Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Do We Hear the Voice of God? Reason -- A Sermon

Third in a series of four.

Acts 17:16-21

    I think we’ve established over the past few weeks that even if God doesn’t normally speak to us in an audible voice, we can still hear the voice of God.  We just need help.  There’s Scripture, of course, which we often call the Word of God, and it is normally our starting point.  After all, we read from Scripture every Sunday as part of worship.  But as the Gospel of John reminds us, Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, not the Bible.  Although Scripture seems to be a central way in which God speaks to us, is it the only way we hear God speak?

    We started to answer this question last Sunday with a conversation about Tradition, which is the ongoing story of God’s involvement in our world, beginning with Creation and continuing to this day.  Tradition is an important voice, but perhaps there are still others that might speak to us.  If so, could Reason be one of those ways in which God speaks?   

    In planning worship this week I discovered that there aren’t many songs and hymns that celebrate Reason.  I also couldn’t come up with any great Broadway songs as a followup to last week’s wonderful song from the Fiddler on the Roof’ – Tradition.  I did think about suggesting to Pat that he might want to play the original Star Trek Theme as the Prelude, but then Logic suggested that might not be a very reasonable idea.

    So, even if we don’t have a great Broadway tune to celebrate it, can God speak to us through Reason?  Could resources like philosophy and science be ways in which God’s voice might be revealed to us?   
    Although the Founders of the Disciples Tradition believed Scripture was the primary way through which God speaks to us, they also believed that the Christian faith should be a reasonable one.  They were deeply attracted to thinkers like John Locke, who believed that Truth is largely self-evident.  We just have to open our eyes to this self-evident Truth.  You’ll find a similar attitude present in the American Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson, who was a Deist, wrote: 
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
How do you know that you’ve been endowed with these inalienable rights?  Reason tells you that this is the Truth.  It’s self-evident.

    Although Alexander Campbell believed that some things having to do with our relationship with God lie beyond the bounds of unaided human understanding, he also believed that religious Truth shouldn’t conflict with Reason. Like Joe Friday, he believed in the facts, and you will find the Facts revealed in Scripture, and this revelation should not conflict with Reason.  He wrote:
    Indeed, faith, Divine faith, is the conviction or evidence of things not submitted to our senses.  But in no case does it conflict with the true and proper constitution of the human mind--nor with the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as developed in creation.
So, if you hear someone say that Scripture and science are in conflict, and therefore they’ll go with Scripture – Campbell might say – you’d better check the facts, because you must be missing something.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I value things intellectual, which may be why I’ve been attracted to Campbell’s vision of a reasonable faith.  And I’m not alone in this.  I’ve had many conversations with members of this church about just this “fact.”  I expect that many of you would join me in agreeing with Galileo, who said:     
    “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
    And since Scripture commands us to Love God with our entire being, which includes heart, soul, strength, and Mind, I believe that it’s probably okay to pay attention to the Mind.

    Just to make sure I was on the right track, I decided to do a bit of online research, and I did a search to see what the Bible had to say about this topic.  I have to admit that some of the passages I uncovered proved to be a bit discouraging.  Consider what Ecclessiastes 1:18 has to say:  “In much wisdom is much aggravation; the more knowledge, the more pain” (CEB).  Maybe the writer of these words of wisdom had just finished an exam, but Paul said something similar.  Although Paul told the Romans that the things of God should be plain to us, because God is revealed to us through the things God has made (Romans 1:19-20), in 1 Corinthians Paul insists that the foolishness of God is greater than human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).   So much for Galileo’s vision!  Maybe Reason is a dead end! 

    Then we come to the story we read together just a moment ago.  Paul had gone to Athens, which in Paul’s day was a university town, something like Ann Arbor, though without the football stadium.    It seems that the Athenians loved to spend their time doing nothing but talk philosophy and theology.  These are Reasonable people!  They love to talk about new ideas.  But it’s not just the residents of Athens who love to talk about such things, even the visitors – people like Paul, for instance – loved to join in the conversation.   Luke mentions Paul’s debates with the Stoics and the Epicureans, but there were a lot of other schools to engage as well. 

    Besides the schools of philosophy there were synagogues, temples, and shrines.  In fact there we so many that Paul seems to have been deeply distressed by what he found there.  But, he also found a shrine dedicated to the “unknown God.”  Since no one had claimed this shrine, Paul decided he would fill in the blank, and preach the God of Jesus as this “Unknown God.”  

