Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Brief Diatribe Against Sir Francis Bacon With Supplemental Comments On Faith As The Courage To Open Our Eyes

Mark Twain said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
That’s a pretty common understanding of faith
            for both believers and non-believers.
We think faith is childish pretending unworthy of adults.
When Paul says “We walk by faith and not by sight,”
            it sounds like we are closing our eyes to the truth.

If that is what faith is about, then I want no part of it,
            and I hope you don’t either.
But real faith isn’t about closing our eyes.
It’s about opening them.

Let’s start by how we know what is so and what isn’t so.
How do we know anything?
We must be very careful in answering that question,
            because the way we know things winds up determining what we know.
If we know only by seeing, we cannot know sound.
If we know only by hearing, we cannot know sensation.
If we know only sensation, then all the truths of logic are denied to us.
How do we know anything?

Through the centuries, philosophers have offered various theories
            of knowledge.
The academic word for them is epistemologies – ways of knowing.
Some trust our five senses.
Others don’t trust our senses very much,
            but believe in logic.

Others think logic is just a neurologically walled in box that traps the mind,
           and cannot reveal the higher truths we glean from spiritual intuition.
Others believe mystical insights are the only avenue to reality.
Over the centuries there have been lots of competing theories
            about how we know what’s so and what ain’t so.

But in the 17th Century, Francis Bacon presented the scientific method
            as the only legitimate way to know anything.
Wikipedia says Bacon was “an English philosopher, scientist,
            statesman, jurist and author.”
It seems likely Bacon's descendants own stock in Wikipedia.
It might be more accurate to say he was a sycophant, a manipulator,
            a slanderer and general a scoundrel in high places.
He was a dubious philosopher, an amateur dabbler in science,
            a second rate jurist, and a corrupt bribe-collecting politician.

I mention these things – not to be unkind :-) but –
            because one way of judging a philosophy
            is to see what kind of a person it makes us.
Bacon was not a good advertisement for his philosophy.

But his book on the scientific method hit the market at just the right time,
            and captured the imagination of Western intellectuals.
By the 20th Century, philosophers like Bertrand Russel were saying that any statement
            that could not be proven or disproven by Bacon’s scientific method
            was not just an open matter for our wonderment,
                        but was in fact meaningless and should not be uttered at all.

Modern Westerners limited our ways of knowing to one.
We relegated all the teachings Socrates and Plato, Buddha and Lao Tzu,
            Moses and Jesus to the trash heap of meaninglessness
                        because they were not the sort of truths
                        you could test by Francis Bacon’s experiments in laboratories.

When someone, as an act of will, arbitrarily rejects all but one of the ways
            most of humanity has known our most treasured truths for centuries,
                        I have to ask: who is closing their eyes?
Faith is not pretending.
Faith is a way of knowing things that Francis Bacon
            could not test in his laboratory.

Faith is in fact the foundation for all the other ways of knowing.
So let’s start by getting clear on what faith is.
When we say in modern English that we believe something,
            it usually means we kind of think it might be true but we are not sure.
We don’t know. We just believe.

But when the Bible uses the word believe,
            it doesn’t mean something less than knowing.
It means something more than knowing.
When I say I believe in God I am saying a lot more
            than an opinion that God exists.
If I say to someone close to me, someone important to me,
            “I believe in you” I am not saying “I think you exist.”
I am saying I trust you -- deeply.

The word “believe” comes from the Old English “beleven”
           which is the root of our word “beloved.”
Believing isn’t an opinion in our head; it’s a trusting in our heart.
That old English word “believe” translates the Latin word “Credo.”
Quite literally, “Credo” means “I give my heart.”
When we say “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,”
            we are not expressing an opinion.
We are saying “Credo, I give my heart to God.”

It is hard to trust God without having some intuitive hint
            about whom God might be.
But a hint is all we get at first.
T. S. Eliot wrote of all the evidence, all the reasons for belief, and said:
            “These are only hints and guesses.
              Hints followed by guesses. And the rest
              Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

Eliot means we start with only a glimmer of hope that life might
            have some meaning, that the universe may hold some beauty.
The next step is ours and that is the step St. Paul is speaking of
            when he says “We walk by faith and not by sight.”
On the basis of some hint that the mysterious origin and destiny
            of reality may be beautiful, kind, meaningful, and good,
                        we give our heart to that possibility.

