Stained Glass, I: Why I Am A Theist

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September 10, 2017

Stained Glass, I: Why I Am A Theist

Passage: Psalm 19

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The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

—Psalm 19:1–2


In Fairfield County at my last church, and here on the North Shore too, I meet a lot of people whom I affectionately call “Christian Agnostics.”

They love the Church.  They love the fine folk they meet here on Kenilworth Avenue every seventh day.  They love this sacred space, one of the most beautiful in town.  They love the music.  They love the Christian code of conduct.  It’s GOD they’re not sure about. It’s all this spooky metaphysics religious codes of conduct insist on hauling along with them.

I am sympathetic.  America marks a sad and solemn anniversary tomorrow.  We might pause to remember that among all the people who died on 9/11, the most passionate god-fearers were the terrorists who flew those airliners into the twin towers.  The last words on their dying lips: allahu akbar: God is great.

And then there are hurricanes in Texas and Florida, monsoons in South Asia, and Kim Jong Un in North Korea.  Who’s in charge of this shabby establishment? Some people want to know.

For many people, and I get it, theology is, as the wags put it, the search at midnight in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there.

And yet without God it all seems just a house of cards, doesn’t it?  And so maybe together we can find some reasons to believe. So here we go.

There are, of course, any number of reasons to believe in God, some of them quite inferior, but one or two of more substance.  The inferior ones first.

There is, for instance, The Mercenary Reason, or The Pay-back Reason.  That is to say, maybe I believe because there’s something in it for me.  This, you see, is the thing: neither atheism nor theism is a demonstrable hypothesis; atheism and theism are equally unprovable.

In fact, it is harder to prove something doesn’t exist than that it does: prove to me that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or the Loch Ness Monster, or the Abominable Snowman, or little green men on Mars.

Theism and atheism are, both of them, blind throws on the roulette wheel, and since theism promises an infinitely richer return, why not bet that way?  If you’re right, eternal bliss is yours; if you’re not, no big deal; then you’re just dead, and you would be anyway, so what is there to lose?

But look what happens if you bet on atheism.  Then, if you’re right, who cares? You’re still dead.  And if you’re wrong… Oh boy!  You don’t want to be wrong about God.

This approach is known as Pascal’s Wager, after the seventeenth-century French mathematician who invented the adding machine, the barometer, and differential calculus.  If the Christians are right, said Pascal, belief in God is not something you want to be wrong about.  Therefore, why not believe?

But that seems cheap, doesn’t it, believing because there’s something in it for you, the achievement of heaven or the avoidance of hell?  There must be more to it than that.  So there is The Utilitarian Reason. Maybe I believe because belief in God is good for me, not so much in the next life as in this one. Maybe I believe because when I do, I am a finer, nobler, kinder human being.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey tells of a university professor and his wife who were agnostics but still wanted to enroll their children in the Sunday School of the local parish.

When asked why they wanted their children to hear the Christian story if they themselves had rejected it, they complained of the lack of standards in the schools and in society and talked about the importance of values.  “We want our children to grow up in a big story which will give them meaning and hope.  Perhaps they will grow up to reject that story, but at least they will understand what they are rejecting. We don’t want diminished children,” they said.[1]

I mean, there is a Utilitarian reason to believe in God.  A whole raft of Christian journals are reporting the results of recent surveys which show that God-fearing children get better grades, turn out to be more caring citizens, and have fewer fights, fewer beers, fewer cigarettes, fewer joints, fewer casual one-night stands, and fewer stints in the rehab center than non-God-fearing children.[2]  God is very good for you.

But of course The Utilitarian Reason is as unworthy a reason for believing in God as The Mercenary Reason, right?  You don’t subscribe to a truth just because it’s good for you.  For one thing there’s something very small and self-serving about that kind of faith.

What’s more, not all good things are true things.  Believing in Santa Claus is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean he exists.  Believing in miracles when your wife is dying of stage-four ovarian cancer is a good thing, but that does not mean she will live.  Believing in the Detroit Tigers is a very good thing, but that doesn’t make them win the pennant.

So let me move on to nobler reasons for believing in God.  Maybe I believe because of The Awe-full Reason, ‘awful’ in the old sense of the word: filled with awe.  The world is filled with wonders and there is something deep within me which responds to that wonder with sighs too deep for words or even thought.

You get up on a day like today and before you can even think about it, there is Some-One, or Some-Thing, you instantly want to thank.  You see rainbows above the rain and more on the domes of deep-sea shells; you see, as we presently will, whole forests decked out in “colors so garish that Crayola refused to put them in their crayon boxes for fear the children would color outside the line;”[3] what do you feel?

Not what do you think, but what do you feel?  Maybe that is the best reason of all to believe in God; how sad would it be to wake up to all of this and to have no one to thank; how awful, awful in the present-day sense of the word—how terrible. How improbable!

You have heard of the Russian girl who was taking a Civil Service examination in the old Soviet Union, and she was all stressed out after the exam because she wanted this job so badly and she didn’t know if she had passed and she was particularly worried about her answer to one question:  “What is the inscription on the Sarmin Wall?”

