Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sermon: Jesus for Skeptics


Jesus for Skeptics
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton
, Tennessee
August 31, 2008

We have finished the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apocrypha in our quest to read the Bible in 2008. Through the rest of the year we will read the New Testament as well as documents that didn’t make it into the canon.

For September we will read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas. I think that by having Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution here next week, and Hal Taussig and Art Dewey of the Jesus Seminar the following week we will give this study a grand start.

I do this with some trepidation. These are documents that focus on Jesus. Our views and thoughts about Jesus are held closely. Jesus functions very intimately in our individual lives and in the life of the church. Offering different views can be disconcerting. To shake one’s Jesus can be like shaking one’s trust or faith in the Universe itself. I think this may be one of the reasons that the church and its clergy have been wary about communicating scholarship about Jesus and Christian origins. They don’t want to shake their congregants’ faith or trust. Perhaps they don’t want to shake their own faith. They think the safer bet to keep people trusting and faithful is to repeat the creedal or confessional view of Jesus, even though that view becomes more incredible in light of what we are learning from modern science and other disciplines.

I want to highlight the importance of trust. The church through its centuries has helped people maintain a sense of trust. I would say that is one of the purposes of the church. We want to be encouraged to develop and maintain an attitude of trust toward life. With that trust we are more likely to love less hesitantly and to live courageous and joyful lives.

The poem from Langston Hughes that we used for our call to worship is a poem of trust. The mother says to her son: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…[But] I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’.” The last thing I wish to do is take away the one thing the church has done right, that is, give people a sense of trust and purpose and the courage to keep climbing.

I am particularly enjoying reading Michael Dowd. I invite you to check out his website, Thank God for Evolution. In a recent entry on his site he addressed a question from an atheist. I want to share that question and Michael’s response. Michael has, I think, understood the point of our religious enterprise.

Here is the challenge from the atheist:

You seem to set up evolution as a beneficial and even beautiful thing for life on Earth. Though I accept that it exists, I think it's a horrible thing. I can't get past what's involved in the mechanism of evolution. Death, pain, cruelty, domination. Those are the things that push evolution forward. What more horrible system could there be? It certainly proves that there is no sentient being that could be considered a loving god. If there were, the world and life would be completely different than they are now. I can see no benevolent master plan.

Here is Michael’s response:

...nowhere in my book do I suggest, or even imply, that there is a force, intelligence, or consciousness outside the Universe (or within it, for that matter) that is pulling strings or making evolution go in a benevolent direction....

When I make the case for chaos and "bad news" catalyzing evolutionary creativity, I'm not suggesting that a Supreme Being or divine intelligence is intending favorable outcomes. Rather, I am simply pointing out the demonstrable fact that how we choose to interpret reality and life’s events profoundly affects the quality of our existence—and that this is just as true collectively as it is individually.

In my book, I mention that many, including myself, have found the mantra "the Universe is conspiring on my behalf" to be an exceedingly useful outlook in most situations. That is, when I act as if this were true, I love my life. I do not, however, suggest that this interpretation is “The Truth.” It is a statement of subjective meaningfulness, not objective truth. And there are plenty of studies that show that those who hold such an outlook live happier, healthier, longer lives. As the great philosopher and father of American pragmatism, William James, wrote in his book Pluralistic Universe, “From a pragmatic point of view, the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.”

Michael makes my first point. How we choose to interpret life functions in how we live life. Dr. Martin Luther King made the famous statement: “The Universe bends toward justice.” That faith statement allowed him and others to pursue the cause of racial and economic justice when it seemed that the forces of the world were against him. Would a scientist be able to confirm objectively that the universe bends toward justice? No. It is a faith statement. It is a statement of trust. It is a statement that King needed to function so that he wouldn’t despair. It is also true that his faith gave him the courage and creativity to make positive events happen.

I think that King believed that to be true about the universe. In fact, I believe that to be true. I am a happier person and I am more confident in standing and speaking for what I think is right and I am generally more generous and loving toward others when I embrace and trust that the universe bends toward justice. I trust that the universe has intelligence and that human beings reflect it. I trust that Being is better than non-Being and that it is good that we are here. I trust that humankind will be able to survive and to thrive and that one day we will realize peace between each other and within ourselves. I choose, on most days, to function with that faith.

The stories about Jesus function to help me trust. I trust in the stories of Jesus in the gospels. I trust in the Christ of Paul. I trust in the Jesus of Thomas and Mary and the other texts that didn’t make the Bible. All these stories, in their diversity, serve to encourage my trust in the universe, or in what Jesus called the kingdom of God. And I trust these stories even if they never happened from an historical point of view or even if Jesus wasn’t an historical person. I trust them as parables with Jesus as the central character. They are parables that are intended to inspire us to live more reflective, integrated, and trusting lives.

