I was invited to preach at an all-campus service at the beginning of the semester. It was amazing to see the big auditorium in the student union completely filled. It was wonderful. It was incredibly encouraging. As I mention at the beginning of the sermon, I believe a preacher should be bringing the message that the congregation needs to hear and that is difficult when you are not regularly in that communion. This was a gathering of all the evangelical student groups on campus, one of only two times each year that they get together for unified worship. I agree with my daughter who said, “I wish it was once a month instead.” So I am not sure if this message was for them or for me, but I would like to have heard this sermon when I was a student.
Finally, I have decided to post it here, a month later, because this morning I read Frederick Buechner’s sermon “Message in the Stars” from his collection Secrets in the Dark. It is all about faith as well. He speculates about the sort of story he would write where one day God rearranges the stars to read “God Is.” He says, towards the end he would have a child look up at the stars, then say,
“I would have him turn to God himself, and the words that I would have him speak would be words to make the angels gasp. “So what if God exists?” he would say. “What difference does that make?” And in the twinkling of an eye the message would fade away for good and the celestial music would be heard no more, or maybe they would continue for centuries to come, but it would no longer make any difference.”1
In many ways his sermon is much better than mine. He concludes, in part with this reflection on what we really need.
“It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence. ”
And that is where I will begin my sermon. That we have lost our faith because we have set it aside in the quest for “evidence that demands a verdict” the objective proof of God.
We Have Lost Our Faith
I am truly thankful and humbled to have been asked to be your preacher this morning because this is why I went into academia. When I started out in college, as some of you know, I was a chemistry major on my way to med school. Until I wasn’t, which took all of about 2 months to realize. I won’t bore you with the long and draw out version of the story, but I will jump to my last year in college. I knew by then that I loved history and literature, that I had found my niche in studying how people read and interpreted the Bible. But I wasn’t sure whether I was called to the ministry or the academy. I reflected upon the fact that I knew very few faculty in the humanities and social sciences who were faithful Christians (as it happened our InterVarsity advisor was a professor of Chemistry) and I wanted to be there for other students, there in the secular academic world, to help them through the challenges to their faith.
Over the last month or so I have been mulling on what to preach upon today. When I was being formed as a priest I once received the worst advice on preaching. “Give the sermon that you want to hear, that way at least one person in the church will be interested in it.” I don’t think so. I believe a preacher should strive to be listening to their community so that God’s word for them is what is preached. That is difficult, however, when you are not regularly in that community. But this past week I was teaching our Presidential Leadership Academy class and the focus was upon critical thinking. After I believe I misunderstood one student’s question about faith and leadership, another came up to me after class and said, “how do you reconcile faith with critical thinking.” It was a question she had often been asked; I too as a student had often been asked the same question; I still get this question, this challenge, from many of my peers today. And I thought that this might be a topic for this community this Sunday. And that is why today’s sermon is entitled, “We have lost our faith.”
Heb. 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
When I was in college there was a very popular Christian apologist named Josh McDowell. He had a book, that became a series, called Evidence that Demands a Verdict. (Wikipedia tells me he has authored or co-authored 115 books!) I am sure that some of you know of him and his work, but it represents the strain of Evangelicalism that I was raised in and that is still quite prominent, in which it is common to seek to prove the Christian faith. McDowell’s story goes that while in community college he wrote a paper examining the historical evidence of Christianity with the intent to disprove it but, in the end, was so convinced that he converted. This form of apologetics has a long and strong history and has much to commend it, but it has also been the downfall of many faithful Christians.
When I was in college we also tended to engage in this sort of apologetic debate. Cornell University is a community that prides itself on being critical and irreligious. When I was a student there Carl Sagan still wandered Rockefeller Hall and, indeed, I once literally ran into him, or rather he into me. We had an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences with whom years later, as a tenured professor, I would end up debating in a conference setting about whether or not a person of faith should ever be allowed to be a faculty member in a university. They should not, he argued, since clearly they did not have a rational, critical mind.
It is ironic, in many ways, that while modern American Evangelical Christians are charged with anti-intellectualism it is precisely because we so often are trying to employ the post-Enlightenment intellectual tools of discovery to our faith. At the risk of opening a trail I cannot follow fully this morning, consider how we so often deal with the origins of the world.
