Believe? A Sermon for January 24

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20

We live at a time when it’s hard to know what to believe. This is curious because every day of our life we have more information available to us than at any prior point in the history of the world. Yet it’s still hard to know what to believe.

Here’s an example. I expect that you’ve heard this before. We are constantly learning more about the evolutionary history of life on earth. It’s fascinating. Yet from this has come the argument that belief in God can be explained by evolution. Notice two things. First, notice that this argument itself isn’t science. It has nothing to do with the scientific method. Notice as well that the target here isn’t just Christian belief, but also the beliefs of Muslims and Jews and even traditional Indigenous spiritualties. The conclusion of this argument is essentially this: at one point belief in God was a helpful fiction, but now it’s time to do away with this fiction because it’s no longer helpful.

As you might expect, I think there are several problems with arguments like this. Don’t worry, I’ll be quick. Fundamentally, this kind of an argument is a problem because it goes far beyond science and actually undermines the theories it draws upon. Might they not also be helpful fictions? Second, when this argument is made it rarely takes seriously an actual, thoughtful description of God. It tends to focus on fairy tales and blowhards. Finally, this argument assumes that because certain cause and effect relationships can be discerned by science there aren’t any others. Science is wonderful, but it can’t prove that it’s the only game in town.

There’s obviously much more that we could explore here, but since this is a sermon, I’ll leave it there. I’m simply trying to illustrate my point that it’s hard to know what to believe.  

In a context like ours the words with which Jesus begins his ministry might feel a bit like irritating an old blister. Mark tells us that Jesus kicked things off by saying this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The first part is an announcement. Jesus is saying that something has happened: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” After this announcement, he issues a call to action: “repent, and believe in the good news.”

Several weeks ago I tried to make the case that the call to repentance need not be as foreign or intimidating as it sounds. It is a call to turn from things that are destructive to things that bring life. Today I want us to reflect on the second verb: “believe.” Jesus tells his listeners to “believe in the good news.

The good news is the preceding announcement. The time has come! The kingdom of God is near! By implication, the old age is passing away. God’s shalom is beginning with flurries, but it will grow into a blizzard of peace. The good news is that we are invited, even now, to play in the snow.

That’s the object of the verb, but let’s return to the verb itself—believe. Incidentally, and you may have noticed this already, the word ‘believe’ also shows up in our Old Testament reading. After Jonah shared the message from God with the residents of Nineveh, we are told that they believed and proclaimed a fast. Belief is important throughout the Bible.

In one of her early books, Lauren Winner reflects on belief in light of a scene from a British novel. In the novel a cynic says something like this, “Of course you believe in God, but do you believe in God the same way you believe in Australia?” Winner says that some days she believes in God more than she believes in Australia. She’s never been to Australia and probably will never go. In her life Australia is just a figure on a map.

Why do we believe in the existence of places we’ve never been? Could the existence of Australia be a useful fiction—at least for the so-called Australians? The truth is, we’re all believers. We can’t help it.

Winner goes on, and here I’ll quote her at length:

Living the Christian life . . . is not really about that Australia kind of believing. It is about a promise to believe even when you don’t. After all, when I stand up in church to say the Creed, it may well be that that very morning I didn’t really know for sure that some fifteen-year-old-virgin got pregnant with a baby who was really God. Saying the Creed is like vowing to love your [spouse] forever and ever. That vow is not a promise to feel goopy and smitten every morning for the rest of your life. It is a promise to live love, even, especially, when you don’t feel anything other than annoyance and disdain (Winner, 2002, p. 269).

I like what Winner says there. When we say we believe in God or believe the good news, we aren’t saying that in that particular moment we are totally convinced of all the ins-and-outs of the Christian story. We probably aren’t cognizant of much of it much of the time. And I don’t think we need to be. The church should have space of us when we doubt. An important part of being a Christian is being part of a people, having a place to belong. It’s more than sharing a list of beliefs.  

Here’s a question, it’s prompted by Winner’s ideas: what to the words ‘believe,’ ‘libido,’ ‘love’ and the German word ‘liebe’ all have in common? The answer is that they all share the same historical root. At the etymological root of the word believe is the sense of a truth being held dear. To believe isn’t just to give a thumbs-up to a fact, but to love in light of a deep truth, to have a life-changing conviction.