She thought she knew and she’d written it down: the inscription is “Religion is the opiate of the people.”  But she wasn’t sure, so after the exam she walked the seven miles from Leningrad to the Sarmin Wall to see if she’d been right, and sure enough there it was: “Religion is the opiate of the people.”  So before she thought about it she instinctively fell to her knees and crossed herself and said, “Thank God.”[4]  It’s the gratitude, the praise, the awe that is before thinking and above thinking.  It is The Awe-full Reason.

But then after that, there is still another, perhaps just as important. There is The Reason Reason.  That is to say, believing in God, far from being irrational or non-rational, seems in the end to be the most rational approach.  What I mean to say is that in my opinion Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any alternative hypothesis.

What I mean to say is that science hasn’t come as near as it thinks it has to providing a final answer to the existence and workings of the universe.  Yes, yes, I know, scientific achievements in each successive generation leave less and less for God to do and the universe is becoming ever more self-explanatory.  Newton in the seventeenth century, Darwin in the nineteenth, Einstein in the twentieth, Hawking in the twenty-first, there’s less and less for God to do.

Two hundred years ago when Napolean asked the astronomer Pierre LaPlace how God fit into his equations, Laplace responded, “Sire, we have no need of that hypothesis,” and in the intervening 200 years the God-hypothesis seems more and more irrelevant.  But is it?

There are still these questions to which science provides inadequate answers: Why something and not nothing?  Why life and not just inanimate matter?  Why mind and not just brain? Why this quantum leap from nothingness to somethingness, from infinitesimal singularity to a universe 46 billion light years across.  Why this irrepressible surge of life out of insentient rock, this inexorable pressure to replicate, to copulate, to populate, to complicate, to experiment with wilder and wilder shapes and colors and voices.

Fred Hoyle says that the probability that amino acids combined blindly and spontaneously to form the right soup for life is the same as rolling 50,000 straight sixes with unloaded dice.[5]  Sure it could happen in a billion years, but is that hypothesis any less outlandish than God?

An Anglican priest, also a theoretical physicist, puts it this way: “Atheists are not stupid, but they explain less.”[6]  Why Bach or van Gogh or Raphael?  Darwin can’t explain Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.  Darwin explains chimp-like intelligence, but not cave drawings, or Hamlet, or Starry Night.  Darwin explains Bonzo but not the popular President who starred in Bonzo’s movie.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, maybe the greatest white preacher of the twentieth century, used to tell us that it was important to doubt your doubts.[7]  Maybe I believe because somewhere along the line in my maturity I have begun to disbelieve my disbelief.

You can believe for all sorts of reasons: because there’s something in it for you at the end of time; because it’s good for you during the only time you’ve got; because the world is filled with wonders and you need someone to thank; because it makes more sense of more facts than any alternative hypothesis.

Maybe we believe because Psalm 19 makes sense to us, doesn’t it?  “The heavens ARE telling the glory of God, and the firmament IS proclaiming God’s handiwork.  Day to Day DOES pour forth speech, and night to night DOES declare knowledge.”

And there’s more: God has not just one self-revealing book—Nature—but a second—The Torah.  The Ten Commandments, and The Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ charming, winsome, perfect life, are the best guides to human life we’ve ever known anything about.  That wisdom is so deep there must be divinity within it and behind it.

In a moment, we will break the bread, and we will wonder at the miracle of dirt morphing into energy; we will drink the wine and taste the heat of the sun; you sit in the pew with your wife’s hand in your own; her hip presses happily against yours, and her shoulder brushes pleasantly against your own; and you are humbled by an unseen but palpable Mystery.

Maybe I believe because in one way or another, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “I am led to suspect the reality of splendors I cannot name and sense meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myths and rituals, in foolish, left-handed games and cloudy novels; where in great laughter perhaps and certain silences I glimpse a destination that I can never fully know until I reach it….Through some moment of beauty or of pain, some sudden turning of my life, I catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by.”[8]

Stained Glass Sermon Series

[1]George Carey, Why I Believe in a Personal God: The Credibility of Faith in a Doubting Culture (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1989), 8-9.

[2]For example, “Want Better Grades? Go to Church,” by Amber Anderson Johnson in Christianity Today, May 21, 2002; and “Survey: Religious Teens Tend To Be More Academic, Confident, Chaste,” by David Briggs in The Presbyterian Outlook, April 11/18, 2005, p. 5.

[3]The words in quotes have been shamelessly plagiarized from an installment of Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon.

[4]Harry Emerson Fosdick in a sermon, “On Finding It Difficult To Believe in God,” preached at Riverside Church, New York City, April 29, 1945.

[5]Quoted by George Carey, Why I Believe in a Personal God, p. 104.

[6]John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 70.

[7]Harry Emerson Fosdick, in the sermon “The Importance of Doubting Our Doubts, in A Chorus of Witnesses, eds. Thomas G. Long & Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 113.

[8]Adapted from Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1970), 75-76.