"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

What is it that you believe?

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Pentecost 5C, 19 June 2016 SJE ©2016 Galatians 3:23-29 (no Jew or Greek); Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39 (Gerasene Demonic)

Pray. I wasn’t originally scheduled to preach today, and didn’t realize when I invoked the Gerasene Demonic as an illustration two weeks back that it was my next Gospel to preach. Such is the synchronicity of God’s economy. I want to spend some time today reflecting on our perspective on such Gospel accounts, to speak about science and belief, and how it is that our state of belief influences the ability of the Spirit to act in our lives, and in our community.

I know that one of the things that drew me to this community of faith, and one of the things that keeps me here, is the quality of the teaching that I receive, not just from the pulpit, but from everyone in the community. I am encouraged by your faith, and your faithfulness teaches me things about being a Christian I could not learn on my own. This is a hallmark of a community of faith, that the faithfulness of all those who call that community home is a form of prophetic declaration of faith, much in the same way that my preaching is a prophetic declaration of the faith. The reason that challenging teaching draws me into community is not because it gives me easy answers about life, but because it sets out before me the difficult questions that I need to engage. Preaching is not about giving people answers to questions. It is about creating a reality in which you can begin to engage those questions within your own faith journey. Preaching is about building a theological framework that allows the followers of Christ to think about challenging reality in a way that is Christ-centric and consistent with the faith. So today’s focus, around this miracle account of the freeing of a man long-possessed, is ask you to reflect on how your particular world-view influences the way you hear God’s Word.

To we modern Christians, tales like the Gerasene Demoniac are sometimes seen as quaint oddities that hearken back to an age without the benefits of our modern knowledge and most particularly an age without science. We literally today have the entire world of knowledge available at our fingertips anytime of the day and night, and it is a heady power that leaves us convinced that no person of the past was as smart as we are today. This is really just a continuation of a mode of thought that arose during the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, when one of the dominant paradigms was the idea that everything under the sun, all of creation, could be explained or would be explained by the brilliance of science. For a while it seemed that way, but the reality of science has been a process of continual remaking of what was first thought to be fundamental truth.

Miracles of any sort in the Gospels present us with a challenge. Our worldview, conditioned by that Enlightenment thinking, encourages us to immediately dismiss such accounts or alternatively to restructure them in a way that guts them of anything miraculous. We are left with a worldview with no room for anything that we cannot slot into a pragmatic, scientific context and that rationalizes what is recounted as understandable in modern terms. In fact, if you read modern Bible commentators, some spend more time explaining why something has a scientific explanation than actually attempting to engage the Scriptural text. And as I’m speaking about this modern, scientific, worldview, appreciate that I come to such questions as a scientist, an applied scientist and an empiricist and someone trained in theology, with a foot in both worlds.

Historically, the theological method was, the scientific method. That probably sounds a bit shocking. Theology was called “the queen of the sciences”, for it was the interpretive method through which all rational scientific inquiry was done. Now, you might say that is a fine historic thought, but it surely does not apply today. I can attest that my study of theology has made me a better engineer, and my engineering has made me a better theologian. At the root, all of these pursuits have a common goal which is faith seeking understanding. Even the pure sciences have at their root this idea of faith seeking understanding, although it is usually vehemently denied by those outside of the professions. Why is it denied? Because anything that smacks of the supernatural is seen today as fundamentally illogical and irrational. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, our scientific method is based on what I would describe as faith-based assumptions.

Science is based on some fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, fundamental assumptions that cannot really be empirically proven. One such assumption is the repeatability of observation. That is, it is assumed that the creation is well-behaved enough that we can discern scientific reality by watching things enough times to form repeatable theories. That’s not something you can empirically prove, even if it can be accepted as a good fundamental assumption because it frequently allows us to learn new things about our reality. A second fundamental assumption of science is that you can objectively view and measure things. What if the reality we perceive is not real? Then what we measure might also not be real, but we have no way of stepping outside of this frame of reference to look back in as a truly objective observer. I don’t want to spend any more time on the ontology and epistemology of science except to say, if you believe that science rests on an inviolable foundation of absolute truth, you are no longer thinking scientifically, but dogmatically…that is, you have ascribed to science the ability to make absolute truth claims…something which can only be done by crossing over into the realm of religion.

