Almost

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

‘ALMOST’

Pentecost 12C 7.8.2016

The story goes that Jesus has died on the cross for our sins, and this we knew because the Bible told us so. This world was a cozy world, theologically speaking, without doubt, without confusion, without critical thinking. For some of us however that all changed when we went to school or when we matured. We began to learn about alternatives. Throughout our lives some of us no longer tender, accepting of everything we hear and see as true and absolute, even if we are sometimes a little more confused, we are definitely more critical. Of course there are some who have resisted this development because it seems to shake the foundations too much. Much easier to hang on to a childhood truth than venture into the unknown.

When we think about how our view of the world changes we realize that its very hard to know where through the years one thought morphed into another, where the boundary line was between thinking this way and then that. The other thing also is that it seems even more confusing today. Science continues to cross new frontiers almost every day. China is building a huge factory to clone cows. Biologists are splicing genes into the appropriate place to cure disease. Hubble telescope sends pictures of distant galaxies. On and on……

Meanwhile, in our religious world, it seems that fundamentalists who have successfully co-opted the name “Christian”, picket and attack abortion clinics, wail about taking Jesus out of Christmas, proclaim the bible as the infallible word of god, and even take over the infrastructure of political parties. For those of us who are non-fundamentalist in theology we struggle with where we want to be in all this.

Those of us who are comfortable with the idea of critique and questioning pretty much believe that Jesus was not born of a virgin, did not walk on water, and did not leave a tomb empty. God did not dictate the bible, does not interfere in nature, is not omnipotent, does not sit on a throne, and will not cure you of your disease. Sounds a bit like we know what we don’t want but do we know what we do want? Well I think that we do believe and it is just that, what we believe is always open, inclusive and arguable, it is not limited by fact, logic, reason or imagination and it is always open to interpretation, always fluid, always seeking the alternative because our belief is always functional in our living. It has to always fit with what we have come to believe. Put the Hubble pictures of outer space in front of us, or try to convince us that reality is a probability curve, or that particles on opposite sides of the universe affect one another instantly, and what to believe becomes a bit more uncertain, and by being uncertain it enters the realm of almost, that which is still to be and the possible. It is understandable that it is easier to believe in a bearded god sitting on a throne than to believe in what appears to be more grounded in speculation and philosophical wanderings .But believe it we must, at least some of it. That’s what I want to try to touch on today and to do it in a 15 minute sermon.

I want to see if I can touch on some realities that demand our attention, no matter who we are or what we think. Some of this will be from science, some from the social sciences, but all of it impacts us and asks us to reflect upon it. Keep in mind that I am not trying to convince anybody of anything. It is just that there appears to be some facts that need to be accepted, and that there are a variety of ways in which we can react to those facts. The key to doing this exercise is that I think theology has something to say and that I think the facts impact our belief in god.

The first fact is cosmology or more correctly what we can know about the Universe. We can know that the universe is incredible, literally. With the help of land-and satellite-based telescopes, mathematics and astro-physics we are presented with a universe that stretches our imagination. Start with a star and its planetary system. Add to that a couple of hundred billion comparable systems in a rather limited area of space, and call that a galaxy. Gather a hundred billion or so such galaxies, and call that a cluster. I’m not sure how many clusters or cluster groups there are, but even they are connected by long wispy strings of inter-galactic gas.

When one looks at any object in space, what is seen is the light that has taken a long time to reach us. Sunlight, for example, that warms the earth, actually left the sun about 8 minutes previously. When we look at some galaxy, we can measure the distance to it through light spectrum analysis, and we know that what we are seeing is what was there long, long ago. We are not seeing an object as it now is in our time, but as it was when that light first left it. With a formula we created we have measured the distance, and we know the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, so it’s simple division to determine the time. And the age of galaxies turns out to be measured in billions of years. The other thing about this universe is that it is expanding. Everything is moving further away from everything else. Someone said that watch a raison muffin cook is a bit like the universe. Imagine a blob of raisin muffin dough placed in an oven. As the dough rises, all the raisins become further apart from one another. Just like an expanding universe.

How do we know the universe is expanding? Well, I read that we know the elements that constitute a star. And each of these elements gives off a certain spectrum of light. When the source of any light is moving away from us, the wavelength of that light moves closer to the red light end of the spectrum, a process called red-shifting. And every distant star in the universe is red-shifting, proof that they are moving away, becoming more distant, and that the universe is expanding. Stars have a life; they do not exist forever as a hydrogen to helium fireball. Eventually, their energy becomes manifest as atoms of heavier elements, and the fireball creative process diminishes. A recent scholarly inventory of stars shows that stars are not as bright as they used to be. So we have the argument that the universe is expanding and star energy is being transformed into inert elements.

