Sermon Edition: Why God

The following two versions of the same sermon were composed for the Holy Trinity Brussels’ evening service on 6 September 2015. The second version is the one that was given, and the first is one that was a draft. The reading is from Acts 17:22-34.

Good evening! These last few weeks, as Brussels has been quiet and so many of you were away, I have been thinking about beginnings, about beginning again or beginning anew. There can be such joy in beginning anew, a fresh start — perhaps this is one of the reasons babies bring such joy: here is someone at their beginning. But there also can be pain — not again; I have to start all over again, after getting so far, after investing so much. Beginnings can be both joyous and grievous. This time of year always feels to me as if I am beginning again. This is probably because I’ve spent over four-fifths of my life on an academic calendar, but the autumn holds such promise. It is also a chance we, as a congregation get to begin again. The year lies open before us, with its ups and its downs, its successes and its failures. So, tonight, we begin. We begin again. And as we begin, we are going to start off with the basics.

Over the next few months, in fact, all the way to Advent, we are going to be looking at different basic elements of the Christian life, of what it means to have faith and to live faithfully. We’ll talk about things like: “Why is there suffering;” “why is there sin;” “why did Jesus come to earth;” “why is there war;” and “why do we witness?” Tonight, though, we begin our series “Why —–,” with “Why…God?” Now, I would like to take this opportunity to thank John for slotting me into topic. Why…God. It is like asking the question of Life, the Universe and Everything. But 42 is not a satisfying answer. Why God? 42. No, not satisfying. In fact, we can wonder if there is a satisfying answer. Is there an answer at all to the question, “Why…God?” Perhaps, if we look at previous attempts at an answer across history, we might see how each of us might ask and answer that question for ourselves.

PRIME MOVER: One of the first reasons given for believing that there was a God, some sort of highest power, was penned by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He stated in his Metaphysics, that at the root cause of the universe, there must be an Unmoved Mover or a Prime Mover, someone/something that got all things started, put the first things into motion, since everything is in motion and for things to be in motion there must have been a mover.. He claimed that this One must be indivisible, perfect, contemplating only Itself. St. Thomas Aquinas picks up on this in his Five Ways to prove God’s existence. His first two ways use Aristotle’s arguments quite heavily, with the first repeating the argument that I’ve just given.

Interestingly enough, this is not some far back in history concept. It had consequences in the 20th century. Einstein first proposed what is typically called a “steady-state” universe, a universe in which stars and galaxies aren’t moving towards or away from each other but are at rest, because if things were in motion it would point to a moment of first movement. It took Edwin Hubble to convince Einstein to see things that way, and the formulation by a Roman Catholic priest of the “big bang” theory to demonstrate that there was a creation event, a first moment of movement. Now, we can debate who set off the big bang, whether it was God or some sort of quantum soup that randomly hit the right conditions. Throughout Christian thought and history, the first option has been given preference, but even if we do that, we “get” God, but we don’t necessarily get Jesus or even a Triune God. That is, we don’t get a personal God who has named Himself and entered into our stories and histories.

REALITY SUSTAINER: There is another argument for God from an epistemological line of thought. God as Prime Mover is ontological, dealing with Being and Existence, but God as “reality sustainer” is epistemological, dealing with how we can know things. It finds it most coherent expression perhaps in the 17th century philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes, in an attempt to reach a firm and absolutely certain foundation for knowledge, doubted everything. Until he found his maxi, I think therefore I am. Unfortunately, he had no way to expand knowledge beyond the fact of the existing, thinking self. The world, other people, everything else was in doubt. He attempted to overcome this through the argument that he had an idea of infinity, which could never be thought up by the self and so it must be placed there by the Divine, by God. This “guarantees” the idea of God, and once God is established, then it must be granted that God is good and not a liar, and so it is God that guarantees that we have true and consistent experience of the world — and thus we know and have knowledge.

Descartes was a Christian thinker and his conception of God as reality sustainer, as the One who connects our selves with the world is also not without parallel in Christian history. Most theologians of the Enlightenment period used Descartes’ arguments or similar ones to sustain our knowledge of the world. For example, Anglican bishop Berkeley formulated that everything is if it is in perception. His famous phrase was, “To be is to be perceived.” So, if a tree falls in the middle of the woods and no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there were just us, just humans: no, because no one would be perceiving it. The tree wouldn’t even exist. But the world does exist beyond our perceptions of it; we can discover places no one has ever been. Why? Because God holds it all in His omniscient perception. We can know the world, because God links us to it. Again, though, if we stop and think about this, what kind of God does this get us? A watchmaker? A watch-winder? A God who is merely ever to make sure the world doesn’t disappear on us. God, in this conception alone, is merely a principle, not a personality, not someone interested in human history or individual lives. God is as abstract as words like ontology and epistemology.

