Sunday, July 19, 2015

Belief-Less (7/19/15)

John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon
So, you’ve been quoted as referring to a belief-less Christianity.  What does that mean? And since the Presbyterian faith is grounded in numerous “beliefs”, How is it that you’re Presbyterian?

So I am arguing that it is time for some of us to start being courageous.  We must leave behind both cultural and ecclesiastical Christianity, admit our emptiness, and struggle for a new beginning.  My constructive proposal is that we should learn to see our belieflessness not as a state of being derelict and damned, but as a clean sheet and a challenge to be creative.
--Don Cupitt 

Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief               
This act of choice—which the term heresy originally meant—leads us back to the problem that orthodoxy was invented to solve:  How can we tell truth from lies?  What is genuine, and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, or evil?  Anyone who has seen foolishness, sentimentality, delusion, and murderous rage disguised as God’s truth knows that there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits.  Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us.  Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.  Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches.

But the fact that we have no simple answer does not mean that we can evade the question.  We have also seen the hazards—even terrible harm—that sometimes result from unquestioning acceptance of religious authority.  Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists.  What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions—and the communities that sustain them—is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery.  Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek and you shall find.” 

                              Gospel of Thomas 2 
Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]       

Do you believe in God?  

How do you answer that question?  

You could answer it yes, no, or I don’t know.     You might return the question with a question and ask, “Could you define the terms?”   

Because some of these terms do require some definition.  What do we mean by God, for instance.  What is the “God” we are asked to believe in and what do we mean by “believe?”  But before we go there, we have to address something else. 

There is another level to all of this.  It is an emotional level, a deeper than rational level of awareness that is being probed with the question, “Do you believe in God?”     Answering that question in the negative just doesn’t feel right.  There is something untoward about it.    There is an ancient taboo that is being breached.   We are literally entering the sacred, holy shrine that no mortal shall enter upon pain of death.  It doesn’t matter how you define God or how you define belief.  Just say yes.   Figure out a way to say yes to the question and let’s move on to something less scary. 

Those who ask questions about God and belief in God are playing with fire.  They will get burned.  Or to use another metaphor:  they are standing too close to the edge of a tall cliff and peering over.  We don’t like watching them do that.  Come down from there!    You can be intellectual all you want but at the end of the day, find a way to say yes.   Because there is trouble if you don’t.   

That is why atheists in poll after poll are one of the least trusted groups of people.   Believe in something!  Believe in belief!  

Our ancient ancestors didn’t worship and offer sacrifices and engage in all kinds of what we call superstitious religious practices because they were interested in finding themselves or having mystical and spiritual experiences.  They did it because they were scared.  They believed that these gods and spirits were real and controlled things and if they didn’t do their duty there would be trouble.  

It is terrifying when we don’t know how things work.   Weather, crops, attacks by enemies.  The less we know the more we attribute the unknown to some unseen agent.   The more magic and hocus pocus and taboo surrounding access to this agent the better.    You don’t just let go of all of that cultural evolution with reason alone.  It isn’t enough to read a book by Richard Dawkins and then decide that the gods don’t haunt us.    

It takes work.  It takes courage.  

It is no wonder they burned heretics.  These belief-less ingrates who challenged the holy practices were dangerous.  They threatened the social order because they risked angering God.   We laugh with disdain at the television evangelists who blame natural disasters on various supposed sinners.     But they are performing the role  of ancient shamans and magicians.   They are ridiculous to many (but not all!) of us now because we know about weather patterns but these television preachers still know what works to inspire their base.   That feeling of breaking a taboo and angering God is not that far below the surface for most of us.  

We saw this in the reaction to Salman Rushdie in the late 80s to his book Satanic Verses which was about Muhammad and historical criticism of the Qur’an but it poked for many the taboo surrounding revelation.    The same fear and panic has been the response to the Jesus Seminar and their predecessors in examining biblical texts with the tools of reason.     When Presbyterian ministers write articles for “The Friendly Atheist” those fears rise to the surface.  

I argue that taboos are made to be broken or at least to be examined.  I think that doing so is good for the individual, for the religion, and for society.   Those aspects of religion that cannot stand up to critical scrutiny deserve to fade away.   For Christianity those aspects that are on the table for examination are what we call beliefs.   

When I talk about a belief-less Christianity I am not talking about having no beliefs.  I am talking about moving away from defining ourselves by belief.   I am also talking about removing the ceiling of belief in our inquiry.   Academics in Christian settings run into this ceiling when they publish books or articles that challenge the beliefs of the church.    

For instance the Apostle’s Creed begins:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…

Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary?   When I put on my critical thinking hat, that sounds like a legend.   We sing about it at Christmas but fewer and fewer Presbyterians believe it any longer.    That is if they come clean about it.  