Here we encounter the idea that the universe is dying and at this point I want to suggest that we meet this idea that God that is the ‘almost’, or the yet to be. This God is found in the area of the possible, not unlike that of the Kingdom or Realm of God that Jesus suggests is to come yet already come. Far yet near, Why do I suggest this? Because of the cosmic example we have. Only 4% of the stuff of the universe is what is called ordinary matter. How do we know this? Certain gravitational effects on stars and galaxies can be measured, and the ordinary matter is insufficient to produce the observed effects. The conclusion is that there is more than ordinary matter at play here, and even though we cannot see it, it’s real, and it comes in two forms, matter and energy. So-called dark energy makes up 76% of our universe, dark matter 20%, and we don’t know anything about them other than that they exist. Perhaps a God that we cannot prove exists by any calculation yet a God we know exists. We also think that this unknowable energy is the very force driving the expansion: it is a gravity that is repulsive rather than attractive, an alternative allowed by Einstein’s general theory of gravity. Repulsive gravity! And of course there are problems here that lead to other questions, of course, and that is where, some would argue, it really gets interesting. Inflation of the universe, acceleration of the expansion, more than one universe, multiverses, string theory, a process that led to the Big Bang, Hawking’s belief in self creation out of nothing. If this isn’t a suggestion that if religion or Christian faith is to be more than a social or psychological therapy and that we need to move on from our Sunday School understanding, then I don’t know what is.

The god that many of us thought about as a child was the proverbial old man in the sky. And let’s be honest about this, it’s really a difficult image to erase. Because our understanding effects every part of our living and becomes vice versa. Prayers were always directed toward somebody that could do something, be it bless the food or have Santa bring us a new bike for Christmas. If god can’t DO something, what good is God? The truth is that most of us think of god this way even though we won’t admit it. And most of us don’t believe in this God anyway. The god that atheists reject is usually this God. That’s why when the first Russian cosmonaut circled the earth he reported that he found no god up there. The situation is even more dramatic today. Pictures from outer, outer space that show us the immensity and beauty of the far corners of our universe, do not yet engage with an image of god that fits in with our everyday living. The three tiered universe of biblical times, where heaven was up, sheol was down, and we walked in between, is no longer a tenable option. We know this yet when we analyze our image of God we have to agree that much of engagement in thought clings to this tiered approach.

There are other options that we use of course. One is deism, which basically says that god created the universe, got it started, and then disappeared to somewhere else, having nothing more to do with it. We are now not clear what difference this god might make. Pantheism, in its most basic iteration, asserts that everything is god. One might ask of pantheism how god differs from matter. The same question can be put to a third option called panentheism, which asserts that god is everywhere, in everything, but also different. I have to admit that my most recent fundamentalism was to waffle around panentheism where God is said to transcend the universe. Just how god “transcends” or differs from the universe is a bit difficult to figure out. Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, tried to describe this transcendent god as the Ground of Being or Being-Itself. I like others find that a limitation of God.

Another approach is to identify god as the consciousness or mind of the universe. This approach has a certain attraction about it. After all, we as humans like to believe that we have a mind, a self-consciousness that inhabits our body, a spirit, a soul, so shouldn’t god be the soul of the universe? An offshoot of this approach places god’s consciousness in the evolution of ours. That is, in the history of the universe, the universe has become self-conscious, and that self-consciousness is manifest in homo sapiens. I suppose that a corollary of this option is that when we die off, so does god.

Another and rather inventive theology comes out of string theory. String theory postulates that everything is made up of vibrating strings, so infinitesimally tiny that, by definition, they can never be observed, only theorized. To make the math “work” (according to mathematicians), there have to be eleven dimensions. Not just the three that we’ve all come to know and love, but eleven, hiding right next to us, totally unseen. God, one might say, is hiding in one of these dimensions. There is a certain attraction to this model as well: it literally makes a place for god that surrounds us but transcends us at the same time in the same place. As a bonus, it can never be proven or disproven. No cosmonaut will ever give us a report.

The easiest way to react to the apparent infinity of space, is probably just to accept it and wash the dishes. But where did it all come from??? I’m one of those people that postpones the dishes and asks that question. It’s all very confusing, and I need a simple answer.

So instead of beginning with the infinite universe, I, as an inadequate Christian theologian, begin with history, and ask a simple question. Where did Christianity begin? And what was it all about? Some people might answer by saying: Christianity began when Jesus was born in a manger, or when god decided to become a man, or when the crucified Jesus came back to life. But the answer is: none of the above. What is clear is that when this real person named Jesus was walking around talking to people, some responded with an enthusiasm that went way beyond the ordinary. We call them the disciples. The male dominated church of later decades and centuries limited those disciples to twelve men, but the record tells us about at least an equal number of women were incredibly taken with this Jesus and followed him in his travels. There were about 25 disciples, men and women who discovered something rather special in Jesus, and if they had never discovered that, no one would have paid any attention to him. He would have gone on to lead the life of a first century Galilean, and that would have been the end it. So the encounter between Jesus and his disciples was the beginning. Their initial experience is the foundation upon which were built the later gospel stories, the edifice of the Christian church, and all the dogma and doctrine, orthodox and heretical, that has occupied theologians for two millennia. It seems to me that we should pay serious attention to that experience. And we’re still talking history, not faith, and we are still talking a human Jesus and not a Christ or a transcendent Messiah of any sort.

