Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Ants in the Pants

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011
Scripture: John 20:19-31.

If you were in Fort Worth, Texas over Christmas of last year you might have seen some dueling messages on the city streets. One ad on the side of a city bus proclaims: “Millions of people are good without God.” Right behind that bus is a van bearing the message, “I still love you.—God” with another line on top saying “2.1 billion Christians are good with God.”

The bus ad was purchased by Metroplex Atheists, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, and a coalition of local businessmen arranged for the van to follow the bus around town. Atheists in New York City came up with a similar effort, a large billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that bore the message “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason!” (James C. McKinley, Jr., The New York Times online, 12/13/10)

As a young adult, I also thought I was an atheist, not because I wanted to celebrate reason, but because I couldn’t believe that a good God would allow such suffering in the world. Now older and wiser, I realize that things aren’t that simple any more, and that God is always at work to bring good out of suffering. It was my childish “Sunday School” view of God that had to die, not my faith in a loving God.

Years ago, atheists often explored similar questions of theodicy before concluding that God must not exist. Some, of course, celebrated reason above all else. But in general, atheists of my generation and previous ones were respectful and thoughtful in their arguments and conclusions. Some of them regretted that they could not participate in a faith relationship with a divine being.

Not so today! The new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often employ mockery, scorn and ridicule instead of thoughtful arguments. I am no expert on the new atheism, but from what I have read they seem to set up straw men only to demolish them with joy. The only religion they debate is fundamentalist Christianity.  Dawkins remarked that when he read Darwin, he found his god! It seems to me that they are just as fundamentalist as the Christians they denigrate. Instead of idolizing the Bible, they idolize reason, science and/or evolution. They do not examine the foundations of their beliefs any more than fundamentalist Christians do. (Spiritual Envy: Michael Krasny’s Agnostic Quest, Interview by Lisa Webster, December 2, 2010, www.religiondispatches.org)

Have you noticed the comments that appear after most religion-based stories or blogs in the secular media? They are often very polarized, even hateful, almost equally divided between fundamentalist Christians who say the blogger is going to hell, and atheists who say he or she shouldn’t be writing about stupid myths!

In this atmosphere totally fraught with tension, it seems almost quaint to consider the story of Doubting Thomas, but here we go….

Don’t you think Thomas has gotten a bad rap, being named “Doubting?” When he first appears in John’s gospel, Jesus has narrowly avoided being stoned, and they all escape from Judea across the Jordan river. Jesus decides to return to Judea because his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, and the disciples protest, afraid of the threat of stoning. But not Thomas! He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

Then, right after the last supper, in what must have been a highly emotional scene, Jesus says goodbye to his disciples and gives them their final teaching before his death. He emphasizes that he is going on ahead to prepare a place for them, and says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the courage, the honesty, to break the tension and speak up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5) Only Thomas is brave enough to admit that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We’ve all been there—in classes or conversations, not knowing what’s going on, but lacking the courage to say we do not know!

After Jesus’ death, the disciples must have been demoralized. They were hiding behind locked doors, fearful that they, too, could be arrested and crucified. Despite the empty tomb, they probably had not grasped the significance of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus appeared first, perhaps had not been believed since women were not considered trustworthy witnesses in those days.

“Peace be with you!” said Jesus as he walked through the locked doors of that room. He breathed the gift of the Spirit on the disciples and commissioned them, authorizing them to go out into the world, to forgive sins.

Poor Thomas! Why did he miss all this? Perhaps he was grieving alone, or maybe he slipped out of the house to get food. At any rate, he missed Jesus appearance. Disappointed, he replied to the disciples’ excited story, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and… put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Today we have a word for people like Thomas, and it isn’t Doubting. He’s what’s called a sensing type, a Meyers-Briggs “S,” who learns best through his senses, by seeing and touching rather than imagining or thinking. The world is full of sensing types—witness all our expressions, like “I’ll believe that when I see it!” “Show me the money!” “I’m from Missouri!

So Thomas, courageous, honest, sensing Thomas, got his wish. Jesus appeared to him and offered Thomas the ability to touch his wounds. We don’t know if he did or not, but we do know that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” In terms of a confession of faith, Thomas is way ahead of the other disciples. They only rejoiced at the sight of Jesus; but Thomas confessed that Jesus was not only his teacher and leader, but also his God.

Why has such a courageous and thoughtful man acquired the nickname “Doubting?” Perhaps it’s like family-of-origin nicknames! You may win the Nobel Prize, but at home with your parents and siblings, you’re still the eight year old who fell out of a tree!

Perhaps it’s because he reminds us of ourselves. Everyone doubts at one time or another, but we may not feel it’s appropriate. Some may have been told at an early age that it’s wrong to question or doubt, we should just “have faith.”

How mistaken that is! Questioning God is an honorable tradition that goes back to the time of Moses. When God told Moses to go to Egypt and rescue his people from Pharaoh, Moses didn’t say, “Sure thing! Right away!” No, he argued and dithered and doubted until God had reassured him sufficiently, even going so far as to change God’s plans. The disciples were no strangers to doubt, either. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the New Testament: “This is a hard teaching, Lord, who can accept it?” Christian writers throughout the centuries have had doubts—from St. Augustine’s confusion about the Trinity, to C.S. Lewis’ faith that became a “house of cards” when his beloved wife died. Even Jesus on the cross had his doubts—according to Matthew, he said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God created us as whole persons—with spirits, yes, but with bodies that need to see and smell and touch—and minds that need to think. God doesn’t ask us to check our brains at the door when we enter worship or read the Bible. God isn’t afraid of our doubts and questions anymore than God is afraid of our anger—God can take anything that we can serve up!

You may have heard it said that doubt is the enemy of faith, but it’s not. Doubt is the servant of faith. How else can we come to faith, but to use our minds to understand? And what better way to understand, than to ask questions and wonder? Doubt is, in fact, faith seeking understanding.

Biblical scholar Frederick Buechner said it best: “If you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the paints of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

I’ve decided to rename Doubting Thomas Trusting Thomas. He trusted in himself enough to admit he didn’t understand everything he heard. He trusted Jesus enough to accompany him to Judea, at the risk of being stoned. Like Moses, Thomas trusted God’s love enough to argue and doubt. Like Thomas, we can entrust all our uncertainty to God. Such trust is not an end to doubt, but a deep peace underneath our restless questioning; a peace that draws us nearer to the risen Christ even though we have not seen or touched his wounds. I’d like to close with the words to an old hymn that reminds us to call on God, who is as near as our own hearts…

We walk by faith, and not by sight;
no gracious words we hear from him
who spoke as none e’er spoke;
but we believe him near.

We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod;
but in his promise we rejoice;
and cry, “My Lord and God!”

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near,
and seek where you are found:

that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.

Amen.