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In Spirit and in Truth



Old Testament Reading: Psalm 40:4-8

New Testament Reading: John 4:19-24

Recently Tony DeLorenzo showed me a quote from Isaac Asimov, which I will now share with you.

It seems to me that God is a convenient invention of the human mind. We are aware of our own ignorance and so we find refuge in a hypothetical being who knows everything. We are aware of our own weakness and so we find refuge in a hypothetical being who is all-powerful, who will take care of us out of a general benevolence. By imagining a God, then, human beings avoid having to do anything about their own ignorance and helplessness, and this saves a lot of trouble.

In Tony's ears these were fighting words! He wondered what I might have to say against such reductionism, such a pat dismissal of religion as Asimov's.

Actually I once found myself squarely in the lions' den, with Asimov as one of the lions!  Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, George Scithers, and others in the science fiction field, just about all of them atheists and debunkers, by the way, used to get together monthly for a meeting of the Trap Door Spiders. You may possibly have read some of Asimov's fictionalized accounts of these evenings in his Tales of the Black Widowers mysteries.                                                                                 

Each month someone would host the gathering and bring along a sacrificial lamb to the party, and the assembled skeptics would put him on the spot, grilling him about what he stood for and whether he could defend it. I was a friend of Lin Carter, who invited me along one night. So there was Asimov and the whole crew, and I was answering their questions on the viability of faith in God, the relation of religion to ethics, etc. The questions got easier as the skeptics got drunker.

I probably wouldn't answer today as I did then, but let me give you the answer that Asimov's quote evokes in me these several years later. First, I will freely admit that religion may have entered human consciousness first in the way implied by Asimov. It may have been no more than a comforting superstition. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of religion's validity. If you think it does, you, like Asimov, are guilty of the genetic fallacy.

That is, the genesis of a thing is a pure accident. Great and true things often come from modest and silly roots. As when the medieval alchemist invented ammonia by boiling toads in urine as a means of turning lead into gold.  

Primitive man may have stumbled onto a great truth, the implications of which did not yet dawn on him. But by the time Anselm and Aquinas get ahold of the idea of God, surely we can no longer speak of theism as a childish attempt to control nature and hide from the boogeyman.

But regardless of the abstract question of God in himself, and the theoretical reasons to believe in or to reject his existence, we must indeed raise Asimov's question in a subjective form. That is, why do you believe in God?

I mean, perhaps Asimov, or Bertrand Russell, or Antony Flew, or Rey Redington is right, and there is insufficient reason to believe in God. You might never know it since you cling to your belief for purely emotional reasons. Your desires and wishes might so thoroughly cloud the issue that you are not in a position to evaluate the evidence.

Now I guess that's OK if you are willing to take Pascal's wager (the only form of betting allowed to Baptists, by the way!). If you figure, "I do believe it because it would be great if it were true, so I'm casting my lot there, come hell or high water!" Good for you!

But I hope you don't intend to enter the lists against unbelievers! Dave, stay off the field! Let someone ­else­ handle Goliath this time! You don't even have a slingshot in your arsenal this time!

C.S. Lewis tried to make our ­bias­ in favor of God into ­evidence­ in favor of God. He argued that the very fact we need to believe in God is an argument in God's favor, because in a similar way the hunger for food attests the fact that food exists. How would we have developed a hunger for something that doesn't exist? Of course that's a circular argument. Why not rather assume with Marx that religion is the opiate of the people? In that case religion would be like a drug for which you have no natural craving, but for which you can develop one -- and a dangerous one at that!

Armed with arguments like this, Lewis sallied forth to become the celebrated "apostle to the skeptics." Maybe the title was justified. It was certainly apologetics like his that turned me from a believer into a skeptic! But somehow I don't think that's quite what he had in mind.

What it boils down to is this: do you believe in God, in Christ, because you need it to be true? Or, to be more honest, as Freud would ask: do you believe because you would prefer it to be true? Because things would seem easier and more secure if it were true?

Such a predilection for religion injects a poisonous element of doubt into the whole consideration. Again, it doesn't affect the theoretical question of God's reality one way or the other. Even Freud admitted that there might be a God and a blissful heaven of the saved. He just said that people believe there is because they want there to be, period. Even if it's true, they really have not the right to believe it given the way they approach it.

