Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 19, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics: Keeping the Faith

Today we conclude our series Answering the Skeptics. To be honest, these haven’t been easy messages to write, and today’s was especially difficult for some reason. I threw out three versions of this message and I’m still not sure I have it right, but I ran out of time, so here it is.

Our Scripture reading is a combination of three passages about faith.

Today we come to Keeping the Faith, and what I want to do is wrap up with some final thoughts about belief and unbelief.

I begin with mentioning a rather amazing moment that took place Tuesday during an interview on BBC radio. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, appeared on the program to discuss a poll on Christianity in Britain that was commissioned by his organization, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The poll, in Dawkins’ view, suggested that Christianity has become mostly irrelevant in Britain and used, as evidence, the fact that nearly two out of three people who consider themselves Christians cannot name the first book of the New Testament as the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Reverend Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral, was also on the program, and he turned the tables on Dawkins by asking him to name the full title of Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species. Amazingly, Dawkins couldn’t do it. He sputtered and could not give the full title of Darwin’s history-altering book, the book that Dawkins cites as the book that above all other things proves why people should abandon faith.


Now, to be fair, it would be hard to remember On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. But it does point to one of the difficulties in the cultural struggle between belief and unbelief. Faith is not defined by whether or not someone can recite the names of all the books in the Bible or even recall the name of the first gospel. One of the fundamental mistakes of Richard Dawkins, and those in his camp, is this – they believe that faith is little more than agreeing to a series of beliefs or having some level of knowledge about theology. That is not at all what defines faith. Faith is not a belief system. Faith is not agreeing to every statement in a creed. Faith is a relationship. Belief systems are not alive. Creeds are not alive. They give a framework, but there is no life in those things.

There is life in relationships. Faith is, above all, I believe, a relationship with God. It is a relationship that informs who we are, how we live, how we treat others, how we think about others, how we think about ourselves – it is a relationship that informs and transforms every facet of our lives. That is why we, as Disciples, don’t put an emphasis on creeds or even particular beliefs. What we have is one thing that defines us – a confession of faith – I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And that confession of faith defines a relationship that we have with God.

Richard Dawkins and others always try and bring the discussion of belief and unbelief back to questions such as – do you believe in a talking snake? Do you believe a large fish swallowed Jonah? And the mistake they make is thinking that to be a Christian one must agree to a list of particular beliefs or have a certain level of knowledge, which is simply not true.

So some people can’t name Matthew as the first gospel. Is it enough to know all four gospels? What about all the epistles? What about being able to name all the books of the New Testament? The Old Testament? Frontwards and backwards? What about being able to recite the Apostle’s Creed? The Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? What would be enough to qualify a person as being a Christian?

Once you start down that road, how much is enough? It’s never enough.

The earliest followers of Jesus wouldn’t have known those things, for the most part. Most of them were probably illiterate, so they couldn’t read the Bible if they had one, and they wouldn’t have had a copy of the Scriptures.

In fact, the first name given to the followers of Jesus was not Christian, did you know that? Does anyone know what the earliest followers of Jesus were called? The Way (Acts 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22). Five times in the book of Acts we find mentioned The Way. Maybe because of the words of Jesus in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life, but it may also be because faith is a way of life, not just something we believe. There is a difference between belief and faith. Belief is a list of things we agree are true; faith is how we live. Faith affects every part of who we are and every facet of how we live.

So faith is a relationship.

And it is a relationship that connects us to something beyond ourselves. Does anyone recognize the name of Jefferson Bethke? I’m sure some of you are familiar with him. How many of you have watched the video Why I hate religion but love Jesus? Jefferson Bethke is the young man who is in the video. On Youtube alone, his video has now been viewed around 20 million times. I think he makes a couple of good points, but he makes some bad points as well, and one of them is the

Much of the resistance to faith that we find these days is not directed at God; it’s directed at the church. God and church are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes, when I hear people talk about their struggle with God, it’s really not God they are talking about – it’s the church.

Churches have no shortage of faults. You want to criticize churches? That’s like catching fish in a barrel – there is simply no contest. Yes, churches have problems, because people have problems.

But I believe faith calls us to something beyond ourselves. I believe faith asks us to connect ourselves to the lives of others. Yes, other people can be difficult, other people have faults, and other people can frustrate us. But we can do so much more as a body than as individuals.

And finally, faith is a way of seeing life and the world and other people – it’s a way of seeing everything.

Imagine losing your sight at age three, living blind for decades, and then being given the gift of sight. Imagine what a radical change this would bring to life – you’ve never seen your wife or your children and you have no memory of your own face. Mike May is the subject of the book Crashing Through, which chronicles his journey from years of blindness to the gift of sight. What’s fascinating about his story is to read of the difficulties he encounters after he regains his sight. It wouldn’t occur to me that one would have difficulties because your sight was restored.

Here is how his story is described – Mike May spent his life crashing through. Blinded at age three, he defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision. Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision. It would allow him to drive, to read, to see his children’s faces. He began to contemplate an astonishing new world: Would music still sound the same? Would he recognize himself in the mirror? Would his marriage survive? Would he still be Mike May?

The procedure was filled with risks, some of them deadly, others beyond May’s wildest dreams. And even if the surgery worked, history was against him. Fewer than twenty cases were known to all of history which a person gained vision after a lifetime of blindness. Each of those people suffered from desperate consequences we can scarcely imagine. There were countless reasons for May to refuse vision. He could think of only a single reason to go forward. Whatever his decision, he knew it would change his life (from the web site –

Almost immediately Mike May had the ability to catch a fly ball over his shoulder, but interestingly, he couldn’t tell the difference between a staircase and painted lines that look like a staircase. He was a very skilled downhill skier when blind, but kept falling when he had his sight. One of the comments about his experience was this – there is a great difference between vision and the ability to see.

That’s quite an interesting line, isn’t it – there is a great difference between vision and the ability to see. We often hear people say that seeing is believing, but when it comes to faith it’s believing is seeing. Faith allows us to see everything in a different, and new, way. The eyes of faith allow us to see the world through new eyes; faith allows us to see others in new ways; and faith allows us to see ourselves in new ways. Faith is a way of seeing, and a way of living.

May we pray.

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