Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 22nd December 2019 – “Good God, Meaningless World?” (Advent 4)
The question of the existence of God is one of all ages.
In the scriptures of the world’s major religions, in traditions of myth and folktale from global cultures, in lengthy philosophical treatises, in libraries full of books – human beings for many centuries have been thinking about god – or a higher power, a supreme being, or however you want to call it.
The belief in god, or in this power or being, has taken many different forms and expressions.
Does this phenomenon we now call “god” exist in plurality – are there multiple gods and divinities out there – or is there only one?
Is “god” a person-like figure, or more of an abstract source of being and power?
What is the relationship of this god, or these gods, to the world, to us humans?
The historian of religion, Karen Armstrong, in her book The History of God, documents how the modern western idea of “god” is the result of an evolution of human thinking that has its ancient roots in the Middle East.
Scholars of ancient Middle Eastern cultures show that in the text of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, we see this evolution taking place.
Traces of polytheism – the belief in multiple gods – are visible in a text that, by and large, reflects a newly emerging monotheism – the belief in only one god.
In fact, the Hebrew word for God, elohim, is a plural, indicating its polytheistic origins.
Psalm 82 suggests that the God of Israel is the presider over an assembly of gods.
The gods of neighbouring people are presented here, not as false idols, but as lower ranked in a divine hierarchy.
Only later in Judaism, and particularly with the emergence of Christianity, the idea comes up that the God of Israel is, in fact, the God of all people.
Although for many centuries human beings have been thinking about “god”, one thing was almost commonly agreed: that something like god or gods exist.
Thus, the existence of “god” itself was out of question – the debate, instead, was about the nature of “god”.
As Psalm 14 boldly declares in its opening, only the fool says in his heart, “There is no god”.
At that time, you were seen as foolish if you did not belief in god.
And the few people who may have been such fools would only say so within the safety “of their heart”.
Making a public statement about it – publicly rejecting the belief in god – could have had serious repercussions.
Indeed, you would be seen and treated as a fool, if not worse.
How have things changed!
Today, the popular idea seems to be that the fool is the one who says, “There is a God”.
Our world is dominated by voices such as Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion became a bestseller, translated in many languages and with millions of copies being sold across the world.
In this book, Dawkins, a biology professor at Oxford, argues that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist.
The belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, that is, a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.
Dawkins is only one voice among many.
Since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Western culture has slowly but steadily adopted a worldview in which there is no, or only very little, room for god.
And yet here we are, as Christian believers gathered on a Sunday morning to worship God.
Are we fools?
Is our worship an illusion of the human mind?
Is our belief in God a delusion?
When David (the writer of Psalm 14), writes about the fool who says “there is no god”, he does not so much have in mind a person who rejects the existence of god for intellectual reasons.
Indeed, such a form of atheism may have been unknown to him.
The fool David refers to is a person who leads their life as if there is no God – vile, morally corrupt, not doing good but offending the laws of God with their actions and behaviour.
As the Psalm unfolds, it becomes clear that the fool is the one who “frustrates the plans of the poor”.
He doesn’t care about the poor and those who are suffering.
He is indifferent to God who sides with the poor and the suffering, a God committed to justice and compassion.
David appears to be in despair, as he writes:
“The LORD looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.
But all have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
A recognisable feeling, perhaps, for those of us who are feeling desperate after last week’s election results.
Personally I do not want to be as gloomy as David – there are many people of good will left in this country, although they may have voted in a different way than I might wish.
But yes, our society, our world, can seem to be dominated by fools in the sense that David has in mind:
morally corrupt, influenced by the powers of Big Money, brainwashed by an ideology of neoliberal capitalism, buying into a consumerist culture that threatens our earth.
Fools are those who frustrate the plans of the poor, who oppose God’s vision of a just and compassionate society.
David’s cry that “there is no one who does good, not even one” also calls for introspection on our side.
We should not just be blaming other people, and call them fools (because of how they vote, how they lead their lives, the choices they make).
We should, first and foremost, think about our own complicity in this immoral world, the corruption of our own heart and mind.
That’s the beginning of a process of repentance, conversion, transformation, and healing.