That brings me to the main point.  Why can’t they come clean about it?  I advocate a Christianity in which you can come clean about what you believe or don’t believe.  A belief-less Christianity is not centered on believing in doctrines but about drawing from our tradition to make meaning in the present.    

There is another part of religion that is of great value.  There is the taboo part that I spoke about earlier, that part that is based on fear of the gods.  But there is also an aspect of religion that is the collective human effort to find our place in the cosmos, to make meaning, to establish what is good and ethical, to build relationships, to celebrate life, and to mourn loss.    Our wisdom traditions, our stories, songs, dreams, and hopes are a treasury from which to draw in order to do this in the present.    That I propose is the function of our tradition.  Not to believe the stuff but to use the stuff.  

Former moderator of the General Assembly and professor at Fuller and San Francisco seminaries, Jack Rogers, said this in regards to the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church.  I am saying this from  memory so I am paraphrasing.  I remember him saying that we can regard the confessions as either a birdcage or a bird bath.   A bird cage imprisons us in our beliefs.  We can fly around within the cage.  But a bird bath is a source of refreshment.  We can come to the bath, be refreshed, and then fly.    We can honor and learn from and be refreshed by the wisdom of our ancestors but we are not imprisoned by their beliefs.   

That is what I mean by a belief-less Christianity.  We are not beholden to the beliefs of the past, but draw from the wisdom of the past as we make meaning in the present.    I think it is very Presbyterian.    I don’t insist.  I am a Presbyterian minister because others have allowed me to be one.  I suppose I could cross the line and get kicked off the team.   If that happens I will go drive a bus or something.  

But I think the reason I am still on the team so far is that many Presbyterians are on a similar path.   In fact I think we have been moving away fro some time from belief to trust.   Notice the Brief Statement of Faith in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions.  This was the confession made in response to the reunion of the southern and northern branches that happened in 1983.  In 1989 we approved this Brief Statement of Faith.  It says nothing about belief.   The word belief never occurs.  At the very end a line reads:  “With believers in every time and place we rejoice that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That is the only time any form of the word belief occurs.  Instead the word that is chosen is trust.   “We trust in God the Holy Spirit” for instance.  

The point is that there is already a movement away from belief as in affirm a fact or have an opinion toward trust or relationship.   The confession itself is metaphorical and story-based as opposed to doctrinally based.     It is almost like a poem more than a creed. 

We are talking about faith not as belief but as trust.   Trust in what?  Speaking for myself, I trust in the overall narrative that runs through the scriptural tradition and into the church’s story to the present day.   I trust, love and am committed to what these symbols of faith invite me to be in this world.    I wrote about that in the statement of faith that was in the brochure when I was introduced to you and that the presbytery approved.     

Faith is what you are committed to do and to be.    That can still be there when we no longer see the symbols in a pre-modern way.    We are always in the process of reinterpreting our symbols of faith, including saving and discarding so that we have what we need for today’s task.   When you move you can’t take everything.  Religion scholar, Phyllis Tickle, said that every 500 years the church has a huge rummage sale.    It is a time for a sale now.  We are in the process of deciding what we will take with us and what we will let go.   

It may be the big ticket items that need to be examined:  God, Bible, Jesus.   What do these symbols and artifacts mean for us today?   More than that, how can they be understood, interpreted, and utilized for our task at hand?     Our task is daunting.   It will take a lot more than simply parroting old beliefs.   

The reason I asked the congregation to read Nancy Ellen Abrams book, A God That Could Be Real is because of her energy and hope.   I have no particular investment in terms of whether or not she is convincing to you.   But I would like us to admire and perhaps catch hold of her passion of wanting to be an esteemed ancestor.    How creative to write a book on God.   We should all do it.   We need that creativity.   We need the creativity to engage our traditions and to strike out on new paths, perhaps uncharted.    Many of these paths will be dead ends.  But like evolution itself, it is the mutation that may lead to survival.  It will be a mutation we just don’t know beforehand which one.  

Faith communities, including Presbyterian faith communities can be places where this creativity is nurtured and not feared.     

I started the sermon with the question:  Do you believe in God?   

My answer is yes, no, I don’t know, and can you define the terms?

But I won’t leave you with that.  It does sound evasive.  

If God is as Nancy Ellen Abrams suggests a reality that has emerged and is emerging from humanity’s aspirations, or as Don Cupitt suggests is a “spiritual ideal of freedom, clarity, and spiritual perfection” or is as others have suggested the hope and possibility of humanity’s dreams then yes I trust in God.    

And I trust in the particular Christian stories and symbols that point to a way of living and being, a way that I associate with the wisdom teacher and rabble rouser Jesus.    

And I trust in other wisdom traditions as well and in their symbols and hopes.  We will need all of us, working together, sharing our wisdom, building something new and trusting that a path will emerge that is at once unpredictable and life-giving.


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