To answer what Christianity was is not as easy as we might think. No reporters, no video cams, not even any first edition books. We do however have the a library of notes that grew out of oral reports and assumed their final form sometime between 60-120 CE, but there are no direct quotes, only intimations of what probably was going on. The consensus of scholarship leads us to conclude that the disciples’ experience with Jesus falls into two categories: according to their testimony, they discovered what it meant to be a fulfilled human being, and they discovered who god was for them.

Limiting ourselves to the absolute bare minimum that can be affirmed historically with near certainty, as homo sapiens of two thousand years ago, the disciples learned:

  • that the extremely limited individual and parochial world that they had created for themselves could be overcome and their eyes could be opened
  • that their lives had meaning, as opposed to emptiness
  • that the sense of a transcendent something that they experienced in moments of encounter with Jesus was the same transcendent something that encountered them in the special moments experienced every day
  • that they needed one another.

The question here is what more do we need?

 

Do we need a supernatural Jesus to discover who God is for us today?

 

Do we need a God who is limited by human capabilities or human limitations?

 

Or do we need a God that engages in our experience which has changed immensely from that of the time Jesus lived.

After Jesus had been executed, the disciples gathered together and came to a startling conclusion: that the man Jesus who was dead was now alive in their midst as spirit. Which was not that of a resuscitated corpse. Despite all the hoopla about Jesus walking out of the tomb that is not at all what those people believed. The disciples, according to the writers, despite the fact that Jesus had been crucified, now believed that he was still alive in their midst, enough so that they were willing to face death themselves in proclaiming this experience as truth.

Not a resuscitated corpse, because their respect for nature and its place would not allow that, and not “just” spirit either because that thinking was an added development that came with the spread of the Jesus movement toward the east. I want to suggest that Jesus, alive as spirit, was, for them, a new manifestation of reality that had not been experienced before. There were no tools with which to conceptualize this Jesus. That is very likely why the church spent so much time and energy trying to? The later library of stories spoke of appearances and an empty tomb, but they were still but pointers to the resurrection, not the thing itself.

What did this experience indicate about god? About the universe? What do we learn here? The resurrection, understood in this way, as a new reality, helped the disciples to believe quite simply that the evil manifest at the crucifixion was not the last word, The oppressive Empire would not succeed. This resurrection was a divine affirmation that love is the essence of all that is, and that god does not act through brute force but acts through the power of this love. These are two huge statements. And they are statements, now not of history, but faith.

Having said that love is the essence of all that is it is not at all obvious that love wins. In fact, the opposite seems more likely true. If thinking of god philosophically is something of a dead end, thinking of a loving god in a world replete with evil seems to be a road with no beginning. I suspect that about now you will be asking for a sermon on sin and what it might be but I will resist that path for another time. For now, I want to put on the table the faith statement that for Christian theology the impossible resurrection of Jesus is a message and it is that the opposite is possible, that goodness and love are the driving forces of the cosmos. The point is not that there was a factual bodily resurrection. The point is that goodness and love drive the universe.

Having said that, we have to say that the experience of the disciples does not give us license to talk about all those concepts that Christian theology has loved to talk about, of which there are many. For example, from the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us…” For as wonderful and comforting as this may be, it is pure speculation. Jesus ascended into heaven and became the second person of the trinity. Again, pure speculation. Jesus died for our sins. Pure speculation. The disciples did not experience any of this; it came later as people started to reflect on that original experience.

This is not to say that that which is speculated is necessarily wrong, but we should realize that it is speculative in nature. It is I suggest ‘almost’ or yet to be’. We might say that from the resurrection of Jesus, the early disciples came to believe that it is love that in the final analysis guides all that is. Although I’m willing to bet that many humanists would agree, this is a statement that is unavailable to both cosmology and evolution.

As I suggested earlier, for me personally, believing in god and a universe of love is no more difficult than believing in the expanding universe, a multiverse, reality as a probability curve, or the entanglement of particles. One might also say that what science today sets forth as reality is about as bizarre as an active god sitting on a heavenly throne. We can no longer say that there is proof that the science is true and that there is no proof that god is real. One might suggest that truth and reality are now in the same world. One might also argue that those moments that we all experience in our daily lives lead us to suspect that there is ‘almost’ there is a ‘yet to be’ perhaps a cosmic Spirit, ‘behind’ or ‘within’ or ‘about’ those experiences. Maybe there is a yet to be, an almost come, in other words a ‘Holy intuition that there is more to life and reality than meets the eye? This I think leads us toward an exploration of what we mean by evolution but that’s another sermon or two for another day. That question might be ‘What do we mean about a God who is ‘almost’ or ‘yet to be’ when changes are due simply to random mutation and adaptation’?

Amen.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s