Today belief and believing have been downgraded.

We don’t ask anyone if they believe their times tables or if they believe that Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia. We don’t ask anyone if they believe that our sense of beauty is more than a product of evolution. No, we ask people if they believe in ghosts. Or if they believe the Blue Jays will win their division. We ask people if they believe in QAnon or if they believe that a sasquatch is still hiding in the mountains of British Columbia. We say things like, “I don’t know for sure, but I believe . . . .” Or, “Surely you don’t believe that stuff!” Without thinking about it, we’ve given ourselves the impression that belief only comes into play with unlikely things.

A bunch of years ago some friends and I went for a hike in West Virginia. We came upon an abandoned farmhouse. We went into the house and explored. If you’ve ever done something like that, you know that beliefs come to the surface quite quickly. Will the floorboards hold? Was there someone hiding in a bedroom with a shotgun? Would the roof cave in? Are ghosts real? These are all possibilities in any house we enter. Climbing the stairs always requires belief.

But today belief—belief in God specifically—feels more like entering an abandoned farm house than the new construction on the corner. Yet we should recognize that this feeling hasn’t been caused by any change in the object of our belief. It’s been caused by a change in our social context.   

We live at a moment rife with conspiracy theories. Theories like these flourish when times are uncertain and we feel powerless. The idea that someone named Q is dispensing deep truths about global, political machinations can be attractive because it gives us a handle on the world. Thinking that the book of Revelation can help us suss out the hidden plans of Bill Gates is attractive at a time when a story feels like the only way to regain control over our lives.   

Part of the challenge is that some wild theories turn out to be true. There was a time when some of us would have laughed at wild rumors about Catholic officials protecting criminally abusive priests. There was a time when we might have scoffed at the idea that big pharmaceutical companies were deliberately pushing highly-addictive medications to grow their profits.

In such a context, I’d like to offer you three prompts for thinking about what you believe.

First, the biblical call to believe is an indication that we have the capacity to discern and consider. We are able to both believe and not believe. So if we take the Bible seriously, we should be alert to the possibility that we can both believe rightly and wrongly. In the early centuries of the faith some Christians tried to meld the message of the apostles to supposed secret knowledge (gnosis) that only some of them possessed. This had to be parsed out. The claims had to be made public and evaluated.

This leads to my second prompt: we test and evaluate beliefs based on the sort of thing we are being asked to believe. We evaluate our belief in the love of our parents differently than we evaluate the existence of a sasquatch or climate change. Claims about things that have happened or are happening need to be supported by facts not wishes or political tribalism. Let’s not miss the fact that people on the political right and the political left both believe our world is being controlled by malicious conspirators. Those on the right tend believe it’s the government that’s deceiving us. Those on the left tend to believe large corporations are deceiving us.* We need evidence not wishful thinking.  

So, finally, when it comes to belief in God we would do well to consider what sort of evidence might come into play. The nature of God’s existence is such that it can’t be proven in the same way we might prove or disprove the existence of aliens at Roswell. The actions of church leaders or big pharma executives can be investigated and paper trails can be unearthed. However, God is not the same kind of being, not really a being at all. God is spirit and interacts with the world differently. This is not special pleading, but a definitional truth. Why has the universe been tuned in such an improbable way so as to support life? If everything we know is caused by something, doesn’t that require something uncaused at the back of the line? These ideas don’t prove God’s existence, but they do make you wonder, they make you look and listen. But let’s not forget that Christians believe truly knowing God is inseparable from loving God and loving our neighbor. We may believe more or less than we think.

Later in Mark’s gospel (c. 9), Jesus meets a dad who desperately wants his child to be healed. Jesus says he can do it, but the dad isn’t entirely sure. So the dad utters a line that’s become a prayer for many of us: “I believe, help my unbelief!”

Let’s make that our prayer today: I believe, help my unbelief. God help us not just to believe the message of Jesus, but help us to know what else to believe. Help us not just love you, but to know how to love others. You are Wisdom, grant us something of yourself. Amen.

*I’m prompted here and elsewhere by several pieces from the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

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