, confessing with scandalous honesty the creed openness before the mystery of existence: “I don’t know the answer.”




Religious Liberalism 101: A Book Review of Paul Rasor’s ‘Faith Without Certainty’

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones.  Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.

Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’.  Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism.  Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics.  I would tell jokes like:

Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?

A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.

OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true.  UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics.  If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason.  What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content.  In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe.  This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles.  I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post.  The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out.  There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities.  What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.

Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots  and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.

If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values.  Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into.  Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.

The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development.  With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement).  Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.

Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class.  Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement.  While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them.  He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology.  These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression.  My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.

On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies.  These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice.  However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions.  Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them.  Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa).  One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism.  If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task.  Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.

All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation.  I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.

Click here to order this book on Amazon.com

The Empty Tomb

Easter sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

The text is Mark 16:1-8.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

A Wall Street executive once hired a consultant from the Czech Republic to come and advise him on business matters.  After a highly productive and successful series of meetings, the time had come for the consultant to return to his home country.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to help our company.”  The executive said, “Before you return to the Czech Republic, is there anything you would like to see or do here in America?”

“Well,” the consultant said, “I have always heard such wonderful things about the zoos in America.  We don’t have anything like them back home in the Czech Republic.  I would really like to go to the zoo.”

So the executive makes arrangements and takes the rest of the day off in order to escort his new friend to the zoo.  While they are there, the consultant is fascinated by the lions’ den.  He leans as far as he can over the railing to get a good look at them.  But suddenly, the unthinkable happens: he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst into the lions’ habitat!  The lions are on him in a flash and devour him so quickly that there is nothing left by the time the zookeeper arrives with the police.

“Okay,” the authorities say to the executive, “You were the only eyewitness to this tragedy.  Did you happen to see which lion actually ate your friend?”

The executive gives it some thought and says, “Yes.  It was the male lion with the large furry mane.  I’m absolutely certain that he was the one who ate my friend.”

So they shoot the male lion and open him up.  Alas, the lion’s stomach was empty!  So they proceed to shoot the female lion and open her up.  Sure enough, there was the poor consultant in her stomach.

Now, there are two morals to this story:

The first is that you should never trust the word of a Wall Street executive who tells you, “The Czech is in the male.”

The second moral to this story is that you should never be too certain about certainty.

As a society, we tend to put a lot of stock in certainty.  We buy products that come with a “guarantee.”  We buy all kinds of “insurance” to protect us from anything bad that might happen.  We trust the words of our political and religious officials as if they were gospel truth.  But just take a minute and think about all the times in history when people lost their lives over a certainty that later turned out to be completely false?

Several years ago, there was a science fiction movie called Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  In one scene of this movie, Will Smith has just found out that there are aliens from outer space living on Earth in disguise.  Tommy Lee Jones tries to comfort him with these words about certainty: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”  Certainty, it seems, is a very fickle thing.

Certainty is also something that is commonly associated with people of faith.  Preachers, theologians, and church goers often speak with great passion and conviction about things they know to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt.  On the other hand, those who struggle with faith are often called “agnostic” which can be translated as “not knowing” or “uncertain.”  Agnostic people sometimes ask religious people questions about certainty like:

  • “How can you be so sure that God exists?”
  • “How can you be so sure that there’s life after death?”
  • “How can you be so sure that everything will turn out for the better in the end?”

In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), certainty and faith seem to go hand in hand.  This association is so firmly ingrained that religious people are often made to feel a deep sense of guilt whenever they question some or all of their beliefs.  Likewise, agnostic people are often made to feel like there’s no place for them communities of faith (like church).  So many of them feel like they have to choose between the intellectual integrity their minds long for and the sense of reverence and belonging their hearts long for.  If faith and certainty are permanently associated with one another, you have to make a choice.  There is no room for questions or doubt.  It’s black and white.  You’re either in or out.  In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), that’s what faith is all about.

This morning, I want to take that preconceived notion (faith = certainty) and put it on trial next to what the Bible actually says or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say (because you can learn a lot by paying attention to what the Bible doesn’t say).

Let’s start by looking at today’s New Testament reading.  Do you notice anything missing from it?  We have the women who show up at the tomb.  The stone is rolled away.  There’s a young man in white telling them that the person they’re looking for isn’t there.  They run away in fear.  Do you notice anything missing?  How about anyone?

Jesus!  That’s right, Jesus forgets to show up to his own party!  Today is Easter and we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Isn’t it at least a little odd that the risen Christ doesn’t even make a single appearance in the reading?

Let me add a little more wood to this fire: today’s reading is from Mark’s gospel, which most biblical scholars agree was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written.  It was probably written about thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus.  Now, we don’t have any original manuscripts for this (or any other) book of the Bible.  All we have are copies of copies.  Sometimes, these copies differ from one another.  For example, the later versions of Mark’s gospel have Jesus showing up and giving some sage advice to his disciples, but the earliest manuscripts we have end with this passage: the one where the women run away in fear at the end.

That’s kind of anti-climactic isn’t it?  I mean, the resurrection is kind of the central miracle in the Christian faith.  It’s the reason for today’s celebration, the highest holiday in our religion.  Wouldn’t you expect a more certain and definitive record of it in the earliest accepted account of its occurrence?

Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to argue that it did or didn’t happen.  What I’m trying to point out here is that the earliest available editions of Mark’s gospel leave us with a big question mark, rather than an exclamation point.  Mark simply presents us with an empty tomb and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what happened.

I think this is good news for those of us who struggle with faith (and I include myself in that number).  It means that we are not required to check our brains at the door when we come into church.  It means that there is a whole lot more mystery than certainty in authentic Christian faith.  Most of all, it means that faith is more about staying open and asking honest questions about what might be true rather than forging and holding onto hard-and-fast answers about what we think is true.

It means furthermore that doubt is a friend of faith, not its opposite.  In fact, if we’re defining faith as openness to possibility, then doubt is what makes faith possible.  For those of us (like me) who worship at the empty tomb, standing there with a big question mark hanging over our heads, the only real opposite to faith would have to be certainty.

You and I seem to live in a time of unparalleled questioning.  Thanks to many brilliant advances in information and communication technology, we probably know more but understand less about the incredible diversity on this planet than any generation that has come before us.  We’re facing questions about science and sexuality, faith and philosophy, politics and pluralism.  Whether we’re talking about robots, rocket-ships, or religion, we are already coming up with answers to tough questions that our ancestors never would have dreamed of asking.

In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s only natural (healthy, even) to feel more than a little intimidated.  There are powerful voices in our society who are calling on us to return to yesterday’s answers in response to today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) questions.  These fearful folks long for the comfort that certainty brings, so they hunker down, roll up the sails, and batten the hatches, hoping that their ship has the right stuff to weather the winds of change.  As those winds grow stronger and stronger, those voices of fear grow louder and louder.

It would be easy to let those loud voices and that powerful wind of change intimidate us.  It would be easy to give in and huddle together below decks in hopes that the wind will eventually stop.  That would be so easy to do if we didn’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are today.  Our ship, the church, was made to sail in these winds.  The wind is our friend.  If it wasn’t for the wind, we never would have left our home port.

Allow me to offer a few examples:

Today’s wind has brought us to face controversial and challenging questions about issues like religious diversity and human sexuality.  Fifty years ago, we were asking questions about whether two people of different races or ethnicities could get married and have a healthy family.  There were those who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order for human society laid out in the Bible.  Sound familiar?  It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Virginia v. Loving that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional.

Before that, folks in our church were arguing about whether or not women could be ordained to serve as clergy in our church.  There were some who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  Yet, here I am, a proud member of a generation where women in ministry are not only my peers, but also my predecessors in the pulpit.  I don’t think I even need to mention the name of Rev. Micki Robinson and her epic seventeen year ministry in this church.

Before that, there were folks who stood up and proclaimed that, because all people are created equal, the institution of slavery should be abolished.  People said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  They even fought a bloody war over that question.  Yet, I think we can all agree that our country is better off for having faced that question and challenged its previously conceived notions.

Before that, another group of people declared that, because all people are created equal, a country should be run by democratically elected leaders and not a royal monarchy that was handed down from generation to generation by supposed “divine mandate.”  These same people also had a bold new idea that church and state should remain separate, in order to protect the freedoms of both.  Thus, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to be founded on an idea, rather than a common ethnic identity.

Before that, people like John Calvin and Martin Luther challenged a millennium of church tradition and authority, believing that people have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than waiting for some Pope to issue an authoritative doctrinal statement on behalf of the people.

Before that, a man named Jesus of Nazareth challenged the very foundation of religious and political power in his day.  He proclaimed a bold new vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.  He gave us the core spiritual principles and beliefs that continue to shape our lives to this day.

Before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), there was a long line of Jewish prophets like John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses, who stood up to “the way it is,” questioned the legitimacy of the status quo, and proclaimed a bold and prophetic new vision of what might be possible, which leads us right back to that definition of faith as openness to possibility.

We gather together this morning to celebrate this mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.  We are confronted with the image of an empty tomb and a huge question mark hanging over our heads.  We are not given many concrete answers, backed up by the guarantee of certainty.  But, as we have already seen, we gather at this empty tomb with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  They, like us and the women at the tomb in today’s gospel story, were gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and amazement.  I can imagine us all standing there, staring into the darkness, maybe holding onto each other for support, wondering together what might be happening, not certain of anything, but open to what might be possible.

Where do you find yourself in this story today?  Are you perhaps a questioning believer who is afraid to let your doubts shine, for fear that they might invalidate or undermine your faith?  Are you perhaps a hopeful agnostic who yearns for a sense of transcendence and community, but is afraid that there is no place for you in any institution that calls itself a “church?”  Are you perhaps one of the frightened faithful who miss the old comfort of certainty from the “good old days,” who long for an anchor for their souls amid the winds of change, and who look to answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers?  Whoever you are, I want to invite you, on this Easter morning, to join us at the empty tomb.  Let us hold onto each other as we stare into the darkness together with more questions than answers, overwhelmed by that odd emotional combination of fear and amazement, and let us do our best to remain faithfully open to what might be possible for us at this time and in this place.