What do you see in this image –
The image is from the famous Rorschach test, which is a test administered by psychiatrists to determine certain characteristics and personality traits of a patient. There aren’t any “answers” to the test, but it reveals the way in which people “project” their beliefs onto the pictures.
Beliefs are important, because they become the lens through which we see every facet of life. This morning, as we continue our series of messages The Journey To Easter, we come to a passage in John’s gospel that is what I would call a spiritual Rorschach test. It’s a passage where John tells us that Jesus had performed many miracles but despite the miracles, there were still some who would not believe in him. John is careful to point out that the people who would not believe in Jesus did not hear of the miracles by second-hand information; John says those miracles were performed in their presence, but still they would not believe in him. How is it that some reacted to the miracles with belief, while others reacted with non-belief?
The question of belief is, I think, the great question of life. No one can dodge the question of belief in God. Everyone is confronted by that question – to believe or not to believe, and in our modern era, it seems as though the gulf between belief and non-belief grows ever wider.
Hear the story as John tells it –
37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.
38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;
43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.
44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.
45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.
This morning, our topic is To Believe Or Not To Believe, That Is the Question. As Jesus was drawing very near to the final days of his ministry, there is this widening gulf between him and those who would not believe in him, similar to the way in which today there seems to be a widening gap between belief and unbelief.
In considering this passage today, I want to ask three questions, the first of which is –
1. Why do we believe what we believe?
I’m a fan of science fiction. Last fall I went to see the movie Interstellar, which looked really interesting to me. I was disappointed in the movie, but it had me thinking for weeks after about the universe and its unimaginable size and scope. Though I didn’t find the movie to be very good, it did a good job in presenting the incomprehensible scale of the universe. In thinking about the universe, it really puts into perspective how little we know. Though we live in an age of unbelievable technology and amazing discovery, how much do we know about the universe and the principles by which it operates? A millionth of a percent? A billionth of a percent? A billion trillion of a millionth of a percent? Whatever we know, it is such an incredibly small amount of all the knowledge that exists in the universe (and that may be knowledge only of one universe. There could be other universes of which we have absolutely no knowledge). As that is true, it seems incredibly shortsighted, to me, to say there is enough knowledge to disprove the existence of God, and indeed, to claim that kind of knowledge seems to me very arrogant.
Why do we believe what we believe? As I’ve said before, it is inaccurate to say that seeing is believing; the truth is that believing is seeing. What we already believe, will determine what we see. If a person holds to a scientific, materialistic, reductionist view of things, that is, if they believe you can only believe in what you see, then you won’t believe there is anything beyond the physical, which would rule out the existence of God. What we believe dictates what we see, and in the view of scientific materialism, it is a very limited view.
But faith reorients what we believe so that we are then able to see in a different manner. As we are in the midst of March Madness, allow me to use a basketball analogy. How do we know when a referee makes a bad call? I mean, really, how do we know? Is it always obvious? I believe we see the call according to what we already believe. The truth is, when a referee makes a call he is viewed as wise and perceptive by half the crowd and as an incompetent idiot by the other half. And the view that each fan has of the referee’s call is based upon what they already believe, not the particular actions or ruling of the referee. The perception of each fan is colored by their loyalty to a team and whether or not the referee makes a call that is either for or against their team. Just follow along on Facebook during a game or sit with a group of fans and you’ll see what I mean. I walked through a hospital waiting room yesterday during the UK game, just in time to hear the room erupt with protests of he traveled! In a parallel universe, located in Cincinnati, I imagine they were saying the complete opposite. This is how we react; we see things a particular way because of what we believe.
I appreciate when someone tells me they enjoyed one of my sermons or one of my Sentinel columns, but I also understand what it often means – it means they agree with what I have to say. “Like” becomes a synonym for “agree,” and we all want our beliefs to be reinforced. That is one of the reasons we come to church, and it is one of the primary reasons why people leave church or change churches – because their beliefs are not given enough affirmation. Jesus certainly did not affirm the beliefs of the religious establishment, and that is why they decided he must be put to death.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting our beliefs affirmed. One of the reasons we feel uneasy with our rapidly changing world is the fear that our beliefs are being marginalized in a modern world. We begin to feel out-of-step with things, and that is a difficult place to live.