JUSTICE-BRINGER: Or a word like eschatology. There is another argument for why God: The world is a really awful place and good people get trampled on and bad people win and there’s something not right about that. This conception of God deals with the end of human history. Certain philosophers and theologians favour this argument above others, especially when dealing with the problem of evil or the existence of suffering. And actually, there are biblical images that support it. God seen as a judge or someone who settles the accounts of humanity is an image woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. There is a philosopher, though, who used this argument to support God’s existence: Hegel, a 19th century thinker. Essentially, for him, all of history is a repetition of thesis and antithesis, all building up into ever new syntheses, which form new theses and antitheses. Ultimately, though, there is God, the synthesis of at the end of history who brings everything together and balances everything out. God will bring justice, eventually. At the end of history, God will punish evil and reward good.

Like I mentioned, this image can be found in Scripture and it does envision a God who is concerned with human history, at least ultimately. But there are a lot of issues in this answer to “Why…God?” Is it really a satisfactory answer to problem of suffering? Dostoevsky once wrote,

“It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God!’ It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell?”

In the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, Dostoevsky challenges this notion of answering “Why…God?” solely through the idea of a justice-bringer. A balancing of the scales does not, in this moment, bring me to the necessity of God. In fact, if God is just some balancing act at the end of history, God is sadist. God must be more, must be more present. So, we turn to the last attempt at an answer for this evening.

TRANSCENDENT MEANING-MAKER: To recap, God as Prime Mover gives us a principle or cause, a creator and a creation event; God as Reality Sustainer guarantees knowledge of the world, but also as a principle or force; God as Justice-Bringer answers a deep human need for ultimate justice, and we find images in Scripture of this, but it falls flat in answering the question of why there is suffering now. “Why…God” becomes “Why, God?” Now, all of these attempted answers are important elements. They have their uses, but answering why to the question of God is something each of us must undertake. It is a call that addresses each of in our innermost person. This is why it is also possible to articulate God as a transcendent meaning-maker, that is God is a person, a community of persons, who invites us into a narrative of love, of meaning, and of hope. God as transcendent meaning-maker is a God in narrative, a God in story, of stories. Here, we not only get images of God inviting people into God’s story throughout Scripture; Scripture is the account of the Divine addressing people and inviting them into something bigger. Abram heard the call of God into something bigger. Moses. David. Elijah. Samuel. Mary. The disciples. The theme continues in each of their stories and into ours, but God continues to reveal who He is and what He has done for us in the stories of Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.

There is an anthropological theory that states, more or less, that we all are looking to worship something: We all are looking for our ideology, our god. The human heart is a pit of need, and we long to transcend our little blips of history, to be woven into something bigger, something with purpose. God invites us to that. This is one, I think, of the most satisfying answers to the question, “Why…God.” In a word, because. Because it is an open answer. Because it is a call to life. Because God does not rest in easy answers or solutions. Because God takes us on a journey, filled with meaning and with hope. Because in the face of meaninglessness, we lose ourselves. Because God is love. It is not an easy to conceive of God. It is definitely not the only way, and it shouldn’t be. God is bigger than any category we could ascribe. God breaks down any appellation, except I am that I am. God is self-defining and weaves a narrative in which we don’t define God or answer for God, but join God and follow God. Why God? Because we are becoming and God is. Why God? Because my story can be caught up in something bigger, something eternal, something that answers the call in the deepest part of me for something meaningful.

We each have to answer for ourselves, Why God. It is a journey. The road is scattered along the way with answers, but don’t ever be satisfied. God calls us into journey, into a story and a narrative. We are not yet done. We are not yet settled. Let us chase after God. Let us weave into God’s story. Let us cross over all the Jordans along the way, until we are safe on Canaan’s side, in the promised land, at rest and at peace with God. Amen.

The second (and preached) version follows.

Good evening! These last few weeks, as Brussels has been quiet and so many of you were away, I have been thinking about beginnings, about beginning again or beginning anew. There can be such joy in beginnings, a fresh start — perhaps this is one of the reasons babies bring such joy: here is someone at their beginning. But there also can be pain — not again; I have to start all over again, after getting so far, after investing so much. Beginnings can be both joyous and grievous. This time of year always feels to me as if I am beginning again. This is probably because I’ve spent over four-fifths of my life on an academic calendar, so the autumn feels like it holds such promise. It is also a chance we as a congregation get to begin again. The year lies open before us, with its ups and its downs, its successes and its failures. So, tonight, we begin. We begin again. And as we begin, we are going to start off with the basics.

Over the next few months, all the way to Advent, we are going to be looking at different basic elements of the Christian life, of what it means to have faith and to live faithfully. We’ll talk about things like: “Why is there suffering;” “why is there sin;” “why did Jesus come to earth;” “why is there war;” and “why do we witness?” Tonight, though, we begin our series “Why —–,” with “Why…God?” Now, I would like to take this opportunity to thank John for slotting me into topic. Why…God. It is like asking the question of Life, the Universe and Everything for those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We can wonder if there is a satisfying answer. Is there an answer at all to the question, “Why…God?” Perhaps. Tonight, I want to focus on two potential answers, both present in our reading, but ultimately this is a question that we ask and that we answer for ourselves, so if these answers seem unsatisfying, keep searching, keep looking, keep questioning — for God loves a cheerful questioner.