Evangelical Christians, challenged by evolution, have sought to take modern scientific understandings of cosmology and biology and shoe-horn them into the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. Their defense of the biblical account is to try and use the tools of logic and reason to demonstrate that there does not need to be a conflict between the creation narratives of the Bible and scientific discoveries. There are compromises that are made in the process, of course. Not every scientific conclusion, such as evolution, is accepted, but so too has the integrity and intention of the biblical text been discarded. By trying to read Genesis as a “Guide to Create Your Own Cosmos” we have lost the true power and meaning of what is a theological description of our origins. These chapters are about God, us, the cosmos, and the relationships that we have with one another. It is not a scientific textbook and we should not attempt read it as such. When we do, we are not doing good science or theology.
When I was in college (and this will be a refrain today, I am afraid, feel free to join me in reciting it as I go along) I had a good friend who was also going to be a physician. We came from very similar backgrounds and churches. He studied biology and, specifically, evolutionary biology. When he went home at Thanksgiving our first year, the members of his church told him there was no way that he could believe evolution and remain a Christian. So he left the church.
This is the problem with insisting on evidence, evidence that we can survey, gather, collect, and assess in the manner of scientists and historians; it is limited. It is limited first and last by the fact that it can only take into account this world, this physical domain of touch and feel. As technology has gotten more and more sophisticated we have been able to touch and feel ever smaller and more ephemeral phenomena, but it is this corporeality that such methods measure. The Bible and Christianity, however, testify that this is not all that exists.
Heb. 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It is a nice coincidence that just this past week I received word that an article I wrote comparing Hebrews 11, the so-called “hall of faith,” with 1 Maccabees 2 will be published this fall. What amuses me most about that article is that it began as my senior research paper for my history degree at Cornell. I won’t bore you with the substance of that article other than to tell you that the apocryphal work of 1 Macc., which is about the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucids in the second century BCE, has a passage that is very similar to Hebrews 11 and one that I feel certain the author of Hebrews had in mind when writing his sermon. In 1 Maccabees Mattathias, the father of the brothers who were leading this revolt, is about to die and on his death bed, much as Jacob spoke to his sons in Genesis 49, he encouraged his sons to remain strong, saying “Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors.” He then goes on to list their ancestors from Abraham through Daniel and how the things they did in obedience to the Law were what made them righteous.
It is against that backdrop that the author of Hebrews, using many of the same examples, exhorts his audience, encourages us by reminding us that it is “by faith our ancestors received approval.”
Heb. 11:3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Heb. 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. …
Heb. 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
We have tried so hard to engage with this world, which we are called as disciples of Christ to do, but we have tried so hard to engage in this world on its own terms that we have, in many significant ways, lost our faith. Or, we have at least lost the truth that at the center of our faith (the religion that we confess) is faith (the conviction of things not seen).
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Jesus did not heal the leper or resuscitate the widow’s son; I am not saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead (for if he did not, we above all people are most to be pitied!). What I am saying is that these things are miracles. By their very definition they are an occurrence which is contrary to the natural order that God himself created; miracles are not provable in any scientific sense. Proof, evidence of that sort, is not what brings salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8).
Reason can only take us so far.
For years I have studied what scholars refer to as “the historical Jesus” and I have taught a course by the same name several times. For personal and professional reasons, I have examined the textual and historical evidence, I have considered likelihood and probability of who Jesus was, who he said he was, and what really happened to him. My professional conclusions as a literary historian of early Judaism and Christianity is this:
There was a guy named Joshua, Jesus in Greek, who lived and taught as a prophet the fulfillment of the Law given to Israel by God. It is likely that he also considered himself the messiah, the one anointed by God to bring about the new age for God’s people. He caused great consternation for the Jewish leadership and was executed by the Romans. Many, many people believed that he then rose from the dead.
That is what the scholar, Dr. Christian M. M. Brady can defend, prove, and otherwise verify, at least as far as anything from ancient history can be verified.
But I, I also believe that Jesus is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. I believe that he rose again on the third day according to Scriptures and ascended into heaven. I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, and I believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Why do I believe these things? By and because of grace through faith. Yes, the testimony of the Gospels, the testimony of the people who were with Jesus who heard him speak, who walked with him, ate with him, and were healed by him, their testimony is a vital component of my faith. So too is the testimony of my wife, of her experiences with the spirit of God in her own life. The way Elizabeth and I met, how we were brought together, our children, the shape of our careers, and the grace found even when our son, Izzy’s brother, Mack died tells me that God is present and active in our lives.
