Sermon for 4 Epiphany 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Several years ago I attended a lecture given by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett, who focuses on the philosophical implications of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, was promoting his new book, titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is considered a part of the contemporary movement known as “the new atheism” along with the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. You’ve likely seen (or perhaps even read) some of this group’s more popular books, The God Delusion and God Is Not Good being the most famous.

Anyway, in his lecture, Dennett presented an example from biology as an analogy for humanity’s religious impulse. Apparently, ants are susceptible to a kind of brain parasite called the lancet fluke. The fluke burrows its way into the ant’s brain and gives its host an irrational compulsion to climb up to the top of a blade of grass. As the ant approaches the top, having been strangely compelled to climb toward the sun, it is unceremoniously consumed by a passing cow, and the lancet fluke finds its final host as the ant is digested.

This, Dennett claimed, is like religion. He goes further than saying that religion is a beneficial evolutionary adaptation, a function of socio-biology. That idea’s been around a long time, and it can even be reconciled with a faith perspective (that is, a believer could hold this view and still be a believer) if approached with more reflection than is possible within the scope of a seven minute sermon. Dennett actually claims something far more radical than this. He claims that religion is a detriment to evolutionary fitness, that it’s like a parasite that makes us ascend to wherever we have convinced ourselves we’ll find God—up the blade of grass to the sun—only to be swallowed up: perhaps a fitting punishment for falling prey to such an insidious delusion.

As people of faith, we will, no doubt, disagree with Dennett’s assessment. Even so, I think it’s important that we recognize that his estimation of religion is by no means his alone. There are smart people out there who have given a lot of thought to the nature of faith and have determined that religious faith is inherently harmful. The new atheists have been successful in selling their books, Bill Maher’s controversial anti-Christian propaganda piece Religulous is the one of the highest grossing documentary film of all time despite being far less thoughtful or internally consistent as other critiques of religion, and according to Pew Research the proportion of atheists (not agnostics, atheists) in the U.S. Nearly doubled, from 1.6% to 3.1% between 2007 and 2014. That’s the most recent data I could find this week in preparing this sermon. Who knows how things stand now, but if we’re following the trends set by other Western nations it’s likely larger.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” says St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We must recognize that that which gives our lives meaning is reckoned foolish by much of the world, and that the proper response to this reality is not to feel threatened. Most of us would like to be considered intelligent, but to what lengths will we go to be reckoned wise by the world’s standards, especially when our faith may be considered by some to be a handicap?

I had a couple of friends in college who ended up working at the National Institutes of Health, so I followed with some interest when a few years ago there was a bit of a flap over President Obama’s appointment of Francis Collins as director of the NIH. The problem, as it turned out, was Collins’ public affirmation of his Christian faith. He is by no means a radical or a fundamentalist, just your run-of-the-mill committed Christian person, but, as an article in the New York Times put it “many scientists regard outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia”. Now, I suspect the article was probably a bit hyperbolic, but there is at least a significant part of the population who cannot see a committed Christian as being potentially intelligent enough to be a leader in the scientific field. There are plenty of great scientific minds out there who would take issue with this assessment, but there you have it. It seems to me that the charge of anti-intellectualism which many (myself included) sometimes throw in the direction of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims can just as easily be used against those who thoughtlessly and uncritically reject religious claims without endeavoring to appreciate the rationale used by circumspect believers in reaching their own conclusions, but then, I do have a vested interest in that proposition.

What it all comes down to, as far as I can tell, is the limited nature of the world’s definition of knowledge. In the study of epistemology—that is, the study of how we know what we know—the prevailing consensus is that reason and observation are the only two means available to the human mind for acquiring knowledge. With the exception of those who believe theological truths can be proved by either of these means or a combination of them (an argument I’d be willing to entertain but which has yet to be presented to me in a convincing manner) most Christians will protest that truths about God can be known just as fully by other means, namely by faith. I wrote a rather dense newsletter article about this several months ago to which I would refer you, but now it should suffice to say that I believe faith is not merely a set of propositions to which we give our assent for the heck of it, but is itself a tool used for acquiring knowledge (that it serves an epistemic function parallel to reason and observation). Paul calls this means of knowledge a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. In our context, faith can be a stumbling block to the logician and folly to the scientist, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks (to logicians and scientists and the simple alike), Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

I said earlier that we cannot be threatened by the growing derision with which our faith is held. We cannot be threatened by the Daniel Dennetts and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world (and I surely hope none of us feels threatened by the Bill Maher’s of the world) because we know that we are justified by the true power and wisdom of God. We are promised that though we may not be wise by their standards, our folly, our absolutely silly insistence that we can know that which we cannot see, will shame the wisdom of the wise.

So, let’s revel in our folly. Let’s be fools for Christ. Instead of being threatened by those the world sees as wise, let’s embrace the fact that what we are can seem to be nuts. Let’s get over the self-consciousness, the embarrassment we can feel when our commitment to Christ is seen as a bit odd in some of the circles in which we run. Embrace that oddness. Christ never said the Christian path would be respectable; he said it was the way of life and joy and peace. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take life and joy and peace over respectability any day.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.