Is there a link between the intellectual atheism of Dawkins and the likes, and the moral atheism that Psalm 14 writes about?
I’m not suggesting that atheists are immoral.
There are many great people who do not believe in God but are deeply compassionate, loving, justice-seeking.
And the other way around, there are many people claiming to believe in God, indeed worshipping God in church, but behaving as if they could not care less about what God, from a biblical perspective, stands for.
As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
But intellectual atheism – the rational belief that there is no god – leaves us as humans with little ground to resist the moral corruption of our world.
There is no ultimate reality we are accountable to, there is no fundamental ground for our moral compass.
Our world becomes a place of the survival of the fittest and the strongest – and the poor and marginalised will be left on their own.
For David, the hope that we can overcome the moral corruption of our world, is rooted in his belief in God.
He concludes the psalm by saying “that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”
David joins a long tradition of prophets and seers, in biblical times and long thereafter until today.
Prophets and seers such as the legendary Martin Luther King who are inspired by a vision of salvation to come, a dream of the world restored and transformed.
That vision does not make us sit down and wait for God to make all things new, but makes us stand up and resist the powers that be and work for a better world.
This vision is also reflected in the song of Mary that we read from the Gospel of Luke.
After Mary has been visited by an angel telling her that she will give birth to the Messiah, she bursts out in a song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour / for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
This song, often referred to in Latin as the Magnificat, has become one of the most famous ones in the Christian tradition.
It sings of God turning the world upside down – with rulers being taken from their thrones, while the humble are lifted up; the hungry being filled with food, while the rich are being sent away.
God wants our world transformed, the inequalities in our world levelled out, a vision of justice and compassion to be materialised.
The Magnificat is such a powerful song because it is not an abstract manifesto of social renewal, but is born out of Mary’s personal experience.
She was a young woman of insignificant descent, who became pregnant out of wedlock, with her fiancée ready to leave her.
Yet she was chosen to bear this precious child, the Son of God.
It is her personal experience that grounds her faith in God restoring the world and elevating the humble and poor.
Just as for Martin Luther King, his personal experience of being affirmed in his blackness grounded his faith in God giving freedom to all black people.
Personally, I’ve never been too bothered about the intellectual question of the existence of God.
One can have long philosophical and scientific discussions about all the arguments for, and against, the existence of God.
But in the end they don’t lead anywhere.
Because faith in God is not a science but a relationship born out of the encounter with the divine through which we are affirmed, elevated, and nourished.
Faith in God is not a science but is about imagination, the ability to imagine a different reality than what we see with our eyes, what we read in the newspapers, what we watch on TV.
This imagination is not just wishful thinking.
It is born out of our experience of God – not God as an abstract supreme being far away in heaven, but God as the heart of our reality.
God is not far from any of us, the apostle Paul preaches at the Areopagus, in Athens, Greece – the centre of philosophical debate at the time.
God is not far away from us, as the Greek philosophers tended to think, but God is the reality in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17, 28).
This would be the beginning of my response to Dawkins and the like, who argue that the supernatural God is a delusion.
I think of God, not so much as a supreme being out there who enters into our universe occasionally to solve things.
With Paul, I’d like to think about God as the ground of our being, as an encompassing Spirit – the one who is all around us and within us.
In the Christian tradition, we believe that this spirit is personal, in the sense that it is relational.
We can be, and we are (knowingly or unknowingly) in a relationship with this God, because the divine spirit breathes in us (to use that biblical metaphor of creation, where God breathes his breath in the first human being calling them to life).
In the Christian tradition, we also believe that this spirit, this divine breath, has been embodied to the fullest in Jesus.
Born in a manger and dying on a cross, he made God visible in the midst of this world, vulnerable but strong in his radical love and compassion.
If God is the heart of reality, Jesus is the heart of God, revealing the mystery of God.
He embodies the salvation coming out of Zion that David speaks about in Psalm 14.
In him God restores humankind, renews our spirit.
Are we fools to believe in this God?
The apostle Paul suggests that we might be:
the gospel of Jesus Christ is foolishness to the world,
but to us who believe it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1, 18)
God of mercy, God of grace,
Give us eyes to see.
Eyes to see your smiling face,
Within the mystery.