We kicked off a new sermon series this weekend: The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. To bring home a Medieval, metaphysical point, my dog Clara made an appearance in worship and- thanks be to God- behaved herself.
The scripture was John 1.43-51.
I’ll load the audio onto the blog and in iTunes when I have it. In the meantime, here’s the text.
To promote this new sermon series, last week on my blog I asked for people to send me their strongest arguments or questions about God.
Here’s the best (and worst one) I received:
“Jason, there are a lot of questions I could submit to you, but in my opinion, given what science teaches us about the world’s origins, all those questions boil down to the biggest question of all: Is there a God?”
Back in the summer, when we initially planned this Skeptical Believer series, our goal was to encourage you to question God, to question your faith.
Back in the summer, we hoped this sermon series would give you permission to acknowledge and explore and wrestle with your doubts.
That was back in the summer. But then came September.
In September I preached two sermons: the first on how the Gospels can be trusted as true, and the second on how the Resurrection of Jesus can be trusted as true.
Given the reaction to those sermons, I’m now convinced that this Skeptical Believer sermon series was a terrible idea.
Because you don’t need any encouragement to question the faith.
For some of you, that’s all you do. Question and doubt whatever the Church has taught.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with questioning; I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with doubt.
After all, by definition the very concept of faith requires doubt.
You can only have faith in what is not certain.
For example, I have faith that my wife will always love me, but that my wife will always love me can never be a certainty.
And if something is not certain then it is not immune to doubt.
There’s nothing wrong with questioning.
Jesus himself in the middle of today’s scripture passage chastises Nathaniel for believing too quickly, too blindly.
The problem is-
I don’t know many people who are like the Nathaniel in the middle of today’s story, believing quickly and without question.
Instead I know a lot more people who are like the pre-Christian Nathaniel at the beginning of today’s story, the Nathaniel who rolls his eyes dismissively at the notion that any wisdom could ever come from a backward, ignorant, archaic place like Nazareth.
I know a lot more people who are like that Nathaniel, who think all religion is, in a sense, “from Nazareth.”
If you think you have to choose between intellectual honesty and belief in God, then you’ve simply not understood what Christians mean by the word ‘God.’
If you think empirical science could ever disprove God, then you’ve only proven that you forgot to investigate the ancient meaning of the word ‘God.’
If you think the biggest question boils down to ‘Is there a God?’ then you don’t realize what Christians- and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and even some Buddhists- mean when we say the word ‘God.’
So what I want to do today is actually the opposite of what we’d planned for this series back in the summer.
I don’t want to encourage you to question your faith.
Or rather, instead, I want to encourage you to question your faith in the assumptions the modern world has given you:
The assumption that the 21st century raises questions to which the ancient faith has no answers.
The assumption that Christianity is not as intellectually rigorous as any other discipline.
The assumption that we as modern people know a great many things the ancient Christians did not know- and that may be true, but it’s also true that the ancient Christians knew a few things very well that very few of you know at all.
Namely, philosophy and logic.
So what I want to do today is the opposite of what we had planned and something different from what I normally do.
I don’t want to encourage you to question God.
Instead I want to make an argument, for God-
I want to make a philosophic argument, one that comes out of the ancient Christian tradition, from Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest thinker in the history of the Church.
I want to take you through Thomas’ argument because if you understand his logic then you will understand what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God.’
And if you understand that-
Then you will understand why ‘Is there a God?’ is not, in fact, the biggest question.
Rather, God is the answer to the biggest, most obvious question of all.
So you’re going to have put on your thinking caps…or just go to sleep and you can read it on my blog on Monday.
Now first, Thomas would say that not only is the question ‘Is there a God?’ not the biggest question of all; it’s not even a good question.
It’s a bad question.
It’s a bad question because its premise is wrong.
As soon as you ask ‘Is there a God?’ you’ve fallen onto the wrong track because you’re assuming that for God to be he must be an object to which we can apply the adverb ‘there.’
What do adverbs do? They designate place and location. We use adverbs to speak of objects that have a ‘thereness’ to them.
And so we could say there is a cup of water of there, a hymnal over there, someone sleeping in the pew over there.
Or, we could expand it and say there is a building in Paris, France called the Eiffel Tower. Or there is a planet called Saturn; it’s there on the other side of Jupiter.