But faith reorients our thinking, it moves us beyond the erroneous beliefs we hold so we will be able to understand truth, which leads to our next question –
2. What Is Truth?
What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus. That is an incredibly important question. Who determines what is true?
Science claims to tell us what is true about our world and the universe, but can they really get down to what constitutes truth? I don’t think so. Science can tell us some of the facts about the way in which our universe operates, at least in our tiny little corner of the universe. Who knows; physics may operate differently in another part of the universe, or in another universe all together. Just because something is true in our part of creation doesn’t guarantee it is true in all of creation.
Can science tell us the purpose of creation, and of life? No, because science only deals with those things we can observe, that we can see and touch and measure. Science can’t get to that purpose, or discover it, or measure it. That is the domain of faith. According to some scientists, the universe is the result of random events, and if that is true, there is no inherent purpose or meaning. Though one might believe there is a purpose and meaning in a random universe, there is not.
We are more than flesh and blood creatures; we are the handiwork of God and possess a soul. You can’t take a soul and measure it in a test tube in a laboratory. Faith reminds us there is something greater than what can be learned in a science experiment.
Faith also reminds us that truth is anchored in something that is eternal and unchanging. If the universe is random, there are no truths, beyond some basic scientific facts. The only truths in a random universe are things such as the speed of light, which may not be constant everywhere in the unvierse; the amount of time in a day, which can vary as light is dispersed at greater distances in the universe; so even the constants of physics and science are not unalterable truths. But faith links us to the eternal – to God – so the truths of love, compassion, and grace are not true just when a society says they are; they are always true.
Faith makes the claim that we are anchored in eternal, unchanging truths, one of which is love. Love is not the result of a random act of nature, love is a creation of God, which leads us to our third question –
3. How Can We Know God?
The primary question is, does God exist? In terms of this question, our beliefs don’t matter. That is, God exists whether or not I believe in him. Reality is reality; God exists or not independently of our beliefs, although our beliefs are important because they have consequences.
In terms of evidence, there are several strong evidences, I believe, for the existence of God, but ultimately I think there is one great proof, and it is love. If the universe is random, if there is nothing behind it but happenstance, then love is nothing more than the firing of neurons in our brain and the release of chemicals that make us feel good. In that scenario, love is noting more than a trick of the brain, or a neurological activity. But does anyone really believe that is all that constitutes love? No, no even the strongest unbeliever.
Love is something more than just activity in our brains, love is more than the firing of neurological activity, and more than the release of brain chemicals; love is the proof that there is something transcendent in life and about life; it points to something greater and deeper. It points, I believe, to God.
But how do we know the details about God? We are people of revelation, that is, we believe God reveals truth to us. One of the ways God reveals truth to us is through Scripture, but if you are speaking with a skeptic they will most likely reject any argument that is based from Scripture. Is there, then, a more effective proof? Yes. Allow me to offer another metaphor, this time in the form of this novel that I’m holding. Imagine you are one of the characters in this book. How would you know anything about the author? How would you know anything about the world beyond the one that exists in this book? Could you even conceive that an author exists or have the capacity to comprehend an author or a world outside of the book? You might think where did I come from? I must have come from somewhere, so someone put me here. Even recognizing that, however, the two realms – one within the book and one without – remain very distant and distinct from one another. But imagine if the author puts himself into the book, into the story. Literally, into the story. That is exactly what God did. In theological terms, we call it the Incarnation. In everyday language, we call it Jesus.
The gulf between belief and unbelief may seem to be quite large, and in one sense, perhaps it is. On the surface, at least, people believe or they don’t. But we are all God’s children, and God loves each of his children – believers or not – and if he does, then so must we. If God entered into this world, into the story of his own creation, to demonstrate his live, then so must we enter the story of the lives of others.