What we are facing this morning is a theme sounded often over the last decade from this pulpit, that of intellectual honesty. It is of the nature of the subject that one must be reminded of it again and again. One must keep oneself honest. It is a burden not light to bear.

Many of you are active in scholarly pursuits of one sort or another, and you know that the fundamental axiom of research is that it must be as objective as possible. You must be as critical as you can be toward your own hopes and beliefs. Your enterprise is doomed from the start if you approach a research project hoping to get a particular result, looking to confirm a prior belief. No, if that's your attitude, you are almost sure to start slanting the evidence. You will become subtly dishonest.

Personally, my favorite scholarly topic is that of the historical Jesus. That is a subject it is hard for Christians to be honest about! But with the rise of the historical-critical method in biblical research history witnessed an unparalleled example of intellectual honesty. As Mircea Eliade said, "The sacrifices that the European philosopher is prepared to make to attain truth in and for itself [include the] sacrifice of religious faith." (Yoga, p. 4).

I think that is what it takes to be intellectually honest in this question of religion. I am not saying one must give up faith, only that one must be willing. Otherwise, you can never rest with your convictions. You can never be sure you are not kidding yourself. Only if you are willing to live with the results either way can you face the issue squarely.

If we can believe in God with intellectual honesty, we will be worshipping him in the way he desires: in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him. Simpering sycophants and toadying yes-men disgust him! To them he says: "Enough of this trampling of my courts!" Our New Testament reading comes from the time after the destruction of Jerusalem when sacrifice was being rationalized. Since there was no longer any Temple in which to offer animal sacrifices, it was easier to see that God did not need them after all. What really pleased him was the sacrifice of moral excellence, what Romans 12 calls "your rational worship."

Early Christians like the evangelist John and the apologist Aristides made much of this: God is not served by human hands. What can we offer him that he needs, after all? By the same token, it hardly matters whether we worship him on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem, as if he were restricted to one place, as had once been thought.

To worship him in spirit and in truth was to worship him with pure reverence, not by giving him groceries, not by imagining him as needing anything, which is to reduce worship to degraded superstition.

What I am saying is that to worship him in spirit and in truth is equally to worship him for his own sake and not in order to get groceries! Not even the groceries of eternal life! You may get that, but that can't be your motive for worshipping, or you are not worshipping in spirit and in truth!

Just as you cannot justify your beliefs as long as you do not hold them in an unbiased way, neither can you worship God in a pure and truly spiritual worship as long as you hope to use it as a means to an end, as long as you need it to be true. True worship must be disinterested!

You must come to the point of the Psalmist who said "Whom have I in heaven but thee, and what do I desire upon earth besides thee?" (Psalm 73:25).

Tell me (or better, tell yourself), would you worship God if you felt you had nothing to gain by it? If God offered no salvation, no empowerment, no guidance? Only himself? Would God's inherent majesty and augustness propel you prostrate in worship? Would your conscience still feel the sovereign demand of the Holy?

One of the most enduring echoes of the radical theology of the sixties was already an echo from the forties, the enigmatic statement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we must, in a world come of age, "learn to live without God before God." Here is what I think he meant. Bonhoeffer noted that Paul said Christ had come in the fullness of time to bring a new religious maturity to the human race.  Incompatible with that or any maturity, as far as I can see, is the maudlin doting of the soul on God, it's limp and disgusting protests that it can do nothing without the sweet deity. To this I ask Marjoe Gortner's question: "Can God deliver a religion addict? Yes he can!"

To live without God before God is to strive to stand on one's own two feet before him and to worship him not because, as the saccharine chorus of Evangelical Revivalism says, "I Need Thee Every Hour," but rather because as the hymn of the Apocalypse says, "Thou art worthy!"

None of what I am saying militates against the counsel of Philippians to "let your requests be made known to God." No, why shouldn't you? But you must be prepared to worship God even if he should never deign to vouchsafe you another blessing again!

You do not worship in spirit and in truth if you imagine either that you are doing him a favor by worshipping him, or that he will do you a favor for worshipping him. Otherwise Asimov will be right about you and your religion.




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