But in that sense, ‘there’ is no God.
Because God is not an object in the universe.
And it doesn’t matter how many universes there are, or even if they ceased to be, because God is not an object in any of them either.
You can’t find God like a astronomer would discover a new galaxy or a chemist would discover a new element. God is not object that can be found that way.
In fact, in all the great theistic traditions, an object is the one thing God cannot be.
Even though we speak of God as having human and material attributes- because it’s impossible to pray to an abstraction- God is not an object in the universe like you or me, like the moon or a molecule or a cup of coffee.
Just think of the most important story in scripture for understanding who God is:
Moses at the Burning Bush.
Having grown up pagan, Moses assumes this God he’s encountered is just another object, just another little ‘g’ god, in the universe.
So what does Moses do? He asks for God’s name.
By asking for God’s name, Moses is trying to attach a ‘thereness’ to God: Are you the god of this place or that nation? Are you the god of these people or those people? Are you the god of the soil or the sea or sex?
And what name does God give Moses?
‘I am who I am.’
Or, it can be translated: ‘I will be who I will be.’
In other words, God is Amness itself. God is Being itself. God is Existence itself.
It’s what St Paul says in Acts: ‘God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’
It’s what St Augustine said: ‘God is beyond our utmost heights but more inward to us than inner most depths.”
Or, to put it in the words of the most famous rabbi of all:
It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s pretty damn good. Like the force, God is transcendent: God is beyond everything that is.
But because God is Being itself, God is within everything that is.
That’s why Thomas would say the only good answer to the bad question “Is there a God?” is to say:
I know at some point this gets so abstract it can make your brain hurt.
But look, I barely understand how my microwave works so why would we ever assume that God is simpler?
Any God who is easily comprehended is not worthy of worship.
Even still, I want to make this as clear as I can.
Thomas says ‘Is there a God?’ is not a good question, and it’s definitely not the biggest question.
For Thomas, the biggest, most radical, most obvious and, if you grasp it, the most life-changing question to ask is this:
The question ‘How come?’ can have many different meanings and you can ask ‘How come?’ at several levels.
And the deeper the question you ask about an individual thing, the more it becomes a question about the world to which that thing belongs.
Until eventually you get to the deepest question about that thing, which turns out to be a question about everything.
I know that sounds complicated so let me make it plainer:
This is Clara. Ali and I got her right after we got married.
Suppose you ask the question: ‘How come Clara?’
If you asked ‘How come Clara?’ I could answer the question by naming Clara’s parents at the horse farm outside Richmond where I bought her 12 years ago.
On that level, I wouldn’t need to say anything more. The question’s been answered on that level.
But suppose then you ask: “How come Clara’s a dog?”
And I could answer: Because Clara’s parents were dogs and dogs are born from other dogs.
You see, you’ve now moved to a deeper level of questioning. You’re asking about what dogs are.
You’re saying for Clara to be is for her to be a dog and Clara’s parents are the sorts of things whose activities result in things being dogs.
So now your original question ‘How come Clara?’ has deepened into a question about the dog species.
Your question ‘How come Clara?’ at this new level is a question ‘How come dogs anyway?’
And of course we could answer that in terms of genetics and natural selection. We could say Clara is an frisbee dog because one or both of her parents were awesome frisbee dogs.
Which is then a new and deeper level of the question.
‘How come Clara?’ is still a question about my particular dog who’s eaten at least 9 of my left shoes, 3 lobsters and 1 pot of gumbo in her lifetime, but it’s also a question that’s answered in terms of how Clara belongs to a wider community- not simply dogs but the whole biological community to which dogs belong.
But then, you can ask the question about Clara at an even deeper level.
When you ask ‘How come the biological community of which Clara is a member?’
I could answer in terms of biochemistry. I mean, I couldn’t actually answer in terms of biochemistry but I could find someone to do it for me.
And then from the level of biochemistry you could take the ‘How come’ question to the level of physics, and every time, at every level you can ask increasingly penetrating questions about Clara.
And each time you go further with the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re seeing Clara in a wider and expanding context.
To put it another way, each time you ask the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re asking about Clara over and against some other possibility.