That is when and how we begin to know God.
This is not a uniquely Christian insight.
In Hinduism it is called bhakti yoga.”
It means devotion as a way of encounter and learning.
Feminist philosophers say that such feeling is an essential part of knowing.
William James, the father of modern psychology,
            argued convincingly that whether one believes or does not believe
                        is an act of will, a decision, and not a logical conclusion.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard taught that the only way
            to get off the dime or out of the starting blocks
                        – to totally hash a metaphor – is to take a leap of faith.

Knowing what’s so and what ain’t so is a process.
It’s a journey -- a lifelong journey.
And you can’t start the journey without faith
            that there is a road, the road leads somewhere,
                      and that somewhere is worth going.

Faith is not an opinion. It is the courage to set sail.
It is the courage to risk our lives on the hope that goodness counts
            and love finally wins.

This is my favorite article of faith.
The poet Louise Bogan said,
            “I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering;
            Surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy.”//
Francis Bacon could not have proven that statement;
            so Bertrand Russell would have called it meaningless
            and put a gag on Louse Bogan’s mouth to keep her from saying such things.

Faith is neither blind nor arrogant.
It does not pretend to know all the answers.
It does not claim to know all about God,
            what God likes and what God does not.
Faith does not know the precise date the world was made
            or the day the world will end.
Faith isn’t a bigoted conviction that our religion is right
            and everyone else’s religion is wrong.
Faith does not judge, condemn, or scold.
Faith does not close the eyes and it does not close the heart.

Faith dares to say, I don’t know but I am staking my life on this possibility.
And after taking that brave step, faith is not afraid of reason.
Faith is not afraid to think – to ask if the object of faith make sense.
St. Anselm, the greatest theologian of his century,
            believed that the knowledge of God begins,
            as Paul says, by stepping out in faith,
                        but faith then seeks understanding.

That is what all our theology is – “faith seeking understanding.”
I usually work later than the others in my office.
The lights in the reception area are controlled by a motion sensor.
So awhile after the others leave, the reception room goes dark.
When I leave, I step out into the darkness for a few steps.
Then the lights come on.
That’s a good metaphor of faith
            --a step into the darkness  but a step toward the light.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

In Defense Of The Snake

We have just heard a slice of the story of Adam and Eve.

It’s an old story -- like an old piece of furniture

            that has been covered over with layer after layer of theological varnish

                        – varnish about the Fall of Humanity, Original Sin, and so on.

We can learn a lot from traditional interpretations.

But sometimes it’s good to strip away the varnish

            and take a look at the bare wood.

Genesis says nothing about the Fall or Original Sin.

 The serpent is not Satan. He’s just a smart reptile.

If we strip away the theological varnish and read the story straight

            – it gets more interesting.

When we read it straight, frankly God doesn’t come off so well,

            Adam and Eve are sniveling snitches,

            and the most likeable character to my way of thinking is the snake.

God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of knowledge.

He was telling them to remain blissfully ignorant and innocent,

            illiterate and uninformed, barefoot and pregnant, so to speak.

Was God right to do this?

Were Adam and Eve wrong to disobey such a dehumanizing command?

If God said they would die on the day they ate the fruit

            and the serpent said they would not,

                        just who was telling the truth?

The serpent, who is the wisest creature, wiser than humans,

            was in favor of wisdom, and wanted to share it.

So, like a good teacher, he encouraged the people to eat the fruit and think.

So, they ate and their eyes were opened.

Had they -- at this point in the story -- done anything wrong

            or merely something for which they are at risk of getting in trouble?

There’s a difference.

So far, I am pretty much on Adam and Eve’s side.

And I am not entirely alone.

Even St. Augustine who invented our idea of the Fall called it a “felix culpa”

            a blessed Fall.

Call Jung called it a “fall into consciousness.”

Choosing to become thinking, reflecting, decision-making persons

            is not such a bad thing.

But once they became more fully human,

            they didn’t behave so well.

The first thing they did was hide from God.

They didn’t have the chutzpah to stand up on their own legs and say,

            “Hey God, we ate that fruit and now we can think.

             Jus what kind of a God are you, keep us from knowing

                        the glory and the wonder of your creation?”

Instead they hid from God,

            and that’s when they learned their first lesson.