But remember, even many of those who were there and saw Jesus themselves did not believe what they saw and experienced. Today psychologists might reduce these “experiences” to apophenia, the tendency of humans to see patterns and meaning in what is “really” random events. But both are limited in their vision, they operate under the assumption that this world, our brains, our physical framework is all that there is. How I met Elizabeth, our lives, children, and what I have termed “grace” can all be explained away as simply apophenia. It is not the hand of God, it the amazing organ of my brain seeking to organize the randomness of this world so to reduce anxiety and enable me to survive.
I am convinced through faith that this is not all that there is, but I cannot defend it in a scientific debate or prove it in a courtroom.
After this morning some may charge me with anti-intellectualism and I will accept that charge with a caveat. I will accept it not because I am rejecting the use of our intellect, nor because I have used the tools of critical thinking, reason, and logic inappropriately. I will accept the charge only because I recognize that our intellect has its limits.
I have been successful as a scholar and an administrator precisely because I think critically and scientifically. But I am someone who accepts a larger data set. Science and faith are not in conflict. They are, as the atheist and biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously put it, “non-overlapping magisteria.” Two separate and distinct domains that ought to respect and value one another, but ultimately they operate in two different realms, the one the natural world, the other the “equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.” But be aware, not all are as generous as Gould. The Oxford biologist and evangelistic atheist Richard Dawkins has vilified Gould for this capitulation and regarding faith he is hardly more reserved. “I will respect your views,” he said, “if you can justify them. But if you justify your views only by saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them.” [From the Independent and a speech given at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, 15 April 1992]
My response is, “OK.” What he is attempting to do is to draw us into his domain without his having to acknowledge that there is any other. Where we have lost our faith is by giving in to the terms of those who would have us defend faith with science. Remember, as Paul said, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the world” (1 Cor. 1:23). The conception that the public execution of this one man could in any way offer salvation to the world is simply ridiculous … without faith.
How many of you are studying in the STEM fields? Science and the endeavor of all our various fields of research are wonderful amazing things. It can teach us so much about ourselves and our world, it can bring healing and comfort to millions. But science can only take us to HERE [hands two feet apart]. Faith takes us HERE [arms spread wide].
That is why Genesis 1, as orderly and almost “scientific” as it seems, is not about the world (knock on podium) bur rather it is about the one who is not of this world who created this world. “How” is not the point, “Who” is the point. Genesis 1-3 is the foundation not for the scientific understanding of the cosmos, rather it is the theological framing of all reality, informing us by revelation of what we can only know from God.
When I in college and I started studying medieval history one of the concepts that initially did not quite understand was “mystery.” The great writers and theologian talked a lot about the mystery of God, the mystery of our salvation. Now I love mysteries. In fact, I think one of the greatest authors of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest theological thinker among “The Inklings” was also one of the greatest mystery writers ever: Dorothy L. Sayers. I love the “who done it.” But that is not the mystery that the church speaks of. The paperback mystery is a problem whose solution, while it may allude us, is out there nonetheless. When the great authors of the New Testament and the church speak of “mystery” they mean those things which we can only know because God has revealed them to us.
I am afraid we have lost this too in our post-Enlightenment world. We seek to explain; we assume that the mechanism to all things will eventually be discovered and we do this not just with the natural world, but theology as well. The simplest and most direct example is the Trinity. Even if we start with the assumption that we believe in the Trinity, many theologians will then try and explain the detailed working of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But we just don’t know! It is a mystery. We know of Trinity, that Jesus and the Father are One, that the Holy Spirit is of God and from God and we know this because is has been revealed to us by Jesus himself. But the mechanics, the details are something wonderful and unknowable.
It is the mystery of faith.
In just a few minutes we will receive communion together. I can think of know better expression of our faith and our embracing of God’s mystery than this. In fact, in the Episcopal communion service, the priest reminds the congregation of Christ’s words at the last supper:
On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to God, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
Then in this service we say together,
Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
- Excerpts From: Frederick Buechner. “Secrets in the Dark.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/fwxRv.l [↩]