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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does God Exist?

Epiphany 4B

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

There is a time-worn sermon joke about an atheist who falls off a high cliff and, as he is hurtling to his death on the rocks hundreds of feet below, manages to grab a root sticking out of the cliff. It halts his fall, but it begins to tear under his weight. Terrified, the man calls out, God, if you really exist, save me, and I will believe in you! A voice answers from everywhere and nowhere and says, Trust me, my son. Let go, and I will save you. After a long silence, the man calls out, Is there anyone else out there?

From now through Easter, I’d like us to look at the essentials of Christian belief – those things mainstream Christians affirm together. We’re going to use the Apostles’ Creed as a template for these sermons, because that creed has origins in the second century AD. It deals with the heart of our faith, and not with how much water must be used in baptism, or what happens in communion, or how the church should be organized. Of course, I’m going to point how United Methodists season each course, but let’s keep the main thing the main thing every week.

So, we begin at the beginning – I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. The first question of faith, and of life, is whether God exists. The seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated something that has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager:” If you bet your life that God does not exist, and He does, then you have lost everything. But if you bet your life that God does exist, and He does not, then you’ve lost nothing. Therefore bet your life that God does exist, because if He does, then you have gained everything. What lies behind Pascal’s wager is the assumption that we cannot know in this life for certain whether God exists. All we can do is bet. And Methodists are opposed to gambling, except for farming and the appointment process.

Can we prove the existence of God? People have tried for thousands of years. In philosophy and theology there are approximately four classic proofs for the existence of God. It’s approximate because it depends how you lump the arguments together. They are:

1. The cosmological argument, which says in different forms that something had to get the universe and everything within it started. There must be a first cause, a Prime Mover, a first necessity.

2. The ontological argument, associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury, who said that if you can imagine something greater than which nothing else can exist, then there must be something which really is greater than anything you can think of. That could only be God.

3. The teleological argument, from the Greek word for purpose. This is also called the argument from design: the world is so complex and finely tuned that only a Divine Intelligence could have created it. Just as a watch doesn’t happen by accident but requires a maker, so the infinitely detailed Universe also requires a Creator.

4. The moral argument, which says that most human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Most – not psychopaths, sociopaths, and NFL referees. That conscience had to come from somewhere – from a moral authority somewhere else in the universe.

These four arguments and their extensions were used and debated for thousands of years, and used to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that God exists. In fact, they’re still used by philosophical and theological conservatives, and well-intentioned preachers and Sunday School teachers. They’re persuasive and tidy. The problem is that in the late 1700’s a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant blew all such proofs out of the water. You can remember Kant because he said you Kant prove the existence of someone who is pure spirit and beyond all categories of human understanding by using physical and philosophical arguments. You may have proved the necessity of something, Kant said, but you haven’t proven God, because God is beyond all our reason and categories and necessities. And so, since 1781 theology and philosophy have given up on trying to prove the existence of God, except among fundamentalists and their schools, who pretend that Kant doesn’t count.

So, does that mean that Pascal’s right – that all we can do is bet, not knowing until we die whether we’ve won or lost?

The Bible not once tries to prove the existence of God. That ought to tell us something – especially all those folks who claim they are Bible-believing Christians. The Bible begins, literally, with God: In the beginning, God created . . . It proceeds through sixty-six books and 1189 chapters and 31,103 verses assuming that God exists, never once making the argument that it’s true. And, in our readings today, both of which quote the Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One, and you shall love God with every ounce of your being – there is no argument first for God’s existence. Why?

The Bible is the story of people’s experience with God. It’s not a philosophical or theological argument. It begins with stories about people who encountered a divinity who loved them, called them, rescued them, corrected them, protected them, healed them, led them. We come to know God not through elaborate arguments and philosophical proofs: we come to know God by listening to stories at the knees of family and teachers and friends. We hear Bible stories, but we also hear stories from family and friends about answered prayers, about forgiveness given and received, about love shared and multiplied, about lives changed by a power greater than from within, about hopes confirmed when there was no longer any reason for hope.

While there have been Christians who have been converted largely by intellectual arguments for the existence of God and the Lordship of Jesus, even those saints – people like Malcolm Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis and Aurelius Augustine – finally came to faith by an act of surrender of their minds and wills and hearts. We are saved by grace, the book of Ephesians says, through faith: ultimately the only real proof for the existence of God is, to return to the joke about the atheist, to let go of our attempts to save ourselves and free fall either to death on the rocks or into the arms of a loving God. What we read in the Bible and hear around the table and at our parents’ and teachers’ knees are stories of people who let go and found themselves not just rescued by God, but lifted up on wings of love to heights they never imagined possible. In the end, there is only one proof of the existence of God, and that is love. And anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that you don’t talk or think or reason yourself into love – you fall into it.

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