The first question ‘How come Clara?’ simply meant ‘How come Clara is this dog rather than another dog?’
The second level question asked ‘How come Clara is a dog rather than another species, say a newt?’
At the third level question, you’re asking ‘How come Clara’s a living, biological creature and not an inanimate object?’
You see, every ‘How come Clara?’ question is ‘How come this instead of what is not?’
Now, the biggest, most radical question is not ‘How come Clara exists as this dog instead of that dog?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a dog instead of an elephant?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a living biological creature instead of as an inanimate object?
No, the biggest, most radical question is this:
How come Clara exists instead of nothing?
Just as to ask ‘How come Clara exists as a dog?’ is to put Clara in the context of all other dogs, to ask ‘How come Clara exists instead of nothing’ is to put her in the context of everything.
You and me, the world, the universe.
How come you instead of nothing? How come me instead of nothing?
How come the world instead of nothing?
Why is there something instead of nothing?
Whatever the answer is to that question, whatever reality answers that question- Thomas says that’s our starting definition for ‘God.’
You see, Thomas wants you to realize that the mystery is not how is the universe.
The mystery is that the universe is at all.
That Clara is.
That you are. At all.
If you grasp what Thomas is saying, it should knock you over and fill you with wonder over every little stupid detail of your life.
Now, if I haven’t lost you yet then maybe you can see how what’s usually called atheism is not actually a denial of the God that Thomas and the ancient Christians believed in.
Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is NOT denying the existence of some answer to the question ‘How come there is anything instead of nothing?’
Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is denying what they THINK religious people believe:
that there is some Great Architect, a little ‘b’ being
who designed and created the world in 7 Days
and now sits up there somewhere in heaven
sending down arbitrary blessings and curses upon the world.
But if denying that makes you an atheist, I’m an atheist too.
And Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.
And St Augustine is an atheist too.
And most of the entire Christian tradition is atheist too.
Most atheists get atheism wrong because they get wrong what we mean by the word ‘God.’
And to be fair, many of them get it wrong because a lot of Christians get it wrong too.
But genuine atheism actually requires more faith.
Genuine atheism refuses to see the mystery Thomas makes so obvious.
Genuine atheism has faith that things just are.
But that’s like saying ‘Dogs just are.’
In the face of all logic and no supporting evidence, genuine atheism insists with certainty that what is, is all there is.
Genuine atheism is content to ask questions within the universe, but cannot see that the existence of the universe itself raises a question that it cannot answer by itself:
Why is there something-anything- instead of nothing?’
Once you see what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God,’ that God is the answer we give to the question ‘How come there’s anything instead of nothing?’ then you can see why it’s stupid for Christians to argue over interpretations of the creation story and why it’s even dumber to suppose science could ever prove or disprove God.
Because what Christians truly mean by calling God Creator has nothing to do with an event called ‘creation’ that occurred at some fixed point in the past.
How the world came to be might be interesting but it’s irrelevant.
Because when we say God is Creator, we mean that God is the Source and Sustainer of Existence itself, now as much as in the beginning and every moment in between.
And God’s the Source and Sustainer not just of the universe but all the scientific laws and mathematical principles within it.
Think about that-
God would still be Creator even if all that existed were scientific laws and quantum states.
Because everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.
That’s why the image of a candle flame is a ubiquitous symbol for God in all the theistic traditions of the world. God’s creative sustaining is like a candle flame in a room at night, and should that flame ever go out, the room would immediately go dark.
You could push back on Thomas’ argument.
You could argue that even if its true that ‘God’ is the reason there is something instead of nothing that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.
And that is the case.
Logically proving that God is rationally plausible does not prove that Christianity is true.
Nonetheless, Thomas would tell you to think about it again.
If everything, as Thomas says, is contingent.
If everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.
If everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.
Then everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.
It doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessary.
Everything, in other words, is gift.
Which is just another word for grace.
And if everything in existence is grace, then God, at an Absolute level, is Love.
I don’t mean God is loving.
I mean God is Love.
And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its design, its grain, its logic is Love.
Then whatever it means to say a religion is ‘true’ it means that the religion corresponds to the logic of the universe. To the logic of God.
And maybe that’s why, just a few verses before today’s scripture, the Gospel of John calls Jesus just that, God’s logos.