You can’t do that.

You can’t hide from God.

We read it in Psalm 139:

            “O Lord you have searched me and know me.

             You perceive my thoughts from afar.

             You discern my going out and my lying down.

             You are familiar with all my ways.”

You can’t hide from God anymore than you can hide from yourself

            because the God of heaven is also inside your heart.

When God found them,

            Adam tried to explain their sneaky behavior by saying

            it was because they were naked,

                        but God wasn’t buying that.

He knew right away what had happened.

When God invited Adam to confess, he still kept hiding through

            the most insidious tactic of self-concealment

                        known to the human race – blame-shifting.

When threatened, when challenged, when called to account,

            people almost reflexively find someone else to point the finger at.

God said, “Adam did you eat the fruit?”

            but Adam didn’t say what he did or did not do.

            He started talking about Eve and how it was all her fault.

God said to Eve, “What have you done?”

            But she didn’t say what she’d done.

            She went off about what the snake did and how it was his fault.

The only one who didn’t try to blame somebody else was the snake.

Maybe that’s because he was the wisest creature in the garden

            and knew it wouldn’t work.

In that respect, the snake comes off as the most admirable character here.

If Adam and Eve represent humankind,

            the point of the story seems to be that something in us

                        wants to be free and intelligent;

                        wants to know and to understand;

                                    to grow up and be fully human.

But then we don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves.

And that’s where we “fall.”

We don’t fall from a state of primordial innocence

            which was just primordial ignorance.

We fall short of becoming fully human persons

            because we don’t have the chutzpah

                        to stand by our own decisions and be accountable.

Suppose Adam had said,

            “Darn right I ate the fruit and it was good.

             I like knowing right from wrong, true from false, up from down.

             I ate the fruit and it made me a better person.”

That would have set an entirely different tone

            in his relationship with God.

Maybe God would have said, “Ok I see your point.”

Or maybe God would have explained why it was wrong,

            so Adam could see his mistake and say “Ok, I’m sorry.”

Instead, Adam rolled over on Eve who rolled over on the poor snake.

Even criminals regard that kind of behavior is reprehensible.

And we keep doing it.

Time and again, politicians say right out loud what they will do if elected,

            we elect them, and then we act shocked when they do what they said.

We voted for it; then blame them for doing it.

In the church, we choose leaders – both clergy and laity

            – to make hard decisions,

            hard because there are pros and cons;

                        there will be good and bad consequences.

Then we blame them for the bad consequences.

That’s really what we chose them to do – take the blame.

In his classic book, Escape From Freedom,

            psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that we turn our freedom over

            to despots to avoid the anxiety of being responsible for ourselves.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr agreed,

            freedom makes us nervous.

We don’t want the responsibility;

            so we try to give it way.

We want someone to blame.

Had we not read today’s lesson about blame-shifting in Genesis,

            the other option for an Old Testament lesson this Sunday

                        is from 1st Samuel.

From the time that Moses led the Israelites

            out of slavery and into freedom,

            they had been nostalgic for the good old days in Egypt.

They missed being oppressed by Pharaoh.

Hundreds of years later, in 1st Samuel,

            they are were demanding a king to rule over them

            – to take from them the responsibility for their lives.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann traces the history Israel

            to the point where Solomon becomes the new Pharaoh

                        and does to Israel just that the Egyptian Pharaoh

                                    had done to their ancestors.

Like Adam and Eve, Israel tasted freedom;

            then skittered like groundhogs back into the cozy cave of tyranny.

We do it in government. We do it in the church.

We do it in the family.

We lock ourselves into boxes of habitual patterns of feeling and action,

            then blame it on our spouses, our children,

            or best yet what our parents did to us or didn’t do for us decades ago.

The moral I would draw from today’s lesson is this:

            If we want to be fully human, if we want to be free,

                        all it takes is the courage to be responsible.

            If we want to walk upright in the world

                        instead of cringing in fear

                        and hiding from God, each other, and ourselves,

                        all we have to do is take responsibility for our own actions.

We can say what we did and why we did it,

            and if we were wrong, then we’re sorry.

That’s why we have weekly confession – not to grovel

            – but to stand up and say “Yep that’s what I did alright.”

There’s courage in that – and dignity.

More than that, there is freedom.