This is one of the reasons why many of the climate change debates I hear drive me absolutely batty, particularly when you hear the assertion that “the science is settled” on this question. Science, by definition, is never settled. Science reserves the right to be proven wrong every time a question is asked or data are examined. The history of science is a long tale of strongly-defended theories being cut to pieces by new data. An example of this development is our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of matter that has shifted dramatically. Thompson’s “plum pudding” model of the atom was held to be the truth in the early 1900’s. In 1911 that model was replaced by Rutherford’s which taught us that the atom had a small, very heavy, nucleus and was really mostly empty space. I recall in my early science classes in grade school being taught that the smallest elemental particle was the electron. Today, the list of elemental particles is too long to recite from memory and continues to grow. Each time there is a new discovery, all of the previous things held to be true need to be re-assessed. That is science, which means that science is not an arbitrator of absolute truth. A second dramatic area of change was around the motion of objects. Newtonian motion was considered the final unifying theory until Einstein came along and we realized that the very fast or very massive didn’t obey Newton. Einstein is still being proven with the detection of the first gravity waves earlier this year but (and in science there is always a but) now we have the quantum world which apparently follows a new set of rules. Every time our ruler becomes more precise we discover a new things to measure.

Science is a technique to collect repeatable observations of reality and to systematize those into explanations that can be used to predict the nature of reality…it is recursive and truth-seeking, but it is not in itself an absolute source of truth. But, modern culture receives science as the absolute reality, and so our cultural skepticism leads us to discount the supernatural outright as being fundamentally contrary to a scientific worldview. This leads to us unconsciously dismissing the miraculous in Scripture as being fundamentally unhinged, or explainable by exploiting the obvious poor knowledge of those reporting the accounts…we say, if the person writing the Gospel had been a modern person benefiting from science, these stories would have been much more lucid and explained away by science (without usually acknowledging that there are many things that science cannot explain even today). A couple classic examples about today’s reading. Some suggest what is really going on here is a witty satirical story about the Roman occupiers. The demon identifies themselves as “Legion”, which was the name of a large body of Roman soldiers. Jesus sends the Legion of soldiers into an unclean animal, the pig, which would be one of the ultimate Jewish insults, and then defeats the Roman soldiers by drowning, arising victorious. See how neatly the miraculous has been converted into a moralizing story? The fact it fails to engage major parts of the narrative is ignored, because the primary goal of removing the supernatural has been achieved. Another writer notes that that the modern mind first jumps to the economic question about the cost of 2,000 pigs, and next to the question of cruelty to animals. That same commentator notes that preachers with modern interest should instead focus on the reduction in the size of carbon footprint through the death of the pigs (aside from the 2,000 pig corpses now floating in the lake, releasing their sequestered carbon, that is). So much modern effort is spent in attempts to neuter the Gospel, to reduce it to something safe and malleable and contained. Our main goal is to divert our attention from the miraculous to make us comfortable within our Enlightenment world view.

One of my non-believer engineering colleagues once said to me, “You know what’s wrong with the Bible?” (I always love those opening statements from non-believers) “It’s never been re-written to address the needs and concerns of modern people.” I asked him if he had ever read the Bible, and he admitted he hadn’t. So I said, you know what really amazes me about the Bible? The fact that it still has the power to bring even modern people to their knees, in spite of being a narrative that is in some cases 10,000 years old. What my engineering colleague was reflecting is a common thought of modernity that anything that is more than a few years old can’t be of any real use to a modern people, who of course need modern answers to modern problems. By contrast, the reality which I observe is we’re really not as wise as we like to think we are. What my engineering world view has confirmed for me many times is that my scientific perception of the reality is limited, and only offers an imperfect understanding of that which is around me. I have seen and experienced things which are indescribable from a purely scientific perspective, because by definition, things that are supernatural are beyond the sway of the science’s ability to observe and explain the natural world.