This is the second version of this sermon, by the way. In the first, after that introduction, I went on to outline three historically important arguments for God at length, using theological and philosophical sources. Now, if that interests you, both versions of this sermon are available to read, so just let me know, but for now I’ll only mention their outlines. The historical argument was seeing God as Creator or Prime Mover; the second, God was seen as Reality Sustainer; and finally, God as Justice-Bringer. Now, we’re not talking about these answers to the question, “Why…God?” for two simple reasons: (1) there’s not enough time, and (2) in the first two answers, all we end up with is a principle, not a personal or named God. We get “god” as a force or a principle of creation and not as a person. In the third, we do get more of a sense of who God is, with a personality that seeks justice and the reconciliation of all things, but only at a distant point in time, in the end or at the end of all history. What does that have to do with me now? In the right here and right now? Why God is not an abstract question. It is deep and personal and immediate question. So, let’s find a way to answer the question more satisfyingly in the here and the now.

There is an anthropological theory that states, more or less, that we all are looking to worship something: We all are looking for our ideology, our god. This is what Paul encountered in Athens in our reading. He went about the city and discovered that things were being worshipped everywhere. There was the god of the hearth, the god of the harvest, the god of sex, the god of war, the god of wine, the god of dolphins — Delphin, if you were wondering. Anyways, there was a god for each things they could think of, and for what they couldn’t think of — lest they offend any god — there was a place of worship for the “Unknown God.” Now, we might be self-satisfied moderns, and say to ourselves, “Well, yes, of course, they were like that in ancient Greece or Rome, but we know better. We have science, technology, progress etc. etc.” But gods still exist today.

What do you sacrifice for? What do you most long for? Where are your desires aimed? In answering these questions, you identify your god. The human heart is a pit of need; we long to transcend it and ourselves. We are creatures that worship. And we’ll worship anything — celebrities, causes, the god of dolphins, our image, our sense of self-fulfillment, our spouses, our freedom, etc. etc. Human beings are worshipping creatures, unable to rest until we rest in something, but all of that we would rest in is nothing compared to what God invites us into. Augustine, the fifth century theologian and Bishop said to God, “My heart was restless until it rested in you.” His prayer exemplifies this thought. And this is what Paul was calling the Athenians into: Come and worship the true God, the God who gives true rest, who fulfills our truest and deepest desires, who brings us into our truest selves, families, and stories. It is in this God that we move, and we live, and we have our being. And it is in this God that we can rest. So much for the first answer: Why God…because we long after God, we long to worship, and in worshipping God we come to rest.

But another answer is possible even from this one reading we have tonight. Why God? Because God is a transcendent maker of meaning. That is, God is a person, a community of persons, who invites us into a story, into a narrative of love, of meaning, and of hope. God as transcendent maker of meaning is a God in narrative, a God in story, of stories. In this answer, we not only get images of God inviting people into God’s story throughout Scripture; Scripture itself is the account of the Divine addressing people and inviting them into something bigger. Abram heard the call of God into something bigger, and he left Ur. Moses met God in he burning brush and was given a place in God’s story. David, too. Elijah. Samuel. Ruth. Esther. Joseph. Mary. The disciples and every Christian since. The theme continues in each of their stories and into ours, for God continues to reveal who He is and what He has done for us in the stories of Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul, in telling the Athenians about their “Unknown God,” weaves their stories with the story of God and the people of God. Paul even quotes their poets and philosophers to tell the story of God. This is because human beings are storied peoples. We love a good story; we need a good story, as much as we need something to worship. We each tell our life-story; we watch stories for entertainment; we share stories to get to know one another. Throughout every culture in every period of history, human beings have told stories. And God enters our stories through God’s own story.

The human heart is a pit of need — a need to worship and a need for story. We long to transcend our little blips of history, to be woven into something bigger, something with purpose. And God invites us to that. This is one, I think, of the most satisfying answers to the question, “Why…God.” In a word, because. Because it is open, like a story. Because it is a call to life, like the best stories. Because God does not rest in easy answers or solutions. Because God takes us on a journey, filled with meaning and with hope. Because in the face of meaninglessness, we lose ourselves; meaninglessness is a loss of story. But God’s story is one of love and hope and meaning. God makes meaning, because God is a story-teller.

This is not an easy way to conceive of God. It is definitely not the only way, and it shouldn’t be. God is bigger than any category we could ascribe. God breaks down any appellation, except I am that I am. God is self-defining and weaves a narrative in which we don’t define God nor do we answer for God, but we join God and we follow God. Why God? Because we are becoming and God is. Why God? Because my story can be caught up in something bigger, something eternal, something that answers the call in the deepest part of me for something meaningful, for something real.

We each have to answer for ourselves, “Why God?” It is a journey. The road is scattered along the way with answers, but don’t ever be satisfied. God calls us into journey, into a story and a narrative. We are not yet done. We are not yet settled. In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to come around the Lord’s table to hear again the story of Jesus, of God’s love for us. This is an invitation, and God is saying, “Come. Come out of Ur, come out of darkness, come into light and into love and into my story.” May we go. May we begin. May we chase after God. May we live and move and have our being in God. May we be woven into God’s story, right here and right now and always. Amen.

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