    So, after spending some time preaching in the synagogues Paul went out and stood on his soap box and started giving a lecture. Remember this is a university town so people might have enjoyed listening to lectures and engaging in debates. The people even dragged Paul before the Council so that he could be interrogated.  You see, many of the people found Paul’s message to be rather unreasonable.  It wasn’t all that self-evident, especially Paul’s message about the resurrection.

    You see, many Greeks believed that the body is a prison, and the goal is to free yourself from that prison.  So why would you want to experience resurrection if that meant continuing your bodily existence?   Although the mind and the soul are good, the body is simply a hindrance to our ability to enjoy the spiritual.

    Although I don’t enjoy admitting this, it appears that Paul’s stay in Athens was not a success.  He didn’t plant a church nor did he gain many converts.  It seems that the Athenians just didn’t think the Gospel was very reasonable.  If that’s true, then why should we believe that God would speak to us through human reason?   Why should we take Galileo’s word over that of the writer of Ecclesiastes?  And, even if Campbell, Locke, and Aquinas value wisdom, could Martin Luther have been right when he said: 
    “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
After listening to Luther, maybe I should just sit down and forget about finding any help from Reason, except I like what Galileo had to say about God creating us with Minds, expecting us to use them.

    I think that Luther was a bit like Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.  He’s well educated, but he’s a passionate sort of person.  Dr. McCoy seems to rely a lot on Emotion, while his friend, Mr. Spock values Logic and seeks to suppress Emotion.  As you may know there’s a third member of what we might call the Star Trek trinity.  That person is Captain Kirk who always finds himself listening to these very distinct voices – Spock’s Logic and McCoy’s Emotion.  Like Kirk we too listen to both voices, and as we seek to know the way of God it would seem that we must balance these two voices.  We are, you might say, people with both hearts and minds.  When we overemphasize one at the expense of the other, is it possible to truly hear the voice of God? 

    So, do you think ours should be a reasonable faith?  Do you think that God might reveal some of what God would have us know and understand through science and philosophy?  Even if some of the things of God may appear at times to be foolishness to some, does accepting the Gospel mean losing our minds? 
    As we ponder this question, perhaps a word from James will offer us guidance:  He writes that “anyone who needs wisdom should ask God,” and “wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.”  (James 1:5). 

    I think Galileo would agree with James – as would John Locke and Alexander Campbell, who both believed that faith and reason can get along!

    Oh and just so we don’t leave out Dr. McCoy, next week we’ll talk about how God might speak to us through experience.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 18, 2012


John said...

Everyone's reason is informed by their biases. No one brings pure logic to analysis. We all have 'a priori' assumptions and we all have agendas. For people of faith, our reason is informed by our faith, the assumption that there is a divinity, that this divinity created all that is, that this divinity is our God and our God cares about what happens in our universe and, for the Abrahamic faiths, that God is honest and truthful, that God is steadfast in God's love for humanity, and that God wills the best for creation, and especially for humanity. At this point the faith traditions and denominations separate themselves as to how they interpret the balance of theological options.

But even with these narrow points of agreement informing our use of reason, we can reach a consensus on much that is and much that out to be.

Foremost among these points ought to be that nature and truth (science and/or reason) and revelation are never in disagreement, and any perceived disagreement is a failure on the part of humanity to comprehend what God is saying to us - either through reason or revelation. Of course many people of faith fear nature and reason because they challenge their interpretation of revelation. What they don't accept is that this is the way God wanted it to be - that we would use our minds and our senses to engage God through God's Creation, and revelation was intended to disclose what cannot be discerned through the senses and the mind.

It is true that sometimes the science is bad, but most often it's the theology. Genuine science should always she'd light on the truths of God and God's Creation and of God's revelation, and it should always be a tool in interpreting what God has disclosed. Theology which describes God as a trickster (e.g., hiding false clues suggesting great age in creation) or a magician (accomplishing desired objectives by finger-snapping hocus pocus) or a murderer (engaging in the slaughter of the innocent and the guilty through single killings or genocide - in biblical times or today) or a sadist (sending humans to spend eternity in punishment and/or torment) or depicting God as anything less than eternally compassionate, eternally hopeful, eternally forgiving, and lovingly committed to lifting up Creation and humanity is bad theology. And one of the clearest ways to evidence this is to check the theology against reason and science, informed by our faith in a loving Creator God.

David said...

Nice post. You say, sometimes science is bad, could you elaborate? I know there is sloppy work, but sometimes a speculation, or hypothesis, is taken as fact by the lay person, when it shouldn't be. Always refer to the facts, and how they were gathered. I like how you pair science and nature. My response, must often, when I was asked why I liked studying chemistry, was "I love nature". That would often get me a funny look.