I know this is delicate ground. I don’t intend to mess with your Jesus. If you are comfortable with your Jesus, then that is just fine by me. This sermon is for skeptics. This sermon is for those who don’t believe the things we are supposed to believe in order to have faith or trust. Skeptics doubt that the Bible is the Word of God more than any other collection of writings. They doubt that the miracles of Jesus are events in history. They doubt all of the pious proclamations that believers in these things make about God.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that skeptics are not trusting. Skeptics tend to bypass all the things that are put in the way of trust--that you are supposed to affirm in order to trust--and go directly to trust.

The gospels portray Jesus as encouraging people to do this. He criticized the religious authorities. He is harsh with them. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

He is chastising those who construct gauntlets of beliefs and practices for people to stumble through in order to get to the real thing. Skeptics are not interested in stumbling through gauntlets. They see them for what they are. These gauntlets have become barriers to an attitude of trust and faith rather than vehicles to an attitude of trust and faith.

It is also true that what may be a vehicle for one person is a barrier for another and vice versa. A vehicle can eventually become a barrier for the same person. We have to be careful that we don’t label teachings or practices as necessarily barriers or vehicles. They can be and often are both.

A story that is attributed to the Buddha goes like this. The Buddha once compared the dharma or the teaching to a boat tied to the side of a river. To get across the river you may need the boat. But once you get to the other side, you don’t carry the boat on your back, you leave it on the edge of the river. Once a parable, teaching, story, or practice leads you to a higher sense of awareness or trust, it has done its job. It doesn’t need to be carried, turned into a shrine, or idolized as “absolute truth.”

Christianity, unlike Buddhism, has too often insisted that its vehicles are, one, the only vehicles, and, two, the objects of trust in themselves. Christianity, especially in its most popular forms, runs into conflicts with science, with other faith traditions, and with our own intellects. For the skeptic, this baggage is too heavy and unnecessary. Because of the baggage, many skeptics have left Christianity behind.

I am concerned that we are losing our skeptics. We are losing our critical thinkers who given the false choice between reason and faith choose reason. It can leave them intelligent yet cynical, even despairing. The phrase “Jesus for skeptics” could very well define my career in ministry. I am a skeptic.

Yet I find myself intrigued, enthralled, challenged, and comforted by the Jesus tradition. It has been a vehicle through which I have been able to trust in a universe that bends toward justice. Aspects of the Jesus wisdom tradition have inspired some people, like Martin Luther King, to stand against forces of oppression, inspire creativity and encourage trust in the ultimate goodness of humanity.

We shouldn’t judge the Jesus wisdom tradition on the basis of its misuse. Nor do I think we should dismiss or discard this powerful force for individual and social change. How then can this matrix of “Jesus lore” become a vehicle for trust in the universe, a spark to creativity, and encouragement towards social justice and peace, rather than a barrier? That is what I am trying to get at when I title a sermon, “Jesus for skeptics.”

This sermon is the start of a series of sermons as we work through the Jesus scriptures or the Jesus lore. I am going to close this opening sermon with a few statements of what I think is happening regarding the Jesus tradition in our time. You can call it an outline of a “Jesus for Skeptics Manifesto.”

1) Categories of orthodoxy and heresy are being discarded. These categories of right belief and wrong belief create institutions of control, stifle creativity, and do not serve the cause of truth.

2) Jesus is not the possession of Christians alone but is universal. Like all of the wisdom traditions, the Jesus wisdom tradition is available to all of us. Jesus can and has been incorporated into other systems of thought. I am thinking of a book on my shelf called the Muslim Jesus. These are collections of sayings of Jesus incorporated in to the Muslim tradition. This cross-pollination is being celebrated.

3) In turn, other wisdom traditions can help us understand Jesus in new ways. For example, Jesus as the Bodhisattva (the one who achieves enlightenment and out of compassion helps humanity by revealing himself at our level of understanding) or Jesus as Ishta Devata (a particular deity that one chooses for worship or meditation) may be helpful in constructing meditative or spiritual practices. Jesus the social prophet, the wisdom sage, the cosmic Christ, and more are all available to us.

4) We are claiming the freedom to write our own gospels. Paul had a gospel. Other communities who attributed their gospel to a figure such as Matthew, Luke, Thomas, John, Mary, etc. created their own gospels of Jesus for their time. This creative process didn’t end 2000 years ago. What is the gospel of Jesus in light of modern cosmology, evolution, and the challenges the global human family faces in the 21st century? Write it!

5) The Jesus wisdom tradition is intimately connected with the needs we face in the 21st century. It is concerned with right relationships between human beings and between human beings and Earth’s creatures. The reign of God is one of its powerful symbols for peaceful, joyful co-existence on Earth.

That is the beginning of my manifesto of a Jesus for Skeptics. Perhaps it is a Jesus even us doubters can embrace.

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