Miraculous accounts in the Gospels should be taken at face value. Sure, the writers did not have our advanced knowledge of the causes of disease, or the treatment of mental illness, but they did know a lot about the natural world…and understood it in a way that we don’t today because we have all become so separated from the natural. The Israelites were not savages running around throwing sticks at each other, but were an advanced culture with great understanding of the world. Do not let a limited world view shut down the richness of Christian reality present in the Scriptures. We must read the Scriptures by presuming that miraculous healings, raising from the dead and the existence of demons and demonic possession are possibilities in God’s economy, even if we have not experienced those things first-hand.

There are miracles happening around us regularly. I know that there are members of our community who have experienced those things first hand, and continue to experience them first hand. I also know from experience that most of those people don’t openly speak about their experiences for they have learned how unaccepting the community of faith can be when people cross over into the mystical. Lord knows, I won’t even talk about such things in groups of clergy unless I know them all really well, because I’ve had so many bad reactions to my accounts of what I’ve experienced. One example – on my internship in Saskatoon my Rector and I had visited a man who was dying and in a coma. We prayed for him quite intensely. Later that night I had a vision of him dying, and being taken away by what I can only describe as angels…and I knew the exact time he had died which was later confirmed to the minute. I told that story to my internship student group at our weekly debrief. When I finished I had a room full of soon-to-be clergy staring at me in silence. Finally, one of my classmates said, I’ve heard stories like that before and I’ve always dismissed them as impossible…but I know you, and I know how rational you are, so I have to believe that such things actually happen.

The reason I’m speaking about this is because one of the problems with modern Christian faith is that we believe far too small, or we believe a little bit and become unbelievers when things don’t work out the way we think they should (if God was really good, he would do this…). We are supposed to be a community of miraculous expectation meaning we should be surprised when the miraculous is not regularly appearing in our midst. And there is a link between the state of our belief and the ability of the Spirit to work the miraculous, as we’re told in Mark 6, “5 And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief.” In his hometown, Jesus was unable to do any mighty works because of their disbelief. This is not to say that if we believe enough that anything we pray for will happen; but to assert that if we don’t believe at all there is an impact on the Spirit. Our worldview is not a neutral thing that impacts only us as individuals but rather it impacts everyone in the community. If Jesus was so limited by the disbelief of his home community, we cannot expect anymore as members of the Body of Christ. Secondly, this world view encourages a damaging conclusion: if we want to have any transformation in this world, it is up to us to do it because God is no longer acting within the creation in any real way. That is, if we want God to save this creation, we had better get busy and do it ourselves, because there’s no way He is going to do it on His own. This is a form of idolatry, which places the real work of God within creation, entirely into our hands. What we’re really saying is that God is not acting as we believe he should be acting, and so we take the Divine action into our own hands to achieve a quick-fix solution, which is a form of idolatry.

Consider this account of a miraculous deliverance of a man possessed by many demons. We have Jesus moving into unclean Gentile territory, into the unclean tombs, and into contact with an unclean man full of unclean spirits next to a herd of unclean animals, and Jesus renders it all holy and whole. The man, who no chains could hold, is now sitting, clothed and lucid, at the feet of Jesus. The man who Jesus freed from the chains of possession is now truly free, while those of the countryside who witnessed all this are themselves bound by fear, and as a result ask Jesus to leave them, which he immediately does. How often do we ask Jesus to withdraw from our lives and our communities because we have to be the ones in control? How often do we decide we have to act because we can’t trust God?

How do you receive the narrative? More importantly, how do you react? Do you look away in fear or disregard and bind yourself against God’s ability to break through, or does the manifestation of God’s authority in the midst of suffering fill you with hope and joy? Even more importantly, do you see the authority of Jesus manifested in the exorcism of this man from the tombs as an authority that all Christians may rely on by virtue of our membership in the Body of Christ? Or, is this a story of a past time that is no longer relevant to we modern believers? How we perceive the Scriptures is a reflection of what we believe, and what we believe directly influences what the Spirit can do in our midst. Is your belief big enough? Amen.

https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211 The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detected gravity waves in September 2015.


Written by sameo416

June 18, 2016 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thank you for yet another example of faithful witness to the truth of scripture and how dismissive we can be of the truth. Thanks brother, for inviting us to re-evaluate.

    Sandy Cels

    June 19, 2016 at 7:39 am

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